Writer, editor, poet, actor, puppeteer, gourmand, man of many talents Eugene Walter was born on this day, November 30, in 1921 in Mobile, Alabama. Generally regarded as an artistic genius, Walter transcended his humble roots in Mobile to later become an editor for the Paris Review, have roles in films by Federico Fellini, and write a bestselling cookbook.
Eugene Walter was raised first by his grandmother – he wrote about his upbringing in an article titled “Secrets of a Southern Porch,” which The New Yorker published in 1998 – then, after she died, was later adopted by the Gayfer family, the wealthy owners of the department store chain. The writer Truman Capote, of In Cold Blood fame, was a boyhood friend. As a young man, Walter went to Spring Hill College in Mobile then served as a code breaker during World War II, before moving to Greenwich Village in New York City.
But it was his move to Paris that sparked Eugene Walter’s career success. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, “[h]is work—including articles, stories, and poems—was published in the early editions of the Paris Review. A founding editor, he remained an associate editor of the magazine from 1951 to 1960.” Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Walter also received numerous awards and fellowships, had novels and a poetry collection published, and worked with Fellini on the movies 8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits, and Satyricon, as well as on the soundtrack for the 1968 film version of Romeo & Juliet.
Upon returning to America, Walter’s literary success continued, and he also began writing about food. His American Cooking: Southern Style became a bestseller, and he was a regular contributor to popular glossy magazines.
I first came to know Eugene Walter through a bright-green poetry collection, Lizard Fever: Poems Lyric, Satiric, Sardonic, Elegiac, which was published by Livingston Press in 1994. The book’s near-neon cover stood out on the poetry shelf of the NewSouth Bookstore, where I worked in the early 2000s, and caused me to pick it up.
Eugene Walter died in 1998 in his hometown of Mobile. Aside from his own writing, the biographical Milking the Moon by Katherine Clark provides latter-day insights into this wildly talented Alabamian.
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