Thinking of my own good fortune in this respect, I remembered a woman who influenced me greatly although I didn’t really know her; I observed her closely. Willie Snow Ethridge was the wife of the long-time publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal. Her husband Mark was a close ally of my father’s, and as a result, both Willie Snow and Mark were often guests in the house where I grew up.
As a somewhat prim, too-good girl, I found Willie Snow quite shocking, the only woman in that circle who laughed loud and long, wore her white hair in unmanageable-looking thickets of curls, painted her mouth bright red, and danced as long as there was any music playing or any more or less available man.
In short, she had fun.
I didn’t know many men who had fun. I didn’t know any women. It seemed scandalous to me that Willie Snow could enjoy herself.
And she was also a successful writer, having never written anything that was not published, mainly in book form, by MacMillan. She perfected a form of humorous personal essay that appealed vastly to women at that period who were also enjoying Cheaper by the Dozen and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, memoirs of white upper- and middle-class life that managed to gloss over whatever horrors lay beneath the surface.
I did not understand, then, how a woman who laughed so much and danced so much and had four children could turn out more than a dozen published books. It wasn’t just a question of time, in my view. She simply didn’t have the right attitude.
In my solemn early years, writing was a mighty profession, almost entirely inhabited by men who moved strangely and darkly through a complicated, shadowed world at which I could only guess. The Great Writers—all men, as far as I knew—did not laugh, or dance. Nor would they have availed themselves of the witticisms that feel freely from Willie Show’s bright lips.Her serious and accomplished journalist husband (my godfather, although he told me early on he was a lapsed Baptist who couldn’t tell me anything about religion) Willie Snow called “The Roommate.” I couldn’t imagine how any wife could get away with that. (And, I learned later, she had fallen in love with Mark when she as in high school and had hung on hard ever since.)
Asked by skeptical acquaintances how she had happened to marry the journalist, Willie Snow claimed that he had lured her out of a Georgia swamp with a peppermint stick.
In an interview, published in 1975 as part of the University of North Carolina’s Southern Oral History Program project, the interviewer, Lee Kessler, began by saying (perhaps with a little of my wonderment) that Willie Snow appeared to have been “happy, not only as a writer but as a wife and mother.” Willie agreed enthusiastically.
Since I’ve never been able to claim this for myself, I am curious to know how Willie Snow did it.
Born at the turn of the last century in Georgia, she had few of the opportunities that have graced my life. Through sheer perseverance, she studied journalism at Wesleyan College during World War Two and worked as a reporter covering the courts for The Telegraph, claiming that she was paid “ten cents a foot, or a mile.” Blithely, she assured Lee Kessler that she wrote a good deal about local scandals, since that was what the Hearst-owned newspaper wanted. It was clear she enjoyed it.
Her time in Macon exposed her to the suffering of black people who lived in the city’s alleys, although she claimed that at the time she never wondered if that arrangement was unfair. However, something lighted a spark, and she went on to be very active in the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, an extraordinary pre-Civil Rights endeavor which finally caused anti-lynching laws to be passed by the federal government, purportedly because a delegation of these southern ladies, doubtless wearing hats and white gloves, went to Congress to testify that they didn’t need lynchings to protect their honor.
After marrying and moving to Louisville with her husband in the late 1930’s, Willie Snow took charge of one of my favorite houses, a four-square former river captain’s house that sits on a hill a few miles from the Ohio River. Although I seldom visited there—my mother had some prejudice against Willie, who liked to dance with my father—I still retain the impression of solid comfort the old house conveyed.While living the busy social life of a newspaperman’s wife and raising four children, Willie turned out an extraordinary number of memoirs, from This Little Pig Stayed at Home, based on home life during World War Two, to her ambitious travelogues after visiting Greece and the Middle East with Mark when he was sent on the Cold War’s anti-communist missions.
Clearly, some of these assignments were mine fields for a wife-writer who had to support her husband’s mission while retaining her clear-sightedness and her sense of humor. Her book on the Arab-Israeli conflicts earned her some criticism, as did an earlier book about the textile industry in Georgia, titled Tangled Yarn, which her publisher, MacMillan, failed to promote. Usually, though, she avoided the minefields or used humor and mimicry to guide her across. She may have known any alternative would cost her too much.
In Louisville, Willie didn’t respect the local mores much; one of her funniest chapters in I’ll Sing One Song is a description of a ludicrous local sport called Beagling. This is the book that re-introduced me to the handsome old house near the Ohio River.
Lee Kessler’s 1975 interview reveals some of the secrets of Willie Snow’s abounding good humor. She admitted that she’s always had “a little gift” for writing which she exercised when her children were at school, hiding her manuscripts under her mattress when they came home. Laughing, she described her husband’s and her children’s assumption that anything that went wrong in the old house could be laid down to the time she spent writing—even a lack of butter or sugar. But this didn’t seem to bother her a great deal, and in fact, she claimed that her husband’s enthusiasm for newspaper writing had inspired her to write, herself.
So she never took herself, or her writing, too seriously, which stands in contradiction to the time and effort she put into her books. And always, she stood slightly to one side of events, whether a social occasion or a child’s mishap.She adored the rich green countryside around her house and wrote rhapsodies about riding through the woods with one of her daughters or working in her garden. The natural world soothed and uplifted her and perhaps made it possible for her to dismiss her husband’s lack of support.
Once, she asked him to read a finished manuscript and was so afraid of his reaction she locked herself in her bedroom for a day. When he was finished, he simply said, “It’s missing a page” which was the only comment she ever received.
We’ve worked so hard to be taken seriously, and for our work to be evaluated on a professional level, that it’s a little hard to contemplate a writer who was so willing to be dismissed and downgraded. Of course, we never take the writing of humor very seriously, although it may be just what we need to survive. And the most successful women writers are probably still called upon to express a degree of humility and even self-abasement, while somehow keeping their faith in themselves and their work.
Willie Snow survived a good deal of condescension, if not outright criticism, from serious students of fine English like my mother, who once upbraided her for comparing, in one of her books, the new moon to an upside-down blond eyebrow.
Mystified, or wishing to appear mystified, Willie Snow replied that the new moon DOES look like an upside down blond eyebrow, which indeed to a certain eye it does.
I’m very grateful to Willie Snow. She was enormously important to me, as a child, not because of her books, but because she laughed.