- Review Essay:“A Fine Romance”
Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald met for the first time in person in March 1971. Both were visiting New York City on literary business, and Ross Macdonald, the pen name of Kenneth Millar (1915–1983), waiting in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel (a more hackneyed private detective ploy than his alter ego in the Lew Archer series of novels would ever have tried), introduced himself when Welty reached the elevator. “It went up without her”—as Macdonald might have coolly and tersely ended that scene had he written it. They went out for a walk in Manhattan and dinner with his publisher, Alfred Knopf. It was, for both of them, a memorable time of personal companionship they were seldom to share again.
It must have been momentous for such a shy and withheld man as Millar to introduce himself, but he had written a “fan letter” expressing his admiration for Welty’s 1970 novel Losing Battles, and she had written a laudatory review of Macdonald’s most recent novel in the Lew Archer series, The Underground Man (the sixteenth in a series that began in 1949). It had appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR) on Valentine’s Day, 1971. Welty’s review punctuated the growing literary recognition of the Lew Archer series. Macdonald’s champions were collaborating to promote him as the legitimate successor to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler; it was no lucky accident that novelist and screen-writer William Goldman was chosen to write the NYTBR cover page review of the previous Macdonald novel, The Goodbye Look, published on 1 June 1970 (see Nolan 282–89). There was a plot to make the 1970s the apex of Macdonald’s long writing career, and Eudora Welty must have appeared as the presiding and affirming goddess of his decade of ascendancy.
And yet their meeting in New York, one meeting in Jackson, Mississippi, during the flurry of celebration of Welty in her hometown in 1973, three meetings at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference (five-day programs in 1975, 1976, 1977), and one visit by Welty to Santa Barbara in 1982 when [End Page 123] Millar’s Alzheimer’s condition was so advanced that it was not certain (except to Welty) that he even recognized her, sum up the number of days or hours they were in each other’s physical company. Less than a month of partial days over the span of their correspondence: 1970–1982.
Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan ask, “Was there an epistolary romance of literary masters in the twentieth century more discrete, intense, heartfelt, and moving than the one between Eudora Welty and Kenneth Millar…?” (x). The editors don’t add “chaste” to the column of adjectives, stressing the “epistolary” qualifier of “romance.” This was, in the words of the song, “a fine romance with no kisses.”1 One of the best chances the two correspondents had to consummate their romance physically (if, indeed, that was ever either’s intention), was in December 1974 when both were in New York at the same time staying on different floors of the Algonquin Hotel. Neither knew the other was so close until they were, respectively, back in Jackson and Santa Barbara (229–30). For two writers so intimately convinced of the ordained “confluence” of their relationship, this instance of missed convergence must have sent an ambiguous message.
Epistolary time and distance (with the exception of a few telegrams and telephone calls mentioned in their letters, their relationship depended on the United States Post Office) seem to have suited Welty and Millar better than physical propinquity. First, Millar was married. He had married Margaret Sturm in 1938 when both were shiny new college graduates, but their marriage (the editors indicate in italicized asides) was not the happiest. Indeed, Margaret Millar lurks as the evil vizier in this romance of “literary masters”: she develops physical ailments that often prevent her husband from traveling; she keeps such a...