Remember the days?
by James F. Leiner
131 South Broadway
I wonder how many people who pass the lovely home at 131 South Broadway notice the brown metal historic marker in the front yard. Partially hidden by shrubbery, the marker details the house’s history as the longtime home of one of America’s iconic writers. Carson McCullers lived in the house from 1945 until her untimely passing in 1967. During that time, she gained national recognition when her novel “Member of the Wedding” was adapted to the stage and opened on Broadway in 1950 with Ethel Waters, Julie Harris and a 7 year-old Brandon DeWilde. The play ran for 501 performances; the book was made into a movie in 1952 with the principal actors reprising their roles.
After McCullers died, the 6,000 square-foot house was purchased in 1968 by her long time personal physician and close friend, Dr. Mary E. Mercer. Mercer told the ‘New York Times’ in a 2000 interview she didn’t want to walk by and “discover the hedges cut down and the house painted purple.” Dr. Mercer treated the home as a shrine to McCullers, telling the ‘Times’ she would only rent the home’s five apartments to artists who were able to answer her questions about the author and which of her books they had read. She had the house added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. Ownership of the house changed again when Dr. Mercer died in April, 2013 at the age of 101. In her estate she bequeathed McCullers’ home to Columbus State University’s Carson McCullers Center.
McCullers, was born Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917 in Columbus, Georgia. She dropped the name Lula in 1930 and wed Reeves McCullers in September, 1937.
In addition to the house, where McCullers wrote the body of her work, Dr. Mercer’s estate includes an endowment for operating expenses and the development of a writer-in-residence program. Also included are more than 10,000 pages of McCullers’ personal documents, artifacts, artwork and even furniture.
Among the artifacts are McCullers’ art collection, her book and record album collection, various papers, letters and photographs, furniture, including the sofa where a very ill McCullers wrote her last novel, “Clock Without Hands.” Also the marble table where she lunched with such visitors as Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Julie Harris, Helen Hayes, Edward Albee, Isak Dinesen, Henry Varnum Poor, Horton Foote, Bessie Breuer, George Davis and Lotte Lenya.
The collection also includes the book McCullers was reading when she suffered a fatal stroke, recordings McCullers made with Tennessee Williams during a lecture series they presented in 1954, and paintings by Henry Varnum Poor, who was a friend of McCullers.
Columbus State’s Schwob Memorial Library is managing the new McCullers papers, books and related artifacts. With the addition of the Mercer bequest, Columbus State’s McCullers collection is now believed to be the nation’s largest, surpassing in size that of Duke University and the University of Texas.
The collection is very complete as McCullers knew everybody; all the playwrights. Dr. Mercer was meticulous and kept very detailed notes. Things like letters, press clippings, telephone messages, correspondences with lawyers and attorneys about royalties, she kept everything, wrote Archives Assistant Tom Converse of CSU.
The Nyack home will be operated by CSU’s Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, which is located in the author’s childhood home at 1519 Stark Avenue in Columbus, Georgia. The university’s Assistant Professor of English, Dr. Courtney George, is the director. She recently wrote to say the acquisition moves CSU into the next level of research libraries and the home’s proximity—24 miles from New York City—will offer students a thrilling opportunity to study in a great American city and stay in a famous American author’s home. The library intends to use the house for lodging for ‘study away’ programs in the NYC area, much like CSU’s house in Oxford England.
My thanks to CSU’s Tim Turner, John Lester and Prof. Courtney George for their information for the column.
I count myself among the legions of devoted Carson McCullers fans and with the warm summer days upon us, I think I’ll find a copy of my favorite book by McCullers; have to see if Miss Amelia Evans fares any better in another reading of The Ballad of the Sad Café.
The Nyack Villager thanks Jim Leiner for helping us all ‘Remember the Days .’