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THE WALKER PERCY PROJECT
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On Friendship with Walker Percy

FREDERICK STEPHEN ELLIS

The following remembrance was written for The Walker Percy Project and is dated January 21, 1997.


I first met Walker shortly after I came to Covington in the summer of 1949. He lived in the old Norman place on Military Road, about three miles out from Covington. We would see each other from time to time at parties and other community events. When his first book, "The Moviegoer," came out, it was not considered a big deal locally, even after he won the National Book Award. There were, after all, other published authors in Covington. There was not a bookstore, but Hebert's drug store carried his book, and it was there that I bought my first edition.

We got to be good friends in the early to mid-70s, when we mated our miniature schnauzers. Shortly after the barely successful union of the two dogs, and after Walker had taken the pick of the litter of one, we visited the Percys at the Pelican, the house they rented at Orange Beach, AL. Later, we invited them sailing on "Siesta," our 33-foot sloop, and we spent the night in Bayou Lacombe. After that, we began going to the symphony concerts in New Orleans, which we continued for years. Betty, my first wife, and Walker were big friends. She typed the manuscript of "Lancelot" for him, and he called her "Della," after Perry Mason's secretary. We vacationed in Highlands, NC, several times. We also took a memorable trip to the Yucatan one year. It was there that Walker proved that he could get by in Spanish, although knowing only two words, "dos margaritas."

After Betty died, the Percys virtually took me into the family. I was a steady guest at Bunt's Sunday dinners, and we still had our lunches. When I remarried, Walker and Bunt really took to Haydee, and she to them. The lunches and the symphony, the vacations, in North Carolina and Maine, and other places, and the close friendship continued. We got to the point where we were having lunch together weekly, or more often.

Walker's taste in restaurants was eclectic, but in later years, his true favorite was the Waffle House, located near the Holiday Square Shopping Center south of Covington on Highway 190. He knew all the waitresses there, and they knew him, but not who he was. After Walker won the Jefferson Prize, he invited Haydee and me down to the Waffle House, where he showed us the program, and other memorabilia of the occasion. One of the waitresses asked what we were looking at and Haydee showed her the program. She looked at it and said to Walker, "How'd you git in that book?"

All of the above is by way of establishing my credentials to talk about Walker, as a man and as a friend. First and foremost, he was a gentleman in the best sense of the word. He was, of course, well bred, with a good education, and he moved easily in all situations. Although brought up to wealth and social position, he bore no prejudices, and could talk as an equal to anyone, whatever his background might be.

He was proud of his literary accomplishments, but not impressed by them. Sometimes he would get an award or some other recognition, and only mention it in passing. He did like to mention invitations from famous people, in an offhand sort of way, like, "We've been invited to Ron and Nancy's for dinner"; or, "Lee called and wants me to run up to Natchitoches to see her." This was Lee Radziwill, whose invitation he declined. He also got a lot of mileage out of going to see the Pope, as a member of a Papal Commission.

He was a kind and conscientious person. As do most famous writers, he received many unsolicited manuscripts in the mail, as well as many pre-publication copies of books, all wanting him to read them, and comment. He would dutifully read these and write his comments, which were all too often not what the author wanted to hear. One of these books was my "History of St. Tammany Parish," which he read twice, with copious comments, and for which he wrote the foreword. Once Haydee offered to screen the material for him, but he declined because he felt obligated to do it himself.

Many people thought that they influenced Walker in his work, because he would listen carefully and respectfully to what they had to say. Similarly there were those who thought they were close friends of his because he was so polite and considerate of them. Sometimes people would show up on his doorstep, unannounced, and Walker would let them in, talk to them, listen to them, even go to Wendy's for lunch with them.

Walker had a great sense of humor, and loved to tease and to be kidded. In the 1970s, Walker had written an introduction to a publication of his Uncle Will's book, Lanterns on the Levee. Just before we first visited the Percys at the Pelican, Betty had read the book. At one point, she was telling Walker how much she had enjoyed it, and he asked me if I had liked it. I told I didn't know, because I hadn't been able to get through the introduction. He almost died laughing.

Although by no stretch of the imagination an athlete, he loved the outdoors. He was an indefatigable hiker, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of birds. He was a good golfer, and he and Bunt used to play together, and sometimes with me and Betty.

Walker and I didn't discuss his writing very much, but over the years, I learned a little about how he viewed himself. He became a very confident writer. I think he saw himself more as a craftsman plying his trade than anything else. He could put into words things that the rest of us had felt, but could never have expressed. He had the ability to make you feel things that can't be put into words. I once ventured this opinion to him, and he confirmed it. "But", he said, "I didn't think you knew it."

Walker thought everyone should write, and often encouraged people to do so. He believed that people had to suffer to become real writers.

He hated the public parts of writing. He reluctantly attended his book signings, which were always wildly successful, fearing that no one would come. He declined appearances on 60 Minutes, and other nationally syndicated talk shows.

He was a disciplined writer, keeping regular hours when he worked, but he was on the job 24 hours a day, soaking up experience. He was interested in everything, and you never knew when some little thing he saw or heard would turn up in his writings. To those of you who think they recognize themselves in one of his books, forget it. His characters were never patterned on one person.

Walker had a reputation as a social eccentric. I won't say that he cultivated the image, but he could accept or decline invitations at will, sneak out of parties early, and not make his manners, and get away with it. Sometimes Bunt would call Haydee and ask her to call Walker about going to a party together, because she was afraid that if she asked him, he wouldn't go. Walker liked mixing, but only up to a point. He was afraid of being trapped by the wrong person in a lengthy conversation. He liked structured groups, like the Wednesday lunch group, with his brother Phin, and others, the artists and writers group which met at Bechac's Restaurant in Mandeville, and the Great Books discussion group.

Walker was a unique thinker, and he believed enough in what he thought to communicate it to others. He wanted to do that badly enough to put himself through a long, painful, and discouraging apprenticeship. He succeeded so well that now there have been more books written about him than he wrote, and his works have been translated into almost every major language in the world.

Despite that, he remained a quiet, humble man, content to live his life in this little Southern town, where he was allowed to go his way in peace, and without recognition. He loved to tell the story of the time he was getting a haircut, and the barber asked him what he did for a living. Walker modestly answered that he wrote. The barber said," Yes, I know, but what do you really do?"


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