Ask McGehee

Trying to explain who Eugene Walter was is never easy. He has been described as a poet, a novelist, an artist, an art collector, a lyricist, an actor, a stage and theater designer, a puppeteer, a gardener, a gourmet cook, a European film actor and a local bon vivant. He was all of these things and more.

Walter was born in Mobile in 1921 at an address he was always proud to note was east of Broad Street. “True Mobilians must be born east of Broad Street, ” he would declare with his usual air of authority. According to the 1920 census, his parents occupied a house on Conti Street opposite the back of First Baptist Church. His grandparents and uncle lived in houses side by side on South Bayou Street nearby.

Eugene, known for his exaggerated stories, always claimed to have run away from his parents at the age of 3 and moved in with his paternal grandparents. He would later describe the household as consisting of his “grandmother, a collie dog and 23 cats.” However, his grandfather, who owned a shipping enterprise, did live until 1944.

“For me, every morning on the front porch was Carnival, ” he once reminisced. “There was a passing parade of street vendors of all kinds pushing their carts past us. There were no sounds of radio then, no sounds of television. Between passing cars a silence fell.” According to “The Happy Table of Eugene Walter, ” it was on the front porch, too, that he said he learned to speak French, as his grandmother and neighbors shared the latest gossip in  the language so that little Eugene wouldn’t understand.

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City directories reflect that his parents, moved several times. In 1927, they were living on Bienville Avenue. The 1930 issue places them at 1203 Old Shell Road near Georgia Avenue, with Eugene, then age 9, listed there as a “student, ” despite the fact that he was not living with them. By 1935, the three were listed at 308 North Lafayette Street.

An Unusual Adoption

Eugene’s memory of his childhood was more colorful. By the age of 13, he had become active with Aimee King’s Children’s Theatre Guild. While a student at Murphy High School, his grandmother died and he moved into the Dog River home of Hammond Gayfer who informally adopted the teen. The two had apparently become friends through the local theater group. In 1915, Gayfer had inherited the profitable Mobile department store founded by his father. Hammond was far too busy writing poems and plays as well as putting on theatrical productions to run a department store, so he turned it over to his father’s business partner.

Mr. Gayfer’s Packard and chauffeur regularly delivered Eugene to his classes at Murphy — unless Eugene had something more interesting to do. He would later recall that Hammond Gayfer was not too worried about him missing school as long as he was working on a project. With the Aimee King Children’s Theatre Guild, he designed stage sets and learned from Edmund DeCelle, whose Mardi Gras float designs are legendary. While a junior at Murphy, Eugene’s artwork was put on exhibit at the Mobile Public Library for a one-man show. The 1938 yearbook listed his student activities as having included “Library Worker, Cafeteria Worker, Fine Arts Club, Senior Players, and Student of the Moment.”­­

What Eugene’s parents thought of this unusual living arrangement has apparently gone unrecorded. When Hammond died in 1938 at the age of 60,  he left his entire estate to Aimee King
and made no provision for 17-year-old Eugene who was suddenly without a home. The 1939 city directory lists Eugene’s address as being
72 1/2 St. Michael Street and his profession as “artist.” In 1941, he founded the first summer theater in the Deep South, the Daphne Summer Theater. The following year, the artist was living at 158 St. Anthony Street. 

Eugene had a special interest in performing with marionettes and put together a show that toured from rural Mississippi to northwest Florida. “My real education was traveling with my marionette show, ” he said. “I did forestry camps, rural schools, children’s birthday parties and even prisons. I met a total cross-section, horizontally and vertically.”

The Veteran in Manhattan

Soon World War II erupted, and Eugene enlisted in November of 1942. His papers noted he stood 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 143 pounds. The Port City’s future “Renaissance Man” was stationed in the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific as an Army cryptographer. For three years, his unit spent their days attempting to break the diplomatic ciphers and codes of the Japanese. At the end of the war, he was one of just 30 veterans to receive art classes conducted at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

While living on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village, Walter got a group of friends together and pulled a stunt that was remembered for years to come. They quietly slipped into the outdoor garden at the Museum of Modern Art, donned costumes and masks, hung paper lanterns and loudly chatted away in a language known only to this mysterious group. Then they suddenly vanished without the other visitors, or museum staff, ever knowing who these masked aliens were. As he was later quoted, “Fun is worth any amount of preparation.”

From Paris Salon to Fellini

Eugene Walter’s next stop was Europe. When he arrived in Paris, he was quickly surrounded with a wide circle of expatriates with an interest in writing, theater and art. Along with George Plimpton, he founded the Paris Review in 1953 with a stated goal of emphasizing and encouraging creative work, including the writing of fiction and poetry.

In a 1983 interview for the New York Times, British author Muriel Spark spoke of her years living in Paris and a friend of hers named Eugene Walter whom she described as “a writer and actor, enormous in girth of physique and heart. He held the nearest thing to a salon. He was an unofficial reception committee, and all roads led to him.”

Rome came next where he became involved in filmmaking and, for two decades, served as a host to that city’s expatriate community of artists and writers. He was a translator as well as an actor in more than 100 films and television shows. He also worked under some of Italy’s major movie directors including Federico Fellini, one of the most influential filmmakers of all time.

Whether in Greenwich Village, Paris or Rome, Mobile was never far from his thoughts. He delighted in regaling his listeners about Alabama’s Port City. “Mobile is a separate kingdom. We are not North America, we are North Haiti, ” he would explain. He described his hometown as a place “full of mystery, half-mad, not completely real, founded on fakes and fraud, on puppets, long twilights and friendly demons. With us, fragile English roses grow on banks where alligators sleep.”

He enjoyed showing friends a worn Thom McAn shoebox filled with red clay scooped from a Spring Hill gully years earlier. Here was a little bit of Mobile that he always kept with him on his European moves. But home was calling him as the years passed, and he later explained, “We all come back home sooner or later.”

Home on a Hurricane

Eugene used to say that he returned to Mobile on the winds of Hurricane Frederic. The city in 1979 had changed drastically from the place in which he had been born. He declared, “Mobile is unrecognizable and Downtown looks like Tunisia after the war with all those hot glaring walls of those parking lots … The city has been vandalized by the dollar grabbers!”

And the shopping malls to the west particularly annoyed him. “The worst is the mall-sprawls. Hideous hot deserts with no benches, no trees, no drinking fountains … I dreamed seeing it all sink into primeval Wragg Swamp, which still churns and yearns below. I dream of alligators strolling arm in arm through Sears and Holmes.”

He once quipped, “My greatest distinction is that I’ve been bitten three times by mad dogs. They chose me out of a crowd each time. If bitten again, I won’t take the shots — I’ll refer to my files and bite a number of people.”

A Colorful Columnist

The Azalea City News and Review, a local weekly newspaper created by Jocko Potts, the publisher of Mobile Bay Magazine, recognized his obvious talent and hired him, essentially introducing him to most Mobilians at the time. For five years, he wrote on a wide array of subjects. A 163-part serial focused on herbs and aromatic plants. Eugene’s tips on cooking and entertaining included this advice: “Iced tea is never taken with food in most households. What appears to be iced tea is actually bourbon diluted with Perrier and a splash of amaretto.”

In reviewing his recipes, another writer warned, “The reader would be well advised to lay in a copious cellar of white and red wine, sherry, Madeira, Sauternes, brandy, bourbon, rum, Champagne, Pernod, ouzo and Peychaud’s Bitters — among others.” Another recalled Eugene’s descriptions of mint juleps in Mobile which “raised eyebrows and flipped wigs.” (Click here to find a few of his whimsical, alcohol-laced recipes from “The Happy Table.”) 

Eugene delighted in welcoming guests into his home on Grand Boulevard with its plethora of cats, shelves and tables sagging under books and walls covered with artwork collected in Europe. A look of calm would come over him when a new visitor was determined to be Southern. “I get nervous with anyone who is from north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Chicagoans in particular make me nervous, ” he would explain. He happily lived out his days in Mobile taking “a nice old-fashioned Gulf Coast nap every afternoon” while assuring his listeners, “I never drink cheap spirits.”

A Memorable Farewell

Eugene Walter died in March of 1998 and was buried in a casket his many mourners had adorned with Mardi Gras beads and messages written in magic marker. As it was lowered in historic Church Street Cemetery, a brass band broke out a rendition of “Cabaret.” 

A portion of his tombstone reads: “Born in the land of lizard fever in sweet lunacy’s county seat. This untidy pilgrim of the world lived by the credo: When all else fails, throw a party.”

Eugene Walter was once asked what he would do if he was in charge of his native city. He replied, “If I was dictator of Mobile, I would have an open air café facing Bienville Square.” That wish will soon come true when the Hilton Garden Inn opens. An awning-shaded terrace overlooking Bienville Square will front a bar dedicated to Walter. The dictator would be pleased.

Text by Tom McGehee

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