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Return to Interviews Table of Contents Source File: cat.bohlke.i.28.xml

from Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters

Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke

Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986


Present-Day American Literature was founded in 1928 by Julius Temple House at New River State College in Montgomery, West Virginia (now West Virginia Tech). House, a professor of English at the school, was a native of Wayne, Nebraska, which led to a continuing personal interest, reflected in his journal, in Nebraska authors. Comprehensive coverage was frequently given to John G. Neihardt, who by 1929 was listed on the masthead as a sponsor of the journal.

Among the associate editors was Orin Stepanek of the University of Nebraska, Lyle Dowling of Madison, Nebraska, and J. G. W. Lewis of Wayne, Nebraska. Neihardt was a frequent contributor, as were Hartley Burr Alexander, who had been a student at the University of Nebraska while Cather was there, Walter Lippman, Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mary Austin, Witter Bynner, Walter de la Mare, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Robert Lowell, and other young authors whose names were to become better known with time. The subjects included Neihardt, E. A. Robinson, Sinclair Lewis, e. e. cummings, contemporary American writers of every stripe, certain political and philosophical articles, and frequent items about Cather. The journal was conceived as a quarterly but was published monthly from 1928 to May 1932. In October 1932 it became a quarterly and ceased publication in August 1933, when the editor went to Europe.

Another contributor to the magazine was first identified only as "J.F., initials of a young woman who lives in Red Cloud, Nebraska." In later articles, her full name is given —Jo Frisbie. Ms. Frisbie, born and raised in Red Cloud, met Willa Cather, and has long served on the Board of Governors of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial. She now lives in Omaha.

The personal tone of the interview is charming, as is the famous author's apparent modesty when in her hometown. Although the meeting occurred in December 1927, the article was not published until the following July.


"Red Cloud?" people query in that mildly disinterested tone that they reserve for polite conversation. Then, before one has time to explain, their eyes brighten and they add quickly: "Oh yes, isn't that Willa Cather's home town?" Their interest is no longer merely polite: "Tell us about her. What sort of a person she is and what Red Cloud thinks of her."

If one is in a hurry, one can truthfully say: "Red Cloud is proud of her" and let the matter drop; but few people from Red Cloud are in a hurry when Miss Cather's name comes up. Besides, it is not a question that should be answered in one short sentence. The answer involves too many things: her kindness toward all her old friends here; the cordial manner with which she always greets anyone from Red Cloud; and the graciousness of the woman herself.

Once an actress from Denver was spending the winter in New York. She tried to arrange a meeting with Miss Cather but was unsuccessful. Finally, in desperation, she sent in her card with a note saying that her father was Tom P of Red Cloud. She gained a reception immediately. "Why didn't you tell me before that you were Tom P's daughter?" demanded Miss Cather as soon as she saw her.

Her kindness, it is true, is not always understood. One year when she was spending the holidays at Red Cloud she went in to Cotting's Drugstore. A farmer was buying a book for a Christmas present. Miss Cather noticed that he had decided on One of Ours. With her customary thoughtfulness, although she did not know the man, she approached him and said: "Would you like to have me autograph it for you?" He looked a bit puzzled and, seeing that he did not know her, replied haughtily: "No I don't want nobody writin' in my books."

In spite of the four miles of paving of which Red Cloud boasts, it is quite possible for two people to be in town at the same time without seeing each other. Although Willa Cather has been in Red Cloud many times, I never had the privilege of meeting her until last winter during the Christmas holidays. It was with great delight that we looked forward to tea at the Cather home on Thursday afternoon. Even though husbands and grandmothers had to be drafted into service to help take care of the children, none of us wanted to miss the opportunity.

To appreciate an account of the afternoon one must know something of the Cather family. Although they have lived in Red Cloud for many years, they came originally from Virginia, and they have never lost that quality that the story-books call "true Southern hospitality". Miss Willa's mother and two sisters were there. One sister is the wife of a Red Cloud banker and the other has the reputation of being one of the best teachers that ever taught English in the High School at Lincoln.

Papers and magazines have a way—a most distressing way—of collecting old pictures of celebrities and publishing them. I am afraid that my impression of Miss Cather had been somewhat influenced by these old prints. At least I was wholly unprepared for the nicely dressed, cordial hostess who greeted us. She is about medium height with a slight tendency toward plumpness. Her hair is dark and fluffy. She does it very simply and becomingly. That afternoon she wore a two piece tan crepe dress trimmed in brown. Her pumps were black with one strap and her hose were that color of sand which is fast becoming conventional. If I had not gone to the trouble consciously to examine her dress, it would have gone unnoticed. It was far too becoming to be conspicuous. When you talk to her you notice her vigor and herself, not her clothes.

Two things particularly took my attention during the afternoon's conversation. One was her extreme alertness. The other was the care with which she chose her words. One felt that when she asked: "Is the water hot for tea?" she was certain that those were the very best words to use in making her inquiry. At first her deliberate manner bothered me, but, as soon as I realized what she was doing, it became pure delight to listen. She talks as she writes, clearly and unaffectedly.

Something had detained the niece who was to help serve, and as I was sitting near she asked me to help. Of course I was delighted. She sat at the big square table in the dining room to pour. It was covered with a long white cloth and the usual tea accessories. Tea with Willa Cather is not a foolish affectation; it is a ceremony. She used a very special technique in preparing it for her guests.

"Go in and ask each lady," she directed, "how she likes her tea. Then tell me and I'll fix it for her. It will save passing all these things"—pointing to the usual cream, sugar, and lemon.

Mrs. Foe wanted only one lump and no cream. Miss Cather put in the lump and then held another over the top of the cup speculatively.

"One hardly seems enough," she said in her deliberate way, "These are such small lumps, and yet I don't want it too sweet." The steam poured up out of the cup, and I expected to see the lump melt and disappear while she was considering, but she decided: "I'll put the extra lump on the side of the saucer. Then she can put it in if she needs it."

Now and then she would peer into the teapot anxiously lest the tea steep too long. Once, when it looked a little too dark, she poured some out in a bowl at her left, explaining as she did so: "I'll just pour a little of this out so there will be room for more water. This bowl is what the English call a 'slop-bol'—a most inelegant name!"

It was the week after Christmas, and she showed us many things her friends had sent her. Part of the candy she served came from friends in California. The cake she brought around for us to see before she cut it had come from a friend who was teaching in an eastern college. She showed us a wreath of a particular kind of evergreen that another friend had sent from California.

"He sends me one every year," she said. "I hang it on the candelabra in my apartment in New York. Each one lasts two years; so I always have two. Now when I go back to New York I'll put this one up and take down the one he sent two years ago."

After tea was over, she called our attention to the group of figures on the table in front of the window. They were figures about six inches high of the Christ Child, Mary, Joseph, the Wisemen, the shepherds, and the gifts they had brought. They were arranged on a thick carpet of pine needles. The child and its parents were at the top of several tiny steps, and the others were in the various stages of coming up. She lit the six or eight candles that were stationed among the figures, just at dusk. She spoke of the madonna:

"I have two Marys, one French, and one German. It was hard to decide which to use. The French mother is charming but she looks a little affected. I finally chose the German one. The French mother might love her child, but I felt sure that the German mother would take better care of it."

The only gentleman at the party that afternoon was her small nephew, a child somewhere in the neighborhood of kindergarten age who had come to spend the week with his grandparents. He was very proud of the fact that he had tea every afternoon with his Aunt Willa. She explained that he was fascinated by the little figures in the window. One thing had troubled him, however; he saw that the shepherds had brought gifts, but that, while there were plenty of oxen among them, there were no cows. He was sure that such a tiny child should have milk. He persuaded someone to take him to the tencent store at the first possible moment so that he could purchase a cow. He brought it to his auntie one afternoon when she was in the bath tub. He stationed himself just outside the door with the package and a pair of scissors so she could open it as soon as she came out. The afternoon we were there the cow was occupying a prominent place in the procession. Miss Cather seemed more proud of it than of the figures that had come from Italy and France.

As I was walking home that evening it suddenly occurred to me that during the whole afternoon no mention had been made of any of Willa Cather's books, or of herself as a literary lady.

Present-Day American Literature 1, no. 3 (July 1928).