Category Archives: john kennedy toole

Without Puerto Rico we would not have ‘A Confederacy of Dunces.’

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From 1961-1963 John Kennedy Toole was stationed at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, on the outskirts of San Juan. An honored and respected leader of Company A, he and his men taught English to Puerto Rican draftees, many of whom were sent to the front lines in the early days of the Vietnam War.

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Teaching English to Puerto Rican draftees. He was widely respected by the troops.

It was here that Toole not only wrote A Confederacy of Dunces, but also came to an artistic revelation, one that had been building in New Orleans for years. As I explain in the final pages of Butterfly, “In his small room in Puerto Rico in 1963 he climbed to the top of the world and left behind the victorious and infectious laughter that overcomes mortality.”

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In JKTs office where he wrote Dunces

I have always felt that the great lesson of his novel is that no matter how much we fight each other, tearing at our own fabric, we are all inextricably woven together. Sometimes our rejection of this truth produces absurd hilarity, sometimes wrenching pain. But a recognition of this truth results in moments of tenderness. I always believed this is what Ignatius finally realized when he reaches from the back of the car to touch Myrna’s hair as she drives him out of the city, rescuing him from the fate of the asylum.

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Relaxing with Company A

If you have reaped as much joy out of Toole’s novel as I have, I encourage you in the coming months and years to find a way to help the island and its people. Because without Puerto Rico, we would not have ‘A Confederacy of Dunces.’ There is much to learn, much to rebuild, and much healing that must take place.

I have decided to give to Unidos. (You have to designate ‘Puerto Rican Hurricane Relief’ if you want the donation to go directly to Puerto Rico). That said, there are many organizations working hard to provide immediate aid and meet long-term needs in the years to come. I encourage you to find a way to show support and offer a gesture of kindness to the people of Puerto Rico.

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Finding Walker Percy

In a white dress, white gloves and a pillbox hat, the old woman held tightly to the worn and tattered manuscript of her dead son. She waited patiently outside Walker Percy’s office at Loyola University in New Orleans. He was her final attempt to secure publication of her son’s novel.

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The last thing Percy wanted was a manuscript from an unpublished dead writer. But whether out of pity or an attempt to end the conversation with the unusual woman who rolled her Rs like a Shakespearean actor, he took the manuscript from her and, agreeing to read it, ferried it across Lake Pontchartrain to his home in Covington.

Most people are unaware of the lengths Percy went to get A Confederacy of Dunces published.  Having struggled with depression, Percy felt the weight of John Kennedy Toole’s suicide.  From the moment he read the first page he bore the burden of the manuscript as if it was his own.  It had been rejected by the top publishers in New York. And it had languished in a box atop a cedar armoire for years after Toole’s death.  But Percy was compelled to find redemption for the author. He also believed it was a great novel.

Mary Pratt Percy, David DuBos and me outside St. John's Coffeehouse in Covington.

Mary Pratt Percy, David DuBos and me outside St. John’s Coffeehouse in Covington.

A few weeks ago I returned to Covington with filmmaker David DuBos, who is adapting Butterfly in the Typewriter, to visit with Walker Percy’s daughter and, hopefully, visit his home.  We met Mary Pratt in St. John’s Coffeehouse in downtown Covington, a cozy spot she refers to as her office. It was a warm reunion for me. The last time I met with her was when I interviewed Walker’s wife, Bunt, in 2010. A few months after Butterfly was published Bunt passed away. Since then, Mary Pratt had read David’s script and was excited about the movie and thrilled at the cast David was building. She pointed us in the direction of her parents’ houses, two of them, right next to each other, about a mile from the coffeehouse.

Down a gravel road, the large brick home stood like a French Chateau and next to it a lovely, but much smaller A-frame house with large dormer windows, like a creole cottage. Wanting to downsize, Walker built the smaller home in the early 1980s and told his wife it would make tending house easier. Bunt said that promise never came true.  It is quiet here, serene, perfect for a writer.

 

Unlike the homes of Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway, there is no museum with tour guides, no gift shops selling refrigerator magnets and shot glasses. Today, Walker’s daughter, his grandson and family live in the homes.  So it was a rare treat to be invited into his sanctuary, where he had crafted his novels and where he first read of Ignatius Reilly.

With a warm welcome, his grandson, David and wife, Celeste, opened the door and showed us to the back room where large sash windows look out over the Bogue Falaya River. Lush green vegetation lines the dark river and the occasional river boat passes by.  It was one of those views that make cities seem absurd. One could stay here forever. It was easy to imagine Percy drafting The Moviegoer or The Thanatos Syndrome while looking out these windows. But like most writers he was susceptible to distractions. A bird singing in the evening light or a squirrel scampering up a tree–anything to avoid actually writing. His grandson showed us to where Percy kept his office with a desk and a couch; he had to face the driveway to get work done. There he composed his novels.

When he came home that night after meeting Thelma Toole for the first time, he plopped the manuscript onto the kitchen counter and asked his wife to read it. She did. She loved it and a few days later simply said, “It’s ready for you.” Now he couldn’t get out of reading, at least, the first page.

Walker enjoyed relaxing on this patio he built with his children.

Walker enjoyed relaxing on this patio he built with his children.

Percy enjoyed sitting out on the stone patio he built with his daughters, eating sandwiches and watching the river life. It’s possible he first met Ignatius Reilly there under the towering cypress trees. While Percy hoped he would hate the novel, he found, page after page, he could not put it down. And Toole had finally found the champion he needed. Ignatius Reilly feared the chaos that surely awaited him outside the bounds of New Orleans, but in the end his creator escaped the city and the demons within it. He was found dead under the swaying trees off the gulf coast of Mississippi. And his novel escaped the city as well, taking first root along the shores of the Bogue Falaya River in the hands of Walker Percy.

Much like Percy, I find something spiritual about Covington and the Northshore. The way the moon dances off the lake, the way the pelicans glide along the water, and how the Spanish moss delicately hangs from the canopy of trees. This is a place of contemplation, where even the water deep below is remarkably pure.

Abbey Church 2Later in the day, David and I went to St. Joseph’s Abbey, where Percy went to mass and often came for spiritual guidance. As we walked through the church doors incense still hung in the air and an organist played Bach, practicing for a concert later that afternoon.

We walked back to the cemetery. Bunt Percy’s tombstone was adorned with a vase of flowers, the stone clean and crisp looking. I had only met her once, but the afternoon I spent with her casually discussing their visits with Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor remain a highlight of my life. I was pleased to learn she had received a copy of my book before her passing. Next to her lay Walker Percy. Camellia blossoms at the four corners of his footstone.

As I worked on my book, I had so intently focused on understanding Toole that I never fully appreciated how tirelessly Percy worked to bring A Confederacy of Dunces to the world, even as he worked on his own novels. It was beyond selfless and, honestly, a rare deed among writers. For him, the novel had become a kind of ministry– a final rite that he could offer a man to whom he felt a deep connection.

Thelma Toole was right when she called Walker Percy a knight in shining armor and a guardian angel.  What I most respect is the quiet method he went about helping Toole. Without seeking glory, he offered redemption to a fellow sufferer.   Thank you, Dr. Percy.
 

 

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The Power of a True Story

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Last night a group of actors gathered in the classroom of screenwriter Henry Griffin at the University of New Orleans to read David Dubos’s script for Butterfly in the Typewriter. Sadly, I could not be there, but my conversations this morning with those that were, confirm once again: there is an uncanny energy surrounding this story.

Back in 2011 I was popping champagne in celebration of a book deal. I never imagined I would be talking about a movie deal. But last spring New Orleans filmmaker David Dubos stumbled across a copy of Butterfly randomly left on a countertop at The Louisiana Music Factory.  “I thought the title was unusual,” he recalls “like a Salvador Dali painting.” He was thrilled to discover it was about John Kennedy Toole, an author whose work he loved. “I’m taking this book” he told the owner and friend. A few days later he sent me an email. He wanted to adapt it into a film.

And so began a process of sharing ideas and sources. I scoured my research materials and connected him with people that new Toole. To be honest, I was apprehensive about the changes an adaptation may bring to the story. But a few months later David presented a brilliant script, hilarious and tragic, and true to the spirit of its subject.

Marti Luke, who had been a student of Toole’s at Dominican, was so excited about the adaptation she came down from Baton Rouge to hear the reading. As she entered the room it was clear the actors, all professional, knew each other. So she took her place quietly in the back of the room to listen. But David asked her to come to the front. He wanted her to read the part of Thelma Toole, one of three leading parts.  And so she donned the role of a woman she had met many years ago, a woman whose son she had never stopped loving.

Over the next two hours the room erupted in laughter and quieted to near silence as they followed Toole’s descent into madness. One of the more devastating moments comes when Toole’s student Martha learns of his suicide. She stares up at the Doomsday Clock he had drawn on the classroom board, wishing she could turn back time.

After the reading the actors talked about the colorful characters and the power of the dialogue. While most of them had heard of John Kennedy Toole, they had no idea how funny and heart-wrenching his life story was. And as for the script, “wonderful” “amazing” “genius” they said. But they still wondered about Marti Luke, especially since David selected her to read a lead role. David invited Marti to tell everyone about herself. “Well, I am Martha,” she explained—the same student of Toole’s who watched him draw that Doomsday Clock. The actors gasped. This was no mere performance for her, but rather a part of her life. They asked about her experience with Toole and his mother.

After the actors had left David spoke with Henry Griffin as they put the classroom back in order. Henry praised the script and then mentioned, “You know, Toole used to date my mother, Emilie Dietrich Griffin.” In fact, his mother visited Toole in Puerto Rico right before he started working on his novel. In his letters to her, Toole confessed his struggle to find his voice. It was a struggle that touched the lives of everyone in that room last night.

I have often said, this story has a way of weaving through people’s lives. And it amazes me how it reflects one of the key elements in Toole’s novel. Despite our differences, despite our failures and victories, we are all linked in ways that often go unseen. But at the right place and at the right time—perhaps strolling down the street or browsing through a music store—if we are paying attention, we will see the threads that connect us.

Bravo to all the readers last night. As David says, Onward!

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Because it is our duty

It is painfully clear that a new wave of anti-Semitism is rising once again in Germany. But in reading of the demonstrations fueled by such virulent hate, I am struck by how my visit to Germany this summer taught me about devotion to humanity in all its diversity.

On a rainy day in July I drove from Laupheim to Ichenhausen, a small village in western Bavaria where, in 1878 Carl Laemmle at twelve years old began his apprenticeship to Sam Heller, owner of a stationary business.  Laemmle stayed with the Hellers for five years. He could have continued on as an employee and perhaps a partner had he not left for America. I had few expectations for this visit. I arranged a meeting with the town archivist and thought I would see where Laemmle did his apprenticeship and learn about the town. I figured we would walk the streets and maybe look at some old pictures.

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Ichenhausen. A small village in western Bavaria.

In front of the council hall I met Dr. Madel-Böhringer, a tall woman with glasses and brown hair who enjoys sharing the stories of her hometown with genealogists, researchers and the occasional tourist group. “Welcome to Ichenhausen,” she said smiling. I thanked her for taking time out of her day. Then she asked a question I would never expect to hear in a small Bavarian village. “Shall we go to the synagogue?”

I agreed, presuming we would come to an old building, abandoned or repurposed with only faint clues of it once being a place of Jewish worship. But when we turned the corner I saw a refined structure, gleaming white with ornate Hebrew script hand painted above an archway. “Is there still a Jewish community here?” I asked.

She smiled, “No, no. But on Kristallnacht they did not burn the synagogue because it was too close to Christian homes.” The Nazis had trashed the inside, breaking the stained glass windows and ripping up the Torah.

We entered a large hall with a glass chandelier.  Above us gold stars twinkled against a dark blue background. And gilded wreaths accented each corner. “Years ago the townspeople restored the building to what it looked like in the late 19th century,” she explained. It was now used as a community space. “I think you will enjoy this,” she said pointing upstairs.

Synagogue restored

Synagogue restored

I followed her to a series of rooms converted into a small museum documenting the Jews of Ichenhausen.  She explained how the town was 50% Jewish and 50% Christian in the 1860s. While maintaining their own traditions, Jews and Christians participated in civic life together. They mingled in the same recreation clubs and social organizations. Some prominent Jewish men served on the city council. She then pulled out drawers of what appeared to be scrolls of fabrics. They were wimples, the cloths baby boys wore right before circumcision.  They were embroidered and used to wrap the Torah. The community had found hundreds of them in the synagogue in a storage area untouched by the Nazis. She then showed me to the mikveh, a ritual pool they had uncovered during the restoration.  We descended a brick stairwell to a closet size room where a well supplied the small pool with water. They had carefully refurbished the wood that framed the border of the pool. Clearly, the cost of restoring the synagogue must have been immense.

Mikveh--ritual bath

Mikveh–Ritual bath

We then strolled down the street, walking together under her umbrella, to see the building where the Heller store once stood.  She pointed to where the rabbi used to live and other homes once owned by Jewish families. She took me to her office, a desk near the window of a large room filled with archive boxes. We looked through a few pictures and as the rain died down she asked, “Perhaps now we can go see the Jewish cemetery?”

We hopped in her car and drove to the outskirts of town to a strip of land overlooking a valley. She showed me the circular structure where bodies would lay before burial and then we walked through the graves. She carefully wiped the pollen off of dusty gravestones, explaining the symbols. In the middle of the cemetery we came to an uprooted tree stump, the roots twisted high into the air, and a gravestone perched on top. “There was a storm,” she explained. “It brought down trees that had stood for centuries. The cemetery does not look the same without them.”

Curious about the grave that once lay beneath the upended roots, I asked, “If the stones were uprooted then did you find…”

“Bones?” she interrupted. “We gathered them, contacted the descendants and called a rabbi in Munich to perform a reburial service.”

Recent storms uprooted trees and graves

Recent storms uprooted trees and graves

Looking over the site she smiled. “When I was a little girl this was a magical place. Of course, at that time there were no Jews left. I would come here to play. It was peaceful and mysterious.”  To her, the places she had shown me were more than historical sites. She was emotionally tied to them. She was a steward to a history that could have easily been erased.

It was noble, but something just didn’t add up to me.  What compelled her and the village to preserve this history, especially without a Jewish community to advocate for its preservation?  I presumed it was some deep-seeded sense of guilt over the atrocities of the Nazi era. But most of the townspeople were born after World War II.  And so I asked, “Doctor, this is all done with the community’s money, but no Jews live in this village. You all could have done a plaque or a small exhibit on the Jews of Ichenhausen, but why all of this? The restored synagogue, the cemetery. Why?” She turned around, surprised at my question, and said, “Because it is our duty.”

I sensed from her a longing for what was lost. The synagogue, the exhibit, the cemetery, these were relics of an Ichenhausen that had prospered in a time of tolerance and diversity.  When the Jews were forced out, deported and murdered, a part of Ichenhausen died with them. From my perspective the community had taken extraordinary steps to preserve Jewish history. For Dr. Madel-Böhringer these were basic gestures that could preserve, but never regain what was lost.  It reminded me that when we succumb to intolerance and hate, we lose a part of ourselves that we can never get back. And whether this happens in a little village or across a vast region, all of humanity is lesser for it.

Only picture I snagged of Dr. Madel-Böhringer. She explains the purpose of the structure to house the body before burial

Only picture I snagged of Dr. Madel-Böhringer. She explains the purpose of this structure to house the body before burial

Dr. Madel-Böhringer’s answer to my question still resonates with me. It is not just the duty of Germans, but rather the duty of all humans to remind our communities that we prosper when we embrace our differences. This is one of the great lessons I have learned from studying Carl Laemmle, who was shaped by his time in Ichenhausen. He was Jewish. He was German.  He was American. But above religion or nation, he was a vocal humanist at a time when humanity was entering some of its darkest days.

After parting ways with Dr. Madel-Böhringer, I headed back to Laupheim. Winding along the country road, passing farms and fields of wheat, it was difficult to imagine how something like the Holocaust could have taken place here. And then without warning the rain started again.  It came down in violent gusts, pounding my car like tiny bullets. Slowing to a crawl, I leaned toward the windshield as the rolling hills of the Bavarian countryside seemed to wash away against the glass.

One of the largest Jewish Cemetaries in Bavaria is in Ichenhausen

One of the largest Jewish Cemeteries in Bavaria is in Ichenhausen. There is no Jewish community left in the town.

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Chasing Laemmle…and a movie deal in the works.

My hosts, the Stetters, and the Obernauer daughters in the streets of Laupheim

My hosts, the Stetters, and the Obernauer daughters in the streets of Laupheim

This summer I chased the spirit of Carl Laemmle all over the world, from where he grew up in Laupheim and Ichenhausen Germany to where he opened his first Nickelodeon in Chicago. Along the way, I met some remarkable people. The mayor of Bihlafingen welcomed me into her home for a week and showed me around the place that still uplifts Carl Laemmle as the town hero. Two of the granddaughters of Hermann Obernauer, who Laemmle helped save from Dachau, joined me as well. I interviewed a man who has devoted himself to protecting and restoring the tombstones in the Jewish cemetery of Laupheim. In doing so he dutifully preserves life stories, regardless of race or religion. And there was no better time to visit than the annual weeklong festival of Heimatfest…or as the locals told me, “the real Octoberfest.” Many of these stories will not make it into The Moving Picture Man, but I will share them on this blog in the coming weeks.
Next month I head to Los Angeles to complete my research.

It is fitting that as I work on the story of one of Hollywood’s great pioneers, Butterfly in the Typewriter has been optioned to be made into a feature film. The screenplay is almost finished. So for you Toole fans, tell me, who should play JKT, Walker Percy and Thelma Toole?

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Carla Laemmle

Carla Laemmle, one of the last actresses of the silent film era, passed away last Friday. She was the niece of Carl Laemmle and, most famously, said the opening lines in the first talkie horror film. I had hoped to speak with her at some point during the writing of this book. In interviews she always spoke fondly of her Uncle Carl. It was his invitation that led to her family moving from Chicago to a house in Universal City.
Over her lifetime she witnessed the evolution of Hollywood, from silent films to talkies to color. She was 104 years old. According to IMDB, over the last few years she has appeared in several movies.
Here she is in Dracula (1931) saying the opening lines:
“Among the rugged peaks that crown down upon the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age.”

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The New Orleans of A Confederacy of Dunces and John Kennedy Toole

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A tour of JKT’s New Orleans is being organized for June 7, 2014. We will escape from Baton Rouge! As your guide I will show you the sites and tell you the stories that inspired A Confederacy of Dunces. The tour includes a presentation of the Toole Papers at Tulane University, some of JKT’s favorite French Quarter haunts and a behind-the-scenes look at the Lucky Dog Warehouse.
Space is limited. Tickets are on sale now through the Manship Theatre. If you have any questions please contact Marti Luke at martiluke@reagan.com

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On John Kennedy Toole’s Birthday

JKT in his father's car. Father and son were both passionate about automobiles. In the end, JKT chose to end his life in one.

JKT in his father’s car. Father and son were both passionate about automobiles. In the end, JKT chose to end his life in one.

Toole’s mother used to talk about how exceptional her son was from the moment he was born.  He had a “a light in his eyes.” Supposedly the nurse said she had never seen a newborn child so aware, almost like a six-month old.  And of course, he was a natural-born leader, because when he would start crying, all the other babies would start crying as well.

When asked about his personal history, Toole told his story a bit differently. His parents had been trying to get pregnant for nearly a decade, but Thelma was unable to conceive. With no child and constant financial hardship, Thelma and John grew distant from each other….

But in 1937 the Fates spun an unexpected thread.  One day at a party, which is never without libations in New Orleans, Thelma Toole tripped on some steps and tumbled to the ground. The fall must have jostled her insides enough to remove whatever stood in the way of her and motherhood, because shortly thereafter, she got pregnant. And her son, telling the story of his mother’s fortunate fall, relished the accidental nature of his origin.

He tumbled into this world on December 17, 1937. Happy Birthday Ken!.

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Toole’s Legacy at Tulane

Gibson Hall, where Toole took most of his English classes.

Gibson Hall, where Toole took most of his English classes.

I just returned from New Orleans where I caught up with one of Toole’s childhood friends, John Geiser. I have written about him on this site before. John is an encyclopedia of New Orleans history. He is also one of the kindest men I have ever known.

Although, if you are ever in his company, do not say something as ridiculous as “N’awlins.” Pronounce the syllables for God’s sake. And be sure you do not use the words Cajun and Creole interchangeably.  They are not the same thing.  You will offend both Creoles and Cajuns.  Keep these two things in mind, and an afternoon with John is like stepping back into a bygone era of New Orleans history.

One of the things John keeps me posted on is a little known part of John Kennedy Toole’s legacy.  In addition to the Toole papers at Tulane, the Toole estate also established the John Kennedy Toole Scholarship.  It started with fairly modest funds after Thelma Toole died, but today it is worth over 1.5 million dollars and growing.  This scholarship enables talented students to pursue their undergraduate degrees in the Fine Arts or English at Tulane.

You won’t find it trumpeted on the Tulane website. Nor will you find it in discussions about Toole’s influence. It is a contribution far quieter than his outrageous characters. But as another academic year begins, another round of students and aspiring writers enter Tulane as benefactors to Toole’s posthumous success, his mother’s tenacity to pursue the publication of A Confederacy of Dunces and the thoughtfulness of the heirs to the Toole estate.

It is just one more way the story of John Kennedy Toole continues to inspire.

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A Confederacy of Dunces Typescript–Sold!

The young John Kennedy Toole attempts to shift gears on a tractor as his best friend, Cary Laird, poses for the camera.

The young John Kennedy Toole attempts to shift gears on a tractor in Mississippi as his best friend, Cary Laird, poses for the camera. Days later Toole would begin writing The Neon Bible.

Last year I wrote an article about the lost manuscript to A Confederacy of Dunces published in The Millions. You can read it here. I just got word that the document I saw that day (a typescript of the novel with some edits) was recently sold at auction, along with some rare pictures of Toole for $31,000. One of those pictures appears in Butterfly in the Typewriter. The photographs were taken during Toole’s trip to Mississippi, which inspired him to write The Neon Bible.

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette acquired a handwritten letter from Toole last year (also included in Butterfly) through a Sotheby’s auction. I suspect there is more Toole material out there waiting to be uncovered….

Here is the Sotheby’s auction with images of the typescript.

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