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On Meeting William Faulkner and Other Excerpts from Don Bachardy's Journal

by Don Bachardy

8 March 1955 [the day after the opening of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in Philadelphia]

Carson McCullers, like Chris and me, is in Philadelphia for the opening of Cat. We saw her yesterday evening at the St. James Hotel before the play. Her physical appearance made one of the strongest impressions on me of anyone I've met. She is tall and pale-faced, with lavender circles around her wet, dark, puppy-dog eyes. Though her hanging cheeks, like swollen jowls, are dog-like, too, she is essentially an "Olive Oyl" type. Her body is lanky, her arms and legs thin and elongated, her movements disjointed. She's recently had some kind of stroke and been partially paralyzed. At the end of one arm and making it next to impossible for her either to get her overcoat on or off, there is a metal hoop inside of which her splayed hand is wired by each finger. It's on her right hand because she absent-mindedly proffered me the hoop when we were introduced.

Chris and McCullers had met before but only briefly. Both fey and avid, she was pleased to be in his company. While hungrily attending to him, she showed no real interest in me and deftly conveyed that her shyness limited her awareness of her surroundings, and particularly of strangers. Her childlike vulnerability allowed me to excuse her lack of interest in me, but still I dread her. The very expression on her face promises entanglement in her defenseless dilemma, even if it is only helping to get that metal hoop on her hand out of her coat sleeve.

We also met William Faulkner this morning. He was brought to our breakfast table by Jean [Stein] in such a glow of triumph that a fanfare might have accompanied the scene. Small, impassive and inaudible, if in fact he said anything at all at our table, Faulkner has a remote air and his dark, hooded eyes suggest a blindman with Jean as his seeing-eye dog.

9 March 1955

We saw Cat again last night and after the play we had drinks in the hotel bar with Faulkner, Marguerite [Lamkin] and Jean [Stein]. Both encounters with Faulkner were difficult for Chris. There are many books of Hemingway on his shelves, and most of Fitzgerald, but only three books of Faulkner. Besides The Portable Faulkner, there is only Light in August and a paperback edition including both Sanctuary and Requiem for a Nun. Though he is far from Chris's favorite writer, Faulkner is certainly somebody he respects and to whom he wants to be friendly.

Faulkner, however, is not in the least forthcoming. Gray-haired and compact, he is like a gentlemanly veteran of the Great War who, suffering from shell shock, has learned to get along without communicating much with those around him. Perhaps in his drinking days alcohol encouraged him to speak more. During the long evening with us and the two women he occasionally sucked on a pipe, perhaps to console a mouth which has been deprived of most other uses.

Chris never protects his ego at the expense of others, and accepting his dharma, he willingly plays the roles of charmer and entertainer, even jester. Seldom at a loss to get somebody to talk, he clowns if necessary and usually manages to make even the most tongue-tied offer at least a few words. He's especially good with teenaged boys and young men, probably because he's particularly interested to know how they feel, how they see themselves, him, others, life.

As used as I am to this side of Chris, I was still impressed by his attentiveness to Faulkner. Coaxing rather than prodding, he was like a concerned doctor inducing his prize patient to speak the first words to end his catatonic isolation.

The five of us were in a cozy, wood-paneled booth next to a window and watched the beginning of a heavy, deadly silent fall of snow which gradually mounted in the street as the night wore on. As well as attending to Faulkner, Chris, I knew, was worrying about our departure early the next morning.

"I never fly when it snows," spoke the taciturn Faulkner finally. Even though it sounded like a Cassandra's warning, no one carped about the only clearly audible sentence he'd uttered the entire night. Faulkner had spoken. It seemed like a miracle Chris had wrought and it had a cumulative effect. We were all pleased, even Faulkner. Yes, his fire burns low, and he is no magpie, but there is something sympathetic about him, even kindly.

19 December 1955

Monday. [St. Jean de Cap Ferrat, France] Spent our first night in the Villa Mauresque with Maugham and Alan Searle. As we came up the grand and green drive to the house, I was wondering if Maugham would still be alive when we got there. Then the car stopped at the open front door and I saw him standing in the hall alone. He was so unmistakably Maugham that I felt it was more a picture of him than the real thing and was surprised by how relaxed I felt. Warm and friendly but not exaggeratedly so, he had such a natural air that I didn't lose my ease until I reached the drawing room when, suddenly, the whole shock of meeting him hit me and I didn't know where or when to sit.

I think he and Alan only shook hands with Chris. They both said "How do you do?" to me. Alan, alert and quick, then said to me: "Would you like a Bacardi?"

Last night Willie (he asked me to call him by his first name) surprised me by asking Chris if he were making me keep a diary of my first trip to Europe. I felt flattered by the unexpected warmth of his interest in me.

In a terrible moment at at dinner Willie had a very bad attack of the stutters and I thought I wouldn't be able to keep from bursting into laughter. That's when he seems oldest --- his mouth opens and shuts with rasping attempts at words, his hands tremble, and finally his whole body shakes with convulsions. Sometimes Alan prompts him and sometimes Willie manages to finish alone. But always he recovers, and immediately regains perfect composure as though nothing embarrassing has happened.

Willie will cross the room from one sofa to another for a cigarette instead of asking Alan who is sitting beside the cigarette case.

Later Willie said this afternoon that he and Alan never quarreled, although he had once "knocked Alan down" for throwing a second stone at a frog in order to make him move.

20 December 1955 Tuesday.

I feel very restless today. Chris told me that Alan had confided to him his fear of the future after Willie's death. Alan feels people in England hate him and think of him only as Maugham's familiar, or his guard, and he would be afraid to go there without him. Also, Willie's family hate Alan.

How true it is --- the friends, familiars, companions, guardians, all in fact who take the trouble to have an intimate relationship with any famous artist, almost always find themselves universally suspected, bitched, even hated, and, finally, ignored. Frank Merlo, Walter Starcke, Chester Kallman, Robert Craft --- they all suffer this treatment and in their turn, put off those who try to be their friends --- even those in similar situations.

We had a lovely walk this afternoon with Willie and Alan on the hill above their house. We followed very rocky, often steep and slippery paths with Willie leading the way very quickly. He oftened tottered and sometimes barely missed falling, but he managed to keep his footing and after a considerably long walk was not out of breath. We shot some movie film of them. Alan was shy and reticent to be photographed.

We passed a mimosa tree in luxuriant blossom and I commented on its beauty. Willie turned to me and said significantly: "All beautiful things last a very short time." Neither compliment nor threat, his words were more like a lesson.

Alan is very much the twinkling-eyed, saucy Cockney, and not nearly as simple and unimpressive as he pretends to be. I think he is sincerely fond of Willie and very concerned for his welfare.

Willie said about the countless manuscripts he receives: "So many people think they can write without being educated."

7 March 1956

To Graham Greene's apartment in The Albany last night for the first meeting of the John Gordon Society, an elaborate conceit devised by Greene specifically to oppose a columnist named Gordon and generally to attack everything that Gordon supports. The official meeting, what there was of it, was over, but many people were still standing around in two big smoke-filled rooms. We talked to Greene for a few minutes. He doesn't look quite as ravaged as he does in his pictures, but he is strangely unappetizing. His face is pink and splotchy, his eyes bloodshot and watery

and the inner rims of his lips are blackened. He is quite lively and easily engages in superficial, ordinary chit-chat. I saw his smooth charm and a facility for handling people, but I don't think he was enjoying the party. We also talked to Angus Wilson, who seemed pleased to be told that I had read and liked his play, The Mulberry Bush, and very pleased when Chris then praised his book, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes.

31 May 1956

Another sudden and inexplicable scene with Chris yesterday. I don't really know why I make these scenes --- the least little thing seems to set me off. I was reading Chris's 1939-41 journal on the balcony and Chris came up from his study, still wearing his shabby, yellow terry-cloth robe and feeling ill again. (He's been sickish for more than two weeks now.) He dragged himself to a sun couch, and with great preparations and groans, awkwardly lay down on his back facing me.

Coldly perfunctory, I asked him: "How do you feel?" He moaned and shook his head, vaguely indicating a few centers of pain. I told him, half-wanting to provoke him, what a deplorable character he had made of Gerald [Heard] in his journal, and that now I could never like Gerald again. "What does it really matter 'liking' people?' said Chris, "it's a matter of pure subjectivity." After a moment he continued: "When I was young I was famous for liking people and being liked, but it was only because I took trouble to flatter them --- that was all." His inference, it seemed to me, was that I would like Gerald again if he flattered me enough. This irritated me, and as I sat looking down on Chris, I was revolted. He looked so old and felt so bad and talked so cynically that I hated him for a moment. I left the balcony and got ready to go to the beach.

That was all, but this incident started me smouldering. By the time Chris joined me on the beach I was full of resentment and rebellion and made a scene. First accusing him of possessiveness and a lack of genuine interest in me, I then said that I felt bored, lethargic and useless and wanted to go to New York by myself. I blamed him for everything that was wrong with me, and by exaggerating my unhappiness, made him feel I hated him without really saying so. When I get carried away in my despair and confusion, I want to wreck everything for no good reason. Then I cry, and make Chris cry. Afterward I feel guilty, and so silly, and just as unsatisfied as usual.

5 June 1956

Have just finished reading Katherine Mansfield's At the Bay. I don't get the ending. Am I dense or haven't I read enough to know the form and lingo of such writers? The last paragraph is obviously symbolic, but I don't know what it means. However, I think Mansfield is terribly exciting. She creates such mood and atmosphere that it hardly matters what she is writing about, if anything at all. Until her I've never enjoyed aimless descriptive passages about landscape and light and flowers. Reading Mansfield makes me want to write more than ever before.

I told Chris tonight that I wanted "more than anything" to write. As soon as he encouraged me to start on something tomorrow, I wished I hadn't spoken. What can I write about? A dozen tiny snippets of ideas and bits of scenes passed vaguely through my head, but where to begin, what to write about? I must learn to concentrate, to think things through, to come to conclusions, to make decisions.

Chris seems better today and his eyes are much less jaundiced. [We were early pioneers of hepatitus, which he had caught from me.] Again I arrived at the hospital in an extremely tense state and immediately flew off the handle because Ted and Bob [my brother and his partner at the time] were coming up to the room unexpectedly, and after they'd left, I went into all my old complaints: no friends of my own; I don't fit in with Chris's friends; I'm not taken seriously as an individual; I have no interest or profession to work at ; I suffer terrible fears and lack of energy. I sometimes wonder if any of it is really true. My mood changes so suddenly sometimes, especially after unloading all my grief onto Chris, that I ask myself sincerely, what is all the fuss about?

28 June 1956

Three more days before I start at Chouinard's. I dread it so, and yet I know I must go, I must try. If only I can succeed! I dimly hope it may be the answer, that my whole life will open to "art", take a new direction, etc. But I mustn't put too much significance onto this effort because it will make failure all that more crushing --- and I'm so afraid already that I will get cold feet in the middle of the first day. One class from nine until four! It sounds too awful. If I loathe class right off, there will be no hope of relief for hours and hours. I dread my own determination, and the sheer effort it will take to carry it through.