Introducing Cason v Baskin: Florida’s Most Fascinating Lawsuit
“Object to the question; a written instrument is its own best evidence as to what she meant or intended. If she uses words she is presumed to intend a reasonable meaning of those words, and to vary the terms of that description by her own testimony would not be proper.” - Kate Walton, June 1, 1946
After writing literally millions of words in preparation and litigation of Cason v. Baskin, that paragraph in a court transcript, spoken without ums or tangents or ellipses, contains the only 50 words my Great Aunt Kate Walton ever got to speak to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Baskin during Marjorie’s testimony at the Cross Creek invasion of privacy trial. Kate Walton was a woman after all, and this was 1946. Even in a case brought, prepared, and bled for on both sides largely by women, concerning in no small part what it meant to be a woman, a lady lawyer in Florida could question only ladies, and then, as Marjorie’s testimony shows, only when they were incidental to the case.
Four years earlier, in 1942, Marjorie had followed up her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Yearling with Cross Creek, a best-selling, pseudo-autobiographical collection of portraits of life in the rural central Florida neighborhood associated with Orange Lake and Lochloosa and the marshy creek that connects them. Marjorie wrote about her actual neighbors, friends, and acquaintances, using their real names.
One of them, Zelma Cason, objected to her portrayal in a chapter dubbed “The Census.” She particularly resented this passage:
“Zelma is an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary. She manages her orange grove and as much of the village an country as needs management or will submit to it. I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother. She combines the more violent characteristics of both and those who ask for or accept her manifold ministrations think nothing of being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed or guided though their troubles.”
“You have made a hussy out of me,” Zelma is said to have told Marjorie after publication. And she decided to sue.
At the time Marjorie published Cross Creek, Kate Lee Walton was a 29-year-old lawyer working in the well-known firm of her father, my great-grandfather, Judge Vertrees (J.V.) Walton, in my hometown of Palatka. Dr. T.Z. Cason, Zelma’s brother, was her physician – or at least treated her from time to time. Zelma apparently sought out Aunt Katie. And Aunt Katie took up Zelma’s case, alleging libel, and the more novel, and ultimately more successful tort – invasion of privacy.
Distilled to its essence, the invasion of privacy doctrine meant that Marjorie did not have the right to publish a description of Zelma Cason, who was not a public figure, without her permission. The implications of that concept for publishing, not to mention journalism, are, and were, obvious.
After nearly four years of pleadings, many of which contain marvelously written, bravura arguments about the very nature of American democracy and law, Marjorie found herself inside the ceremonial courtroom of the ornate old Gainesville courthouse, testifying in the 1946 trial before a huge crowd of press, gawkers, and the neighbors she’d used for material.
Fairly early in her two-day testimony, Marjorie’s exceedingly honorable lawyer and loyal friend Phil May asked her how she chose the handful of sentences that created the entity she dubbed “My friend Zelma.”
“I ask you to turn to Chapter 5, to the characterization that you say was written in 1941, and interpret it as it was written in your mind and heart.”
And that’s when Aunt Katie called bullshit, as noted above.
The judge overruled the objection and let Marjorie interpret away the literary bones she used to construct Zelma Cason for amusement of audiences in New York and combat theater of World War II. But Aunt Katie’s moral meaning reverberates out of the legal: If you own people enough to define them for money, then own everything else. Own what you write. Own what you do. The money, the fame, the satisfaction, the consequences. Don’t qualify it away. Who owns Cross Creek? Marjorie asked in the final chapter and paragraph of the book and answered like this: The redbirds, I think, more than I, for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages. You think? What an act of modesty. The fact that Marjorie felt entitled to ask such a question and adjudicate it in favor of redbirds, rather than her neighbors, suggests more about her notion of ownership than the actual words she used.
No individual in a society of governed by law gets to act with the impunity of ownership over another, and a deed is a deed, subject to its consequences. I think those principles lie at the heart of Aunt Katie’s willingness to take this difficult-to-prove case and pursue it zealously. They serve as the backdrop to the many other great American dischordances that that prmeate Cason v Baskin, both within the legal realm and without.
In the end, the case became a bloody stalemate. The jury of Marjorie’s peers – there’s no other way to put this – laughed Zelma and Aunt Katie and J.V. out of court. It took them 28 minutes to find for Marjorie. But the Florida Supreme Court overturned the verdict in 1947, finding that Zelma – and Aunt Katie, who wrote the appellate briefs – had both established that a right of privacy exists in Florida and proved that Marjorie invaded Zelma’s privacy in Cross Creek.
However, the justices also limited damages to $1 plus attorneys fees, finding that Zelma had been wronged, but not harmed. From my vantage point decades later, that Solomonic decision looks awfully wise.
It’s clear, as I’ll document later, that both sides felt they had lost. But it’s hard for me as an American, native north Floridian, creative writing major, longtime – but now former – Florida newspaper reporter, son of a lawyer, and most importantly, adoring grand nephew, to feel anything but pride and fascination as I read about this case and the characters than animate it.
In 1987, a law professor named Patricia Nassif Acton, who now works at the University of Iowa, wrote a very useful history of the trial she eventually called “Invasion of Privacy: The Cross Creek Trial of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.” In researching the book, she interviewed my father, Bill Townsend, and Aunt Katie’s living sisters: the late Sophie Gibson, and my grandmother Lois Townsend, who died Aug. 8, 2009, at the age of 90. Kate Walton died in 1985, but it wouldn’t have mattered. She wouldn’t have talked about the case to Ms. Acton anyway. Privacy had real meaning for Aunt Katie, for better and worse, as we’ll discuss.
I think that I first learned about the case after Aunt Katie’s death, while Ms. Acton was researching the book. However, it’s also possible that I heard about it when the movie “Cross Creek” came out in 1983. I don’t remember. I was a middle schooler at the time, more interested in baseball and hiding from girls.
In any event, I’m grateful to Ms. Acton for her well-written account of the case and particularly her narrative of the legal concepts and procedures that drove it. I’m going to refer to Invasion of Privacy often as I move along. But I’m not interested in duplicating it.
At first, as I became more and more intrigued by what I did and didn’t know about the Cross Creek case, I imagined recreating it from what I could muster of Aunt Katie’s point-of-view. I’d act as a kind of literary kangaroo court. But as I continued to read and research, I found the themes that kept emerging far transcended the case itself. Given the necessarily narrow focus of Ms. Acton’s book, she wasn’t really able to explore how Cason v Baskin slogs through so many of the points of contention that have animated the American – and the Floridian – experience. That’s what I want to do. I’d like to write my own book, but I’ll admit to problems in figuring out how to structure it. The blog format, with its variable lengths, interaction, and organizational capacity, suits me well. What you’ll be reading, in a sense, is my note-taking and research as it unfolds, the process by which I collect and hone my thoughts.
I have no particular order or outline in mind. I’m just going to write my impressions as they occur to me. But there are a handful of broad categories that demand attention in my idiosyncratic reading of the case and its characters. Here are a few:
Race: No major figure in the case is black. Yet, the “Negro question,” as Marjorie often referred to it, the twilight world of extra legal status in which black men and women toiled before the civil rights movement, informs nearly every aspect of the case and the experiences that led to it. In fact, easily the best, most honest, chapter in Cross Creek, called “Black Shadows,” concerns precisely this status and Marjorie’s ambivalence in confronting it. J.V. Walton and Marjorie engaged in a stirring bout of courtroom jousting over Marjorie’s account in that chapter of her behavior toward two black tenants.
The Battle for Palatka: In the first nine months of 1926, the Ku Klux Klan or its sympathizers carried out more than 60 documented extra-legal floggings in Putnam County, of which Palatka is the county seat. At least two black men, identified as Willie Steen and Ed Chisholm, died from injuries suffered at the hands of mobs. J.V. Walton, successful young lawyer and father of four pre-teen girls, including Kate Walton, led the resistance to this reign of terror and stopped it – or so family folklore holds. My preliminary research into this supports the folklore, and even embellishes it. I’m pretty convinced that you can’t understand Aunt Katie’s role in this case – and J.V.’s – without understanding the fight with the Klan.
Womanhood: Go back and read what Marjorie wrote about Zelma. Man or a mother. Ouch. I suspect that stung in 1942 much more than it would today. It seems obvious to me that Marjorie’s questioning of Zelma’s womanhood lies at the heart of Zelma’s anger. And it is a simple matter of fact that the key female characters in this story were all college-educated, professional, childless women. The Cross Creek Trial previews the exploding influence of professional and working women on our economy and culture, which I think is the most far-reaching social transformation of the 20th century – more influential even than civil rights. You can see it coming in the Cross Creek trial.
Writing, Journalism, and Truth: The people who wrote, marketed, and studied Cross Creek often differed in what to call it – novel, non-fiction, journalism, memoir, autobiography. There are many conflicting references, which I’ll try to document. The fact that even supporters of Marjorie struggled to characterize Cross Creek, a book describing real people, foreshadows the case, I think.
For me, Cross Creek clearly presents itself as non-fiction, a type of journalism. In that sense, it fails. Now that I’ve read Marjorie’s letters to her husband, Norton Baskin, I can say without hesitation that Cross Creek is a deeply dishonest book. Its narrator and lead character, Marjorie Rawlings, bears only passing resemblance to the real Marjorie Rawlings. The Marjorie of her letters is a far more compelling person – funny, neurotic, fearful of many things, moody, guilt-ridden, insightful, gutsy, driven by conscience, depressed, very physically unhealthy, and often resentful of her neighbors in the milieu she described, and from which she profited.
My creative writing professor in college once told us, “To write is to sit in judgment on yourself.” Marjorie does that fiercely in her letters. She doesn’t in Cross Creek. It makes the effect of everything else she writes in that book suspect.
We live in an age where longstanding conventions of journalism and professional writing are crumbling, undermined by technology and funding-model changes. In that sense, the Cross Creek trial, while fought over an insult that seems quaint compared to any comment string on a modern webnews story, anticipates many of the cultural fights surrounding journalism, law and writing going on today.
Aunt Katie and me: From the time I was about five, roughly 1976, until my family moved to Tallahassee in the summer of 1979, I spent nearly every Saturday morning with Aunt Katie – driving a golf cart around her property on the St. Johns River, cane pole fishing off her dock, listening to her read poetry, watching her smoke cigars. My wife and I had our wedding party in front of her simple cracker house on the river, now owned by a younger aunt. My kids all caught their first fish off the same dock where she and I sat together. Her death was my first real experience with grief. Anyone reading this should know my loyalties lie with her, even though I never really knew the person who sued Marjorie Rawlings. I intend to meld the ambitious 30-something lawyer who wrote and argued the case with such professional intensity with “Katie the Wonderful,” as my grandmother called her, the irresistibly eccentric aunt whose love dominates my childhood memories. I want my children and eventual grandchildren to know her. And frankly, though such a wish is well beyond my power, I want the wider world to remember her. However, I’m also aware that Aunt Katie probably wouldn’t approve of such a project, particularly that last part. As Ms. Acton and subsequent literary suitors found, my extended family always felt great ambivalence in talking about the trial, not wanting to offend Aunt Katie’s wishes. Now, with my grandmother’s passing, no one from Aunt Katie’s generation is left. And I’m going to take my chances, fully aware that I may have to answer to her one day.
So, there you have it, what I’m up to. I hope this exercise will entertain people in its own right, just because it’s a great story, whether one knows anything about Marjorie Rawlings, Aunt Katie, Zelma Cason, or anybody else. But I also hope that Marjorie’s legions of fans will engage me, along with people who know and love Cross Creek and Florida. I hope my family will share Aunt Katie stories that I don’t know, safe in the knowledge that I’ll take the blame for invading her privacy.
Whatever your angle or interest, I hope you’ll comment and argue and point me toward more and better sources. Tell me when I get things wrong. More than anything else, I hope to resurrect this trial to the cultural and historical importance I think it deserves. Help me out. Or just enjoy learning about this unique moment in Florida history, when people of great substance and ability clashed over the power of language and the sanctity of the individual.