Arts & Culture

A Room at Eudora’s

Four decades of letters, visits, and memorable cocktails with a dear friend

Photo: Jill Krementz

Eudora Welty at her writing desk in her home in Jackson, Mississippi, where she wrote almost all of her work.

The Welty home—at 1119 Pinehurst Place in Jackson, Mississippi—is a handsome mock-Tudor two-story house with an attic, typical of the upper-middle-class white residences that I, as a boy in the thirties, might have thought of as “country-club swanky,” though it sits on a quiet suburban street, immediately opposite what was then a sedate Presbyterian girls’ school. And in fact it was built in 1925 by Christian Welty, a Swiss-German native of Ohio who was president of Lamar Life Insurance Company, a successful institution of the Deep South. After his death and the death of his wife, Chestina Andrews, from West Virginia, I spent many happy days there as a guest of their only daughter, the short story writer and novelist Eudora Welty.

When we first met in February 1955, I was a senior at Duke, headed to England for three years of graduate study at Oxford University. She’d been invited to lecture by an undergraduate women’s organization. At the time I was a student in William Blackburn’s undergraduate writing class. He was the esteemed teacher whose class in Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry had been a great encouragement for such students as William Styron, Mac Hyman, and me. Styron and Hyman were a near decade older than I, but we’d each been moved by both the boundless eloquence of those old poetic and dramatic voices and Blackburn’s own power as their modern expounder.

And since all three of us were hopeful of becoming writers of fiction, we’d likewise taken (some years apart) Blackburn’s famous English 103-104. In those days, it was one of only two creative writing courses available in the Duke English department, and though Blackburn himself could barely write a postcard, he had the inexplicable gift of encouragement, which helped a small handful of male students onward into successful careers as novelists (he seldom encouraged female students on the grounds that, as he told me, they almost always went from college straight into marriage and children, with little time for writing).

When Blackburn learned of Welty’s coming to Duke for a few days early in ’55, he assigned our class the new Random House edition of her early stories, and we spent a good deal of time discussing such classics of the genre as “Why I Live at the P.O.,” “A Worn Path,” and “Petrified Man.” I’d discovered her work earlier, as a high-school student in Raleigh, and was eager to meet her. The world she described seemed so close to my own, and I’d made my commitment to a lifetime career as a writer at the age of sixteen. But by the time of Welty’s visit to campus (I turned twenty-two that month), I’d written only one story with professional ambitions, a story called “Michael Egerton.” I was plainly hoping for a usable charge of excitement.

Photo: Photograph courtesy of the Eudora Welty family

The front of the Welty home at 1119 Pinehurst. The house is a preeminent literary house museum. The exterior, interior, and furnishings are as they were when Welty bequeathed the house to the state.

I learned that her train was to arrive in Durham well after midnight, and I knew that, so late, there’d be no taxis available at the depot. Her hotel was four or five blocks away, and I couldn’t quite envision a Mississippi lady carrying her bag through the freezing, pitch-dark streets of downtown Durham, utterly alone. So, entirely on my own, I turned up to meet her. Strangely, the train was on time. I saw her step off a carriage — she was then nearly six feet tall — and since she’d asked not to be met, I stepped forward to explain, quietly, who I was and what I was offering to do. After glancing around at the deserted precincts of the station, adjacent to the jail, she smiled and thanked me. Then I delivered her, in my mother’s green Chrysler convertible, straight to the lobby of the old downtown Washington Duke Hotel. I told her how much I looked forward to her lecture that coming night and the seminar she’d offered to give the following day to a small group of students. Then I sped away.

The lecture — her later famous essay “Place in Fiction” — went smoothly, once the soundman managed to silence interruptive strains of “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball” (the campus radio station had somehow invaded Miss Welty’s microphone). And the next day, in the course of her seminar, she discussed “Michael Egerton,” and ended by asking if she could send it to her agent.

Send my slender story? Well, could she? Despite a twenty-four-year gap in our ages, a friendship was cemented on the spot, and that night I drove her and Blackburn to a steak dinner at the Ranch House in Chapel Hill (given that restaurants in North Carolina couldn’t then serve wine or liquor, nothing more ambitious was available, and the steaks were tender). The next afternoon I drove her out to Howard Johnson’s for coffee and the first of a thousand conversations ranging from the hilarious to the woeful — mainly the hilarious.

When she was back in Mississippi, our correspondence commenced in only a few days. And before long I was sending her my just completed second serious piece of work, a long story called “A Chain of Love” — one in which I invented a character with the odd name of Rosacoke Mustian. And later that spring, just after my graduation, I met her in New York and spent high good times with her there for a few days, meeting various friends of hers and seeing the premier stage production of Bus Stop, with the incomparable Kim Stanley.

Whenever Eudora attempted to cook, she’d lament, “If only my mother could see this, she’d weep with shame.”

It was at one of those meetings that Eudora (as I’d now been asked to call her) began to tell me about “the long story” she herself had recently begun. So far, it centered on a family reunion to celebrate a young male relative’s release from the state pen. Neither of us knew that it would be fifteen years before the story was completed and published as the long novel Losing Battles, in 1970.

That September I sailed off to England, and from then till the late 1960s, Eudora was essentially an inmate of the house on Pinehurst. The eye infections that began to plague Chestina Welty in the mid-1950s slowly plunged that well-read and inventive woman deeper and deeper into physical and psychic misery, and soon those troubles required Eudora’s almost constant attendance. When I returned from England in ’58, I saw her very rarely, generally at moments when she could dash away from home (always by train — she was then afraid of flight — to make a few much needed dollars on a lecture).

She seldom mentioned the fact that further work on her long story was proving nearly impossible, and I didn’t ask. She could seldom write in the midst of hard times, a trait that would distress her late in life; many hard years passed. And then in the winter of ’66, her mother and her sole surviving brother both died in a week’s time. Not long after such a shock, Eudora turned to work as a form of healing. First, she completed an initial draft of a beautiful short novel called The Optimist’s Daughter, and then the old long story, which was now on the verge of becoming Losing Battles.

That spring she visited me at my new home in the country outside Durham, and one night the two of us sat in my dim living room as she read me, over two hours, various episodes from the long-planned story of a family reunion. I thought it was literally magical and told her so; she said that no one but me had yet heard it. And when she left, she said how much she hoped her mother’s house (as she was still calling it), would be fit to welcome me before much longer. By then it was clear we loved each other, in undemanding ways, so I hoped for the same.

Photo: Photograph courtesy of the Eudora Welty family

Eudora Welty in her late teens, when she was a student at Mississippi State College for Women (now Mississippi University for Women) in Columbus

Then, in late 1969, she asked me to come down and join her on New Year’s Eve for a ritual reopening of the house to friends and houseguests. Her old friend, the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, would be there, and Eudora meant to entertain Elizabeth at a feast. I’d long admired Bowen’s fiction and had met her when she visited Duke in my junior year, so of course I flew down. Two of Eudora’s lifelong male friends met me at the airport, and a splendid visit ensued — some three or four days.

Eudora had long since taken her parents’ old room, a large second-story room overlooking the street, and Elizabeth Bowen was in a guest room on the same landing. I had what ultimately the maid Arlene, because of my frequent visits, came to call “Mr. Price’s room,” a small ground-floor room adjacent to its own bath. Beside my bed hung an imposing photograph of Eudora’s grandmother Andrews. It would be a good while before I realized it was the room in which Chestina Welty had spent her awful last years.

The party was a feast indeed. Eudora had never claimed to be a skilled cook. Almost to the end of her life, whenever she attempted to cook, she’d lament, “If only my mother could see this, she’d weep with shame.” She was certainly a slow cook, and her repertoire of dishes was small and comprised mostly seafood. But they mostly succeeded in being tasty, if you didn’t die of hunger before she served them. For the New Year’s Eve feast, she’d found a caterer who provided what Eudora called “a baron of beef,” with all the necessary accompaniments and the quantities of hard liquor and good wine that any Jackson hostess considered imperative, despite the fact that all such items had to be bought from a local bootlegger (Mississippi was technically dry).

Google tells me that, in British tradition, a baron of beef is “a large, important section of beef containing both sirloins.” To be sure, Eudora’s “important” roast was larger than any human baron at Runnymede, and the ten of us guests made deep raids on its goodness (as we did on the various ranks of bottles). It truly was the first celebration Eudora had offered in well more than a decade, and apart from my own pleasure in the evening, I could see a good part of what it meant to Eudora. She was thereby making her own loving claim on the house she’d known for most of her life, and my sense of being the youngest of the friends invited by a shy woman to share in the evening was a gift way beyond any normal social invitation, however generous.

Photo: Photograph courtesy of the Eudora Welty family

Reynolds Price and Welty traveled to the University of Mississippi for a celebration of Welty's work in 1977. Here, from left, Welty's friends Karen Gilfoy and Jane Reid Petty, Welty, and Price in front of an Oxford beauty parlor.

In succeeding years I made at least three or four annual trips to Jackson, sometimes for a simple quiet visit, other times for one of the numerous first-rate shindigs with which Mississippians of Eudora’s generation frequently regaled themselves. I can recall visits for performances of dramatic adaptations of her work at the excellent New Stage Theatre (there was even an opera made from her Ponder Heart), plus a trip to the state university at Oxford, Mississippi, for a celebration of Eudora’s work (a photo survives of us standing in front of an Oxford beauty parlor with a highly legible come-on slogan printed above us — “We will curl up and dye for you”). In fact, I became such a regular in the Welty house that, when another shindig was being planned by a group of Eudora’s friends and my name was mentioned, one woman said, “Don’t ask Reynolds; he’ll come!”

All my life, I’ve never been a great traveler — I mostly stay home and work — but till I was forced to sit down in a wheelchair in 1984, I continued my trips to Jackson, and I almost invariably stayed at 1119 Pinehurst in “Mr. Price’s room.” Eudora’s company was of course the main magnet, but I’d also come to love the uncluttered silence that pervaded the sizable downstairs rooms and the old-fashioned kitchen that Eudora never modernized. I recall it, rightly or not, as almost entirely white in its color scheme, and I know that once, when I requested scalloped oysters for our dinner, I stood by the enormous old sink and watched Eudora take more than two hours to prepare that simple dish (she’d bought an entire quart of oysters, and she’d examine each one for the slightest imperfection; with her excessively suspicious eye, she discarded more than half the quart). Chestina Welty’s garden in the back had gone to ruin in the years of her illness, and as Eudora worked at the sink, she would often glance out a back window and, again, say how her mother would never forgive her for such negligence. That daughter went to her own grave with a still-heavy burden of miscellaneous guilts pertaining to such a paragon of a mother.

From my room I could hear Eudora’s early rising to make the large pot of coffee that would see us through the morning (she could never drink caffeine after eleven; she said it would keep her awake all the next night). A little later we’d eat breakfast in the small breakfast room before we each went about whatever chores we had (often I’d work alone in my room while she drove out to the nearby Jitney Jungle for groceries, or an appointment to get her hair washed and set).

For lunch we’d make a sandwich or Eudora would drive us out to some small café where old friends almost always greeted us in a thoroughly easygoing way. Even then, her driving was often hair-raising in its indifference to curbstones or other drivers. Her old friends would whisper to me that I might want to offer to drive when Eudora and I went out; but whenever I’d make the offer, she’d wave me aside — “Nobody can work these old gears but me” (and of course she scorned anything resembling an automatic gear shift). Wherever we ate, or traveled, in Jackson in those days, she was never treated with any of the awe that surrounded her in later years and that I could never comprehend her bearing; it slowed all aspects of her life.

I reminded her of the night she and I spent in a rented double-wide mobile home near Tuscaloosa. That reminder sparked her old broad smile and a vigorous nod.

In the late afternoons we’d have big glasses of whiskey — bourbon for her, Scotch for me. Eudora drank very little, but her daily four or five ounces of bourbon were indispensable to happiness, and literally all my visits to that house, until the late ’80s, were happy occasions. On the antiquated black-and-white TV, we’d listen to David Brinkley read the nightly news; and then we’d eat a small dinner on Pinehurst or a grander meal at some friend’s house. Generally we’d retire to our separate rooms early, for an hour or so of reading before sleep.

Lest such visits sound oppressively dull (and I’ve omitted the constant gales of laughter), I’ll note that one Sunday afternoon, before drinks time, was memorable for its strangeness. Eudora and I were sitting in the living room talking quietly when we heard, from upstairs, apparently, a shockingly loud crash, as though the roof had fallen or a big piece of furniture had been overturned. For the only time in all the years I knew her, Eudora’s face was alarmed. She stood at once and said, “I’d better go see.” I couldn’t let her go alone; so, Southern gent that I was, I led the way up to the landing, standing aside to let Eudora precede me into her bedroom. With me close behind, she looked round the spotless neatness of the room, then into her bathroom. No sign of trouble.

We worked our way through the other rooms — even a small space she called the sewing room. We either climbed into the attic or looked in that direction long enough to satisfy ourselves that there was no disaster. At the start of our search, I’d come across a baseball bat, propped in a corner of Eudora’s room — a full-size bat that had once belonged to either Edward or Walter, her two younger brothers (and only siblings). I wanted a pistol, but I took the bat in hand and carried it with me as our search continued. At first I felt more than mildly absurd carrying this bat, but Eudora never told me to put it down.

By then we were more than a little concerned. Still, we finally decided there was nothing to do but confess our puzzlement at an insoluble mystery in broad Sunday daylight. It was not too long after Chestina Welty’s death, and given the occasionally punitive wildness of that troubled woman’s last stages, I couldn’t help feeling an uncanny presence above and around us, maybe an effort to drive me off — an interloping stranger with the daughter she’d guarded so constantly.

Photo: Photograph courtesy of the Eudora Welty family

But no — no further noise or presence was detected.  So Eudora and I finally returned downstairs and poured our drinks a little early.  In later years, whenever we mentioned the crash, we did so with neither laughter nor any guess at understanding. Something had been there, no question, and we each believed that, right up to the start of those late days we dread for ourselves and our own loved ones — the days when Eudora’s magnificent memory was all but gone.

In those final days she was loyally cared for by a group of black women who spelled one another around the clock, but the loss of memory produced a sad confusion that resulted in the old uncluttered rooms’ beginning to fill with tall stacks of unshelved books and hundreds of pieces of unopened mail. Eudora always seemed to know me on those visits (I’d stay in a hotel), but eventually all communication with her took the odd form of friendly interviews. We only met in the living room now, and Eudora frequently wore an unaccustomed sort of jumpsuit — a simple zip-up affair. She’d sit on the sofa or on a new reclining chair; I’d ask a question, she’d reply briefly but cogently, then wait in silence till I asked the next question or made a remark that may or may not have been comprehensible to her.

The still-clear light of Jackson would pour in behind her, carving out again and again the profile that had only grown gentler and very nearly beautiful. Years before, when she’d been gazing longer than usual in the front hall mirror before we headed out to a friend’s house for dinner, I said, “Come on, darling. You look fine.”  And she turned to me and said, for the first time ever, “You haven’t had to live behind this face all your life.”

Now, when I told her, for instance, that Margaret Millar had recently died —Millar was the wife of Eudora’s late love, Kenneth Millar (known as Ross Macdonald, the mystery writer) — she only faced me blankly and said, “Thank you for that information.” We were sitting in her same living room, the floor of which was now all but crowded with books. Eudora was on her reclining chair; I was a few feet away in my wheelchair. In spring, summer, and fall the house would be sweltering — she’d never permitted any serious air-conditioning. In an effort to sweeten the air, a few seconds later I reminded her of the night she and I spent in a rented double-wide mobile home in the back of a tiny but full-up motel near Tuscaloosa (we were headed down from Durham to Jackson, and hoping to pause in Alabama, we found ourselves entirely without a hotel or motel room until, at last, we found the trailer available for a single night). That reminder sparked her old broad smile and a vigorous nod.

Then she urged me to refill my own glass — the liquor was kept in the breakfast room. That welcome smile brought me to Jackson a few more times, despite the growing difficulty of plane connections, but on my visit in October 1998, the sight of Eudora’s physical and mental decline and the doleful state of the house left me with the conviction that the visit had scarcely registered with her. Her slow decline continued unstoppably, and she died in July 2001. Her brief final bed was in a nearby hospital; but through the watchful kindness of her keepers and friends, she had stayed in her lifetime home till very near the end.

Gradually thereafter the house has been carefully and thoughtfully restored to a state that would have relieved Eudora and, almost certainly, even her mother. I haven’t seen it since a visit I paid eight months after her death, when our friend and Eudora’s biographer Suzanne Marrs let me in for a last look around those few rooms that had held not only one of the rare American geniuses at work, but also the many hours of laughing and loving friendship she’d given me so lavishly. A small eighteenth-century watercolor still hung in the first-floor room she’d occupied when she could no longer climb the stairs. I’d given it to Eudora years before, and it had stood near the head of her bed in later awful times.

Alone now in the space, I almost took it down to return home with me as a cherished object that was now, again, mine. But no. For me, her presence in the house was still so strong that I knew a lifting of the picture might baffle her pervading spirit. I left it there, then. It was more hers than mine after all, a gift from me, cleared now of hard memories, open again to the purifying light of a Mississippi day. I can see it in my memory, so long as that lasts, which is good enough.

Eudora and her mother, Chestina, designed a mystical place with camellias, flowering arbors, and peaceful “rooms”