In the northwest corner of Alabama it sometimes feels like we are in our own little world (or, perhaps, just in our own little state of mind); we have our own way of doing things. This area boasts a beautiful terrain, unpredictable weather, its own unique musical sound, white barbecue sauce, and, of course, chicken stew. But, even as we boast about our unique quirks, claims to fame, and attributes, it must be said that other areas of Alabama certainly have special qualities and points of view, different from our own. Though each region or county or city has its own distinct flavor, we share in a creative spirit that can be found anywhere in the state. (Visit the Southern Makers gathering for verifiable proof of what Alabama has to offer artistically.)
In the most southwestern corner of our state, you will find Mobile—a city on the Gulf Coast that was, most notably, home to the first organized celebration of Mardi Gras in the United States. Mobile is also the hometown of Eugene Walter—of whom I’ve been a longtime admirer. If you’ve never heard much about Mr. Walter, let me tell you now: he led a fascinating, whimsical life. A natural-born storyteller, he was also a lauded screenwriter, poet, chef, translator, puppeteer, author, and costume designer. It is no wonder that he is known as Mobile’s Renaissance Man.
According to his memoirs, Eugene ran away from home at age 3, and spent most of his childhood with his grandparents. Their love of food and language–his grandmother was Austrian and fluent in French–would later serve as inspiration for his own life’s work. During his childhood, he became friends with young Bulldog Persons (better known as Truman Capote later in life). After his grandparents passed away when he was ten, Eugene briefly lived on the streets of Mobile (later claiming to have slept in the back of a bookstore) until he was taken in by Hammond Gayfer, department store heir. But Hammond died when Eugene was about 16, and Eugene found himself on his own again.
As a teenager, he passed the time writing and producing puppet shows for the Children’s Theatre Guild. After high school, he worked as a coffin painter in Mississippi and later, during World War II, spent time stationed in the Aleutian Islands as a cryptographer for the Army. From there, he moved to Greenwich Village and became very involved in the city’s art scene.
By the early 1950s, he was in Paris, acquainting himself with fellow expatriate writers. Here, he completed his first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim—a story of a young man exploring the madness, indulgence, and eccentricity of Mobile in the mid-20th century. It must also be noted that during this time Eugene helped launch the Paris Review, contributing stories, interviews, and art. He maintained a ubiquitous presence in Europe, and eventually moved from Paris to Rome. Eugene became involved with Italian cinema, working almost exclusively with director Federico Fellini. Fluent in French, Italian, and Spanish, he served as a translator on Fellini’s films. He also appeared in more than a dozen features, most notably as the American journalist in 8 ½. Throughout this time, he continued to write and in 1959 he received the O. Henry Award and the Prix Guilloux for his short story, “I Love You Batty Sisters.”
Eugene was also well-known for his cooking skills, and hosted many dinner parties during his time abroad—attracting and entertaining the likes of Judy Garland, William Faulkner, Anais Nin, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Truman Capote, Tallulah Bankhead, and Gore Vidal. In addition to his novels, he also published several cookbooks. In 1971, the Time-Life Foods of the World Series published his best-selling cookbook, American Cooking: Southern Style. (My personal favorite is The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink.) His food was said to be simple and delicious—and he encouraged the use of organic foods.
Eugene returned to Mobile in 1979, and is quoted as saying; “Sooner or later all Southerners come home, not to die, but to eat gumbo.” Throughout the years, he claimed that he had carried a shoebox of Alabama red clay around Europe to maintain ties to his home. He spent his final years in Mobile—writing, actively participating in the regional art scene, and making appearances.
Mr. Walter passed away in 1998 and was celebrated with an eclectic wake—where friends and supporters painted and wrote on his closed casket—followed by a traditional jazz funeral procession. His impressive body of work continues to inspire artists and storytellers in Alabama and beyond. We suggest reading Milking the Moon, an oral biography compiled by Katherine Clark, to learn more about the legend and life of Eugene Walter.