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.

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