I saw him once or twice in Mobile, Alabama, when I was in the area doing research for an oral biography on Truman Capote. He knew Truman as a boy and had stories about him. He knew some of the folks up in Monroeville where Truman spent his early life—Harper Lee, of course, and he had stories about her. What I remember especially about my trip to Mobile, though. was his despair at the ruination of Government Avenue, the sea captains’ houses that stood in rows torn down to make way for malls and gasoline stations, and especially the disappearance of the shade trees. which he said were a requirement in the sum mer because it was always ten degrees cooler when you went and stood under them.
Anything of beauty or antiquity (the two were synonymous) being threatened was lo cause him anguish. Modernity, the future, seemed of little interest. One of the reasons he wrote less than he could have, and perhaps should have, was his suspect view of what was going on around him; playing in movies, and there were so many of them, especially roles with exotic costumes, provided him with a wonderfully agreeable escape.
Not only that, but Eugene by his own admission was bedeviled by the influence of “Doctor Jim Beam," who often “counseled” him early in the morning; his tongue was loosened but, alas. not his fingers to pick up a pen and put his words to paper.
Fortunately Katherine Clark. “young novelist who met Eugene in Mobile in 1987, felt that the answer was to capture his words his words on a tape recorder. She was a biographer, having published a book, Motherwit. on the reminiscence of a grandmotherly black midwife. So this she did in the summer of 1991. listening to Eugene recollect episodes from his remarkable past for three hours a day, if not more. What she got is a quintessential southern narration by a quintessential southern storyteller—a tradition (it should also be noted) that emphasizes the dictum that facts should never get in the way of a good story. I remember Eugene telling me that Tallulah Bankhead had given him three pubic hairs of her own (the story about it follows), but I don’t recall pressing him to see the one he’d kept (he traded or gave away the others)—not only on the general principle that there’s not much to see in a pubic hair, no matter whose, but also because it would have been too heartbreaking to think of Eugene fussing around in his belongings in that little room of his in Paris, complaining that he’d misplaced it or indeed lost something that did not in fact exist.
Katherine Clark has let the tales spin on, as she should, and the results have been compiled in a wonderful volume entitled Milking the Moon, which is due out this year. The strange but appropriate title is inspired by a song Eugene wrote for Fellini’s film Juliet of the Spirits. The song was called “Go Milk the Moon.”
—G. A. P.