To know Mick Kelly—the precocious, dreamy heroine of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—is to know a young Carson McCullers, born Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia.
A gangly, sensitive child, McCullers was painfully aware of her unpopularity among her peers. Her father, Lamar Smith, was a watch repairman who raised his family on modest means. Parties were agonizing ordeals for her. She wore dirty sneakers while other girls wore dainty heels. She escaped into music, sometimes playing her piano four or five hours a day. She dreamt of becoming a concert pianist until she endured her first bout of rheumatic fever at fifteen, and her ambition turned to the more sedate art of writing.
At seventeen McCullers left Georgia for New York City, where she worked odd jobs and enrolled in writing classes. She was a restless, chronically ill young woman. During the Great Depression, her sympathies ran deep for the poor, the alienated, and the oppressed. More politically aware than politically active, McCullers expressed her views through her fiction.
She married James Reeves McCullers, a young, frustrated Marxist, at the age of twenty, and by twenty-three, she had completed her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Shortly after it was published to wide critical acclaim in 1940, she became New York's new literary star. That she could write a bestseller so young was feat enough, but to have such depth and insight at her age was extraordinary.
McCullers moved around for much of her life, living at various times in Georgia, North Carolina, New York, Paris, and at Yaddo, an artists' retreat in upstate New York. She won international fame and nurtured intimate friendships with such luminaries as the American playwright Tennessee Williams. But to most, she remained an outsider. She wore men's pants and white dress shirts. She smoked incessantly, drank sherry or bourbon day and night, loved passionately, and lived with disarming honesty.
Despite her literary fame, she endured many personal troubles. Though she adored Reeves and remarried him after their divorce, theirs was a tumultuous relationship that ended in his suicide in 1953. By that time, years of pleurisy, pneumonia, rheumatic fever, and strokes had caught up to her. For the last twenty years of her life, she was paralyzed on her left side. She died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage on August 15, 1967.
Located in Brooklyn Heights on a bluff overlooking the East River, New York Harbor, and the Brooklyn Bridge, the house at 7 Middagh Street was a social and intellectual mecca for artists in the early 1940s, many of whom had escaped the war in Europe. Drawn to the wharves and warehouses of the waterfront, McCullers became one of three original tenants along with George Davis, then the fiction editor of Harper's Bazaar, and the poet W.H. Auden.
Dubbed the February House by the French writer Anaïs Nin when she discovered how many of its residents had February birthdays, the $75-a-month, ramshackle brownstone with the high-ceilinged parlor and marble fireplace garnered a reputation among the Manhattan elite for its brilliant dinner conversations and raucous parties. The days at the house were quiet, providing a sanctuary for those in need of literary inspiration and supportive company.
Frequent visitors to the house included the writer and musician Paul Bowles; dancer and choreographer George Balanchine; British composer and pianist Benjamin Britten; German author Klaus Mann, son of Thomas Mann; Russian surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew; and actress and theater producer Cheryl Crawford. McCullers, a great raconteur, entertained these and other houseguests with her descriptions of life in Georgia in a thick Southern drawl.
"Carson's heart was often lonely and it was a tireless hunter for those to whom she could offer it, but it was a heart that was graced with light that eclipsed its shadows."
—Tennessee Williams, 1974