Two Mysteries

Some beautiful non-pornography, and Cormac McCarthy's little-known sojourn in Bearden

When I rummage around in my 1940s house, I find rusty paint cans, moldy unpublished novels, and dried-out rats I have sometimes mistaken for rotten shoes.

When Helen Hewitt rummages around her 1940s house in Holston Hills, she finds gorgeous photographs of nude women in classical poses.

Five of them, anyway. They're black and white, about 14 inches by 10 inches, a little the worse for wear around the edges.

The subjects of the photos are brunettes in soft focus, all with short hair roughly in the style of the late 1920s or '30s. Judging by their faces and other features, there appear to be at least two models, probably three.

One's smiling. One's in profile, contemplative. One is lolling, with a fetching ennui. All are posing before a dark background, one holding a large plate almost like a discus. One exhibits a discreet patch of pubic hair, which was maybe not an every day feature in art nudes of the day. In that one, the woman has her face turned away. But they don't look like pornography. That Supreme Court judge who said he knows pornography when he see it would look at these and call them Art and maybe have them framed for his lobby.

They're in a file folder that's not big enough for the job, and probably not nearly as old as the photos. There's a note on it in ball point. It says, "30.00 set / 1930 / Talent Studios / Knoxville, Tenn."

I figure the "$30 set" refers to a price paid at a secondhand shop. The date 1930 certainly seems right, based on the fashions. You'd think nudity wouldn't offer us much to go by in that regard, but just in terms of hair and makeup, these ladies look like they stepped out of an early Frank Capra movie—pre-Hays Code, of course.

But I haven't been able to find any business by that name in the usual records. Knoxville had several photographic studios at the time: Thompson, McCoy, Knaffl & Brakebill, Capitol Studio, People's Studios, etc. Just no Talent Studios.

These ladies might be about 95 by now. But maybe somebody out there remembers.

***

Semi-retired University of Tennessee psychology prof Wes Morgan has an unusual hobby for which he has attained some esteem in a select international society. Among the more scholarly fans of Cormac McCarthy, Wes is known as the authority on the subject of what's real and what's not in McCarthy's fiction, especially his Tennessee novels. Lately he's also tried to figure what he can about sorting fact from fiction in stories about the man himself. It's well known that the author grew up here, mostly on the south side of town, and that as a young struggling writer in the '60s and early '70s he lived for a time in pretty spartan accommodations in Blount County near Louisville.

It's also well known that he moved out west around 1976, first to Texas, then to New Mexico, where he lives now, at age 76, near Santa Fe. Readers of his most popular novels sometimes consider him a western novelist—so much so that when he published The Road, some critics ignored geographical clues in the narrative to force an assumption that it was based in the southwest, too.

So that's become the shorthand bio of Cormac McCarthy. Born in Rhode Island, grew up in Knoxville, moved to Texas at age 43 or so.

But one detail has puzzled McCarthy's many amateur biographers, including this writer. In 1986, a book called Images of the Southern Writer found McCarthy back in Knoxville. Author/photographer Mark Morrow noted that he'd heard McCarthy had moved out west, but when he found him, he was living "on the outskirts" of Knoxville, in a tiny 10-by-10 room in a motel called the "Colonial" on "Kingston Street." McCarthy gave Morrow a ride downtown in his Nash Rambler. A photo Morrow took of a 50-ish McCarthy framed in a stained-glass window at the old, unrenovated Southern station on Depot Street, was published in his book. Another Morrow photo of McCarthy appears in an early edition of the 1985 novel Blood Meridian.

Looking into the records at the McClung Collection, Wes found that there was indeed a Colonial Tourist Court at 4928 Kingston Pike. Bearden once boasted lots of motels and "tourist courts," remnants of the pre-interstate days when Kingston Pike was part of a couple of major national tourist routes, the Dixie and Lee Highways.

The problem is that it went out of business around 1964, and was soon demolished. It was about where Kroger is now.

However, around 1981, when Morrow found McCarthy there, another hostelry was still operating just a little farther west, the Colony Motel. It was at 5102 Kingston Pike, in the Homberg Place area. That's Morgan's best guess about where Morrow found McCarthy. It might have been a convenient residence for a writer with simple needs.

At the time he lived there, McCarthy had already published four novels, most recently his most Knoxville-based story, Suttree, in 1979. His early books had received rapturous critical acclaim from some major academics, and had earned the MacArthur "genius" grant—but his modest sales were unaided by the fact that he never gave talks or book signings, and very rarely submitted to a magazine interview.

During his mid-life sojourn in Bearden, McCarthy was apparently working on Blood Meridian, the hyperviolent western coming-of-age scalp-hunting epic which notoriously hard-to-please critic Harold Bloom later called the greatest American novel since Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

Some who know suggest McCarthy lived in Bearden for a couple of years. It was a neighborhood with some potential for a writer, within a short walk were a couple of beer joints, a few interesting restaurants, antique shops, and a great big cemetery. It was also practically next door to one of Knoxville's best independent bookstores, Draper's. Today, the site of the Colony Motel is right across Kingston Pike from Carpe Librum, Knoxville's best independent bookstore today, where you can buy McCarthy's work.