Carson McCullers was born on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia, a town about half way down the western side of Georgia, almost on the Alabama line. The first-born of three children, she was named Lula Carson Smith and began using the name Carson instead of Lula by her early teen-age years.
Her first artistic love was for music and playing the piano. Her cousin, Roberta J. Steiner, wrote in the Carson McCullers Society Newsletter in the November 3, 2000 issue that the piano, along with Carson’s practice, was a center focus of the household. “Carson had drive. She had creative energy that wanted to come out. She could be bored by social conventions that took time away from music or reading.” A childhood friend, Sara Ruth Carroll, 94 years old at the time of an interview, says of Carson that as a child she “was with us, but she wasn’t with us. She was sort of a loner, even then.”
At the age of fifteen Carson was sick for many weeks with rheumatic fever. In the same year she received a typewriter from her father and around that time her emphasis shifted from music to writing. At age 17 she went by boat from Savannah, Georgia, to New York City, an adventure in itself for a young woman in 1934. Accounts vary as to whether her intention was to attend Julliard School of Music or to pursue her ambition as a writer but by 1938 she had a contract with Houghton-Mifflin with a $500 advance for her first novel. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was an immediate sensation when published in 1940, the author only 23 years old at the time.
By then, while spending time in Georgia in 1936, Carson had met Reeves McCullers, a native of Alabama, in the army at nearby Ft. Benning. Soon after their marriage, with the success of Carson’s book, the couple moved to New York City. According to all accounts the couple’s relationship was tumultuous, complicated by Reeves’ homosexuality, also sexual ambiguity on Carson’s part. Carson’s cousin, Ms. Steiner’s comment on the McCullers was, “To say that their life had its ups and downs won’t do. It was more like the Alps and the Dead Sea.” Divorced by 1941, then remarried a few years later, they spent some time in post-war Paris where Reeves later committed suicide in 1953.
Around 1940, during a separation from Reeves, Carson moved into an artist commune known as February House, so-named because several residents had February birthdays. The household included George Davis, once brilliant literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Jane and Paul Bowles. Other well-known literary friends were legion in her life, among them Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote.
In February 1959 McCullers hosted a delightful luncheon event, with a surprising collection of celebrities. During the annual dinner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Carson McCullers sat beside Karen Blixen-Finecke, better know under her pen name Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa. This was a favorite and often-read book of McCullers. In turn, Blixen greatly admired Carson McCullers and had read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter several times. Blixen, in NYC on her only visit to the U.S., expressed a desire to meet Marilyn Monroe. McCullers promptly said something to the effect of – “not a problem.” Arthur Miller, then husband of Marilyn Monroe, was only a few tables away, so a luncheon was quickly arranged. Blixen, then in her seventies and with myriad health problems, preferred grapes and oysters, along with champagne, for her regular diet, so the menu was set — along with a souffle for guests needing more sustenance. All report that the occasion was a huge success.
The characters of Carson McCullers are distinguished by yearning, loneliness, melancholy and a search for love. Carson’s own life, from a young age, was marred by illness, debility and paralysis from frequent strokes, physical pain and alcoholism. Her last 15 years were particularly marked by physical decline and suffering. She died at the age of 50, on September 29, 1967.