Moral Turpitude

In 1972, Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories won the National Book Award winning over John Updike, E.L. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates and Walker Percy, just to name a few. Eight years after her 1964 death, O’Connor moved notches up in American letters by posthumously winning the National Book Award as her writing progressively secured itself among, and surpassed, much of the writing she studied at Iowa just after World War II. At Iowa, O’Connor wrote a graduate paper on William Faulkner in her MFA program. She studied and read Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Caroline Gordon, James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, Edgar Allan Poe and Faulkner, just to name a few. Many writers influenced hers. One of O’Connor’s most recognizable fictional characters from her novel Wise Blood begins with Hazel Motes returning from WWII, and he buys a blue suit, changing from his Army fatigues. Then in 1988 amidst The Cold War, Pete Dexter is awarded the National Book Award for Paris Trout. O’Connor had been passed twenty-four years, by then.  

Despite the years, O’Connor and Dexter have two things very much in common besides both being awarded one of America’s most prestigious writing awards besides the Pulitzer. 

For one, O’Connor and Dexter have in common the streets, squares, people and their stories that echo in Milledgeville. During separate decades, O’Connor and Dexter inhabited the streets of Milledgeville as Dexter lived in Milledgeville for a time before Paris Trout was published.

The more specific streets are Wayne, Hancock, Jefferson, and Wilkinson. On Wayne, Marion Wesley Stembridge owned a dry goods store. Wayne is where Mary Flannery O’Connor’s grandfather, Peter James Cline, had also owned a dry goods store. At Hancock and Jefferson, O’Connor attended weekly mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. At the corner of Hancock and Wilkinson, O’Connor’s mail was postmarked Milledgeville where, during The Depression, her aunt Katie L. Cline was a money order clerk, and O’Connor’s uncle Hugh T. Cline had been Postmaster. Diagonal the once post office turned Visitor’s Center, across the convergence of Wilkinson and Hancock, O’Connor and her mother often ate lunch. A story above the restaurant in the building that no longer stands, Pete Bivins once had a law office in the Sanford building in May of 1953. On Hancock above the Campus Theatre, Marion Ennis also had a law office in May of 1953.  

Stairs.jpg
2017 view of the stairs leading to the offices above the Campus Theatre where Marion Ennis’s office was in May 1953. 

For two, O’Connor and Dexter have in common Marion Wesley Stembridge. On 2 May 1953, O’Connor hadn’t been long returned from Iowa, New York, and Connecticut. Later, Dexter will hear about the infamous 1953 Saturday and base the eponymous fictional character Paris Trout of the National Book Award winning novel Paris Trout on Marion Wesley Stembridge.

Maybe a sliver of a silver lining can be seen. In a way, the story of Stembridge and Emma and the Cooper family and, subsequently, Pete Bivins and Marion Ennis and all others sadly involved in the story will win the National Book Award twice–once in 1972 then again in 1988.

How? 

O’Connor’s first draft of “The Partridge Festival” was first published in The Critic in 1961 and collected in the body of work that comprises The Complete Stories. “The Partridge Festival” was once a draft and then eight more drafts as the nonfictional Marion Wesley Stembridge is first named Mr. Sparrow then ultimately Singleton. The first draft is described; “Dr. George Gordon de Lacey comes to Pittsville from the university, takes a motel room to write about Mr. Sparrow’s murdering three prominent businessmen and then killing himself. [de Lacey] visits his spinster aunts, Minnie and Elizabeth de Lacey” (Driggers & Dunn p. 119).

O’Connor added a businessman.   

They call it Milledgeville; O’Connor fictionally called it Pittsville in an early draft of “The Partridge Festival”, and fictionally, Dexter told the story his way, telling Emma’s story, calling her Rosie

Rosie Sayers was tall and delicately boned, and her front teeth lay across her lips like sleeping white babies. She was afraid of things she could not see and would not leave the house unless she was forced.

The house was flat-roofed and warped. It had five rooms, and the wallboards that defined them were uneven, so you could see through the walls from any of the rooms into the next.

She lived in this house with her mother and her brothers and sisters. There were fourteen of them in all, but Rosie had never counted the number. She had never thought to.

The brothers and sisters slept through Rosie’s screams in the night—it was a part of things, like the whistling of her youngest brother’s breathing—but her mother’s visitors, unaccustomed to the girl’s affliction, would sometimes bolt up in bed at the noise, and sometimes they would stumble into their pants in the dark and leave.

Her mother called the dreams ‘spells’ and from time to time stuck needles in the child’s back as an exorcism. Usually after one of her visitors had left in the night. Rosie would stand in front of her, bare-backed, allowing it.

On the day she was bitten by the fox, Rosie Sayers had been sent into town to buy a box of .22 caliber shells from Mr. Trout. Her mother had a visitor that week who was a sportsman.

Mr. Trout kept a store on North Main Street. There was a string on the door that tripped a bell when anyone walked in. Colored people stopped just inside the door and waited for him. White people picked out what they wanted for themselves. There was one light inside, a bare bulb, hanging from a cord in the back. 

He came out of the dark, it reminded her of a ghost. He glowed tall and white. ‘What is it?’ he said. 

‘Bullets,’ she said. The word lost itself in the darkness, the sound of the bell was still in the room.

‘Speak up, girl.’

‘Twenty-two bullets,’ she said.

He turned and ran a long white finger along the shelf behind, and when he came back to her, he was holding a small box. ‘That’s seventy cent,’ he said, and she reached into the tuck of her shirt and found the dollar her mother had given her. It was balled-up and damp, and she smoothed it out before she handed it over.

He took the money and made change from his own pocket. Mr. Trout didn’t use a cash register. He put the box of shells in her hand, he didn’t use bags much either. She had never held a box of shells before and was surprised at the weight. He crossed his arms and waited. ‘I ain’t got forever,’ he said.

(from Paris Trout pp. 3-4)

OldStore
An old store and soda parlor in Milledgeville: Georgia State College for Women (GSCW), 1934 Spectrum (p. 169)

 

8 January 1951

Georgia, Baldwin County

I, Marion W. Stembridge, of said county and state being of sound mind but realizing the insecurity of life, do make this my last will and testament. I made a previous will some years ago but this previous will was made void by my later marriage.

I am informed that it will be necessary for me to give to my legal wife a certain share of my estate and I am sorry that this is true. I am not able to avoid the thought that if she had brought to our marriage the love, the enthusiasm, and the willingness to work that I felt; our answer would have been different. After neater consideration, it is my unqualified belief that she married me for what she hoped to get out of the marriage in a financial way.

I give and bequeath to my legal wife the minimum that the law requires, one dollar.

To Mrs. Veta H. McKastley, who works with us, I give and bequeath the sum of $500.00

To Miss Vera Puckett, who works with us, I give and bequeath the sum of $1000.00

To every one who owes me directly or indirectly, I give to them everything that they owe me.

To Mr. L. A. Puckett, who works with us, I give and bequeath the entire stock of groceries and all fixtures therewith that shall be in our grocery department at the time of my passing with the provision that he is to pay all outstanding debts of this department. This grocery stock does not include the above [$20,000] worth of merchandise in our wholesale department. (The upstairs in our building is set aside for our wholesale store).

The balance of my estate consisting of only and every kind whatever, I give and bequeath to my sister, Thelma.

I appoint my brother-in-law, Edward Beman and my sister Mildred Beman, as executors of this will. They are to serve without bond.

Marion W. Stembridge (Seal)

Published, declared and executed by Marion W. Stembridge as his last will and testament on the 8th day of January 1951 he signing in our presence and we signing in his presence and in the presence of each other and at his special interest and (?). 

Ethel M. Perdue                                                        address Macon, GA. Persons Bldg.

Harry E. Nottingham                                               address    “       “          “          “

Nottingham

StembridgeCo
The 1951 handwritten Last Will and Testament by Marion Wesley Stembridge (Special Collections, copy)

 

Sarah Jordan Terry was a widow. She will later marry Marion Wesley Stembridge then file for divorce in April of 1953. 

April 1953

 3) Your petitioner and the defendant were duly and lawfully married on August 24, 1947, and lived together as husband and wife until July 31, 1949, on which date the defendant separated himself from your petitioner, and they have not lived together as husband and wife since that date.

 4) During the two years of their married life, your petitioner made the defendant a true, loyal, affectionate and devoted wife; she performed all of her domestic duties while living with the defendant as his wife, and gave him no cause whatsoever for complaint. In addition to performing her household and domestic duties, your petitioner worked in the defendant’s office, store, and place of business; worked long hours daily and many hours at night, as bookkeeper, secretary and clerk—doing any and everything within the scope of such work – and she made every possible contribution to the defendant’s business and material success during that period.

sarajordanterry2
Sarah Jordan Terry, Assistant Professor of Secretarial Training, Georgia State College for Women (GSCW), 1937 Spectrum (p. 21) 

5) Notwithstanding the foregoing facts, the defendant treated your petitioner in a cruel and inhumane manner, inflicting all sorts of cruelty upon her, both mental and physical; he became involved in a criminal enterprise, and was convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude, and finally he deliberately and willfully abandoned and deserted your petitioner.

6) Your petitioner brings this suit for divorce on the grounds of (a) cruel treatment, and (b) conviction of the defendant for an offense involving moral turpitude, and (c) willful and continued desertion.

sarajordanterry
Sarah Jordan Terry, Georgia State College for Women (GSCW), 1936 Spectrum (p. 24) 

 

 

7) The acts of cruel treatment are specified as follows:

(a)      The defendant nagged, abused, cursed and threatened your petitioner almost continuously during the last ten months they lived together; used sharp and inhumane words, abuse and profanity towards her, repeatedly and on numerous occasions;

 (b)     Defendant insisted, demanded, and virtually forced your petitioner to work long hours in his office, store and place of business daily, and often at night; and denied her social privileges;

 (c)      Defendant was cold and indifferent towards your petitioner, and deliberately and willfully refused to show her the affection, love, care, respect and recognition to which a wife is entitled; but maintained the attitude toward her of a cold-blooded and hard-boiled employer toward an employee;

 (d)     The defendant has an unusually temperamental, eccentric and queer personality; he is extremely egotistical, has a high and uncontrollable temper, and on numerous occasions he would fly into fits of temper and rages of anger—and thereby caused your petitioner to live in a constant state of fear and dread of him;

 (e)      On numerous occasions the defendant made false and ridiculous accusations and charges against your petitioner, and did everything within his power to embarrass and humiliate her; and forbid her to visit relatives and neighbors, and heaped abuse, profanity and vilification upon her whenever she would attempt to do so;

 (f)      On numerous occasions the defendant would strike, slap and kick your petitioner, and shove her around, and commit other acts of physical cruelty on her;

(g)      The defendant carried a pistol, slept with a pistol under his pillow or by his side, conducted a reign of terror, and kept your petitioner in a state of virtual slavery throughout their married life.

8) The aforesaid acts of physical and mental cruelty committed by the defendant upon your petitioner, was such willful infliction of mental and physical pain and suffering upon your petitioner, as reasonably justified her in apprehension of danger to her health and life. 

 9) At the July 1949 term of the Superior Court of Baldwin County, Georgia, the defendant was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, for the fatal shooting of Emma Johnekin, and was sentenced to a term of imprisonment in the State Penitentiary; and the said conviction, judgement and sentence of said Court was affirmed and became a final judgement. The said crime was involving moral turpitude, and is an absolute ground for divorce.

 10) On Sunday night, July 31, 1949, the defendant abruptly and deliberately left the home where he and your petitioner were living, moved to the Baldwin Hotel, and has never returned to live with your petitioner as husband and wife since; thereby deliberately and willfully abandoning and deserting her. 

References:

Dexter, Pete. Paris Trout. Random House, 1988.

Driggers, Stephen Gause, and Robert Dunn with Sarah Gordon. The Manuscripts of Flannery O’Connor at Georgia College. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1989. 

Georgia. Baldwin County Superior Court. The Petition of Sara Jordan Stembridge. April Term, 1953. 

          

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