Life at Leahy's
Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
Dear Vance: Is it true that James Jones wrote his classic novel From Here to Eternity while living in Memphis — at Leahy's Trailer Court, of all places?
— J.H., Memphis.
Dear J.H.: I initially found this claim hard to believe. I mean, Memphis certainly has its share of legitimate literary milestones. Tennessee Williams wrote (and performed) his first play here. William Faulkner based many scenes and characters on people from our city, and The Reivers was even set here. And then there is, of course, Bound for Glory: The History of the Lauderdales in America, the 37-volume epic I am working on, scheduled for publication just as soon as I can figure out how to handle my various incarcerations in a suitable manner.
So this bit about Jones (1921-1977) made no sense. He wasn't from here, and the book wasn't set here, that's for sure, so why would he venture to our city to work on one of the most famous novels of the twentieth century?
But I thought I'd at least devote, oh, five minutes to checking it out, and I certainly made some interesting discoveries. First of all, even the most basic biographies mention that Jones, who served in the U.S. Army's 22nd Infantry Division during World War II, was wounded in action at Guadalcanal in 1943. He was shipped here for seven months of treatment at Kennedy General (later Veterans) Hospital for a serious ankle injury. (He would later recall those days in his final novel, Whistle, though changing the name of our city to Luxor.)
But back to Leahy's.
Hot on the trail, I discovered a nice collection of old Memphis postcards compiled on Flickr by a former Memphian named Birch Harms, now working as an attorney in New York City. One of the cards showed Leahy's Tourist Court, the motel and trailer park on Summer Avenue that has — let's face it — seen better days. A lengthy caption beneath this postcard certainly caught my eye, because Harms had written:
"This still-existing Summer Avenue trailer park was once home to the writer James Jones while he wrote the National Book Award-winning (and famous beach kiss scene in the movie adaptation) From Here to Eternity."
Now pay attention, because here it gets a bit confusing. On the Flickr site, Harms then included a long comment from a fellow named Patt Meara, a professional photographer (among many other occupations), who talked about Jones' days at the old trailer park. Meara had this to say, regarding the postcard:
"Fifty years ago Jim and Lowney [Jones' first wife] and their Spartan trailer were my next-door neighbors in Leahy's Trailer Court on Summer Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. Jim had a crazy routine. He arose, made a pot of 'hobo' coffee, sat down at the typewriter, and stayed there until noon. Sometimes a chapter, occasionally only a few lines, emerged.
"Each week he made seven one-pound jars of beef stew, seven one-pound jars of Jell-o. Each day of the week he consumed one of each for his noon meal.
"I was a G.I. student, in school until 1 p.m. After school we'd pool our resources and split a bottle of beer or go out to the golf course and practice yoga. At 4 o'clock we returned to the trailer park, mixed a large pitcher of martinis, made a large salad, and Jim would read the product of his day's efforts to Lowney and me while the martinis disappeared.
"I took him to the airport for his trip to New York to pick up the check for the first eight chapters [of From Here to Eternity]. When the book was published, the picture on the dust cover bore my credit line, as did the pictures in Life, Time, Saturday Review, and Editor and Publisher. Although my name is actually spelled with two Ts, no editor was ever prone to accept that fact so the credits are in the name of 'Pat' Meara.
"By the time it hit the book stores, I was the staff photographer for the Santa Fe New Mexican. Jim and a gentleman from Scribner's drove out to Santa Fe, spent a few days with me, and presented me with a copy of the presentation edition with the inscription, 'Patt, Memories of Memphis, Shades of Santa Fe — Jim' on the fly leaf.
"I retired from the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin at the age of 42, moved to the Caribbean, worked for the St. Thomas Daily News for about six months, taught scuba for a year-and-a-half, obtained my captain's papers, and ended 23 years in the islands as captain of the 63-foot schooner, Victorius. We took divers and others for one-week (or longer) charters through the Caribbean.
"Jim became the renowned writer," wrote Meara, "while I lived out his dreams."
Now this was a fascinating story, but was it true? Well, Harms put me in touch with Captain Patt Meara, now living in Florida, who confirmed everything he had written about the postcard, and then Meara told me even more about Jones and their life in Memphis back in the early 1950s:
"I must plead 'Guilty as Charged.' I did write it," Meara said. "About ten years ago, I [came to Memphis] and checked out the old tourist court. In the time when Jim, Lowney, and I lived there it was entirely different. The place was laid out in neat streets, and if memory serves there were about 350 units there.
"One year during Cotton Carnival, Gypsy Rose Lee and her husband — I believe his name was Julio de Diego — lived in their trailer directly across the street from us. Oh yeah! And one of our neighbors was a contributing editor to Encyclopedia Britannica. Leahy's is definitely not the same.
"Jim used to hang out with me at the Plantation Inn in West Memphis. In 2007 the city of West Memphis had a celebration to honor the Plantation Inn. The city gave us, my wife, Carolyn, and me an all-expense trip to West Memphis for the festival and to take part in a symposium on the old days at the PI.
"During my time working there the piano player and vocalist with the band was a kid named Isaac Hayes [photo above]. I ran into Isaac again, in the islands, when he hired my friend Sammy Watts to play lead guitar for his group. I was amazed when, during the symposium in West Memphis, he walked in the door. Isaac was not in good physical condition at the time and we talked for just a few moments. End of story; shortly after, he died.
"While I was working on the newspaper in New Mexico my former wife 'took off' with a freelance writer along with my copy of the presentation edition that Jim had given me. Last year my daughter found a copy of the first edition of From Here to Eternity with intact cover [bottom left], on the Internet, bought it and gave it to me for Christmas. I treasure it, for the byline is there and other than memories and a few photos, that's it.
"My apologies for rambling but hey! At 86 what do you expect?"
Based on such personal testimony, I think we can pretty much agree, then, that Jones did indeed write a good portion of From Here to Eternity while living at Leahy's Tourist Court on Summer.
The part that confused me, though, was the missing "gap" in the timeline. Jones was hospitalized in 1943, and he finished From Here to Eternity in 1950. Where was he during those intervening seven years?
Not in Memphis. According to James Jones: A Friendship, a fine biography published in 1978 by his fellow scribe Willie Morris (author of the novel My Dog Skip and later editor of Harper's magazine), the Army transferred Jones to Kentucky after he recovered, and after the war ended he moved around the country in a travel trailer with his new wife, Lowney, living in North Carolina for several years. He returned to Memphis in 1949 or 1950, taking up residence at Leahy's while he finished the novel that would eventually win the National Book Award for fiction and be ranked #62 on the Modern Library's list of "100 Best Novels." Oh, and the 1953 film was nominated for 13 Academy Awards, winning eight — including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing — it just goes on and on.
So when you drive past Leahy's on Summer and look at the battered sign, try to remember that this humble trailer park once played an important role in the life of one of America's greatest writers.