Friday, March 29, 2024

Carson McCullers: A Life: III

After her 1947 strokes, McCullers increasingly required assistance from others to go about her daily life. She was partially paralyzed on her left side and needed a cane to walk. Thereafter, she was unable to do much physical work and needed someone to help her bathe. She, Reeves and her sister, Rita, all recognized that they had an alcohol problem, and Reeves and Rita joined AA. McCullers didn't join and pretended to decrease her alcohol intake but actually didn't. When in Nyack, her mother generally took care of her. Reeves got another job and an apartment in Greenwich Village, with a walk-up that was too demanding for her. She continued to develop crushes on women and became interested in Jane Bowles, the wife of Paul Bowles, the better-known of the two.

In 1949, McCullers, with encouragement from Tennessee, participated in a stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding, which became a Broadway hit in 1950. She also became pregnant in 1949 and had a medical abortion. The success of her play and the publication of The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories boosted her literary reputation and income. She became attracted to Elizabeth Bowen, the Anglo-Irish writer, who was a few years older than her. Their writings had nothing in common, but she knew that Bowen had affairs with women. When she visited Bowen in Ireland later in 1950, nothing came of it, and she left for Paris, where she met Reeves. Bowen did have affairs with women but apparently was not attracted to McCullers. I was surprised to learn that later she probably had an affair with Eudora Welty, who was not generally known to engage in such things.

In Paris, McCullers and Reeves drank too much and decided to get more involved with AA. Later in 1950, McCullers met Marty Mann, who had been instrumental in the formation of AA. She was also a lesbian and had a brief affair with McCullers. McCullers at this point was circulating in the highest literary circles and met the English poet, Edith Sitwell, at a party at Tennessee's apartment on East 58th Street in New York City.

In 1951, though Reeves was still drinking too much, he and McCullers traveled to London. Tennessee thought that McCullers needed psychiatric help and found her a psychoanalyst, Kathryn Cohen. Just to show the kind of people that McCullers associated with, here is Dearborn's description of Cohen:

Kathryn was an elegant woman with an interesting past, just the sort who drew Carson. Born in New York City in 1905, before the age of forty she was a successful actress and a performer with the Ziegfeld Follies. She married Dennis Cohen in the late 1930's, and when war broke out, she enrolled at Cambridge to study medicine, graduating with a degree in genetics. Regardless, she became a psychoanalyst with St. George's Hospital, an eminent teaching hospital then located in Hyde Park. She often had affairs with women. The writer Patricia Highsmith was most recently her lover, and Cresset Press [operated by her husband] went on to become the British publisher of Highsmith's psychological thrillers.

Cohen and McCullers did bond. McCullers became a patient at St. George's Hospital, and later was moved to a home in Sussex. But by the end of October, 1951, McCullers abandoned her treatment and moved to the Ritz Hotel in London. Her treatment was a failure according to Cohen. McCullers returned to Nyack.

In January, 1952, McCullers and Reeves sailed to Italy. In May, they drove to Paris. They ended up buying a house in Bachivillers, a small town an hour away. They liked the house, and McCullers loved gardening – especially growing tomatoes. However, she returned briefly to the U.S. because Bébé had had an accident. At that point, McCullers owned the Nyack house and Bébé moved back to Georgia. Shortly after this, McCullers was offered the job of working on a screenplay for a film directed by Vittorio De Sica and produced by David O. Selznick in Rome. She returned to Rome and worked on the screenplay, but Selznick didn't like it and she was fired.

The Diary of Anne Frank was published in the U.S. in 1950, and in 1952 McCullers was approached with an opportunity to write a stage adaptation. She met Anne's father, Otto Frank, in France, and they hit it off well. However, because of her slow work and other factors beyond her control, the play was eventually given to someone else. At her house in Bachivillers, her relationship with Reeves grew worse. He spent most of the time away in Paris. One day early in 1953, he took her out to a cherry tree in their orchard and proposed that they hang themselves together with the ropes that he had provided. She wasn't interested. In July, he proposed a double suicide again, and she immediately flew back to the U.S. by herself, without packing. On November 18, Reeves committed suicide in Paris, with an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol. At that time, McCullers was living in Nyack, and she expressed little reaction to Reeves's death. She spent time with friends in Charleston, South Carolina and then resumed her Yaddo routine.

On my next post I'll wrap up my commentary on this book. It is not pleasant to read, but I do think that it is quite informative. Besides the tragic aspects of McCullers' life, I am finding the discussion of the sexuality of McCullers and her friends surprising. It seems that within the literary milieu of the time, homosexuality was quite common. In the past, I had heard about the men – Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, etc. – but little or nothing about the women. Even today, if you look up Eudora Welty, who has been dead for years, on Wikipedia, there is no reference to that aspect of her relationship with Elizabeth Bowen. Possibly this difference between men and women was that the women felt that they had to hide their behavior in order to avoid damaging their careers. This is why I prefer reading biographies to Wikipedia entries. Many of the descriptions of people that you read in Wikipedia articles are not much better than cleaned-up résumés written by the person discussed. Another question that arises for me is the nature of female sexuality. Obviously McCullers and many of the women in her life had a fluid sense of their sexuality. Terms such as "LGBTQ" may address some of the ambiguity, but, judging from the past, many people were able to get along fine without them. To use McCullers as an example, she may have been "LBQ." How useful is that information?

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