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Mobile to spend 2022 remembering its "renaissance man"

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The Associated Press published a list of notable Americans who died in 2021. Mobile native and baseball legend Hank Aaron was included. Hammerin’ Hank made his name with a bat. By contrast, Eugene Walter used a pen, a paint brush, and even a movie camera. Mobile will spend 2022 celebrating the one hundredth birthday of this artistic giant who called the port city his home. Plans are underway to celebrate the life of Mobile’s Renaissance man.

“Eugene really loved Mobile,” said Tom Mason, a longtime friend of Eugene Walter. “He loved Mobile in a way that people who live here today really can’t understand because he saw Mobile at a time before it became what we have today.”

“He treated me like I was a real writer, and it gave me the confidence to believe that I could do it and that’s a wonderful gift,” said novelist Carolyn Haines, who was mentored by Walter.

Eugene Walter wrote novels, poetry and cookbooks. He was an artist, puppeteer, chef and World War II cryptographer. He also worked on the Paris Review with George Plimpton and made movies with Frederico Fellini in Rome. More than 20 years after his death, residents of the port city will be remembering their fellow Mobilian with 100 celebrations. These honors are to mark the life of a man whose beloved description of Mobile might baffle folks from some other cities.

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“So welcome to the kingdom of monkeys, the land of clowns, ghosts and musicians. It’s great to be in sweet lunacy’s county seat,” Mason told a crowd in Alabama’s Port City.

Tom Mason was a long-time friend of Walter’s. He gave a toast to his friend at the dinner that kicked off the celebration.

“He saw Mobile at a time before it became what we have today,” Mason recalled. “When he was in Rome, he longed for that Mobile that he left and that was not what he found when he came back.”

And, if Mason’s tribute to Walter isn’t enough, artist Courtney Matthews is happy to add to it.

“I used to have a local art shop downtown called Lunatics and Company and one of the reasons why I even named it that was because of Eugene’s Mobile quote on Mobile being sweet lunacy’s county seat and I’ve always been a big fan,” she remembered.

Matthews is one of the organizers of the dinner on Joachim Street that began the celebration.

“Tonight is actually going to end up being the kickoff to our Eugene project, 100 years in 100 days,” said Mathews. “This will be the kickoff celebration and tonight we have a 10-course small bite plates dinner, each by a different chef and they’re all using Eugene’s recipes.”

“He was a Renaissance man. Not just literary, but artist, puppeteer, songwriter, bookmaker, like actual handmade books,” recalled Angela Trigg. She’s owner of Mobile’s Haunted Bookshop. She’s another lifelong fans of Eugene Walter. She’s also taking part in the celebration. Trigg’s grandmother, Adelaide Barston, founded the shop and met a young Eugene Walter many decades ago.

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“He was wandering, I think down Conti because the original location was right around the corner and he saw some people moving boxes of books into this building and he thought, I need to know those people,” Trigg remembered “So, he started helping them move in boxes of books and that was how he ended up becoming a fixture at the Haunted Bookshop and he would just hang out there every single day.”

She says the young man hanging around the shop went on to a very varied career.

“He was also a cryptographer during World War II,” said Trigg. There was not any kind of talent that he wasn’t, that he didn’t do.

The Haunted Bookshop is an underwriter of Alabama Public Radio. The dinner tribute to Eugene Walter took place outside the Saenger Theater on Joachim Street. That’s a location that had fond memories for Walter. When he came back to Mobile from Rome, he had a public radio show on WHIL, which is now part of the Alabama Public Radio network. On one program, he recalled childhood memories of the theater.

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“The Saenger Theater is reverting to its first status, movie palace!” said Walter during one of his broadcasts. “Well, palace it certainly is, vaguely Spanish renaissance or perhaps Italian renaissance or a happy red and gold mingling of the two. I remember in the early 1920s, shortly after the Saenger opened, I think it opened about 26 or 27, seeing a huge sign on Joachim Street, which read ‘All Talking!’and then Norma Talmage in Madam Duberry Woman of Passion. Then again in huge letters, All Talking.”

GB: Tom Mason says Eugene always loved the Mobile of his childhood and tried to preserve its beauty, charm and unique character.

“He constantly preached that concept of preservation, of loving the arts, of caring about the community you live in and storytelling and enjoying the space that you’re in,” said Mason.

Charm and storytelling were some of the first things a young writer named Carolyn Haines noticed about Walter when she met him in the 1980s. Today she’s a successful novelist. Haines says Walter encouraged her when she was not so sure about herself.

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“And he was just such a character and I heard all of this stuff, you know. He had worked with Fellini and had been part of the Paris Review and he had done all these wonderful literary things and I was trying to write my first novel. Nobody ever believes it but I’m very shy and Eugene took the trouble to draw me out and talk to me and he was so generous with his time and his interest.”

Haines says Walter’s gifts stayed with him until his death in 1998

“I know when they took him to the hospital, when he was dying and they were carrying him into the hospital and on the way in, one of the nurses asked him if he was allergic to anything and he said ‘only one thing...Fob James,’” said Haines with a chuckle at the joke at the expense of Alabama's former Governor.

Haines says that for all his works, Walters’ greatest gift to Mobile and the artists who lived there could be he was fun to be around.

“He treated me like I was a real writer, and it gave me the confidence to believe that I could do it and that’s a wonderful gift,” Haines stated

The celebration will go on through 2022.

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