Friday, March 13, 2015

A SAXON FAVORITE

Every year when I spend the winter in New Iberia, Louisiana, I re-read books on my Louisiana shelf and am amazed at the quality of the work by some of our native-born writers. I always revisit Lyle Saxon's books, and I think he began writing "non-fiction fiction" before any of the contemporary writers who claim that distinction. Right now, I'm re-reading Children of Strangers, Saxon's novel about racial relationships based on characters who lived near Isle Brevelle and Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Saxon resided in one of the cabins at Melrose Plantation during the writing of this novel in the first half of the 20th century.

One of Saxon's books with which most readers of Louisiana literature aren't familiar is a wonderful read entitled The Friends of Joe Gilmore. It contains as much personal information about Saxon as any scholar could glean from other sources. Another book, Some Friends of Lyle Saxon by Edward Dreyer, is a companion piece within the covers of the Gilmore volume and contains even more personal anecdotes about Saxon.

In the introduction to The Friends of Joe Gilmore, Dreyer writes that Saxon died before he was able to complete his semi-autobiographical narrative, and the bulk of it was dictated during Saxon's demise. The book is enhanced by the drawings of E.H. Suydam, another noteworthy artist whose work also appears in Saxon's Fabulous New Orleans and Old Louisiana. Among Suydam's drawings in The Friends of Joe Gilmore is one that I particularly like, a drawing of the gallery of Saxon's cabin at Melrose Plantation.

Dreyer writes that during Saxon's lifetime when his telephone rang, (which occurred many times during the day) and the caller identified himself as one of Saxon's friends or as a friend of a friend of Saxon, Saxon always answered: "Friends? What friends? I haven't any friends." However, Dreyer says the truth is that few men have had more friends than Lyle Saxon. In Dreyer's book, Some Friends of Lyle Saxon, he relates that Saxon could take the dullest person and draw from him/her "a measure of wit and charm."

New Iberia readers will enjoy one of the anecdotes Dreyer tells about Weeks Hall and Saxon. Weeks Hall was the former owner of the famous Shadows-on-the Teche National Trust property on Main Street of New Iberia. He was once called in to help Saxon recover from complications after he underwent an emergency appendectomy. Following Saxon's surgery, he had become delirious, and a psychiatrist was even brought in to determine if he could continue taking drugs that seemed to be affecting his mind. After a rabbi, a Christian Scientist practitioner, and a Voodoo doctor worked on Saxon, the doctors finally determined he needed a blood transfusion.

Friends were routed out of their beds and arrived at Saxon's bedside to donate blood for the transfusion but their blood was rejected. Finally, Weeks Hall proved to have the type blood needed to rejuvenate Saxon. Hall, a notable Louisiana painter, had just undergone an automobile accident in which his painting arm had been injured, and he was still wearing a leather brace when he arrived to give Saxon blood. He was put on a cot next to Saxon's bed for the transfusion, and an intern placed his injured arm closest to Saxon. Unfortunately, the intern kept using blunt needles to puncture Hall's injured arm, but he was eventually successful and the transfusion began to work. Saxon, who had been in and out of a stupor for twenty-four hours, revived and recognized Weeks Hall lying next to him. He glanced at Hall and declared, "If you think this is going to make me paint any better, you're crazy." From that time on, Hall and Saxon, who had been friends for many years, began to call each other "cousin" and corresponded with each other, pretending they were planters of the middle nineteenth century. Facsimiles of the humorous letters are included in Dreyer's account of this friendship between two Louisiana notables.

Dreyer includes many examples of Saxon's doggerel poetry and limericks illustrating his scintillating wit in Some Friends of Lyle Saxon. He recounts Saxon's famous remark about autograph parties following the success of Fabulous New Orleans and Old Louisiana: "I started out to be a writer and ended up a souvenir."

In a concluding section of Some Friends of Lyle Saxon, Dreyer relates stories about Saxon's involvement in the restoration of the French Quarter, a description of the homes he restored in the Quarter and of his apartment in the St. Charles Hotel where he lived the last twelve years of his life. He concludes the book with a quote from George Sessions Perry who wrote a tribute to Saxon the week following the author's death: "Since it is an old New Orleans custom to print one's feelings in religious manners, and since Lyle Saxon so deeply favored each of these old customs, I'd like to burn this one small candle of congratulations to God Almighty, who now has the rich, the easy, yet exquisite pleasure of the company of this lonely, generous man."



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