by Cerith Mathias
The holiday season may look a little different for us all this year, but one tradition that remains is turning to the comfort of a good book. And where better to uncover the warm, nostalgic embrace of Christmases gone by than in the pages of Truman Capote’s celebrated short story “A Christmas Memory”?
First published in Mademoiselle magazine in December 1956, Truman Capote’s autobiographical short story “A Christmas Memory” is set in the depression-era rural Alabama of his boyhood. A heartfelt account of his friendship with his eccentric, much older cousin Sook, based on his real-life relative Nanny Rumbley Faulk, it is a love-letter to the Christmas rituals and traditions shared by them both.
Cerith Mathias spoke to Broadway veteran Joel Vig about his longstanding stage production of the story, itself sprinkled with more than a little Hollywood stardust; its connections with the legendary actress Patricia Neal and two of America’s most famed writers; and its celebration of the Christmas gift that matters the most—that of enduring friendship.
Cerith Mathias: Where does your connection with “A Christmas Memory” begin?
Joel Vig: The very first time I heard “A Christmas Memory” read aloud, I heard it read aloud by Truman Capote. When I was at the University of North Dakota he came to a writers conference there and that was the evening that he performed. It was an amazing evening. There he was in the flesh, in North Dakota, alone on the stage reading aloud “A Christmas Memory,” and it stuck with me so much. It was a packed ballroom filled with mainly university students and this strange little man comes out, steps up onto a little step on the podium and starts reading. The place became so quiet listening to him, because it’s one of the most perfect pieces of writing. Truman was very aware of the musicality of words.
CM: How did you go from that first encounter with Capote to performing “A Christmas Memory” with Hollywood and Broadway legend Patricia Neal?
Joel Vig: This story stayed with me so much. And, of course, I was aware of the television production that Geraldine Page had done of both “A Christmas Memory” and “The Thanksgiving Visitor” and so I knew that it was a character that was very suited to Patricia, who was born in Kentucky and raised in Tennessee. That Southern world was very familiar to her. So that’s how I chose the piece. I was working with Theatre at Sea, which was part of the Theatre Guild, and they got stars that would never normally appear as cruise ship entertainment. Over the years they had Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish and Patricia Neal—huge entertainers. That’s how I ended up meeting Patricia. I’d just heard her give a speech about her life, and I thought it would make such sense to have her do some kind of theater because everybody was so impressed by what she’d lived through.
So the Theatre Guild said, ‘Why don’t you talk with her about it?’ I did and that’s what eventually led to my suggesting “A Christmas Memory.”
I got a script and I gave it her. She looked at it and called me up and said, ‘Would you come for lunch tomorrow, I would very much like to discuss this script with you.’ I went along, we sat down and were having a cup of tea and she said, ‘Baby, I hate to tell you this, but that script, you have all the lines.’ And it was true, the only lines they gave Sook were the lines she says in first person, everything else was the Truman character. I had thought maybe that would appeal to Patricia because it was less to deal with, but as an actor, she was not into being a supporting character. So I readapted it. It made much better sense that the exposition be more evenly split and at the very beginning for her to say those iconic lines: ‘Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have their power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole that much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend.’ That’s how it all came to be.
CM: How long did you perform together for?
JV: We first performed it on board ship and it became the launchpad for doing it in a whole bunch of other places. We never really did an actual tour, because of Patricia’s schedule, but after we did it on board ship somebody at the Edward Albee Festival up in Alaska heard about it and we got a call from them. So we did a performance up in Alaska and then we did performances of it in New Orleans at the Tennessee Williams Festival and we went to Nebraska and Florida. Some people got wind of it down in the South and we did a performance of it at the Alys Stephens Centre in Birmingham, Alabama, and a number of small towns asked us to come down. That tied us into a little network between three states: Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, called the Southern Literary Trail. Then I got a call asking if we could bring the show to Monroeville, Alabama. The idea of doing it there was just so exciting to me. Very early in the piece when Sook says, ‘… the courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear,’ I knew that courthouse bell was the courthouse bell of the place we’d be performing.
CM: That must have been quite an experience, performing the piece in the place it’s set. Monroeville is, of course, the canvas not only for “A Christmas Memory,” but also one of the 20th century’s most beloved novels To Kill A Mockingbird, written by Capote’s childhood neighbor and friend Harper Lee. Did she attend a performance?
Joel Vig: When we were first going to Alabama two years before this, I told my friend Joanna that we were performing in Birmingham and she said, ‘Oh I’ve got the greatest idea. Why don’t you invite Harper Lee to come see your show?’ I said, ‘Joanne, that’s such a great idea! There are just three little problems. One: I don’t know Harper Lee; two: I don’t know anybody who does know Harper Lee; three: she’s only the most famous recluse in the world!’ So Joanna said, ‘You know she lives in Monroeville, Alabama. Why don’t you just write a letter to her care of the postmaster there and invite her?’
So, I got a very expensive piece of stationary and a nice envelope and I wrote her a little note that said: ‘Dear Harper Lee, you don’t know me. My name is Joel Vig. I know you cherish your privacy, I understand that so please forgive this intrusion. I am coming to Alabama and performing with Patricia Neal in an adaptation of your old friend Truman Capote’s short story “A Christmas Memory” and if you would be interested we would love to have you as our guest.’ I put it in the mailbox thinking I’d never get a response. But about 15 days later, I opened my mailbox and there was this very expensive piece of stationary, a beautiful parchment envelope with a P.O. Box ‘Monroeville, Alabama.’
I couldn’t even open it at first, I kept thinking, ‘This is not possible!’ I finally opened it up and there was a handwritten note from Harper Lee. It said, ‘Dear Mr Vig, I got your invitation, thank you so much. Birmingham is a bit of a ways from Monroeville and I don’t travel around as much as I used to,’ and then a strange sentence that said something like ‘I also worry that attending events makes me more of a distraction than I should be.’ She then thanked me again for the invite and wished the performance well.
CM: But the story doesn’t end there?
Joel Vig: The next year we were going back to a few more towns in Alabama and just over the border in Mississippi, so I wrote to her again: ‘I don’t know my Alabama geography that well, but here are the places we’re playing and if any of these are near you, we would love to have you come as our guest.’ I got back a note that said she wouldn’t be able to attend as these were also a way away from Monroeville, and that she’d had a minor stroke and was staying close to home.
Later that week, I was rehearsing with Patricia and I suggested to her that we send a copy of her book to Harper Lee. Patricia said, ‘You know baby, my book is out of print and I only have a limited number of copies.’ So I said, ‘Well, I could go look at the Strand used bookstore in New York and see if I can get one.’ She paused, and said, ‘No, no I do have some copies. But, who the hell is Harper Lee and why would she be interested in my book?’ So I told her that Harper Lee was recovering from a stroke and that as a lot of Patricia’s book was about dealing with her debilitating strokes at the age of 39, and how everybody had counted her out only for her to be nominated for an Oscar for her first movie back after her illness, that Harper Lee might find it fairly inspirational. So Patricia looked at me and said, ‘Well if you think so baby. Now, do you think I should give her a hardback or a paperback?’ I mean, she’s Harper Lee. She wrote the book that sold more copies than any book but the Bible! So Patricia agreed to give her a hardback and asked what she should write as a dedication. I said, ‘Why don’t you write, ‘Having a stroke can be very hard but if you keep up your physical therapy, miracles can happen. I should know.’ She said, ‘No, that is not the way I talk. I will just say ‘Keep on working baby! XOXOXO, Patricia Neal.’
So that’s what she wrote. We sent it down to Harper Lee and I got back a note that she was so touched at this book. I got a Christmas card from her that year, so we’d almost become pen pals. The next year, Patricia and I got the invite to play in Monroeville, so I wrote her, ‘The invitation still stands!’ and she wrote back a kind of sad note that said, ‘I would love to and I will try, but I’ve moved into an assisted living facility and I really don’t get out.’ So I wrote her another note that said we were going to be in Monroeville for three days and that we were going to rehearse in the space and we were staying in the guest house of one of the Courthouse Museum board members and that I would try to get a message to her when we arrived, in case she would like to come by for a visit.
So, I got down to Monroeville and it’s a tiny little town and everybody who lives in that town knows of Harper Lee, so I asked this woman ‘Do you know Harper Lee by any chance?’ and the look on her face was so guilty and she said,‘No, I don’t. But why do you ask?’ So I said, ‘Well just in case you did, or if you know anybody that does, if you could get a message to her that Patricia Neal and I are in town.’ Well, the very next day this woman came up to me at the courthouse and said out of the corner of her mouth, sort of like a CIA agent, ‘Harper Lee will see you this afternoon. At four o’clock there’ll be a red Volvo in the parking lot. Follow the red Volvo.’
We followed this car that took us on a drive out to the highway and down to an assisted living nursing home. I thought we’d maybe be 15 minutes, but I think it was more like an hour an 20 minutes. Patricia and Harper Lee had such a good time talking. It made perfect sense. They were both very strong, very self-contained Southern women, who were both born in 1926 and they were both part of that Hollywood contingent. Harper Lee was very close with Gregory Peck (who played Atticus Finch in the movie adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird”); when Patricia got her Oscar it was Gregory Peck who opened the envelope and made the announcement. They had so much in common, and by the time we were leaving Harper Lee said, ‘I’m coming to your show tomorrow night.’
So I went back to the museum and said to the director, ‘I have such good news, Harper Lee is coming to the show tomorrow night.’ I thought she was going to pass out. All the color drained out of her face and she looked at me with glassy eyes and said, ‘We have no tickets!” There were over 300 people who’d called and been put on a waiting list. Suddenly she brightened up and said, ‘I know! There are board members who have tickets, and I will ask them if I can offer their seats to Harper Lee and if they say yes I’ll tell them they can stand on the side and watch the performance and they’ll be able to eat out on that story for the rest of their lives!’
So that’s what’s what happened and Harper Lee came to see the show. She wrote me a note after I’d got back to New York telling me how much she enjoyed being there. It was the first time she’d been back in the courthouse since giving Gregory Peck a tour before they shot the movie. It’s amazing that all happened because my friend Joanne told me to send off a note to Harper Lee.
CM: The connections between Harper Lee and your production of “A Christmas Memory” continue with Mary Badham, who as a child played Scout in the movie of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” taking on the role of Sook in recent years. How did that come about?
JV: I got Mary’s address from a mutual friend and I wrote her a note to ask her might she be interested in stepping into the shoes that Patricia Neal filled for so many years. And she got back that she was, and we ended up doing performances in a beautiful little opera house in New Harmony in Indiana and it was a perfect place to do the piece. We would love to do more performances of it. I was getting revved up to get the word out to more places and then this whole show business shutdown happened. Mary wasn’t around in the early 1930s in Monroeville, but because she was in the film of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and it’s set exactly right then, it became such an indelible part of her growing up, she’s right in the middle of the world of that story. She grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and she never saw the courtroom in Monroeville until she was an adult. She said to me that she walked in and burst into tears because it was like being back in her childhood. She said even though they didn’t film in the courthouse in Monroeville, the scenic designer for the film had come to the courthouse and taken photos and measurements and built an exact duplicate of the courthouse in Hollywood where they filmed. So when she walked in, it was like walking back into being a little girl—there it was, it was like being in a dream. She truly understands the world of Alabama and that story.
CM: It seems that Harper Lee and Capote’s work and friendship continues to connect and intertwine long after each one’s passing. Is that something you’ve been conscious of with your production of “A Christmas Memory?”
JV: Exactly. It’s a continuation of that whole connection, which carried on last year when I wrote “Truman Talks Nelle Harper Lee,” which had its premiere in the courthouse. It’s a one-man show that I do as Capote. It takes place in 1976 in the courthouse and the premise of it, which is fictional but it’s a kind of ‘what-if situation,’ is that Capote is talking to the people in the audience, who are basically part of the device. They are the people who are attending a surprise 50th birthday party for Harper Lee. One of the first things that Truman says is, ‘Several weeks ago a lovely woman gave me a call and asked me if I would come to Monroeville for a surprise 50th birthday for Harper Lee that is going to be taking place in the courthouse. I explained to her that Harper Lee will never attend. She tells me that her sister, lovingly known in the family as ‘bear,’ has promised that she will bring Harper Lee to be at the courthouse and I explained to the woman that Harper Lee was no fool and that she did not suffer fools easily. There is no way she would be at the courthouse for the birthday party, so I would have to politely decline.
‘A few weeks later I called her and told her that I would like to attend. She said, ‘Have you decided you were wrong and Harper Lee will attend?’ and I said, ‘No, on the contrary. I know that she will not attend, but I was trying to think of what I could give her for her birthday and it occurred to me that my driving 1,579 miles to speak at a birthday party that I knew that she would not attend would amuse her. Because being crazy is something that Harper Lee and I have in common.’’
Truman is coming down to address these people and basically tell the story of his and Harper Lee’s friendship that started out when they were three and continued until the end of his life. It’s an amazing story. A lot of people know that they grew up together in a small town and were friends for years, and that she helped him by doing some of the research for In Cold Blood. She went to Kansas with him, but all the connections that they have and the very strong bond of these two little weird outsider kids who neither one fit in at all in this little town, and the fact that they would go on to become two of the most famous and celebrated writers in American literature, is almost unbelievable.
CM: How does it feel to bring their stories back to their childhood hometown and to perform in perhaps the most famous courthouse in American literature?
Joel Vig: Truman’s birthday is September 30th, and we performed it at the courthouse that weekend and it was pretty incredible. It so brings together the world of these two writers in this particular iconic space. I’m hoping that when things open up, we can do it again. It was scary to be doing it there because I knew that in the audience there could easily be friends or family members of both Harper Lee and Truman Capote. I was careful to steer away from anything mean-spirited because there’s plenty of mean-spirited stuff out there about both of them. This is the chance to talk about the most important friendship in his life.
CM: Which brings us back to “A Christmas Memory” and that other special friendship in his life with his cousin Sook. Why does Buddy and Sook’s story endure? Rereading it has become a holiday tradition for many. In fact, this Christmas has seen the publication of a new edition in the UK.
JV: One of the people who came to see “Truman Talks Nelle Harper Lee” was Princess Tina Radziwll, and of course Truman’s other holiday story, “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” is dedicated to her mother Lee Radziwill. When it was turned into a movie, Lee Radziwill came to the filming of it in Alabama, and Tina was telling me that some of Truman’s relatives were very indignant about the stories, saying things like, ‘Why did he write that we were so poor and had to steal people’s pecans? We were never so poor that we had to steal pecans.’ There is, of course, selective memory. One of Truman’s aunts, his mother’s sister, who everyone called Tiny, wrote a few books, one called Sook’s Cookbook and the other an account of Truman’s childhood in Alabama. He always said there wasn’t a word of truth in the whole thing. Tiny evidently said at some point that she had fudged on the truth a little bit and Truman apparently said, ‘Don’t worry Tiny, you’re just remembering it the way it should have been. That’s legitimate.’
So I think there’s some of that in “A Christmas Memory,” but the core of the piece is just so pure. It’s two very lonely, sad people who connect with each other and create happiness. They are each other’s best friend. I think he did kind of fudge the situation a little bit. You’re given the impression that he never saw Sook again and gets the news that she died in a letter, when in reality it’s an even sadder story. Truman came back to Monroeville when he’d grown up and Sook couldn’t relate to him. She was still really a child and she couldn’t relate to him now that he’d turned into a young adult. It’s very sad. There’s something so universally true about “A Christmas Memory.” So much of Christmas is phony-baloney and so much of real Christmas is bittersweet. It’s about not having your dream and not getting what you thought you were going to get; yet, here are these two people who get over that disappointment. They’re lying on a hill, eating their satsumas and flying their kites. There’s an incredible monologue Sook has which finishes with, ‘As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.’ It’s so beautiful and so poetic. Truman said it more than once—this is his most perfect piece of writing.
Featured photo of “A Christmas Memory” performance by Shanti Knight. Photo includes Mary Badham, Joel Vig and Christopher Layer (on piano).
Cerith Mathias is a journalist, TV producer and festival director based in Wales, UK. She writes on arts and culture, with a particular interest in Southern literature. She’s a founding director of Cardiff Book Festival in the UK and has produced TV and radio programs for the BBC. Read her blog here and more of her work in Deep South here.