A couple of weeks ago I described a mystery concerning the origin of some black-and-white nude photos of unknown origin, five shots of women with flapper-style haircuts. The only clue was a note on the folder in which they were found. It said “1930 / Talent Studios / Knoxville.” In old city directories, I found nothing similar to that name within 10 years either side of that date.
I got e-mails, calls, and letters, at least two dozen of them, all with the same message. There was indeed a studio by that name in Knoxville long ago, but it was spelled with two L’s. The proprietor was the colorful John “Skeet” Tallent, a sometime professional pianist, accordion player, and bandleader, a suave-looking fellow who was a dead ringer for Fred Astaire. Three different readers brought up that comparison, and judging by a photo I found, it’s apt. Skeet Tallent, expert photographer of weddings and other signal events, is remarkably well remembered, 41 years after his death. A lot of people remember the studio he kept on West Cumberland Avenue from 1955 to his death in 1969. A few remember his older studio on Gay Street, across from the Tennessee Theatre, where he worked in the ’40s and early ’50s.
But his story leaves us further puzzles.
Tallent lived the 20th century pretty thoroughly. A Knoxville High grad, he was kin to the Sterchis and worked for a time in their family business, when Sterchi’s was boasting to be the biggest furniture company in the world. He moonlighting as a jazz-age bandleader. Because Sterchi’s sold coffins, they had an undertaking business on the side, and Tallent worked as an embalmer for a couple of years. Apparently it wasn’t to his liking, because he got a job as a banker at the Holston-Union National Bank. But the ’30s was tough on banks, and the former banker/embalmer eventually opened a restaurant in Fountain City he called Skeet’s Grill. One patron who was a traveling photographer inspired the restaurateur to give it a try. He got handy with a camera, worked for a short time in TVA’s graphics department, and around 1944 opened Skeet Tallent’s Studio at 611 Gay Street, in a building long gone across from the Tennessee Theatre. It was a success. Tallent became the go-to guy for Knoxville’s high society for 20 years. He moved his studio to 1837 West Cumberland in 1955; he retired about a year before he died in 1969.
That reasonable hypothesis, that the “Talent Studio” noted on the folder is just a misspelling of “Tallent Studio” leaves unanswered questions about these photos. I’m no fashion expert, but still I’d be willing to bet money, that is, if such a thing were legal, that these nudes are well pre-1940, in keeping with the “1930” jotted on the folder. I can’t find any evidence Tallent was taking photos that early; these are professional quality.
Bradley Reeves, co-director of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, has started a file on Tallent and his interesting career. He says Tallent’s photos generally have his stamp on the backs. These don’t. Some folks who knew Tallent say they’ve never heard that he ever worked with nudes.
He may have merely used his studio to print some negatives taken in Hollywood or somewhere. Or maybe there was an unrelated underground studio in Knoxville in 1930 called Talent Studio. As historians should say more often than they do, who knows.
I got fewer knowledgeable responses to the other half of my column, chasing reports that a less-outgoing Knoxvillian, novelist Cormac McCarthy, lived and worked in a Bearden motel room in the early 1980s. But I got one very interesting one.
I’d heard the story before, mainly via a 1985 book, Images of the Southern Writer, by Mark Morrow, that Cormac McCarthy once lived in a motel in Bearden. But it didn’t square with other stories of him growing up in deep South Knoxville, then living in rustic circumstances in Blount County, then moving to Texas. Most thumbnail biographies imply he moved out west in 1976, and that was that. He lived in El Paso for years, and now lives near Santa Fe.
But in the middle of his Western sojourn Cormac McCarthy moved back to Knoxville, when he was working on Blood Meridian, his first western saga. He was then in his late 40s. No bestselling author or Hollywood celebrity yet, but his first four novels had gotten national critical acclaim. Writers knew who he was. He won the coveted MacArthur “genius grant.” And he got a small room in a motel near Homberg Place.
Melinda Meador is an attorney, a sometime U.S. Supreme Court attorney who has spent much of her career in Washington. She’s now based in Knoxville, and works for Winchester, Sellers, Foster and Steele. In 1981, she was in law school and met Cormac through his sister-in-law, Judy McCarthy. She and Judy were in Criminal Clinic together, and attending a murder trial downtown. Cormac came with her every day to watch.
“He lived at the Colony Motel,” she says. “It was a funky ’40s-era motel, U shaped. He had an end room.” The long-gone Colony was on the south side of the Pike between Carr and Mohican. She saw his desk, and his old manual typewriter, already old-fashioned in 1981.
It was practically next door to Draper’s Bookstore, and an easy walk to two liquor stores. Some of us have tried to imagine Cormac as the lone stranger bar-hopping around Bearden, maybe in the now-defunct basement bar then known as Dirty Gurt’s. But Melinda says he took her to finer dives, the sorts of places other middle-aged professionals went: like Cappuccino’s, the swanky West Knoxville restaurant associated with the Copper Cellar. They were also regulars at the Torch, the sunny eatery on Cumberland Avenue at 17th.
“It wasn’t like he skulked around in all the seedy places,” she says. “He was a regular guy, just much smarter than anyone I ever met.”
Corrected: the name of Melinda Meador's law firm.