Thelma and John

Arthur Nead illustration

Forty years ago this month, March 26, 1969, John Kennedy Toole died at his own hand. Twelve years later, in ’81, Toole was reborn as a writer.
There are two main characters in the life story of Toole: John himself, the author of the classic Confederacy of Dunces and, perhaps most of all, his mom Thelma.

When Toole committed suicide, his manuscript for Confederacy had remained unread. It was Thelma who worked to get recognition for the piece. Her break came when novelist Walker Percy agreed to read it, liked what he read and recommended it to LSU Press. The book was published, became a sensation and in 1981, John Kennedy Toole was awarded, posthumously, the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Mom, Thelma, accepted the prize.

As the book became a sensation so did Thelma, who was by that time an elderly and eccentric woman with a penchant for wearing long white evening gloves, even in the daytime, but with a poetic soul and sharp wit.

In an interview I once did with her, I asked what her son was like as a child. “He was born with a face he carried all his life,” she replied. “That’s a rarity. The nurse came into my room and said that she had never seen a baby with such facial expressions. The nurses all marveled at this wondrous baby. He was born a little man.”

Thelma’s star shined so brightly that she was flown to New York City to appear on NBC’s then-late-night program, the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder. The host was totally charmed by her and ended the interview by suggesting that maybe one day she could return and he would provide drinks and snacks. Snyder was floored when 80-year-old Thelma replied, “Champagne only, Tom. I’m not just someone you can just drag in off the streets.” Later that evening Thelma watched the broadcast of the taped program in her New York hotel. Responding to her performance, she told her companion, “Who was that lady? I’d like to meet her.”

What I remember most about my interview with her was the contrast between Thelma, trying to be so elegant, and her untidy Elysian Fields shotgun home. The most remarkable moment was when I asked to see her son’s Pulitzer Prize. She paused, looked around, and rummaged through a pile of books and papers on the seat of an old, stuffed wing-backed chair. The Prize was buried beneath the clutter. Only in her home should a guest need to be careful not to sit on a Pulitzer.

When I asked about her Christmas memories with John, Thelma recalled that he was only a week old for his first Christmas. She had bought some ornaments that to her seemed to have an old European look. They kept the ornaments through the years. Then she remembered what turned out to be John’s second to last Christmas for which he had purchased a Christmas tree and the same ornaments were used. “He had,” she recalled, “one of the most enchanted childhoods that any child could ever have.”

As a parting gift, Thelma gave me a small bag from the former D. H. Holmes Department store. Inside was a box of chocolate mints. The price tag on it wasn’t from Holmes but from Schwegmann’s, the then-omnipresent budget supermarket chain. That was Thelma, living a Holmes existence on a Schwegmann’s budget.

From the union of John and Thelma came Ignatius Reilly, the Lucky Dog-selling, street-corner-philosophizing lead character of Confederacy, who will forever present his “worldview” to anyone who reads the book.

For whatever fires burned in John Kennedy Toole’s mind there was at least the flash of light that created Ignatius. For whatever hurt Thelma felt, at least she persisted. She indeed deserved a toast – champagne only, please.

“Ignatius On Stage,” a staged reading of A Confederacy of Dunces starring WWL Radio personality and actor John “Spud” McConnell, will take place Sunday, March 29 at 3:30 p.m. at Le Petit Theatre during the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. For ticket information go to tennesseewilliams.net or call 581-1144.

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