The Widow Faulkner

In 1970, Glen Moore was traveling with the Paul Winter Consort, and with a few days off, Paul and Glen stopped in Charlottesville, Virginia, estate of William Faulkner, Paul invited by late author’s daughter to ride in a fox hunt.

While Paul donned pink jacket and top hat, like Faulkner before his last fall, Glen chatted with widow Faulkner in the big house never really her own.

Grandkids just shoved her out of way, he remembers; you can imagine, young teens, impatient, Estelle a closet alcoholic. Oh Gramma, get out of the way! they’d say, but Glen understood.

Imagine this beautiful southern girl in little Oxford Mississippi, before World War I, he says. Her father ambassador to China, spoke a little Mandarin who wouldn’t be attracted?

Do you have any LSD? Estelle asked him.

And I would have given it, too, says Glen, if I’d had any, if time to stay.

So this is the story she might have told, if he’d had the time.

Once Estelle Oldham at University in Oxford, 1917, courted by Faulkner, high-school drop-out, short, skinny, bookkeeper in grandfather’s bank. Said she’d elope even though engaged to lawyer Franklin, but Faulkner said, Not without your father’s consent, and let Estelle marry while he, rejected by Army and dad, lied his way in Canadian Air Force, then returned in uniform, too late.

And so started writing

… about magical and terrible Mississippi, mythical South of guns, dogs, horses, and humans in frenzy of blood and destruction, hunter and hunted, black men, lynch mobs, foxes ridden down and bludgeoned with boot and fist by men on vicious horses Horses, dogs, guns; race, gender, class: the wounds at the heart of our history.

Ten years later Estelle divorced the lawyer, married Bill and moved to house in Oxford where they’d live 30 years, though Bill’d often escape to the woods while Estelle drank alone.

The first child died soon after birth. Estelle drank alone, Bill in Hollywood writing for movies and meeting mistresses. Then won Nobel Prize in ’49 even more drink, women, abandoned novelist’s rigor while Estelle drank alone, and her story became the story of Bill’s life.

drank alone in a home never really her own.

On walls behind his desk, Faulkner hand-lettered outline of novel, A Fable. Twice he did it, they say. The first Estelle had painted over, but Bill used photos to reconstruct the outline, then shellack to preserve against her forever.

And in the library, the wooden shell of a phonograph serves as end table. Faulkner would allow no radio or records in the house, so when Estelle bought one, he ripped out the mechanism and there it sat, with a coaster for Estelle’s glass.

No music but sounds of horses, dogs, guns in Mississippi of gentlemen, blacks and clayeaters.

Clayeaters, black grooms called them, white men on mules eyeing blooded horses in steam-heated stables.

Clayeaters, black grooms called them in Bill’s story, Fox Hunt.

That’s one thing about gentlemen you won’t never know, they say to white men in overalls who’d poison a fox but never ride to hunt, catch it at night instead with possum dog and axe.

That’s something else you won’t never know, how gentlemen hunt, black grooms said, leading thoroughbreds rich men whip across ridges, jump ditches, briar patches, drink all night then ride them to death on mad quest to lay waste wilderness though no satisfaction from it; imperious rich whose barns clayeating Snopses will burn, Snopses who, in Faulkner Mississippi, carry grudges for generations then finally hold mortgages, sell rich men’s land to timber companies laying railroad all over it Snopses like Bill’s family’d once been, like Bill, who wrote terrible stories of men who set the order and rule of the South, the poor they abused, all ruined together, in the South of his mind.

While around Estelle the world was changing.

Bill was traveling to Egypt, Japan, ambassador of sorts like her father, enmeshed in Mississippi fight for Civil Rights: Emmet Till murdered in 1955, in ’62, James Meredith would demand entry to Ole Miss, the president would send federal troops to the campus where he courted Estelle.

No middle ground, should have known. Look at hatred in newscasts, dogs and white cops, jeering faces, no middle ground, he’d written it over and over .

Race, gender and class. Clayeaters, blacks and the men who set the order and rule of life in Bill’s books. The women whose money they spent, left at home to drink, rich women and women of blacks and clayeaters on whom they fathered illegitimate kids until Snopses struck back, like old Wash Jones after he’d killed the Colonel, rushed with scythe lifted at rich men on horseback, rushed against wild glaring eyes of horses and swinging glints of guns.

Oxford didn’t like his politics, so Bill joined upper class Virginia as writer in residence at University in Charlottesville, bought stables and estate where Glen visited, where Estelle drank and Bill rode with the rich, whiskey dreams at 60, invited to join the Hunt Club, posed proudly in pink coat and top hat, then kept falling off.

March 59, broke collarbone in pink coat ritual — riding and falling for two years, pink jacket, top hat, member of the hunt club at last.

Fell in January’62, then fell again, broke collarbone in June, hospital a week later, died there of a heart attack, age 64 of drink and falls from horses too big for him. Died far from Mississippi, but just like his books.

Estelle kept drinking in the house never really her own, bullied by grandkids, William Faulkner’s grandkids, William Faulkner’s house telling a story in which the main character had long ago ceased to be Estelle.