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Catfish, Not Salmon

First poor Southern boy with no formal education or career ambitions, then writer, poet, actor, translator, cryptographer, puppeteer, costume designer, and gourmet chef, Eugene Walter (1921-1998) lived what one commentator calls a "pixilated wonderland of a life." He managed to be a ubiquitous presence in the Greenwich Village art scene in the 1940s, in expatriate café society in Paris in the ’50s, and in the world of cinema in Rome in the ’60s. He was in at the start of the Paris Review. Princess Marguerite Caetani, a literary mutual friend, told Walter about the magazine and the editors about Walter, he recalls in Milking the Moon: A Southerner’s Story of Life on This Planet (Crown, $25), an oral memoir told by Walter late in life to Katherine Clark ’84.

It was George Plimpton, John Train, Peter Matthiessen, Donald Hall, and Billy Pène duBois. They had all just finished Harvard and were doing their Wanderjahre in Europe: a Harvard-to-Paris graduation ceremony. And they’d all had something to do with the Harvard Advocate in some way or another, and they just wanted to do a publication….

book coverI just dropped in on the office unannounced. George was rather unsmiling at first, and then he said something like "Well, Eugene Walter, the princess speaks very highly of you." And I said, "I speak very highly of the princess." Ask me something, you know. I think the Harvard boys were nervous with me because I was an unknown quantity. I had never been to college but had published in snobby reviews, and the princess had praised me. But they couldn’t figure out what wavelength I came from. What was I? Was I a sharecropper’s child or the great-grandson of Robert E. Lee? you know. (I’m both, and more besides.) I think they thought they were fishing salmon and had suddenly caught something native to the Gulf of Mexico, you know, maybe a big catfish or something like that….

I liked all of those Paris Review boys right away. I got the right vibrations. Now George is as much a mystery to me as I am to him. I realize it was a Harvard/Boston thing. And he was more Harvard than Boston. I only saw his real humor the second or third time. Being New England, he fears exuberance or extravagance. I’m perfectly certain that if he were in the slums of Rostov-on-Don, and drunk on vodka, and it was Carnival time, we might see him take all his clothes off and dance in the street as a satyr. But I don’t think he’s gotten around to it yet. Thus speaks one who has swung from an iron bar three floors above the street and gone in Mardi Gras costume to a Brooks Brothers party in New York….George sometimes mutters things under his breath just like my Mobile friend Emily Lynn. In the middle of that rackety-rackety and everybody talking about themselves, she was brushing white hairs off her navy blue velvet dress and saying, "What I really need is a navy blue cat."…

They called me "Tum-te-tum." I did say that, I guess. It’s one of those Southern expressions. Somebody says something with which you do not agree or disagree; you say, "Tum-te-tum," or "We’ll talk about it later" is what it means….George never writes "Dear Eugene," he writes "Dear Tum-te-tum." At his age. At my age.