Archive for January 2010

Jan192010

Chapter 1, Scene 2

Under oath and pain of perjury, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Baskin was about to explain and defend the intentions and quality of her work as a ruthlessly talented chronicler of the rural Florida neighborhoods she’d called home for two decades.

No other major American writer of 20th century ever endured such a thing.

So you’ll have to forgive Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Yearling” and “Cross Creek” for disappointing the cracker fashionistas by taking the stand wearing a dress she’d already worn to court at least once that week. This was no time for airs.

But Marjorie’s friends and intimates might have caught a whiff of affect from the mistress and hostess who loved nothing better than to elegantly entertain the powerful and learned at the ably-staffed gourmet table of the backwoods bed and breakfast that doubled as her home.

“She loved hostess gowns, and she had many lovely ones to wear when she invited her higher friends,” wrote Idella Parker, Marjorie’s longtime servant. “These were long flowing gowns, and they often seemed out of place for the occasion. When she went off to give talks or travel, she wore tailored two-piece suits, usually topped by a little pillbox hat.”

One can assume that Marjorie envisioned no higher friends on the jury of six men that now mattered more to her life and career than anyone else. So she went with what worked. Marjorie had always been both a gun-toting, heavy-drinking, orange-picking, dog-cusser and an arch, literate, gourmet, depending on her audience.

Having a newspaper reporter describe her as “outdoorsy” was no insult. Marjorie was a fleshy woman, a rather physically imposing collection of breasts and curves signaling an unrealized fertility and her embrace of appetites. Her cloudy blue eyes glinted prettily. And the tight curls of her thick black hair allowed her not to care how it fell because it always looked casually sensual, even moreso when dappled by the sweat of a Florida July.

Or so I can gather from blurry black and white photos, Marjorie’s letters, and Idella Parker’s memoir.

They all suggest an unconventional attractiveness, more alluring than one might otherwise assume for a woman who “usually weighed about 180 pounds,” as Parker wrote. In truth, 180 seems high to me, perhaps a bit of cool, loving vengeance from a much-loved and much-ordered-around fellow woman, who was quite striking in her own right.

Why, you may ask, am I wasting time with this offensively narrow sexualized description of Marjorie’s looks when what mattered to posterity was her talent with words and her unusual role in American literary and legal history?

Because a narrow, sexualized description from “Cross Creek,” Marjorie’s famed account of cracker culture in north Florida, set the all of it in motion and brought Kate and J.V. Walton to the heart of a lawsuit and trial unlike any other in American history.

To understand the motivations of people involved, it helps to imagine how Marjorie might have rendered her own appearance and femininity had she turned on herself the fiercely held godly power to create characters from her actual neighbors, friends, and acquaintances, using their real names.

One of those neighbors was Zelma Cason, a one-time census taker and longtime presence in Cross Creek, a shorthand name for a north central Florida collection of hamlets associated with Orange Lake and Lochloosa and the marshy creek that connects them. It’s about 30 miles west of Palatka, about halfway to Gainesville.

When Marjorie and her then husband Charles Rawlings took a boat to Jacksonville in 1929 for their first extended stay in north Florida, Zelma, at the behest of Charles’ mother, met them at the dock. She was Marjorie’s longest-standing Creek acquaintance. She quickly became Marjorie’s friend and in 1930 took her along for a census-taking ride through the Cross Creek backwoods. Marjorie’s evocative account of that ride is chapter 5 of “Cross Creek” – and one of the book’s artistic highlights.

But by the time Marjorie published the book in 1942, as the follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning classic “The Yearling,” she and Zelma had fallen out – apparently due to a fraught triangle involving another Creek woman, Dessie Smith.

Marjorie never sought or received Zelma’s approval to write about her. And the famously prickly Zelma did not cotton to what she read in “Cross Creek”. 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 and 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.

Enter Kate Walton. When Zelma approached her in 1942, Kate Walton was a 29-year-old associate in J.V’s prominent firm. Dr. T.Z. Cason, Zelma’s brother, was Kate’s 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.

Most people who know anything about the case, within my family and without, agree that J.V. had no interest in indulging Zelma’s pique and pursuing a traditional libel action over a description that most people would testify to as accurate, as far as it went, and focused on appearance and personality rather than disprovable actions.

But J.V. allowed his daughter to pursue the invasion of privacy angle on her own, and Kate tore into the case with a partisan zealotry that would become a personal trademark.

Kate Walton wasn’t the first woman to practice law in the state of Florida. For that matter, she wasn’t even the first woman to practice in the Walton firm. A woman named Margaret M. Collins lays claim to that peculiar footnote.

But by 1946, the unmarried Kate Walton had run up a record of unparalleled audacity and legal confrontation for a Floridian woman of her times. Her four-year onslaught of pleadings and oral arguments at the local circuit and Florida Supreme Court had succeeded, much to the incredulity of Marjorie and her defense team, in forcing the great woman to trial.

Distilled to its essence, the invasion of privacy doctrine meant that Marjorie did not have the right to publish a description – flattering or otherwise — 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.

With the success of The Yearling and Cross Creek, there’s little question Marjorie was Florida’s leading popular artist and writer in 1946.

When Marjorie raised her incongruously tiny right hand to swear the oath of truthfulness in an ornate Gainesville courtroom, she did so as the state’s most potent human marketing force, the embodiment of the peculiar pioneer appeal Florida has maintained for decades. Kate and Zelma were challenging arguably Florida’s most prominent citizen, who had the financial resources to fight back and widespread public goodwill to support her – and not just in Florida.

The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, in a 1943 editorial titled “Mammon in Cross Creek,” declared:

“The $100,000 defamation suit filed the other day against Mrs. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings by one of the characters in the Florida author’s book, “Cross Creek,” amounts to a personal tragedy for thousands of Mrs. Rawlings’ readers.

“In “Cross Creek,” Mrs. Rawlings offered every urban dweller with a speck of imagination the perfect means of escape from the hurly burly, the financial worries and the artificiality of the modern big city. In this account of her life as a transplanted resident of the hammock section of north central Florida the author invited us in beautiful prose to cast off the bonds of urban routine and come live among the kindly, simple people of the backwoods.”

In rummaging through various transcripts, depositions, and letters of support for Zelma in what’s left of the Walton case file, I came across a small manila envelope containing five immaculately creased and folded copies of Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union state news pages from March 4, 1945. That date marked Florida’s centennial as a state.

There’s nothing about the case in that edition. But Marjorie shows up twice, as the star of unrelated stories that ran statewide.

The first story, a wire dispatch headlined “Movement to Honor Negro Teacher Starts,” noted Marjorie gave the keynote speech at an event honoring Mary McLeod Bethune and calling for a nationwide day of honor for the famous educator.

A separate story, describing some Florida centennial festivities, reported that Marjorie provided a “special message” printed in the Congressional Record in honor of Florida’s big day. The state contains “such an array of garden flowers and of garden vegetables as to make one wonder why the Capitol of the United States was not placed in the Floridian eden instead of Washington, D.C.,” wrote Marjorie, according to the news story. “And the climate, take the lies of California, and in Florida, they are truth.”

Accordingly, when Circuit Judge John Murphree beckoned Marjorie to sit in the witness stand, she turned to face a courtroom gallery filled to overflowing with gawkers, reporters, and no small handful of actual “Cross Creek” characters. And she faced the Waltons. Only this time

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.”

Kate Walton, the 33-year-old lawyer for the plaintiff, called bullshit.

“Object to the question,” she said, presumably rising before the court. “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.”

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 Kate Walton ever got to 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 operating in front of an all-male Florida jury dared question only ladies deemed incidental to the case.

Indeed, the newspaper writers that swarmed Gainesville for the trial hardly noticed Kate Walton at all. Wrote Stephen Trumbull of the Miami Herald:

“Some of the principal characters in the legal battle are as colorful as are those of whom they argue. Both J.V. Walton of Palatka, who is the leading ball carrier for Miss Cason and Phillip May of Jacksonville, head of the defense staff, are small fellows physically but not mentally.

“Walton’s mannerisms are as back country as a dish of collard greens, grits, and side meat. But so have been the mannerisms of some very smart attorneys – the great Clarence Darrow among them…

“Walton’s associates are his daughter Kate, a law graduate from Florida, and A.E. Clayton, of Gainesville.

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. When it came time for cross examination, J.V. Walton, who never wanted to take the case, carried it out while Kate watched quietly.

But Kate Walton’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. 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.

A deed is a deed, subject to its consequences , no individual in a society of governed by law gets to act with the impunity of ownership over another. Not even a species of god.

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 and argued them – 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.

Both sides thought they lost.

Jan192010

Chapter 1, Scene 1

This the first draft of the first section of the first chapter of my book. I envision three sections to the first chapter, which will set up the parallel narratives of the trial and Battle of Palatka. Here we go.

The drinking mob made a racket as it surged down North Third Street toward the swamp and the river. Bloodhounds bayed. Men shouted. Lanterns swayed back and forth on their metal handles, creaking and clanking as they moved past increasingly neglected carriage steps that lined the brick street in one of 1926 Palatka’s most affluent neighborhoods.

The lights were out in the Brown House, the two-story, dark-shingled Walton family home. Its silhouette commanded the large swampy lot at the northern end of Third Street, a few hundred yards from the St. Johns River.

The approaching commotion roused Judge Vertrees (J.V.) Walton from uneasy sleep. From the bay window of his second-floor bedroom, which looked south, J.V. could see the lights and the outlines of the men approaching in the dark.

So, this was it. Minton and the Ku Kluxers, or their minions, or some combination, were coming. Time to make his long-imagined stand. In truth, the moment suited the apocalyptic streak of his personality, long frustrated in its longing to go to war.

By now, his wife Sophie was up. As J.V. calmly, but quickly, opened the gun cabinet by his bed, he sent Sophie to rouse their four girls and take them at the bottom of curved staircase on the western side of the house. J.V. took one loaded shotgun and leaned it against the ledge of the window. He took another and held it across his chest, left hand under the barrel. The Brown House was, and remains, set back from the street. To get near anywhere near the house or one of its doors, the mob would need to cross at least a hundred yards of flat open yard. In doing so, some large percentage of them would die.

J.V. stood in the window and waited, his one-piece nightshirt flapping around his knees, slippers covering his feet.

“Katie.” J.V. heard his wife call out the name. And a second later, in strode his 13-year-old daughter, Kate Lee Walton, named for J.V.’s mother and the Confederate hero, who was a distant cousin, just as he was to every other white family in the south.

Katie carried the dark wooden bow she and older sister Sophie, named for her mother, had made that summer at a camp in the mountain of Vermont. Long and sleek, elegantly arched, the bow, unstrung, still exists. It sits in a closet under the same staircase in the Brown House. The twine of its grip still feels rough to the touch. From tip to tip, it’s much taller than Kate Walton would have been in 1926. If you had a string and an arrow, you could still kill a man with it.

As Kate Walton rushed to stand next to her father, the bow was strung and an arrow notched. Others were stuck in a quiver, slung across her shoulder. By now the mob was less than 100 yards from the driveway that marked the near edge of the Walton property.

“Katie, take Lois downstairs.” Lois, J.V.’s youngest daughter, had followed her other sister and stood in the doorway of the bedroom.

“No, Daddy, I want to stay with you.”

“No. Go downstairs. Now.”

Kate slumped her shoulders and looked back at 8-year old Lois, who would become my grandmother some decades later. And then she looked at J.V.

“But…”

“Now.”

Kate obeyed, reluctantly, and turned away from the window.

“Come on, Lois.” As she walked away, J.V. raised the shotgun and pointed it out of the window into the night.

Their mother met the girls in the upstairs hallway and led them back to the staircase, where Sophie and Mary, the fourth sister, waited. The elder Sophie left them all there and ran to front of the southern wall of the house, to the door that looked out on the men as they approached.

The mob spilled across the driveway, into the yard, following the bloodhounds on a path that would take them away from the street toward the eastern side of the house, and what was considered the back yard, which abutted the thickest part of the swamp and would flood with river water during hurricanes or strong Nor’easters.

Maybe J.V. asked himself why a band of unhooded Ku Kluxers would need bloodhounds to mount an assault on one the city’s most prominent residences. Or maybe he heard what Sophie heard downstairs, as the men seemed to gather and hesitate as before moving deeper into the Walton property.

“If we’re going to come on to Judge Walton’s property, then we better tell him what we’re doing here,” said one of them.

Rather than fire, J.V. shouted from the dark bedroom. “I will kill the next man who takes step in my yard.”

Heads turned to the bay window. Arms sprung upward. Pistols dropped, thudding into the ground. “Wait.” “Hold on.” The shouts for calm came in a chorus. “We’re not here for you, Judge,” one of them said. It was the Palatka Police Chief Cole Tavell. “We’re just chasing a nigger convict that got free of Cannon.”

Will Cannon, a Putnam County sheriff’s deputy, known widely as one of Minton’s Ku Klux whipping underbosses, looked at the chief and then up at J.V., but said nothing. “He got away from the jail, and Cannon got some boys together to track him. I joined them up the road a bit. It’s my town to police, after all. I apologize for not wearing a uniform.”

“That’s a good way to get killed, Chief,” said J.V., with the shotgun leveled. “You think he ran down into the swamp?”

“Yes, sir,” said the chief. “You didn’t hear anything, I suppose?”

“No, we didn’t.”

The chief gestured downward with his hands. “Judge, do you mind not pointing that at us? We’re not here to do you any harm. I’m sorry if we woke you and Mrs. Walton and the girls.”

By this time, Sophie had stepped outside with her arms crossed, watching the men silently. “Good evening, Mrs. Walton,” the chief said.

“Good night, Chief.”

Finally, Cannon spoke up, a sense formal aggravation creeping into his tone. “Judge, we need to find that prisoner. Can we follow the trail down into your swamp?”

“No, sir. You cannot.”

“Judge, this is sheriff’s office business. Law enforcement business. We have the right…”

“No, sir. You may go around my property. You will leave it now.”

The chief put up his hand to quiet Cannon before he could protest. “Will, that boy is long since gone. He came through two hours ago or more. We can’t track him down in that muck and brush anyway. He’ll resurface at some juke and get picked up. Then he’ll be all yours again.”

Cannon said nothing, but seemed to accept it. He looked up at J.V. and nodded.

“All right, boys,” said Chief Tavell. “Let’s let these good people get back to sleep.”

And with that they departed, and J.V. put away his weapons.

——–

I’ve heard some version of this story, laundered by family pride and myth, all my life: Great-granddaddy’s lonely, armed defense of his home and family from avenging Klansmen, who turned out not be, or at least not acting in that capacity at that time. The definitions blur.

In any event, what you just read is true, to a point.

I created it from the conflicting memories of old women approaching death, from touchable artifacts, from readable letters and newspapers, from inferences drawn from other people’s historical research. And from the inescapable point-of-view of proud great-grandson and loving grand-nephew grandson.

This is how narratives form and harden. I’ve just created entities called Will Cannon and Walter I. Minton, real men, with real records on census forms and court papers, with living descendents, presumably. I’ve made them Klan members and purveyors of racial, cultural, and political violence. I’ve given one of them a voice. And you’ll hear much more from the other.

I have good justification.

Ku Klan Klan historian David Chalmers identifies the outbreak of Klan and mob violence in1926 Palatka as the most severe in Florida history. We know that on Sept. 13 or 14, 1926, Florida Gov. John Martin summoned the Palatka mayor and Putnam County sheriff to Tallahassee and threatened to declare martial law if the mob violence did not stop. It was the first major anti-klan intervention by a Democratic Florida state politician. We know that the Putnam Klan’s charter named Minton as the chapter’s Kludd, or chaplain. And we know that a letter sent to Martin from Palatka businessmen named Minton the “whipping boss” and linked him and Cannon, both active sheriff’s deputies, to numerous extra-legal floggings of citizens black and white, male and female.

The same letter says this about J.V. Walton. “He has been fighting this lawlessness openly and fearlessly without fee or thought of reward, as you know from his visits and statements to you.”

But then there’s everything we don’t know, or even have accounts for. I don’t know the exact date, although the Vermont trip places it later than the summer of 1926. I don’t know that the convict escaped from Will Cannon. I don’t even suspect it. I don’t know how many men made up the mob or the types of weapons they carried. Were Cannon or the police chief there? Impossible to know. I invented the dialogue, except for “I will kill the next man who takes a step in my yard,” which my grandmother Lois recalled clearly.

“I remember that because I was so impressed. I thought it was a good thing to say,” she told me in May of 2009.

In truth, virtually that entire scene emerges from my imagination. I picked the heroes and villains, the quick-witted and the dull. I can call it history, non-fiction, fiction, even a memoir of sorts, from five decades before I was born. And you are powerless to prove me wrong.

You won’t find a detailed account of Florida’s worst outbreak of Klan violence, nor of Gov. Martin’s politically brave intervention, urged on by J.V. Walton. A thorough state attorney’s investigation – also the first of its kind in Florida – documented more than 70 extra-legal floggings and two murders. Martin refers to it in news stories from the time period. But the investigation itself has disappeared to history. And Martin’s act, the biggest story in Florida at its time, is largely forgotten. Why? Three days after a massive hurricane destroyed the port of Miami, killing hundreds, accelerating the collapse of the first Florida land boom, and essentially marking the early onset of the Great Depression in Florida.

One of my favorite modern writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrote not too long ago: “The writer is a species of God–they create our world. There will always be limits on what we can experience and truly understand. We turn to writers to fill in the gaps. I trust, for instance, that India exists, but what I know of it has largely been shaped by what other writers have told me. I have never stepped on the soil of Africa (even if I had, that wouldn’t be enough) and what I think of the continent is shaped by what’s been written. Malcolm X is real, and Spiderman is not. Both are products of writing, and frankly, I’m at pains to tell you which of the two had a larger influence on my life.”

The Battle of Palatka, a multi-year economic and social struggle culminating in the 1926 eruption, doesn’t exist in history because no species of god ever created it.

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