FEBRUARY 27, 2020
LIFE IN THE 1930s for Faulkner and Estelle was a piling on of complex and blistering life events. The slow recovery after their daughter’s death and the plodding improvements at Rowan Oak continued. It seemed the couple inched toward stability only to have it evaporate. Faulkner’s work in Hollywood introduced the temptation of a lovely young script girl from the South. And there was yet another shattering family tragedy.
Meanwhile, Faulkner’s creative output went unchecked. Every year, stories appeared in national publications: eight in 1932; three in 1933; 11 in 1934, the same year the genesis of Absalom, Absalom! came to him; and five in 1935.
The publication of Absalom in the fall of 1936 was a triumph. An American tragedy in a Southern setting, the novel featured Thomas Sutpen, an unlikely antihero whose merciless quest for a dynasty — driven by a decades-old insult — proved his ruin. The son of a sharecropper, the young Sutpen was sent by his father to a plantation manor on an errand where an African-American butler in fine livery barred the youth from entering, telling him to use the back door, not the front. Stunned by the servant’s hostility and disdain, Sutpen’s naïveté was banished; and, though only 13 years old, this event set his course in motion. He would acquire a grand house, plantation, respectable wife, and father sons. Sutpen’s Hundred was his answer to the butler who refused to let him deliver his message. The challenging novel emerged despite marital difficulties and personal loss, a masterpiece conceived and completed while bouncing between Oxford and Hollywood.
Navigating the contrast between his life in Hollywood — with a room at a trendy hotel — and the Faulkner home, Rowan Oak, tucked deep in the woods, proved challenging. While in Hollywood, Faulkner frequented restaurants and supper clubs popular with actors, movie industry deal makers, and writers: Schwab’s Pharmacy, Lucys’s, LaRue’s, Pig ’n Whistle, Musso and Frank (a haven for screenwriters), and The Players. The Players especially achieved Hollywood notoriety with its assignation tunnel leading to the nearby Chateau Marmont and its convenient location across from the Garden of Allah Hotel, an extended stay place with a legendary guest book including — Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Little of this glitz and glamour extended to Mississippi. Apparently his inclination to socialize did not occur much in Oxford, where he and Estelle, to her displeasure, were mostly homebodies. Faulkner embraced the solitude and would remain silent for unnerving periods of time. His frustrating wall of silence wasn’t easily pierced. Estelle, who had been instructed by her mother as a young girl to be charming since she wasn’t particularly beautiful, enjoyed people, parties, and dinners. She wanted to go out and resented his stubborn streak. It was lost on Faulkner that Estelle didn’t have an alternative to her isolating existence at Rowan Oak.
Hollywood became synonymous with increased income and long absences from home. The manna from Faulkner’s work on screenplays and the movie options on his novels was very welcome indeed, but it did not come without cost to his marriage. When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer offered six weeks at $500 a week in May 1932, the couple was significantly overdrawn and without credit. Faulkner literally spent his last few dollars wiring MGM that he would accept their offer. He then asked his uncle for a five-dollar loan. John Falkner instead offered a $500 loan to cover his nephew’s overdraft, but Faulkner declined and held out for a studio advance.
Meanwhile, Faulkner’s own father, Murry, was incredulous that his son’s writing could fetch $500 a week. His displeasure with Faulkner’s vocation was never resolved. But at this particular juncture, Faulkner remained independent. Luck intervened and the advance money arrived along with a train ticket to the MGM studio located on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
Faulkner made quite an impression with his late arrival at the studio on May 7, 1932 — disheveled, inebriated, and with a bleeding head. He couldn’t settle down and work — they had asked him to view a film in the projection room — and disappeared for nine days, later telling those in charge he had been wandering in Death Valley. Quite a shocking story as it was 150 miles away and he didn’t seem to know how he got there.
The strain of the past months no doubt contributed to his mental disorder. Shortly before leaving Oxford, Faulkner completed Light in August, a 527-page manuscript, that Estelle, in a pique of anger, threw out the car window. That left Faulkner scrambling through the weeds and ditches for manuscript pages. He had hoped a magazine would serialize the novel — an epic tale of race and retribution — but as usual, Faulkner was years ahead of public readership.
Good fortune struck again in July 1932 when Faulkner met movie director Howard Hawks. Hawks was one year older than Faulkner and a fan of his novels and stories. He soon took a liking to Faulkner and bestowed more tolerance than others in Hollywood were wont to do. Hawks was not terribly unlike Faulkner in temperament. Reserved with a British affectation, he didn’t let many people into his personal orb. A tall, imposing figure, with great reserves of charm, Hawks was aware of the clout he exerted in Hollywood; careers he could help make or break. Like the agents and editors in New York who admired Faulkner, Hawks proved a loyal supporter and an ongoing source of sustenance.
It seemed Faulkner had scarcely settled into a productive routine in Hollywood when, on August 7, his father, who was just shy of 62 years, suffered a fatal heart attack. Faulkner must have felt a thunderous conflict of emotions. His relationship with Murry had always been an uneasy one. It was nothing like the close bond he shared with his mother, Maud. While Murry would indulge his youngest son, Dean, who embraced a volitionless path and c’est la vie attitude, Murry didn’t find similar traits attractive in his eldest. Bill’s choice of an occupation perplexed him, and he believed if his son was determined to write books, they should be Westerns. When Sanctuary (1931) was published and Faulkner actually realized some financial gain, Murry took issue with the novel’s sexual theme and tried to have it suppressed and withdrawn from the market.
After he returned to Oxford for the funeral, Faulkner, like it or not, assumed responsibility for his father’s affairs. His time in Oxford also was devoted to reading the galleys of Light in August. The plan was for Estelle to go back to California with him, but she was pregnant; instead, his mother and Dean accompanied him on the long drive west. The Faulkner trio didn’t remain long, Maud and Bill especially were eager to return to Oxford, and a pattern was thus established. Over the next 22 years, Faulkner would live between Hollywood and Oxford, as needs dictated.
In 1933, with more money than they’d ever had thanks to MGM, Faulkner installed central heat, bought three adjoining lots to Rowan Oak, as well as his own airplane, a Cabin Waco with the number 13413 which Maud Faulkner proclaimed bad luck. Flying seemed to be in the Faulkner brothers’ blood. Faulkner received his pilot’s wings that year; his brothers Johncy and Jack were already pilots; and Faulkner was financing Dean’s flying lessons. By the fall of 1935, the brothers, now all pilots, staged an air show in Oxford billed as “The Flying Faulkners.”
Yet the money went out as fast as it came in, and by the summer of 1935 he wrote his agent, Morton Goldman, of a pressing need for cash. On mutually agreed upon terms, his brother Dean would acquire Faulkner’s plane, and Faulkner considered selling the manuscripts of Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, and Light in August. Hawks’s offer of a thousand dollars a week starting mid-December prevented this drastic measure. The offer was readily though not happily accepted. Faulkner would rather be home concentrating on his novel. The importance of Absalom was increasingly evident as he advanced the narrative thread of miscegenation in the still deeply divided South. Later, when he shared the sole manuscript copy with Dave Hempstead, a Twentieth Century-Fox colleague, Faulkner declared it the greatest novel yet written by an American. Such brilliance often ushered in manic spells and set a debilitating cycle in motion.
Four years after Faulkner and Estelle lost their baby girl, Alabama, tragedy struck again. Dean was killed November 10, 1935, in a plane crash along with his three passengers. Dean, born August 15, 1907, was just 28 years old, and his wife, Louise, was four months pregnant with their first child. Dean was 10 years Faulkner’s junior and that might have played a role in the love and protectiveness Faulkner felt for him. Already a duo, the youngest and eldest Faulkner boys formed an even deeper bond in 1922 when the two middle brothers both married and established careers. Now the family bachelors, Dean quite openly took to mimicking many of his brother’s eccentricities — going barefoot, wearing shabby clothes, even moving into Bill’s empty tower room at the Delta Psi House.
Temperamentally, they were quite different, Faulkner, quiet and reserved, Dean, good natured and light hearted. Dean was a natural athlete, an accomplished baseball player and an avid outdoorsman. His efforts in college were negligible, cycling in and out of semesters and classes. An indulged youngest child, his father would find him jobs that he would promptly lose without repercussions. After Murry died in the summer of 1932, Dean, still unemployed at 25 years, moved in with his mother.
Faulkner detected a despondency about Dean. His pattern of drifting through life seemed to be catching up with him. Realizing his brother needed a purpose, Faulkner encouraged him to take up flying, and it seemed like providence — Dean was a natural and soon a talented pilot. His life took off in his late 20s — a job he liked, a happy marriage, and a child on the way — only to end abruptly when his plane came down near Pontotoc, Mississippi. There were rampant speculations about the cause of the crash, though most agreed Dean had allowed a young passenger to take the controls. Likewise, various accounts of the condition of Dean’s body circulated. The family decided on a closed casket for the small service. On November 11, 1935, for the third time in five years, the Faulkners made their way to St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford.
Sadness compounded by searing guilt consumed Faulkner. He believed he was unwittingly the cause of his brother’s death since he instigated Dean’s career as a pilot and Dean lost his life in Faulkner’s Waco. Faulkner, along with Dean’s pregnant widow, moved into his mother’s South Lamar home in Oxford. He vowed to financially care for Dean and Louise’s baby as if she or he was his own. When Dean Faulkner was born March 22, 1936, Faulkner made good on his promise. He was there for his niece’s milestones. Dean decided to attend the University of Mississippi and, as pledged, Faulkner covered her tuition and expenses, even a senior year of study in Europe. Stepping in for his deceased brother, Faulkner walked Dean down the aisle at her November 1958 wedding; and hosted, along with Estelle, the wedding reception at Rowan Oak.
Maud Faulkner’s home was a place of sustained mourning. Maud, Faulkner, and Louise gradually found their way through the sorrow. For three weeks, Faulkner looked after the women and worked on Absalom at the dining room table. Like Light in August and Alabama’s death, it was another novel intricately bound to loss. Maud kept her sleeping pill supply in ready access, threatening to take them all to end her suffering. Faulkner’s drinking accelerated, and Maud explained to Louise that he couldn’t help himself. Even though Maud was strongly averse to alcohol, having witnessed the toll it took on her family, an exception was granted.
She had been prescient in declaring the numbers on the Waco unlucky, and she made her son, John, promise to quit flying over her house as had been their ritual when he or Dean flew to Oxford. They would buzz their mother’s house, and she’d drive to a field outside of Oxford and pick them up. Years passed before she told John it was okay to buzz her house again. She knew John, Bill, and Jack were not going to give up flying. Jack made a career of the FBI and flew around the country in a Monocoupe. Better that she knew they had arrived home safely.
His grief compelled Faulkner to hold even tighter to his evolving novel. The work migrated from his mother’s dining room table in Oxford to his living quarters in Hollywood. The manuscript’s journey was duly noted by the author who inserted notations on last page of Absalom — Rowanoak, Mississippi 1935; California 1936; and Mississippi 1936.
Faulkner’s new contract with Hawks and 20th Century Fox began December 16, 1935. He was lodged at the Knickerbocker Hotel. Built in 1929, the hotel was gaining popularity in the film industry. Guests could rent apartments as well as rooms. Like many hotels that catered to directors, producers, scriptwriters, and actors, the Knickerbocker garnered Hollywood folklore.
Its mysterious aura — haunted to some — originated when Bess Houdini, Harry Houdini’s widow, organized her 10th séance on the roof. The séance coincided with the third annual convention of the Pacific Coast Association of Magicians. Hotel guests might have seen a magician escaping from a straitjacket while hanging upside down outside the entrance or a Hollywood Boulevard car race featuring blindfolded drivers.
The actress Frances Farmer lived at the hotel, drank to excess, and was arrested there in 1943 for a pile of unpaid DUI fines. Not anticipating company, Farmer was drunk and nude when the police arrived. After a prolonged scuffle — she fiercely resisted — she was carried through the lobby wrapped in a shower curtain. Death came to the Knickerbocker in 1948 when famed director D. W. Griffith, an obscure, solitary figure later in life, had a cerebral hemorrhage at the hotel. He was one of several discarded Hollywood remnants who called the Knickerbocker home.
The Knickerbocker was losing luster in the 1950s as Los Angeles’s popularity surged. It transitioned into an intimate, niche destination. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio frequented the bar and were said to have honeymooned there in 1954. Following an extensive renovation by a prominent architect, Elvis Presley was a guest during the filming of Love Me Tender (1956).
In decline by the 1960s, no one would call the hotel even a faded beauty. Irene Gibbons, a renowned costume designer who was troubled and discouraged by 1962, jumped to her death from her room’s window. William Frawley, affectionately remembered as Fred Mertz from I Love Lucy, was a Knickerbocker fixture. When he had a stroke in the street, Frawley was pulled into the lobby only to die later at a hospital. Eventually the Knickerbocker became low-income housing for seniors, though stories of stars and hauntings continued. Residents cited unexplainable sounds, slammed doors, and glimpses of Marilyn Monroe in the powder-room vanity mirror.
For Faulkner, even an empty room in the eerie hotel would be welcome after grappling with the difficult script Hawks assigned. It was a war story based on Les Croix de bois, a 1919 novel by Roland Dorgelès, that was adapted into a French film in 1932. Hawks’s developing script — first called Wooden Crosses and finally The Road to Glory — depicted trench life for a French regiment during World War I. The working draft concluded with a procession of the dead. Coming on the heels of Dean’s death, the gloomy script was particularly funereal. Yet even if he felt mired in darkness, Faulkner continued the heavy lifting. Without neglecting Absalom, he might show up at the studio with 35 script pages he’d written the night before.
When the movie was released nine months later on September 4, 1936, Faulkner shared the screenplay credit with Joel Sayre. As would be the case with his subsequent screenplays, The Road to Glory went through a number of incarnations: writers cycled in and out of scripts, actors interjected new lines, movie titles changed, and the director reimagined the story as well. Fortunately for him, Faulkner was rarely overly invested in any of his Hollywood assignments. They seemed pesky tasks to complete before he could get back to his own work. The city continued to grate on his nerves and he was far from starstruck, turning down invitations to parties and dinners others would rejoice to receive. At one event, not wanting to appear a discourteous guest, he climbed out a second-story window and down a trellis.
He veered from his standoffishness to accept a lunch invitation at the home of French-born actress Claudette Colbert. Colbert asked Ben Wasson, Faulkner’s Oxford friend and early agent, to arrange a meeting. Colbert and Faulkner shared mutual admiration. He had enjoyed It Happened One Night, Colbert’s movie with Clark Gable, and she was a fan of his books. No one was drinking that afternoon. Faulkner requested sweet milk, which confused the hostess until Wasson explained it was just plain milk. Perhaps looking to enliven the visit, Colbert suggested a game of tennis at the home of her neighbor, actress ZaSu Pitts. Pitts and Faulkner played singles as the other two looked on. The two men agreed on one thing during the drive back from the pleasant outing: Colbert’s legs were even more beautiful in person than onscreen.
Like other serious authors in Hollywood, he was thankful to discover Stanley Rose’s on Hollywood Boulevard, a real bookstore frequented by book-lovers. Authors, whether they were short on cash or otherwise in need of encouragement, would find a friend in Rose. Many would simply while away the time there, knowing they were likely to meet kindred spirits. It was genuine shelter from what many — especially Faulkner — considered the foolishness of Hollywood. Here Faulkner met John O’Hara and reunited with Nathanael West and Dashiell Hammett, whom he knew from New York.
Faulkner also enjoyed spending time with Dorothy Parker, another New York friend and drinking companion. But making friends in Hollywood did not come easily to him. (Some would say he had difficulty keeping them as well. He exhibited a strange pattern in life of “dismissing” friends, as Wasson would discover, leaving them stunned and bewildered by the sudden cold shoulder.) Except for a select few, like Sayre and Albert “Buzz” Bezzerides (another close friend Faulkner would suddenly shun), most screenwriters found Faulkner remote. Worse, if someone should try and engage him in conversation about his novels or stories, he usually would not say a word. The unfortunate person would be left prattling on as he walked away in disgust.
Even gems like Musso and Frank and Stanley Rose’s shop couldn’t banish Faulkner’s mournful, homesick mood. That December in Hollywood offered little relief until he met Howard Hawks’s secretary and script girl, Meta Carpenter. Positioned professionally at her desk outside of Hawks’s inner office, Meta might well have been an apparition. The 28-year-old’s beauty, coupled with her quiet composure, arrested Faulkner from the outset. And when she addressed him in her Mississippi accent, the vision was complete. Meta, he discovered, was from the Delta — Tunica, Mississippi — and educated in Memphis, Tennessee. He quickly found reasons to stop by her desk.
The Southern provincialism Faulkner later found so maddening in his love affair with Joan Williams afflicted Meta — albeit briefly — as well. Meta had married young and moved to California in the early 1930s with her husband, Billy Carpenter, hoping to pursue a career as a concert pianist. Neither the career nor the marriage went as planned. When she and Billy divorced, having never achieved a fulfilling sexual relationship, Meta moved into a chaperoned female dormitory, the Hollywood Studio Club. Under the umbrella of the YWCA, the Studio Club offered social opportunities and performing arts classes. Teas, dinners, dances, and other organized events — as well as frequent outings to popular spots like the Cocoanut Grove — led some to classify the Studio Club as a sorority. In reality, it was a safe and affordable choice for many single women working in the motion picture business. Meta’s single accommodation was nine dollars a week, while those willing to have a roommate could pay as little as seven dollars.
Faulkner wasted no time asking Meta out to dinner, though it would take several invitations before she agreed. She knew he was married; and for a while, that stopped her cold. Then there was the afternoon he showed up drunk and began pressing her again for a dinner date. Meta was shocked and relieved when Faulkner was whisked away to the Knickerbocker. Her good sense and upbringing cautioned against a heavy-drinking, married man.
It was Faulkner’s illegible handwriting that finally cracked her armor. She was transcribing his contributions to The Road to Glory script, and Hawks advised her to seek Faulkner’s help deciphering the pages. Soon they were working side-by-side, with Faulkner putting as little physical distance between them as possible, and staring at her with scant regard for politeness. At 38, he was eager for an intimate relationship that he lacked with Estelle. He told Meta his wife had rebuffed him since the birth of their second daughter, Jill, three years earlier (a difficult, if not impossible, claim to substantiate).
The loneliness he felt in his marriage deepened Meta’s affection for him, and their Southern kindredship proved a building block. Meta recalls being drawn to Faulkner’s calm strength and strong masculinity. Both had been disappointed in marriage, though Meta sought her freedom after a brief union. Living in a hotel and facing dinner alone hardly suited Faulkner, especially not when a lovely young woman was within reach. Meta was used to catching men’s eyes — she had a slight figure, blonde hair, and pleasant features — but Faulkner’s appreciation was more than she’d ever known. Looking at her with wonder and worship, he pedestaled her. Night after night he asked for her company. As their dinner dates increased — their first outing was at one of Faulkner’s favorite haunts, Musso and Frank — it soon became a ritual for them to end their days together.
Faulkner poured on the Southern charm, presenting her one night with a single gardenia and stopping by a bookstore on another to buy a copy of his poetry collection. Without revealing his identity, he asked the store clerk if they had any other Faulkner books, only to be told no. If he was dashed when the clerk added that Faulkner didn’t sell well, he didn’t show it. He was nonetheless delighted to present the lovely edition of A Green Bough to Meta.
Their affair advanced rapidly. Faulkner was charged with sexual urgency and Meta found herself responding and discovering her own desire. Faulkner wrote her poems laced with sexual references and imagery. He could be ribald and shocking. He gave himself the sexual persona of Mr. Bowen, often signing his poems and letters as such, and casting Meta as Mrs. Bowen. (Some of these explicit letters and erotic drawings remain sealed until 2039 in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library.) He considered Meta his Hollywood salvation, assuring her that she had rescued him from loneliness and despair. His gratitude was profound.
Even as he relentlessly pursued Meta, Faulkner sent homesick letters to Estelle describing himself as an orphan in Hollywood. His letters were often tender and filled with details of their family rituals he missed. At one point, he suggested she meet him in New Orleans for a two-week vacation, though nothing came of it. Estelle might have wondered if he was dissembling.
At LaRue’s on Sunset Strip, Faulkner ordered an expensive bottle of wine. Meta realized it was quite a splurge just as she knew Faulkner’s Hollywood paycheck was the only thing keeping Rowan Oak and his family afloat. He revealed another painful, domestic secret: Estelle’s excessive drinking caused him great concern for Jill’s safety. Money woes and missing his daughter were never far from his mind.
Meta wasn’t without conflicts of her own. She was being diligently courted by Austrian pianist Wolfgang Rebner. He professed his love for Meta and hoped they would marry. Rebner, unlike Faulkner, shared Meta’s passion for music. Music could be a source of tension between Meta and Faulkner. He felt rebuffed by her deep immersion, and he openly admitted to Meta he couldn’t appreciate music. It was an odd assertion as Wasson credits Faulkner with introducing him to classical music. They would have music sessions in the home of another Oxford friend, Phil Stone. Faulkner and Wasson, both University of Mississippi college students in 1919, would relax at the Stone’s residence when the family was away. Faulkner felt comfortable letting himself in the house, appraising their library, and even lighting a fire as the two friends played Beethoven and other composers on the family’s Victrola. The pleasure Faulkner took in music as a young man escaped him now, even if it meant disappointing Meta.
Faulkner was content spending every available moment with Meta but she grew restless. A social person, she finally prodded Faulkner into meeting others. They started to enjoy outings with a friend of Meta’s from Memphis, Sally Richards, and her boyfriend, John Crown. (Crown was also a friend of Rebner’s.) Both John and Sally were classically trained pianists and deeply involved with the music scene. He pursued a concert career while she performed as a jazz musician for necessary income. They lived the uncertain life of artists, a common theme in Hollywood.
The foursome’s blossoming friendship took a new turn when Faulkner rented a bungalow at the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica. The Miramar already was a favorite getaway for Sally and John. This soon became the weekend outing of choice for both couples when it was within their means. Faulkner was rapturous about Meta’s coloring. He described her skin as a shade of white with ivory and alabaster. It was a sight he had never before seen and he discouraged any sunbathing. On the beach, he would hustle her under the cabana, and Meta kept her light color to please him.
Perhaps it was registering as Mr. and Mrs., or the more upscale accommodations than his hotel room, whatever the reason, Faulkner’s romantic impulses reached new heights when he covered the bungalow’s bed with gardenia and jasmine petals. Meta was completely enamored of his gesture and bewildered as to how he’d obtained and concealed the flowers. If this display pleased her, an earlier effort was less successful. One day he had presented her with a box containing a hair ribbon. Even as she wore it on occasion, she was uncomfortable with his odd idealization of her as a young girl, a fantasy he cultivated.
Despite his obvious delight in this whirlwind affair, Faulkner began drinking heavily during his last few days in Hollywood. Until this point, Faulkner’s drinking hadn’t been an issue for the couple. He had shown such remarkable restraint around Meta that it had angered her when she overheard a lunch conversation in the studio commissary between two people she didn’t know. One man quite loudly declared Faulkner an alcoholic who would mess things up with the script and Hawks. Worse, at the Studio Club, an actress and fellow resident warned her against Faulkner because of his drinking.
Upset but loyal, Meta brushed both incidents aside. She attributed this recent episode to his internal conflict. He was torn between his desire for home and his daughter and his reluctance to leave her. This was a difficult farewell for both of them. His parting gift was as uncharacteristic as the expensive wine or weekends at the Miramar, Faulkner gave her a full-length brocade evening coat. This coat would serve her well in the coming years when she lived in New York with Rebner, her second husband. Cold and broke, the coat not only kept her warm but also somewhat comforted.
In early January, Hawks temporarily released Faulkner, citing illness as the cause. It seemed the drinking that was underway when Faulkner attended the Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena and took the chartered bus back — barefoot, having lost his shoes in the stadium, and sleeping on the shoulder of Mrs. James Thurber — never settled down. Hawks and Meta saw him though a 10-day drinking episode until he could safely return to Oxford. Hawks also had intervened on Faulkner’s behalf with Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and movie producer Darryl Zanuck. The wording of Hawks’s release served as quite a favor. It would allow Faulkner to return on salary and resume his affair with Meta.
His fraught mental state accompanied him back to Mississippi. The love affair in Hollywood meant a double-life and secrets from Estelle. Meta would write him letters in care of Phil Stone, and although Stone disapproved, he would dutifully deliver. While visiting at a friend’s hunting camp outside of New Orleans, Faulkner left Absalom’s handwritten manuscript. His drinking now was beyond the family’s common ministrations — slowly reducing his liquor supply, cajoling him into drinking eggnog, and slipping him tea he thought was whisky — and Estelle for the first time sought professional help. It was not Wright’s Sanatorium in Byhalia, Mississippi, as previously thought. Wright’s would not exist for another 12 years, but was most likely the Gartly-Ramsay Hospital in Memphis. Faulkner’s Oxford physician would have been familiar with the Gartly-Ramsay, which opened in 1910 and was the only psychiatric hospital in Memphis at the time. Presumably, as was the future pattern, his physician would have assisted with a referral.
Days later, home again, he returned to his novel — faithfully retrieved from Louisiana. Absalom, Absalom! had been the one consistent thread through his sorrow and displacement; and yet, by the end of January, he had finished the heartbreaking work and officially noted it on the last page, “31 Jany 1936.”
There was little rest after the troublesome and tide-turning January (the 1936 hospital stay would be the first of many). Faulkner was back in Hollywood the next month for work on Banjo on My Knee and Gunga Din. This time he lodged at the tranquil Beverly Hills Hotel. Though he was still very much involved with Meta, he showed little discretion with his conduct. Unflattering stories circulated. After a wild boar hunting trip with West, Faulkner entered the lobby of his quiet hotel in great disarray. Dirty and unkempt from crawling through the brush on Santa Cruz Island, Faulkner walked through the lobby in hunting clothes carrying a deer rifle. That spectacle would have been alarming enough, but in his absence during the hunting trip, the Beverly Hills Hotel had been robbed and most in the lobby believed the wild looking man with the rifle was the criminal back for seconds. Reports of such antics along with his unpredictable nature — curt and prickly or hospitable and charming — damaged his reputation. Studios sensed he was unreliable, and future contracts would be more difficult to land and less generous.
Four months later, he was at Rowan Oak in time to see Absalom’s production process through. The hard-fought manuscript now had to be typed and revised. There were editors in New York to appease who struggled with the book’s complexity and knotty Southernisms. The anticipated reunion with his family, including he and Estelle’s June 20 wedding anniversary, was tarnished by a domestic brouhaha. News of the upheaval reached Meta in Hollywood through a friend brandishing a Time magazine.
Faulkner had placed an ad in The [Memphis] Commercial Appeal and The Oxford Eagle (June 22, 1936) that he would not be responsible for his wife’s debts, bills, notes, or checks. It was such a curiosity that Time magazine carried a short article about it. Faulkner had threatened such an action but Meta believed he would think better of it, given the damage it would do to the Faulkner and Oldham family names. His homecoming tirade included removing the purchased radio — a forbidden source of entertainment at Rowan Oak — and the new sofa and other pieces from the sparsely furnished home. As Meta correctly anticipated, Estelle’s father, Major Lemuel Oldham, was furious. Faulkner met with him as requested in Oldham’s Oxford office overlooking the town square. There, also as predicted, Oldham unleashed his anger and proceeded to upbraid his son-in-law.
By all appearances, Faulkner and Estelle, working harmoniously on their daughter’s party, had picked up the pieces in time for Jill’s third birthday on June 24. They then settled on a new Hollywood arrangement. Estelle and Jill, along with domestic help, would accompany him back to Hollywood in July. It was a bold move as he intended to keep his affair with Meta active. The family rented a two-story house — only a half-mile downhill walk to the ocean — in Pacific Palisades north of Santa Monica. Faulkner enjoyed taking Jill to the beach and Estelle appreciated a more active social life. Clark Gable would stop by for drinks, and they had dinners with some of Faulkner’s fellow scriptwriters and their wives. Estelle, attired in a gown, sometimes played the piano for guests.
The good times ushered in by the change in locale didn’t last long. Estelle’s drinking problems were also very pronounced, and the dysfunction of the couple resulted in eruptions and embarrassing displays. It wasn’t long before Estelle detected the transparent arrangement between her husband and Meta. Epic fights ensued, one involving Estelle wielding a croquet mallet — another time Faulkner’s face was badly scratched.
When he received a dinner invitation to the Faulkner home not long after Estelle’s arrival, Wasson naturally accepted. It was then Faulkner convinced him to bring Meta to dinner with him. She was to pose as Wasson’s girlfriend. Faulkner’s motive in this charade was a mystery, unless it was to assure Estelle that Meta was a mere studio acquaintance. Meta’s youth stood in stark contrast to Estelle, whose pale, thin appearance at 40 years confirmed her trials — a dismal marriage, a lost child, and a battle with alcohol. The group conversed pleasantly enough but the dinner was an excruciating exercise in subterfuge. Estelle had a reputation for being a charming and gracious hostess but this meal taxed even her inordinate skills. With more maturity, Meta recognized her participation as an unthinkable intrusion. Wasson felt terrible about his role in trying to deceive Estelle, and worse when she finished with him. He woke early the next day to a livid phone call. She berated him for his complicity in flinging Faulkner’s mistress in her face; and added, before slamming down the receiver, some final stinging words — how could he after all the years she had treated him as a member of the family?
Estelle insisted Faulkner end it with Meta. She hadn’t uprooted her family and traveled across the country to Hollywood only to be displaced by a script girl.
Lisa C. Hickman holds her PhD in Southern literature from the University of Mississippi. She is the author of William Faulkner and Joan Williams: The Romance of Two Writers and is currently at work on Between Grief and Nothing: Faulkner’s Later Years, from which this essay is excerpted.