Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Meet Eugene Walter

Until I moved to South Alabama I didn't know the late Eugene Walter, whom I mentioned in my “Cat Person” blog (February 16). Walter, a one-time Mobile celebrity, was one of those unrestrained cat people who loved Mardi Gras, but never needed a special season to throw a party.

I first met Eugene in the pages of Katherine Clark’s Milking the Moon, an oral biography (now out of print but available) in which Eugene talks and Katherine sorts it out and records it. I’m not often a repeat reader, but I’ve read Milking the Moon three times in the last five years.

Eugene grew up in the 1920’s and 1930’s in his grandparents’ home in the days when Mobile was an easy-going Catholic town. During World War Two he spent three years at the Arctic Circle as an Army cryptographer, and then went to New York to make his mark in the world. Still in his early twenties, he moved on to Paris, where he became associated with George Plimpton in the editing and publishing of the Paris Review. He met almost every celebrity who passed through Paris, and was a favorite party planner for those who wanted to entertain them.

By his mid-thirties Walter was in Rome, working for Princess Caetani in the publishing of Botteghe Oscure. Because she seldom thought to pay him and he was too much of a gentleman to ask, he moonlighted as a translator, wrote a column for the Rome Daily American and became involved in the early stages of the Italian movie industry. He was versatile. He translated scripts, designed sets, dyed cloth and made costumes, wrote songs, and acted in dozens of films. His best role was as a supporting actor in Fellini’s 8 ½. Fellini became his favorite director and a good friend.

Except on occasional long days devoted to shooting films, Eugene’s workday ended no later than sunset and evenings were devoted to parties—the ones he became known for hosting and the ones he attended as a sought-after guest. Eugene knew how to give meaning to the word “party,” even when he was so poor he served peanut butter and fresh bakery bread.

Near the end of his life, Eugene returned to Mobile, but it wasn’t the town he had known as a boy. During the second World War the Baptists had moved in as riveters and ship fitters, and life in Mobile was just not the same. But, he was home again, and he still could plan a good party and enjoy his unplanned, spontaneous life. He died at the age of 76.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough

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