Milking the Moon: A Southerner's Story of Life on this Planet
Eugene Walter (as told to Katherine Clark)
Reviewed by Penne J. Laubenthal
Hold on to your hat and get ready for a wild ride. Milking the Moon is a rollicking romp through the life of the ubiquitous Eugene Walter. By allowing the unmediated voice of Walter to speak from the pages of her book, Katherine Clark has produced a work just short of phenomenal. Nobody does Eugene Walter better than Walter himself. I met Walter briefly in 1988 and was completely charmed. When he died ten years later, I wished I had known him better. Now, after reading Clark’s book, I feel as if I do.
Like the monkey, his favorite animal, Walter cavorted around the planet from Mobile to New York to Europe and back again for 76 exciting years. His lifetime spanned most of the 20th century, from 1921 to 1998, and he hobnobbed with the rich and the infamous: Tallullah Bankhead, Dylan Thomas, Richard Wright, T.S. Eliot, Judy Garland, Martha Graham, Lina Wertmuller, Federico Fellini, Alice B. Toklas, Princess Caetini, Isak Dinesen, Leontyne Price, and his colleague at the Paris Review George Plimpton. He gave parties for most of them, and he has stories about all of them. If you fancy a bit of good old back fence gossip, then Milking the Moon is your cup of tea.
When Katherine Clark announced that she was planning to collaborate with Walter on his autobiography, she was asked, “Do you think he will tell you the truth?” to which Clark replied, “I certainly hope not.” As most writers know, the truth should never get in the way of a good story, and Walter was a raconteur par excellence, a designer of sets and costumes, a writer of stories, poems, and songs, an actor, a bon vivant, a maker of magic. His life was his work of art.
Laissez les bon temps rouler was the credo of Eugene Walter. He summed up his life best when he said “It’s not true, you know, that we have only one life to live. We are much more like cats than we know, and we have at least nine lives. They say every that cell in our body is replaced within a seven-year period…Every seven years we are different. We shed a skin; we start a new life. And I guess that’s how I look at it.”
Being the “untidy pilgrim” that he was, it is appropriate that the chapter titles represent not only the many lives of Eugene Walter but also the marvelous places he lived: Mobile, the Arctic Circle, New York, Paris, Rome, and back again to Mobile. From the shores of the Gulf of Mexico to the salons of Europe, Walter cut a wide swath, leaving merriment and mayhem in his wake. He was renowned for his dinner parties, fantastical affairs often created out of next to nothing.
Walter taught himself to cook out of necessity when he was stationed in the Arctic Circle, and soon he could conjure up a gourmet meal out of the most pedestrian ingredients. He never considered himself a chef, but rather “an experimental scullery boy” just as he considered himself “an educated provencial.” Nevertheless, Walter possessed that gift that all great chefs –indeed all great artists—possess: the gift of imagination. “The reason I never had more than $10 to my name,” Walter declared, “ if I had ten dollars, I gave a party. If I had $200 I gave a very good party.” His parties were not merely dinner parties, they were extravagant occasions, and everyone who was anyone was there.
His acting career was as varied as his escapades. He had small roles in most of Fellini’s films, and he played the role of Mother Superior in Juliet of the Spirits. “You can’t say I haven’t lived. I’ve been a eunuch floating down the Nile, a female impersonator, a crooked cardinal getting pelted by rotten vegetables; I’ve been stuck in the eels in the Pontine marshes. You can’t say I haven’t lived.” Even the title of the book Milking the Moon was taken from the title of a song Walter wrote for Juliet of the Spirits entitled “Go Milk the Moon.” In Walter’s own words “Oh, I’ve lived. You can’t say I haven’t lived.”.
Walter also collaborated with Franco Zeffirelli on a film about the life of Francis of Assisi. Zefferelli planned to market the film in America as Holy, Holy Francis until Walter informed him “No film in America is going to get anybody in, not even for the popcorn, under the name Holy, Holy Francis.” The film, at Walter’s suggestion, was called Brother Sun, Sister Moon.
In the final chapter “Mobile, Again” Walter observes: “Sooner or later Southerners all come home, not to die, but to eat gumbo.” As far as Walter was concerned he really never was away from home. He always traveled with a Thom McAn shoebox full of red clay from a Spring Hill gulley, and he slept with it under his bed. Regarding his return to Mobile, Walter says “So I’m back where I started, sharpening my pen, my brush, my spade, my scissors, my pruning shears, my cheese parer, and the taps on my new tap shoes.” As he drew near the end of his life, Walter wanted to get “a good red wig and a white grand piano” because he wanted to “tap-dance into the next century.” I like to think he did.