THELMA & LOUISIANA
Young intellectuals think they are intelligent and often showcase their stupidity by talking incessantly about how brilliant they are. Such was the case of two twenty-somethings and one thirty-something, who decided to chase a literary story from the dust bowl of the Southwest to the swamplands of the Big Easy. We zigzagged in my dad’s Cadillac from Norman, Oklahoma to New Orleans, Louisiana, one Stuckey’s at a time.
By coincidence, the three of us had recently completed reading the funniest book ever written, A Confederacy of Dunces. Penned in 1963 and repeatedly polished for years by a young man named John Kennedy Toole, the book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, but the author would know nothing of such fame and glory. After Simon & Schuster ultimately rejected his manuscript following two years of revisions, Ken, as Toole’s friends called him, depressed and defeated, drove to Biloxi, Mississippi, ran a cheap garden hose from the exhaust tailpipe into the cabin of his car and proceeded to quietly slip away forever. He was only 31 years old. His soul a mere vapor over his mother’s home on Elysian Fields, his bones rotting away below the mists of Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans, Ken unwittingly joined the club of Pulitzer Prize winners, posthumously.
The legendary story of how Thelma Toole, his domineering mother, blamed his would-be agent/publisher for rejecting the book and how she went on to accost the regional literary giant and Catholic existentialist, Walker Percy, to get the book published, fascinated us to no end. Imagining an old woman storming the halls of academia and forcing a tattered, carbon-smudged manuscript into the hands of Professor Percy struck a chord in us all: this story has pure drama written all over it. And Southern charm to boot! Given the sensational and sinful setting of New Orleans, certainly voodoo would reveal itself, too!
So it was, then, that our shared passion of a great book drew us to Dixieland, where the trumpet sounds its call and the horsemen begin to ride. We each had our motive for our fanciful journey: for my thirty year-old friend Jacques Louis, it was to come to terms with his own suicidal demons, to understand why Toole killed himself, to touch the hand of the woman who so eloquently displaced her son’s suicide as an act of murder perpetrated by a publisher who rejected A Confederacy of Dunces; for college buddy Tim Boggs, it was pure and innocent curiosity, with his eyes socketed on documenting the trip via film and video that would, perhaps, yield a salacious interview — a real scoop! For me, it was about the intellectual property rights of the novel. I had learned that the film rights had reverted to Thelma, following a dispute with a major film studio. It was February 1983. If our timing was right, we could swoop down on the little house on Elysian Fields, impress Thelma with our depth of knowledge, endear ourselves to her with a box of chocolates, and sprint off to Hollywood to write the definitive screenplay for the novel. Ah, to be young and impetuous!
We called Thelma, old school, on a landline. After expressing how busy she was, she eagerly and happily consented to a meeting. We went undertow, noting that Jacques and I were writing an article, on assignment, for a mythical literary journal in the Southwest, The Curling Armadillo. “Come on down, my darlings,” she declared. “I will be here waiting.” Despite her “very busy” schedule, it did not take much coaxing to get this particular publicity hound to meet with three young bungling paparazzi!
Our nom de plumes were Oscar Knight and Julian West. Tim remained Tim. We had many questions swirling around and we were convinced we could score some new morsel and serve it out to the literary world. So Tim loaded up his film bag, and I packed our video gear. Jacques sharpened his pencils.
My friend, Jacques Louis, was really Jack Lewis. He came to Norman, Oklahoma as a graduate of Princeton and a former intern at Esquire. His ex-wife had gotten employment at the University and Jacques was compelled to re-locate, too, because of their shared 2 year-old daughter. He landed a job as a writer at Dorsett Educational Systems, where I also worked with Tim.
Jack was such an affected, effeminate soul that the resident wise guy, me, further nicknamed him Jacques. His surname Lewis became Louis as in the XIV. The flamboyant Jacques Louis was born. He fit his new name — and took a personal liking to it. There was some symmetry between Jacques Louis and the anti-hero of A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius Jacques Reilly. Aside from the name connection, my Jacques identified with both the protagonist of the novel and its author. My Jacques wrote amazing and stunningly provocative tomes, massive works that were literary corollaries to Stroheim films — manuscripts that no doubt frightened publishers by their sheer weight.
There was brilliance to Jacques’ musings, but also sharp, radical turns of seemingly incongruous thoughts. He made thrilling connections and leaps of imagination, but the casual reader could not keep up with his diamond-faceted thinking and pathways toward an end that would often be 500 pages away. Like Ken, my Jacques (and his assorted agents) could not convince a publisher to publish his works. He was, hence, frustrated, and certain that he, like Toole and his persona, Ignatius Jacques Reilly, was being tortured in a world where the dunces are working in confederacy against him.
To add to the spectacle of Jacques Louis’ character, he wore scarves in the manner of Truman Capote, took to donning sunglasses like a faux star from the Sixties (even when the sun tucked itself behind the billowing Oklahoma clouds), and enjoyed smoking stale cigars — a symbol of his casual disregard for his own health. It all added up to a bundle of trope-ladened eccentricities.
Jacques had massive mood swings, too, which I would later find out were largely induced by the psychotropic prescriptions he was taking for manic depression and paranoia. One elated experience he had was when he purchased a vintage black convertible Thunderbird in Oklahoma City. I’ll never forget the day he rambled up the driveway to work, top down, went sweeping around the curve to park, his head crowned with a beret, and a white silken scarf flying like a pennant around his neck.
He claimed the T-Bird was the same year as the one owned by Marilyn Monroe. Yes, fittingly, he was enamored with Marilyn and Liz Taylor. He spent one summer writing his magnum opus, Stars in Collision, a brilliant literary tome, an excursion into the lives of Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, and Elizabeth Taylor. In many ways, this book became his A Confederacy of Dunces. The book was a scrupulously scholarly fact-gathered piece of art; his suggestive findings were spun gold: Jackie was presented as Caesar’s Wife, Liz as the Cleopatra of the Cinema, and Marilyn — mistress to America’s two Caesars, JFK and RFK — as the Cleopatra of the Future, the world-historical siren who eclipsed Cleopatra Ptolemy and bewitched the entire world.
Jacques had corresponded with Robert Gottlieb, the agent of the hour, then at Farrar Straus and Giroux. Like Toole, Gottlieb rejected Jacques’ book. Like Toole, Jacques regarded Gottlieb a fool. We also reached out to Gottlieb for our proposed article. Our mutual correspondence with him, though, was cordial — and I found him quite charming on the matter of Toole. Yet this was the man Thelma conveniently charged with murdering her son.
Tim Boggs was a gentle breed of an artist, who reveled in every art medium, from sculpture to photography, from film to video feedback. He often tripped people into thinking he was the teenage son of Roger Daltrey. Hippyish in manner and spirit, with long curled locks of hair, Tim made an unlikely third in the trio who also sought the answers to the mysteries surrounding John Kennedy Toole.
Stuckey’s became the prime stop along the way, so we could fill up on pecan log rolls and pecan milkshakes. In short order, we had made it to Interstate 20 and were finally heading easterly. We said goodbye to Tyler, Texas and started seeing more promising signs: Shreveport, Louisiana! Great — that’s where we would pick up I-49 and start making our descent into the swamplands. Baton Rouge was the next milestone — and thoughts of poking each other’s eyes out had turned into giddiness as we were bearing down on I-10 — the final approach to New Orleans. Nawlins, as we all jokingly mocked — me with a Midwestern accent, Tim with a mild Okie accent, and Jacques with a fey New England accent.
Trestles were propping-up the freeway to keep everyone at a safe height from alligators and swamp people. We crossed the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway and stayed on the freeway till we hit I-90. The Super Dome sat like a landed flying saucer as we encircled it and exited into the bowels of the French Quarter. We had arrived. It took only a dozen hours to complete the drive, but with the whining and the friction of being cooped-up in a luxury car built before split seat climate control, it felt more like a week’s ride.
New Orleans was a foreign land; none of us had ever been there. But we quickly absorbed everything: the freeway system that was intense and largely incomplete, the lace balconies on ramshackle buildings, the cultural mishmash of food, architecture, people — and the clear distinctions of racially divided neighborhoods, made Nawlins a place like none other we knew. It looked as if the freeways were being built and dismantled at the same time; the expressways twisted like a pretzel around the impoverished areas. As if by design, the freeways were arteries that coursed rich people pass destitution. We were clearly not in Oklahoma anymore. We exited the freeway and stopped at a fancy market to buy chocolates. I don’t know why, but Thelma struck me as a cherry cordial lady. Jacques sweetened our offering with a bouquet of mixed flowers from the floral shop next door. Then we charted our course to the land of opportunity: Elysian Fields, the street where Thelma lived!
Ah, Elysian Fields. I will never forget that day in February 1983 when we drove up to Thelma’s neat, white frame house, an oasis of wholesome if humble domesticity awash in a sea of urban blight. Memorably, the Toole abode was sandwiched rather incongruously between a lesbian bar and a Po-Boy pool hall. The tiny house stands on the seedy edges of New Orleans’ celebrated Vieux Carré. Elysian Fields itself, we were quick to conclude, posed no aesthetic challenge whatsoever to its lofty Parisian counterpart, the Champs Élysées.
The hothouse atmosphere of Thelma’s domain was immediately and oppressively evident the moment we stepped into her diminutive, overstuffed, and rundown parlor. Ken’s mother had turned this squalid room into a shrine to her posthumously famous son. Posters of anti-hero Ignatius and photographs of John Kennedy Toole covered every wall, sprinkled with pictures of Thelma herself.
As if somehow the scene of a virgin birth, the room lacked any memento of Ken’s long deceased father! Thelma herself was a sight for sore eyes. She greeted us wearing a gold lamé (“crape” is more like it) caftan and a round white-yellow hat sporting white ostrich feathers. During the interview, she playfully waved a golden fairy wand. This was the scepter bestowed upon Thelma in 1982 when she was Queen (or Kween) of the Krew of Klones’s Mardi Gras parade through the streets of New Orleans. It is surely indicative of how fully entrenched the Toole cult has become that devotees of the Krew of Klones have taken to donning the green hunting cap, the flowing tartan scarf, and the suede desert boots of the novel’s protagonist, Ignatius Jacques Reilly. My own Jacques Louis also frequently wore such an outfit while in Oklahoma, making him quite the sight among cowboys and rich oilmen.
Through this hot voodoo of shamanistic costuming, the weirder inhabitants of a very weird city pay homage to a local boy who, in Ken’s own expression, “made good.” Surely only a very great and magical talent could earn such a camp apotheosis in such a short space of time. Or perhaps Ken being dead further attributed to the near deification his character enjoyed.
Thelma’s hair was a wispy light grey. She made a point of emphasizing her hair color, lest we should dare to accuse her of shaking a wild maroon mane of curls à la Irene Reilly, one of the less endearing characters of the book. Reporters have accused Thelma time and time again of being the prototype for Irene, Ignatius’ alcoholic mother in A Confederacy of Dunces. After our encounter, we concluded that Irene bore no resemblance to the large lady we saw before us. Thelma was no shrinking violet to say the least! Of course, she no doubt thought of herself as every inch her version of a Southern belle. She made grand and ladylike gestures. She treated us to boxes of old, stale chocolates that previous admirers had given to her. Our box of chocolates in a Valentine’s Day box, when handed to Thelma, went atop a stack of similar booty. She whispered to herself in a satisfied tone, “cordials.”
Thelma went on to offer us wine, also a popular gift of A Confederacy of Dunces fanatics. But somehow every civility had a pronounced carnival air to it. You could also smell the roaring greasepaint as Thelma put us through her paces. There was the obligatory nod in the direction of deathless sorrow. Certainly Thelma had ample reason to say, ”My life is ashes and sawdust.” The suicide of her literary son had been only a prelude to an eleven-year struggle Thelma had to wage before she could find a publisher for A Confederacy of Dunces. The experience of numberless rejections left her permanently embittered against the publishing establishment of New York. She remarked that with each rejection she died a little. Yet it was clear to us that Thelma took intense satisfaction — and rightly so — in her victory of persistence and the belated fame of her son. After all, she had the spotlight all to herself now, and Thelma was definitely a one-woman show, a burlesque comedienne of the Old School.
She treated us to several rounds of ethnic impressions of A Confederacy of Dunces characters. We knew we were in trouble when Thelma stood up and pushed her walker over to the grand piano that dominated her dingy kitchen. There she subjected us to a solo turn of “singing” as she played (or pounded) those silken ivories on a dilapidated, out-of-tune piano. Was this, we wondered, the same piano Ignatius had wished to spirit away from Irene’s homestead so he could produce his own cacophony with his trumpet and lute?
“I told my son about those people, the characters he wrote about in the book. I gave him his culture. You can quote me: if there is any other American child with my cultured background, I’d like to meet her. My son was a scholar. Now, reporters think my son is Ignatius. All right. My son was elegant, an elegant dresser. Dressed plainly, very elegantly. Six foot. Brawny shoulders. Slim waist. I bought him Aramis Cologne — that’s a man’s cologne. I like to have a man scented. All right. That’s my opinion.”
I could see Tim squirm. He was a tad uncomfortable with the way Thelma spoke about her son. How alien to her must Ken’s neuroses and depressions have been! Thelma’s literary idol was not that twisted sister, Flannery O’Connor, but healthy and full-bodied Charles Dickens.
Thelma was thrilled when we announced that we would be videotaping the interview. “Yes, turn on your cameras, my darlings!” Thelma blurted. She told us to ignore her mysterious bachelor brother, Arthur Ducoing, who was lurking silently in the shadows of the gloomy kitchen.
As the cameras rolled, Thelma visibly bloomed, like Norma Desmond under the hot arc lamps of Erich Von Stroheim. Suddenly she was young again, and “John” as she always called him, still in knee breeches, ever Thelma’s darling boy, was alive again. Mrs. Toole made it clear that she had, from the very beginning, been John’s Svengali, his literary mentor. He loved “litter-achur” because she loved “litter-achur.” She told us that she would pretend to have daily visits from William Shakespeare while her little boy was away at school. “Oh, Mr. Shakespeare was here today, John, and the things he said, my word!”
John would cry when he returned home from school. He complained of having missed Thelma’s “gentleman caller,” the Bard of Avon. The boy genius lamented time and time again that he was bored silly at school and wanted to stay home to meet dear William. The stupid and rigid nuns at Ken’s parochial school were just telling him things he already knew. He showed his contempt by referring to his classmates and friends as “the children.”
Ken, an only child, thrived on the adult company of Thelma and her somewhat less brazen sister. Both had ample experience in amateur theatrics, and they trained Ken to recite the Old Masters in a booming, oratorical baritone — the precursor of the unmistakable tones of that master truth-teller, Ignatius Jacques Reilly. With no strong male role models, Ken predictably gravitated toward feminine obsessions. A Walker Percy “Moviegoer,” Ken spent long hours of screen-struck reverie at the nearby Prytania Movie Palace. Marilyn Monroe was his favorite star, Doris Day his least favorite. It is possible that Ken passed by, on his pilgrimages to the Prytania, another mollycoddled New Orleans teen of the Fifties, Lee Harvey Oswald. Lee’s Marguerite was nothing, however, next to Ken’s Thelma. The land of Huey “The Kingfish” Long, victim of a 1935 assassin’s bullet, breeds killers and suicides by the swarm — and by the swamp. Certainly the kiss of that unusually deadly spider woman, the flirtatious Southern Mom, cannot be irrelevant to this oddly revealing pattern.
After her torch songs in the kitchen, Thelma hobbled back to the easy chair in her early Diane Arbus living room. Of course, the first topic of conversation was her son’s suicide. But no sooner had we mentioned the taboo word than Thelma hushed us. She said the subject was “alien to that person,” indicating her more than faintly alarming, ancient brother who was still puttering around in the kitchen. Thelma shocked us by referring to Arthur Ducoing as “the devil.” Arthur didn’t appear to be the devil; he was just a spooky doppelgänger to his To Kill a Mockingbird literary counterpart, Arthur “Boo” Radley. Once he skulked away, she told us that Arthur had been quite the writer himself back in the day, when he penned poetry while working at the Standard Fruit Company, which ultimately was purchased by Castle & Cooke Corporation, owners of the acquired Dole Food Company. “Yes,” she said with tongue in cheek, “Arthur is the Poet Laureate of pineapple.”
About that (whisper) suicide: Yes, John had mailed a suicide note to his mother from Biloxi. According to Thelma, it was cryptic, odd. She refused to discuss its contents specifically, except to remark that John had complained of the ceaseless ribbing his phallic surname inspired in witless dunces. And where did the offending name come from, why from that nitwit of a husband! Who else? Arthur may not have known about Ken’s suicide, but what was also alien to almost everyone was why, why kill yourself at such a young age? This question could only be answered by Thelma — the only person who read his suicide letter, which she claimed to have destroyed in a fit of anger. But was it anger at losing a son — or anger at something else that Ken had possibly written? Thelma shuddered as she recalled her son’s all-too-final departure from Elysian Fields. She told us that Ken’s German shepherd, Wolf, howled inconsolably all through the night. Was this truly a case of canine clairvoyance — or was it yet another case of Thelmean mellerdrama?
Thelma’s paranoia about her sinister brother was nothing compared with her hatred for her Toole family relations. Thelma was a self-righteous French-Irish Catholic, but she spoke of her deceased husband’s relatives as “gutter-trash kikes.” Offensive and derogatory slang sang forth from Thelma with nary a care. She insisted that Ken would turn over in his grave if her husband’s Jewish family ever made any money from his writing. This, she explained, was the reason she had stipulated in her will that all royalties from A Confederacy of Dunces would go to a trust fund for writers to be administered by Tulane University.
Mrs. Toole’s anti-Semitism was even more painfully evident when she mounted her favorite hobbyhorse, the iniquities of Robert Gottlieb. Ken sent his manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces to Gottlieb. At first, Gottlieb was very encouraging to Ken. He urged the fledgling author to undertake several rewrites of A Confederacy of Dunces. Thelma recalled some of the letters that came back from Gottlieb:
“‘You’re our kind of funny; you’re on our wavelength.’ Built him up, you see. I told him, ‘This is wonderful, son! We’re going to get somewhere.’ John talked very freely all his life to me, except when the mail from Gottlieb became so scathing. He changed. He didn’t communicate with me.”
Then, after Ken penned what would be the final draft and sent it off to Gottlieb, he received what was literally a “Dear John” letter, filled with pronunciamentos such as these: ‘Abandon the book… it’s unsalvageable… embark on new and better projects… I’m sure we’ll work together sometime in the future.’ It was an axiomatic response to be sure. Thelma told us:
“John lost his head. My son was so poised, so contained…until he met Robert Gottlieb.”
Prior to our departure for New Orleans, we wrote a letter to Mr. Gottlieb. In his reply, he recalled Ken’s letters, discarded in the Sixties, as “long, frantic, and self-dramatizing, but that’s only guesswork.” He theorized that Thelma’s animus against him “when the Toole business became public” was the result of anti-Semitism. When we disclosed this to Thelma, she became annoyed: “That’s a damned lie! He’s a contemptible gutter-trash kike.” That apparently was her convenient go-to term to be emphatic, despite the irony.
Robert Gottlieb told us, ”I glanced at the book when it was eventually published, and I saw at once what I must have liked in it (the energy, comedy, etc.) and why I wouldn’t have published it (the sophomoric attitudes, out-of-control resentments, etc.).” This rather defensive criticism is hard to square with the enormous commercial success of the novel, until one remembers that the Keepers of the Keys to the Kingdom of Parnassus care as little for the bottom line as they do for their notion of what makes great books. Yes, the marketing and PR machines of Madison Avenue contribute to making a good book great, by virtue of sales. But fans of A Confederacy of Dunces love the book, reread the book, reenact the book, recommend the book, give the book away as a gift, precisely because it is chock-full of nuts, chock-full of “out-of-control resentments,” as Gottlieb noted.
Yet, in fairness to Robert Gottlieb, his letters of encouragement to Ken were just that — encouraging. Toole incorporated many of Gottlieb’s notes, edits, and suggestions in his subsequent revisions. The two had rather extensive correspondences over the years. Though there was no publishing deal, Gottlieb got involved. As one would expect, though, the manuscript that Thelma shopped around was the original draft, before Gottlieb got to it. She did not abide with any of the edits. The book was, by its sheer raw existence, brilliant from the get-go, in her estimation.
When Thelma asked Ken why he didn’t try sending the manuscript elsewhere, she explained to us that he was singularly focused and told her, ‘They are the best. And Robert Gottlieb is a brilliant editor.’ Clearly Ken had a veritable idée fixe about Simon & Schuster and Gottlieb. But, ironically, according to Thelma, Ken was not writing for riches: “He wanted literary recognition. He never did adore money.” Only Simon & Schuster and Robert Gottlieb could spearhead the promotional campaign that would make Ken a literary superstar.
One can only imagine what Ken’s snob reaction would have been to the eventual publishing history of A Confederacy of Dunces: excerpts published in the inconsequential New Orleans Review in 1978; hardcover release in 1980 under the unlikely imprimatur of the publishing arm of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where he had studied briefly in the late 1950s; and paperback distribution by the infamous Grove Press! Not even this primrose path would be cleared without the tireless battering ram of Thelma’s tongue. Walker Percy was only the last in a long succession of literary bigwigs Thelma had pursued for over a decade after Ken’s suicide. Every step of the way, Thelma remained persistent, turning away from one rejection after another, until finally, Walker Percy agreed to read the manuscript and pass it around to his publishing pals.
Once he got past the first page, there was no turning back. So excited was Percy by A Confederacy of Dunces that he submitted it to his own New York editor, Robert Giroux of Farrar Straus & Giroux. Mr. Giroux turned thumbs down, as did another New York publisher. We corresponded with Robert Giroux and on April 14, 1986, he replied to our question of why he turned down the manuscript:
“I recognized the talent in A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES and thought the book publishable, but I also thought it needed editorial revision. Since the author was dead and I understood from Mr. Percy that I’d have to deal with his mother, I decided to withdraw. I did not foresee the extent of the subsequent success, which obviously surprised everyone except perhaps his mother.”
Percy then turned to L.E. Phillabaum, the Director of the Louisiana State University Press. Phillabaum was bowled over. The book went to press and sold 40,000 copies in the hardcover LSU Press first edition of 1980. It was the first, and probably the last bestseller, in the annals of this obscure university press!
The book tells the story of Ignatius’ misadventures in the job market of New Orleans, circa 1962. The love interest was provided by Myrna Minkoff, an LSU coed Iggy had first offended, then entranced, with his wayward personality. And it is Myrna who provides the escape hatch for Iggy at the end of the book, when the iron doors of the booby hatch are about to clang shut. Alas, John Kennedy Toole had no Myrna, no strong-willed rescuer from afar.
Thelma did hint steamily during our interview with her at two brief and abortive romances that “proved,” to her at least, that Ken was “perfectly normal.” One was a girl he met in Puerto Rico in 1962, during his hitch in the Army; the other was a Hunter College student he saw frequently during his New York City days at Columbia University.
In further support of Ken’s “straightness,” there is also the stinging indictment of male homosexuality that Toole wove into A Confederacy of Dunces, although skeptics might read some significance into the fact that these are the deadest and least funny pages the author ever penned. Can it be that Toole, like his fictional alter ego, Ignatius Jacques Reilly, was himself neither fish nor fowl, neither straight nor gay, ni l’un ni l’autre, but instead a highly-sexed Onanist, perfectly content to satisfy himself through a lonely literary life — at least for awhile? Toole was, indeed, a loner, with few friends of long standing, either male or female. He was a world unto himself, a Joycean “hermaphroditic angel married only to himself.” Thelma was proud of his good looks, his blinding intelligence. He was the full package that any woman would drool over.
I could see Jacques scribbling fast, as if Thelma’s words were all pregnant and about to give birth to — insight. He was like a student of Andre Breton’s automatic writing method. Indeed, Jacques kept pen and tablet always near to write down any musings. I purchased him a stack of Big Chief tablets, like the ones Ignatius uses in the novel. Jacques was in his element. He was on fire. But I was getting more disturbed by all the tangents emerging, the crossing this way and that. Thelma had a way of meandering off into reveries at the hint of any question. And Jacques had no problem following into the rabbit hole.
I wanted to get on with a scoop — and eventually get to the topic of the intellectual property rights for the book. The darn thing was written like it wanted to be a movie. And I was certain we could interpolate it into a masterwork. But Jacques was pushing for something else. He wanted to read more writings from Ken. He wanted that suicide note! Something — anything! We probed further, to get some insight into Ken and his special relationship with his mother. Jacques had read that Ken was a big fan of Marilyn Monroe, herself a victim of suicide. Jacques felt this line of questioning would lead Thelma to some epiphany that we could call a scoop. What we got was her recollection of Ken’s time in Puerto Rico:
“He was in Puerto Rico when she committed suicide. He was devastated. This was the period he started writing Confederacy. ‘Things have been surfacing,’ he wrote to me. ‘Things that I have repressed through the years. And I’m so happily engaged.’”
But she stopped, then shifted mental gears. There was a quavering in Thelma’s voice as she proceeded to talk of her first big venture into literature: a biography of her son that she had started. The ink was still wet on a shorter piece she was penning: “I am writing Irene Reilly’s days in the parochial.” All the projects she had in mind were either delayed or thwarted by her health. She explained that she was quick to tire. We asked if she was getting medical attention and she replied, “I’m allergic to doctors.”
Fascinating stuff, I thought, as I finally broke down and asked the question: “Thelma, what’s going on with the movie rights to Confederacy? It seems — ” She interrupted and proceeded to swirl her baton around, the feathers dancing merrily about. Her eyes tracked the girlish motion. We learned that, through a series of strange connections related to the publishing deal, a Texas billionaire, John Langdon, along with his partner, Maidee Walker, had acquired the rights to the book. They had a production company called Bumbershoot Productions.
Thelma smiled as I repeated the name, “Bumbershoot, like umbrella?” I said. “Yes, you like the name?” In one fell swoop, my personal objective had been dashed to smithereens. But then came this: “Would you like me to put you in touch with them? Maidee has an office in Texas. That’s near Oklahoma.” I jumped at the chance. Hmm…Texas. Not a bad place to be in March.
Thelma was getting tired. To encourage her geriatric Muse and prompt her to finish her son’s biography, we left behind a memorial Big Chief tablet. Jacques had a few extra stashed away. “Finish the biography,” we encouraged. “And send us the final draft!” We all stood to wish her well, shake hands, and embrace. She toddled up to each of us with her walker and looked into our eyes. “Good luck with your project, Mr. Knight, Mr. West, Mr. Boggs.”
As we hugged and left her little parlor, young and headstrong as we were, we had no way of knowing that we had just witnessed and recorded the swan song of a great comedienne, last of the Belle Époque vaudeville troupers. But Thelma knew. Yes, she knew all too well.
We wondered as we drove to our hotel why Thelma had allowed three scalawags like us to so readily meet with the Bumbershoot folks. Perhaps we had charmed her, after all. Perhaps she saw in us the seeds of future greatness? Perhaps it was the cherry cordials.
We walked around endlessly through the French Quarter to get our final taste of Nawlins. We walked the filthy streets to witness firsthand the devastating decadence. Once immersed, though, we were surprised at the charm that veiled the Quarter. We had coffee and beignets at Café Du Monde. Sashayed to the Central Grocery & Deli for muffulettas, and noted that Lena Horne was playing at the Saenger Theater on Canal Street. The sky was overcast.
We passed voodoo shops, prostitutes, jazz bars, and Lucky Dog vendors, visited Ken’s grave, sinking further and further into a cryptic nightmare. Where were we with all this? Lots of scenes with no central story. That sounded eerily familiar to the plight of turning A Confederacy of Dunces into a film. We hopped into the Caddy and decided it was time to return to the dust bowl of the Southwest.
Not even gales of laughter heard from coast-to-coast can still the ghostly wails of sorrow ascending from the tiny house at 1016 Elysian Fields and the untended grave in Greenwood Cemetery. We fancied we could hear those wails as our car drove into blinding Delta rain from the shelter of the Harvey Tunnel. At last, we were free of the Kafkaesque maze of New Orleans’ freeways that had been the bane of our existence for the past three days.
We were on our way home to safe, wholesome, sane, Philistine Oklahoma. There were so many pieces to the Toole puzzle. Even the simplest of questions seemed to demand a labyrinthine answer. We felt that our whole investigative journey was uncannily reminiscent of the reporter on the hunt for the meaning behind Charles Foster Kane’s whispered death breath, ‘Rosebud.’
Once back into the swing of Southwestern living, we followed-up and corresponded several times and spoke repeatedly on the phone with Thelma. The letters and notes added to the debris of Tooleiana we were collecting. Then the letters stopped. Thelma died in August of 1985, a mere 18 months after our visit.
The film rights for A Confederacy of Dunces were now three years with Bumbershoot and the film still unrealized at the time of her death. Thelma had related to us that she had met with Maidee Walker and read her script. Yes, Maidee had written a script, based on her son’s great novel. I met with Maidee at her studio lot office, whereupon she provided me with a copy of her script. It was complete and tonally consistent to the novel.
A Confederacy of Dunces remains the greatest movie never made, nearly 40 years in the unmaking. With characteristic vanity, Thelma fancied none other than John Huston as the director. A young Scott Kramer at Twentieth Century Fox first snapped up the film rights to A Confederacy of Dunces. Kramer had hoped to convince John Belushi to portray Ignatius, or Iggy Piggy, as Thelma called the character, but Belushi would have meetings with Kramer and forget who he was. Shortly thereafter, Belushi died. Then Johnny Carson Productions held the rights for a while. Finally, in October of 1982, Bumbershoot Productions, owned by Forth Worth tycoon, John Langdon, bought the property rights for $175,000. Stars like John Candy were considered, then Chris Farley, John Goodman. TriStar Pictures chairman, Mike Medavoy, attempted to launch the film with Orion Pictures, convincing Harold Ramis to direct. Orion flinched and Ramis shopped the property over to Fox, whereupon veteran producer Scott Rudin ate it up. There were, along the way, lawsuits, threats, typical Hollywood shenanigans.
Eventually, Will Farrell showed significant interest in the property. Farrell even did a book-in-hand script reading workshop. But no production deal ever came together. After searching in vain for a suitable director, Langdon sold the property to Paramount Pictures in 1993, to be produced by Rudin. Stirrings commenced again in the Summer of 2012, this time with talk of Zach Galifianakis starring as Ignatius. Every generation, it appears, has its Ignatius. The property has decades of failed efforts to bring it to the silver screen, which led director Steven Soderbergh to remark during an interview on Vulture.com: “I think it’s cursed. I’m not prone to superstition, but that project has got bad mojo on it.”
With such a large base of devoted readers as potential ticket buyers, the film appears likely to become a cult classic if it can ever get made! Turns out that Robert Gottlieb’s critique may be one of the reasons the film has been through such an ordeal: the novel suffers from what Gottlieb called “amusingness that’s forced to figure itself out.” Hmmm. That’s very much what I have been feeling and living through for some thirty years: there’s this adventure, see. And lots of fascinating things happen. Episodic stuff that’s just weird and entertaining. But what’s the plot? Can the structure be all about the lack of structure in the lives of those associated with this great book? Is there a cohesive way to create a story out of the people who try to glom on to a book’s flawed genius?
Jacques and I had written the opening to the film, our version of what should happen. We dared to share it with Maidee, who liked what we did with the treatment. We also provided her with our notes on her script. To her credit to get the project underway and into production, she was open to working together. We shared with her the idea of getting Shirley MacLaine to direct the picture, who would then sign up her brother, Warren Beatty, to star as Ignatius. Beatty had just wrapped filming of Ishtar and we had seen a paparazzi photo of him during a Manhattan snow storm. His bundled body gave the impression that he was dressed like Ignatius! If anyone could make Iggy lovable, it was Beatty and his charm.
We even tipped our hand further to suggest Ms. MacLaine would make a great Santa Battaglia, with her comic excesses and rich diction. With that, the treatment and an early draft of our would-be article made its way to Shirley MacLaine through our agent. Before her departure to Peru, Ms. MacLaine, surprisingly, called once she read the treatment, excited about our approach to the script and even more charged about our article on Thelma. It was 1986 and I had moved two years prior to Los Angeles. We reached out through proper channels, namely, MacLaine’s agent, Mort Viner of ICM. Perhaps we could work out a deal if we were able to assemble our dream cast. But Ms. MacLaine was consumed with her spiritual quest and our calls back to her went unanswered. We continued to send our ever-evolving article to The Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and Harper’s. Maidee, eventually, fell away from the project as time drove us further from that fateful trip to New Orleans. Every so often, I take out the script we wrote and give it a once over, and smile at the story behind the story:
EXT. MISSISSIPPI RIVER — DAY
CAMERA SNAKES along the Mississippi River. The classic Paul Robeson rendition of “Ole Man River” swells in the background. The booming voice of IGNATIUS JACQUES REILLY comments on the majestic path.
˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚ IGNATIUS (V.O.)
The Mississippi River. Immortalized in the trashy novels of Mark Twain and the repulsive songs of Jerome Kern.
CAMERA PANS OFF the river and FOLLOWS a winding course into downtown New Orleans. High rise office towers project proudly into the sky.
˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚ IGNATIUS (V.O.)
New Orleans. Louisiana. U.S.A. In any discussion of America and how its people live, we must begin with New Orleans, U.S.A.
CAMERA DIPS DOWN from the spires of the landmark St. Charles Cathedral, JOURNEYS into the heart of the French Quarter, and OPENS into a picturesque SHOT of the jazz bars on Bourbon Street.
˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚˚ IGNATIUS (V.O.)
The French Quarter. The most civilized spot in America. Home to scores of sodomites, prostitutes, drug addicts, pornographers, hot dog vendors, and litterbugs.
The Quarter, like some deadly nightshade, blooms at twilight. Never is the bloom more sinister than on one especially disgusting night: Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras. When the saints go marching in…and the sinners come crawling out.
This is New Orleans at its finest hour. A whole city convulsed in an orgy of collective madness… A confederacy of dunces in league against the few heroic men of genius who hide deep within the bowels of this depraved metropolis.
And it went on from there. We felt we had captured the unique satire of the novel and effectively championed the unlikable anti-hero, all in one opening monologue. We were convinced one of the reasons the movie wasn’t getting made in Hollywood was because producers knew that filmgoers would not sympathize as literary buffs did with the plight of a fat, lazy male who mooches off his mother and insults her with cruelty and abuse. We wanted to depict Ignatius as a literal giant among men, yet at the same time, a sacred monster with childlike and vulnerable qualities. We wanted dutch tilt angles focused on the Frankenstein of the French Quarter, the Hunchback of Elysian Fields, the Phantom of the Prytania Movie Palace.
Regardless of whether the film ever got made, of one thing we were certain: sadness, utter sadness, was the prevailing mood of the whole “Toole business.” The sadness of the saddest author in the world, who just happened to create the funniest book ever written. The even greater sadness is Ken’s pathetically egotistical but also boundlessly charming and resourceful mother. To the end of time, a cloud of mystery will linger over that house on Elysian Fields where Thelma and Ken conspired to bring us laughter — and so admirably succeeded in their goal. But with that life-affirming gift of joy, mother and child also “pitifully disaster the cheeks” by opening the floodgates of our eyes, unleashing a veritable tidal wave of tears.
For myself, tears flowed years later, in 1992, when Jacques Louis committed suicide. I had been married for three years and he was preparing to come visit us in California. I was thirty-two years old then. Jacques was nearly a decade older than me. He was a mentor. He convinced me to get married and have children. He had a daughter — but he was living thousands of miles from her; he was a victim of divorce. Jacques always said that having a child was the most magnificent thing he had ever experienced. Having had a daughter myself, he was absolutely right.
We were never shy of dreaming larger than what reality typically doled out. I had moved to California from Oklahoma — and Jacques went to Washington, D.C. for stability — to be near his family. He needed that. But we were still conjuring and dreaming — planning to resurrect our tale of Thelma Toole and continue our quest to greater literary glory. We thought we could turn the tale of our tale into a script — something of a road picture — a literary road picture. We had a beginning, a rambling middle, but no end. Our story suffered in much the same way as A Confederacy of Dunces: episodic, but cohesively, we lacked a story with a final act.
Jacques Louis was a man who lived in stark fear — afraid of the daily routine of life (imagined snipers perched atop buildings trying to kill him as he ran serpentine between buildings to escape them), afraid of failure (he was an inexhaustible writer and had scant reward for his efforts), afraid of going crazy (having been institutionalized of his own free will and by force against his will, he wondered if it was all worth it), afraid of his medication (he hated being sedated, pacified, his joie de vivre castrated by pharmaceuticals), afraid of himself. He once was detained and committed for psychiatric evaluation when he boarded a plane, then demanded to get off because he was convinced there was a bomb inside. To Jacques, given the power of his hallucinations, there probably was a bomb on board. Jacques was living the life of a man in constant stark fear.
Tim and I were both pursuing our dreams in the entertainment industry. Producing video shorts led Tim into the world of sound editing for movies and television, while I wrote and developed animation and toy properties. We both learned quickly how weird and how connected the entertainment industry is to disparate people.
Jacques, however, got a writing and editing job at the Environmental Protection Agency. He was miserable. His talent was being wasted writing for the EPA magazine, a scant-read journal of bureaucratic inconsequence. So we had to stay in touch, for the sake of what sanity he had left.
We had stayed not only pen pals, but also frequent callers to one another. Jacques was always encouraging me, despite his own depression. He wrote in one of our many communiqués: “I’m in awe of what you’re achieving out there on the corner of H’wood & Vine and I wish I had it in me to take the risks you’ve been taking.” Then, in the same letter, a postscript: “I’m feeling very sad, very lonely. Please stay in touch.”
We talked frequently during this period. We wrote, actually wrote, long hand letters to one another — always encouraging each other to keep ploughing ahead. Sometimes we’d use a word processor and send typed pages, but there was always the splash of cursive handwriting on everything, as we’d inevitably forget to type one point or another. We were also trying to keep the art of handwritten letters alive amid the burgeoning of binary communications. After a period of back-and-forth calls and a few letters, Jacques suddenly went silent and his phone rang without an answer. I started calling around to friends of friends, but he had not been in touch with anyone. Then I received this note in the mail:
Something terrible happened to me at the very end of April — I was thrown against my will into a mental hospital, where I was confined for many long and horrible weeks — in short, the very fate that Ignatius escaped by a hair fell on me like a ton of bricks. Please stay in touch. We need to get the rewritten piece to Langdon as soon as possible.
I had gotten many calls before, some from the sanitarium, some from his psychiatrist’s office, most from his co-op in Washington, D.C. After his disappearance into the mental hospital, I asked for a phone number for his parents. Just in case.
Jacques had delusions: sometimes he’d see the Mother Ship floating outside his apartment balcony. He described the beautiful shimmering array of lights on the vessel. I couldn’t help but think of the ship from Close Encounters of a Third Kind. He called me during one of his encounters that gave me chills: “They’re motioning for me to come, John! They want me to board the ship!”
I played along: “Where are they, Jacques?”
He was convincing: “Right outside my patio!”
Jacques lived in a high-rise building.
After a period of back-and-forth calls and a few letters, Jacques suddenly went silent again, only this time his number had been disconnected. I started calling around to friends of friends, but he had not been in touch with anyone.
I decided to call Jacques’ parents. This was the longest stretch he had gone without contacting me. I spoke with his father and mother. They grimly told the story: On this one particular day, Jacques returned from the grocery, unloaded one bag, and while working on putting the articles away from the other bag, he decided to go to his patio, step onto the balcony and climb off. He plummeted several stories to his death. His parents were mystified by a puzzling fact: the police report noted that among the articles left on the counter, all refrigerated items had been stowed away, except for a dozen eggs and a carton of milk. I found it quite strange that this detail troubled them. Their son was dead.
Toole did not live to see any of his works published, but Jacques did see his articles show up in the E.P.A. journal. Jacques’ best writing, however, was not for the E.P.A. His creative writing, his books and articles — those went unpublished. Like Thelma’s discovery of Ken’s manuscript A Confederacy of Dunces, I was sifting through some old file boxes when I ran across all the Toole arcana I had collected over the years. In it were letters from Jacques, Robert Gottlieb, and Walker Percy, too, along with notebooks we shared, the Maidee Walker script, our treatment. Those accumulated, extrapolated fragments were referenced to create this saga. Without Jacques, alive in the spirit of his writing, this tale could not be told. Had Jacques remained with us, he would’ve thrived on the Internet. He would’ve self-published his fantastic tomes and epic books; he would’ve at least had the satisfaction of knowing that someone, somewhere, someday, might read one of his books. Writing is all about connecting. That’s what kept Jacques going—the notion that he might make a difference to someone’s life by virtue of something he had written. He certainly made a difference to me.
Alas, like John Kennedy Toole, Jacques, it turned out, was troubled and sick enough to do himself in. I’m certain the few who were close to Ken never considered he would take his own life, either. During the final days of Ken’s life, he had an argument with Thelma, stormed out of their home of Elysian Fields, withdrew all the cash from his bank account, and took off on a two-week road trip, without staying in contact with his mother. By not being around, Ken got the attention he wanted from Thelma. She was grandly worried about him.
Likewise, I always thought Jacques’ orchestrations of self-destruction were to get attention. Perhaps, without literary recognition, no one saw the profound pain that affected Ken from being rejected by his dream publisher. For Jacques, his pain originated from his brilliance; like Ignatius, he lived in a world that presented darkness, rejection, and ignorance. He could not connect to the world around him. He could only make satirical commentary about it. I can still hear Jacques’ shrill and thrilled voice and his unnervingly convincing excitement about being visited by the Mother Ship. It is easy to dismiss aliens when a delusional person sees them. But in this instance, Jacques was resolute and resisted any inference that he might be imagining these beings floating around his co-op.
I miss Jacques. He was a dear friend. We were co-writers. We shared souls when we worked together. We spoke for hours and stay connected even after we hung up our telephones. We went on trips together. One special pilgrimage took us to Nawlins, to meet a fellow writer’s mother, a fellow writer who, like Jacques, could not bear to deal with the dunces in his life. But my Jacques, my Jacques, I believe, had a happy ending, if not a happy landing. I see him, I hear him, raving in his high-pitched effeminate voice that the Mother Ship has come — it has finally come for him. Why else would one leave the eggs and milk out of the fridge? When they come to take you away to the stars, nothing else matters. You go. You just go.
Suicide, they say, is never the answer. Unless, of course, the question is: “How do I get my book published?”