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Milking the Moon: A Southerner's Story of Life on This Planet

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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 cafe 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 ...
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Overview

"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 cafe 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.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Amazing...We owe Katherine Clark an incalculable debt. ...Not since John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces has a book come from so completely out of the blue to give me so much pleasure.” —Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post

“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

Publishers Weekly
"I'm just a Southern boy let loose in the big world," declares Walter in his delightful oral autobiography, the culmination of months of talks with literature professor Clark (Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife's Story). Born in 1921 in Mobile, Ala., (which is, he notes, "a separate kingdom. We are not North America; we are North Haiti"), Walter spent most of his adulthood in New York, Paris and Rome, where he published a prize-winning novel (The Untidy Pilgrim, 1954), translated hundreds of screenplays, helped found the Paris Review, appeared in Fellini films and figured centrally in the social life of the literati, entertaining everyone from T.S. Eliot to Muriel Spark to Dylan Thomas at his lavish parties. Legendary both in his hometown and among the European jet set of the '50s and '60s, Walter displays an abiding fascination with people of all kinds. Astute and opinionated, he comments more on the personalities than the output of his literary associates. Unconcerned with material success or critical renown, Walter, who died in 1998, was in perennial pursuit of lively and provocative encounters with interesting people. In this respect, Clark observes, he's "so classically Southern as to be archetypal"; indeed, Walter, who traveled with a shoebox filled with Alabama red clay dirt, filters all his experiences through an explicitly Southern perspective that is alternately provincial and insightful. After her own encounters with him, Clark was convinced that his eccentric, ebullient voice was worth preserving, and indeed he comes through as one of the most fascinating literary figures most of us have never heard of. Photos not seen by PW. (Aug.) Forecast: Deliciously gossipy, this will makegreat late summer reading for the literate set and should sell briskly if it gets review attention. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Walter was a poet, storyteller, novelist, actor, and raconteur in the best Southern tradition. Born in Mobile, AL, he lived in New York's Greenwich Village in the Forties, Paris in the Fifties, and Rome in the Sixties. In his time, Walter entertained luminaries including Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Isak Dinesen, and Judy Garland and appeared in over 60 films, most notably Fellini's 8 1/2. He also won the Lippincott Prize for his novel The Untidy Pilgrim. Clark (Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife's Story) was introduced to Walter upon his return to Mobile in the 1980s, and the two became friends. Clark tape-recorded Walter's stories in the hopes that they would not be lost. Alas, her introduction and the cast of characters are the book's weakest sections; Walter told his stories with such style that they needed no further explanation. Recommended for academic libraries with large collections of Southern and 20th-century literature and for public libraries with large Southern collections. Pam Kingsbury, Alabama Humanities Fdn., Florence Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A life well worth remembering is finely displayed in this oral autobiography of Walter-writer, poet, set designer, songscribe, editor, actor, etc.-as told to Clark ("Motherwit", not reviewed). Most of all, though, Walter (who died in 1998) was a "boulevardier", a man about town, a man who others sought out for the sheer pleasure of his company, learned and mischievous, capricious and shrewd, a man whose wayward life was guarded by the fates and utterly serendipitous. He tells of growing up in sensuous, prodigal Mobile, Alabama, where "the porch was a concept as well as a place, and people used them," and we follow his trajectory first to New York (where he lived in Greenwich Village, cavorted with Dylan Thomas, Martha Graham, and Maureen Stapleton, and worked in the theater), and then to Paris ("Let's see what's over there. Let's just have a look"), where he got serious about writing, contributing to the early "Paris Review "after looking up Plimpton, Matthiessen, and Donald Hall, and winning awards for his short work, novels, and poetry. Then came Rome-Walter relates all this with incredible gusto, a strong and steady comic touch, and, one imagines, much elegant embroidery-where he edited the widely respected literary journal "Botteghe Oscure", wrote music for Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits "(and acted in "8 1/2"), and took roles in dozens of spaghetti westerns. Like the best of tricksters, he has taken an oath of awareness-he is incredibly sharp-and he is lovable as well as fascinating: His was a wonderful life that couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. A fitting memoir, told with dash and brio, from a unique and fascinating character.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780609809655
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/23/2002
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 9.11 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Katherine Clark is the author of Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife’s Story. She lives in New Orleans and is a professor of literature at Dillard University.
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Read an Excerpt

Mobile

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 Wertmuller'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 originalposition.

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?

Copyright 2002 by Eugene Walter as told to Katherine Clark
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2003

    A Lived Life

    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.

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