Brushes with Literary Fame

On a recent 10-day trip to south Georgia and Alabama, we covered a lot of ground. The trip had many profound highlights. These are the literary ones.

Monroeville, Alabama, was the hometown of author Harper Lee (1926-2016) and the setting for her indelible novel To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s where her long friendship began with Truman Capote (1924-1984), who lived in Monroeville for most of his childhood and became the model for Lee’s character Dill.A fascinating and quirky (in the way of small museums) tribute to Lee and Capote is housed in the Old Courthouse Museum, site of “the most famous courtroom in America” (pictured).

The actual courthouse wasn’t used for the Mockingbird movie, but the set designers arrived from Hollywood to inspect and measure, and their recreation copies the original almost exactly. Apparently Lee thought Gregory Peck was too youthful to play Atticus Finch—that is, until he went into a dressing room to try on his costume: three-piece suit, glasses, and pocket watch. “He came out a middle-aged man,” she said, realizing he’d be perfect.

Montgomery, Alabama, is where Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (1900-1948) grew up and where, in 1931-1932, she and her husband Scott (1896-1940) lived. That house, in the Old Cloverdale neighborhood, is called a “museum,” but it’s more impactful for knowing you’re walking where this star-crossed literary couple walked, seeing what they saw, knowing he worked on Tender Is the Night in that period and she on her only novel, Save Me the Waltz. Some gilded age clothing (pink suit!) and evening gowns, Gatsby edition memorabilia, and biographical profiles of people they hobnobbed with are on display, along with handwritten pages, and Zelda’s artwork. Is it really 98 years since The Great Gatsby was published?

The house is an Airbnb and a party venue, so it’s enduring quite a bit of wear. We arrived at the same time as a trio of women and were put off by the “closed for private party” sign, but they’d encountered that a few days before. We collectively decided not to take it seriously and all walked in. No problem. No party.

Montgomery is also home to the Hank Williams Museum, a magnet for country music fans. It has a few nice touches: his music plays throughout. On view are his baby blue Cadillac, some of his gorgeous Western-style suits, and a selection of the romance comics he liked to read. “Why do you read that junk?” friends would ask, and he’d say they gave him most of the ideas for his songs. “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” comes to mind. Is this stretching the notion of “literary” too far?

Milledgeville, Georgia, was home to one of the greatest Southern Gothic authors, National Book Award-winner Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). We visited Andalusia, the farm where she lived in the last years of her life and where she raised her prized peacocks. There’s now a museum there dedicated to her work. We also saw from the outside the house in Milledgeville where, as a teenager, she lived with her mother’s family while her father’s health declined.

When her letters were published in 1979 (The Habit of Being), I read them and it was painful to see in the museum the kind of typewriter she used. Like her father, O’Connor had lupus, and in the days before word processing, revisions to stories and novels required retyping—a massive chore for her. However, the trials of the disease were integral to her experience. As writer Alice McDermott said, “It was the illness, I think, which made her the writer she is.”

In Atlanta, Georgia, we saw Roundabout Theater’s production of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize winning (1982) story, A Soldier’s Play, directed by Kenny Leon. The production has a great cast, with Norm Lewis and Eugene Lee in the leads. Some of the themes are a little dated, but the overall message about the effects of racism is not. Even if the play hadn’t been so good, it would have been worth it to see the renovated Fox Theatre, with its fabulous Moorish interior. The picture can’t do it justice!

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All photos: Vicki Weisfeld

I Saw the Light

Tom Hiddleston, I Saw the Light, Hank WilliamsThe recent biopics of jazz musicians Chet Baker and Miles Davis (haven’t seen it yet) have been dinged for being impressionistic, improvisational, jazzy and showing only a limited period of their subject’s lives, in the case of Miles Ahead, 1979. With I Saw the Light (trailer), about country music legend Hank Williams, written and directed by Marc Abraham, we see the perils of the conventional treatment.

It’s a too familiar formula. Although this one skips over the difficult childhood and lacks the manager-as-ripoff-artist, we do have the rocky rise to stardom, wild success with 36 Top Ten singles, the lure of alcohol, drugs and dames, and missed shots at redemption—the whole gloomy self-destructive spiral. Truthfully, because Hank Williams died at age 29, his didn’t really have much chance to have a significant story arc to his life, which suggests something other than a chronology might have worked better. Instead, we have a movie that critic J. Olson says is “flatter than a silver dollar pancake.”

That fundamental problem is not redeemed by top-notch acting and the music. Tom Hiddleston (a Brit, no less) is a believable Williams—charming, uninterested in what people think of him (maybe he should have been)—and Hiddleston sings all the songs, which apparently were filmed live. Elizabeth Olsen is his wife Audrey Mae, tired of watching him lose the struggle with his demons and miffed he doesn’t support her singing career. She’s cute, but she’s a truly awful singer. Bradley Whitford plays Williams’s supportive manager, Fred Rose, and the guys in Hank’s band seem like the real thing, too.

Williams had a congenital back problem—a mild form of spina bifida—that may have made him prone to injuries. In any case, the injuries sure contributed to the development of chronic back pain, which explains that slight waist-bend in the movie posters, and exposed Williams to all the hazards associated with self-medication.

If you love country music, you’ll enjoy this film, even though you know the ending. If you’re not a fan, you know the ending too. This film makes the efforts to break out of the mold in the Baker and Davis films that much more appreciated.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 19%; audiences, 51%.