Unofficial Inquiries from the Archives of Dead Famous Writers
The unanswerable questions about the personal effects of Carson McCullers, Gertrude Stein, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
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During the summer of 2013, I photographed, labeled, and housed the personal effects of Carson McCullers, Gertrude Stein, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, TX. Along the way, unanswerable questions arose.
Questions for Personal Effects: Item 8
Carson McCullers’ mother’s US passport was issued in 1951, when she was 61. According to it, she was 5’8″, with grey hair and brown eyes. Her occupation is listed as ‘housewife.’ The passport bears a pink stamp indicating that it is not valid for travel to Japan, Okinawa, Bulgaria, or Czechoslovakia. This is irrelevant; the passport has no other stamps. Born in Butler, Georgia, she never went anywhere. At least not at the end. Marguerite Waters Smith, where did you go? Did you ever go anywhere? Her eyes look out from the black and white pasted-in photo, startled.
Questions for Personal Effects: Item 3
Gertrude Stein’s eyeglasses are child-sized. This is hard to reconcile with the fact that I know she weighed, at her prime, over 200 pounds. She was short, but she was sturdy. Her glasses are dusty half-moons with wire arms that curve around an impossibly tiny ear, an ear that must not be more than three inches from her eye. This is impossible. This is unimaginable. This cannot be. But these are her eyeglasses. They will not fit me. I do not try them on. I tie a numbered tag onto them with a length of white string, I shake my head all the while. Gertrude Stein, what could you even see through such tiny frames?
Questions for Personal Effects: Item 95
Alice B. Toklas had style that even I can’t quite understand. She sewed vests for Gertrude in unforgivable colors and patterns. She embroidered everything, including things that really ought not to be embroidered. She had a leather jewelry case, the size, shape, and style of a briefcase, with her initials monogrammed into the camel leather, sans serifs. The inside, once you figure out the tricky metal snaps, is covered in brown velvet. It has many different trays that stack and fit just so, and each has a perfect sized brown velvet pillow nestled inside it. There is no jewelry to be found.
The whole thing smells. You wonder what that is. It’s not pipe smoke or old paper or mold, like so many items I find. It’s not ink. Or perfume, certainly. It takes a moment, but then you know. It smells like dog. And then you think of Basket, Gertrude and Alice’s giant poodle, and you think of the picture of Alice and Gertrude dancing with their dogs on the lawn, Gertrude with the dogs reclined on a lawn chair, Alice with the smaller dog perched on her shoulder, and you think, yes, of course: what else?
Questions for Personal Effects: Items 42–25
Oh Carson, darling, what were you thinking! Always wearing your cotton nightgowns out on the porch. And imagine: being sick at a time when women couldn’t wear pants to bed.
Questions for Personal Effects: Items 28–29
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s shirt was singed in the Bignell Wood fire, it was one thing for Lady Jean to save it. But to pin a note to the lapel, like a child sent to school? The long-johns raise a further set of questions. Doyle believed the thatch roof went up because of ominous spirits at the cottage, to which later residents attest. These days I imagine the ghost is likely poor Doyle’s own, sockless, looking for his lost shirt.
Questions for Personal Effects: Items 93 and 94
In one box I house, side by side, a silk lampshade and a beaded sleeping cap. Alice embroidered them both. Which did you wear more often, Gertrude?
Questions for Personal Effects: Items unlocated
A handwritten note insists your eyeglasses went to Texas, along with the book you were reading and the ashtray at your bedside when you died. But Carson McCullers, I can’t find them anywhere.