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Eugene Walter was the best-known man you’ve never heard of. In his 76 years, he ate of “the ripened heart of life,” to quote a letter from Isak Dinesen, one of his many illustrious friends. He savored the porch life of his native Mobile, Alabama, in the 1920s and ’30s. He stumbled into the Greenwich Village art scene in late-1940s New York. He was a ubiquitous presence in Paris’s expatriate café society in the 1950s, ...
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Eugene Walter was the best-known man you’ve never heard of. In his 76 years, he ate of “the ripened heart of life,” to quote a letter from Isak Dinesen, one of his many illustrious friends. He savored the porch life of his native Mobile, Alabama, in the 1920s and ’30s. He stumbled into the Greenwich Village art scene in late-1940s New York. He was a ubiquitous presence in Paris’s expatriate café society in the 1950s, where he was part of the Paris Review at its inception. Perhaps most remarkably of all for a poor Southern boy, he spent the 1960s in Rome, where he participated in the golden age of Italian cinema–including a role in Fellini’s 8 1?2–and entertained some of the most famous people in the world.
As recorded by Katherine Clark toward the end of Walter’s life, his story–enlivened with personal glimpses of luminaries from William Faulkner and Martha Graham to Judy Garland and Leontyne Price–is an eyewitness history of the heart of the last century and a pitch-perfect addition to the Southern literary tradition. Most of all, this sumptuous oral biography conveys the spirit and charm of a truly unique American who defied the odds and authority, embarked on life, and went wherever his fancy and whimsy led him.
“Whenever I found myself in the presence of Eugene Walter, I thought that everyone’s life could be turned into a work of art. His was. Eugene Walter was a prince of whimsy and magic, and he turned his daily world upside down and made it elfin, cat-haunted, and hilarious. He could snap his fingers, and art would fall out all over the place. Milking the Moon has perfect pitch and flawlessly captures Eugene’s pixilated wonderland of a life. I am so grateful to Katherine Clark for the job she has done, for bringing this incredible man’s story to the page with such wit, panache, and style. I love this book–I couldn’t put it down!”–Pat Conroy
“Truman Capote lied to harm others; Eugene Walter, sometimes known as the other Capote, the good one, lied only to delight others.”–Gore Vidal
“Eugene Walter held the nearest thing to a salon; he was an unofficial reception committee and all roads led to him.”–Muriel Spark
“Eugene Walter is one of those personages who turn up in life and leave, well, an indelible impression in which all personal characteristics–manner, speech, dress, and so on– are memorably distinctive.”–George Plimpton, from the Foreword
“Katherine Clark . . . has edited Eugene Walter’s oral history into a book as amazing as the man himself.” —Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World
“Milking the Moon has perfect pitch and flawlessly captures Eugene’s pixilated wonderland of a life. . . . I love this book—I couldn’t put it down!” —Pat Conroy
“Surprising and serendipitous.” —New York Times Book Review
“Anecdotes so frothy they ought to be served with a paper parasol over crushed ice.” —People
“A rare literary treat . . . the temptation is to wolf it down all at once, but it’s much more satisfying to take your sweet time. The most unique oral history of the mid-twentieth century.” —Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
“An exceptionally fun read.” —Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Monkey Was I Born
You may think you don't know me, but you have probably seen me on late-night television playing either an outlaw or a hanging judge. During those twenty-three years I lived in Rome, I must have been in over a hundred of those crazy Italian films. I've been a crooked cardinal, a lecherous priest, and a female impersonator, just to name a few. I was Velvet Fingers in Lina WertmÃ?ller's Ballad of Belle Starr. If you've ever seen Fellini's 8 1/2, I'm the tacky American journalist who keeps pestering Marcello Mastroianni with obnoxious questions. And if you haven't seen 8 1/2, you need to: it's one of the great films of this century.
But to begin at the beginning.
I was born, at least this time around, in little ole Mobile, Alabama, in my grandmother's house on the corner of Conti and Bayou Streets. Downtown Mobile. 1921. The first thing I remember is a big gray face staring down at me. I learned later from my nurse, Rebecca, that it was one of my grandmother's twenty-three cats. When someone suggested to my grandmother that it might not be in the best interests of the newborn baby to have a cat in its cradle, my grandmother said, "Nonsense." The cat is much more likely to catch something from the baby, she said. So perhaps that is why I belong much more to the world of cats than I do to the human race.
And like most poets, I was born with my thumb attached to my nose in that ancient gesture of disrespect toward all authorities, establishments, institutions, and shitfaces. It has taken long and arduous operations to disattach it. In certain weather, and in certain circumstances, it jerks back to its original position.
The moment I was born, my sun, my moon, and my ascendant planet were all in the same sign of Sagittarius. The effect is that I am triple everything. Triple Sagittarius. Sagittarians are basically happy, don't like to settle down, like to travel, are of an inquiring mind, basically generous, can be real mean and snotty if crossed, have lifelong feuds--the good Mobile stuff. We are the ones who gallop ahead two hundred miles and then stop and say, "What country is this?" If we could organize, we could have taken over the world way back, but we are interested in so many things that when we head for California, we end up in Florida. You know. Our emblem is the centaur: half animal, half man. And shooting that arrow at the moon. Centaurs have all four feet on the ground, but that arrow is whizzing off to a distant planet.
I'm supposed to, by ancient tradition, get along with all Geminis because that's the opposite sign. I get along perfectly well with Aquarius. They don't understand us, and we don't understand them, but we get along. So many of my lady friends have been Aquarius. Leontyne Price, Muriel Spark, Ginny Becker are all Aquarius. If I don't show too much exuberance, I get along very well with Capricorns. Fellini is a Capricorn. All of the Italian film directors except Zeffirelli are Capricorns. But there are no fish signs anywhere in my life. Sagittarians do not get along with Pisces.
This is all part of an ancient body of knowledge that we have simply dumped, because the early Christians were opposed to it. But those cave age darlings were onto something. They knew that if that dead stone the moon can affect us the way it does, then those big things like Jupiter have to affect us. The movement of the planets, the influence of the planets on weather, on crops, on childbirth, animal husbandry, on everything--it was practical knowledge. Don't underestimate those cave age people. We like to think they were just sitting around grunting and throwing dinosaur bones over their shoulders, but they had the rouge pot, the mascara pot, and the pet cat. They had everything. They knew what they were up to.
It's not that I believe that thing in the daily paper that says you're going to get a letter from Aunt Minny tomorrow. That's not what I'm talking about. What I'm saying is that once upon a time, astrology and astronomy used to be one subject. As alchemy and chemistry were. They were part of one core of knowledge and quest. In the precise imparting of known facts, there was always that open window toward the unknown, the uncharted, the unstatistified. Logic was not God, and statistic was not God. There was always a sense of quest. And that first horoscope done by the old lady in Mobile when I was a child proved exactly true. I quivered when I came back from Rome after all those years and found it in a box in Aimee King's attic, along with the first marionettes I ever made. What she had predicted was, "You will never be rich, but you will travel widely and everything you really want you will have." I read it again after all those years and just quivered. Triple Sagittarius.
And anyone who knows me knows I'm more monkey than man. (Actually I'm a rare cross between cat and monkey.) Monkeys can carry on two or three conversations at once. And while looking over their shoulder they are perfectly aware of what is happening in front of them. It's the awareness, the total awareness of everything and the sense of mystery and creative mischief. Monkeys realize that many people die of boredom. More people die of boredom than die of diseases, since activity is the human norm. So many people get bogged down in marriage, business, church, property. So monkeys like to create mischief. That is to say, they eventually smash a few windows. People who stand upright in the usual way approach life in the usual way. But I'm more likely to be found upside down, swinging from the chandelier. And that's why I have--shall we say--a different perspective. Monkey was I born, monkey am I, monkey evermore to be.
But after all, if, as a child, you saw, every Mardi Gras, the figure of Folly chasing Death around the broken column of Life, beating him on the back with a Fool's Scepter from which dangled two gilded pig bladders; or the figure of Columbus dancing drunkenly on top of a huge revolving globe of the world; or Revelry dancing on an enormous upturned wineglass--wouldn't you see the world in different terms, too?
Posted March 31, 2003
It is a shame there are not more reviews for this book! This book is touching and so very, very funny. I have read hundreds of books and place this one in my top ten list. Some of us participate in life (and are a little boring, perhaps like me), others of us, like Eugene, actually live life. What a character!! Kudos to the author...this is her second book, and I will read anything she writes from this point forward.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.