I wrote to her, after reading her memoir, A Loving Gentleman: The Love Story of William Faulkner and Meta Carpenter, published in 1976 by Simon and Schuster. Meta Carpenter was William Faulkner’s lover of many years. Her NYT obituary says 18 years, but the book’s dust jacket says 30. The latter, I’m guessing, reflects the years they stayed in touch.
They met in Hollywood in 1936. Meta Carpenter worked as a secretary and then a script girl for the director Howard Hawks. Faulkner wrote for Hawks’ movies to help finance his lifestyle and his wife Estelle’s spending habit. The Nobel Prize-winning author wanted to marry Meta, but he also neither wanted to lose his Mississippi home Rowan Oak nor his ability to live with his beloved daughter, Jill. Meta Carpenter eventually broke off their relationship to marry another man. On her wedding day, Faulkner went on a non-stop drinking binge.
I read A Loving Gentleman in July 1977. I was a secretary at the time, a college graduate engaged to be married and searching for a career. Meta Carpenter’s career story resonated with me, and the romance with Faulkner enchanted me (ever a romantic). In my letter written to her that summer, I shared a little about my life. She replied a year later, apologizing for not responding sooner. She wrote that she had been recovering from open-heart surgery, adding, “I am just now beginning to answer letters from people like yourself who were kind enough to write to me about my story.” Here’s more of what she wrote in the letter 31 years ago:
“I am so happy for you that you have found a good place in the professional world and even with your own shorthand and enough determination, you can have a happy and productive life. I was never a skilled secretary and maybe that is why Mr. Hawks promoted me to Script Girl…as we were called in those far-off days. That early training Mr. Hawks made possible for me to have also made it possible for me to have a career in the motion picture industry and finally to have screen credit on the pictures on which I worked. This was certainly not a goal in itself to work toward, but it does signify some expertise…and it all started from secretarial work. So keep up your good work.”
When people ask, “What’s the most valuable book in your book collection?” I don’t think of a book, I think of this letter associated with Meta Carpenter’s memoir. Not because it’s financially valuable (I have no idea if it is or isn’t), but because the letter is so personal — not a publicity response — and from someone close to Faulkner, whose books I read and collect.
This post was updated 10.17.10 with improved images of the book and letter and 4.14.11 and 6.25.15 with minor edits.