In 1980 and again in 1983, a Mobile, Ala. writer named Frank Daugherty interviewed Thelma Toole, mother of the late John Kennedy Toole, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Confederacy of Dunces. A short excerpt of the interviews was published in the Mobile Press-Register in 2002 but the lions’ share of the material and Frank’s photos have never before been published.
We've also included a short compilation of clips from Frank’s interview tapes, in which Thelma plays original music and performs an impression of Miss Trixie.
- interview and photographs by Frank Daugherty
When two fans of the novel Confederacy of Dunces meet, it’s enough just to say the names of the characters and both will start laughing. Miss Trixie, Irene Reilly, Santa Battaglia, the Minkoff Minx, Officer Mancuso. Phrases will also do the trick: “Lash him till he drops!” or “My valve is closing!” Surely one of the highest forms of literary success is that articulate adult readers become like teenagers retelling the plot of a good movie.
The tale of the book’s unlikely triumph is a familiar one now. Unable to find a publisher for his novel, oppressed by financial and other worries, the young author committed suicide in 1969. Seven years later his mother, Thelma Toole, managed to persuade the writer Walker Percy to read the only copy of the manuscript.
Expecting a dud, Percy was astonished to find a great novel, yet even he was unable to find a New York publisher to take on the novel of an unknown, dead author. Finally Louisiana State University Press agreed to publish the local book, expecting to sell just a small number of copies. Instead, it became a world success, translated into numerous languages.
In 1980, while working as a reporter at the Azalea City News and Review, an alternative weekly newspaper in Mobile, Ala., I was intrigued to hear about this New Orleans novel, and bought it when it was just coming out. After reading it twice, I was so impressed that I managed to find Thelma Toole and interview her twice, once in 1980 and again in 1983. This piece includes parts of both interviews, edited for brevity and clarity.
At that time, Thelma Toole lived in a tiny ’50s house on Elysian Fields Avenue not far from the French Quarter — she had returned to the area where she grew up. I had expected a sort of blowzy Irene Reilly, but found a cultivated woman and a 500-watt personality. Her careful enunciation and the amusing flourishes in her speech betrayed the former actress in amateur theatricals and the professional elocution teacher, even if bits of Brooklynish New Orleans did poke through.
She was thoroughly entertaining and a good hostess, even presenting me, in grandmotherly fashion, with a brand new flowered pillowcase when I left. I still have it today. At the same time, one could glimpse a little undercurrent of disdain that she shared with her son for those who did not quite measure up. Thelma Toole obviously idolized her son, and her sense of humor was intertwined with grief at his loss.
Great humor is often only a hair’s breadth away from tragedy. Comedy at times dances over the abyss. To me, the chat with Thelma Toole recalled this quality of the book itself. Nevertheless, at the close of her life Thelma Toole had unexpectedly found fame and was enjoying it. When I met her, she was flush with triumphant tours and media appearances promoting the book. She began talking right away about an exciting national TV interview on the Tom Snyder show:
Toole: It was taped at 6:30. When I went in [the TV studio], they wanted to make me up. I said, “Uh-uh.” I became a little belligerent. They said, “You have to.” So they put on a little powder, and I was delighted. They know what they’re doing. We had a good time. At the end Tom Snyder said, “I'm gonna have you back, we're going to have a reception.” I said, “We'll have champagne of course?” He said yes. I said, “Because I ain't something the cat dragged in.” It took him a long time to recover.
Now about my son, the great poet. It's the number one seller in paperback, you know. They've made over two and a half million so far. It's been translated into 11 languages. Finnish is one, and Russian. We're not too sure about Israel. I had some journalists over and I told them — I was in a very jocose mood — “I'm getting ready for my full-length mink coat, and my yacht, and my condominium,” and nobody laughed. I thought, “My god, let me correct this.” I wouldn’t have a full-length mink coat if it were offered me.
Weren’t you in Canada recently?
Toole: The press paid half the expenses and Canada A.M. paid half. My escort and I were two and a half days in Toronto. Tuesday morning I went to Canada A.M. for a talk show. In the afternoon two newspaper reporters came. Each one stayed two hours. I had to beg off.
Would you be interested in a signing in Mobile?
Toole: Yes. My son used to take me to Mobile and I saw Government Street. Those houses with the columns — it drove me crazy, one after the other. We loved Mobile, we liked the atmosphere. He took me there several times. I'd make sandwiches and we'd get cold drinks from the pharmacy. Nearly every Sunday when he was at Tulane he would ask, “Mother, where would you like to go? We went to New Iberia, Breaux Bridge, places like that. Oh, he knew everything. I'm very humble. Who am I? Just a messenger. My son knew everything.
What does it feel like to become a celebrity?
Toole: [Suddenly serious] I don't like it. I've always loved solitude. I think at my age I should have peace. I've been very social. I've had a wonderful life, a protected life of culture... a schoolteacher, a very beautiful life. Speech and dramatic art, piano. I'm going to tickle the ivories for you, and I'm going to warble. Walker Percy likes my warbling, my voice projection. A beautiful life and I gave it to my son. Culture. He was a genius. I saw that at birth.
How could you see that he was a genius?
Toole: Well, he was the talk of Touro Infirmary where he was born. He had facial expressions. The nurses crowded, they were laughing, they were delighted. He had the face he carried all his life. Now that's rare. A baby. It takes a while to become attractive. They're great miracles, yes, but
anyway, the head nurse would sit in my room, a Swiss-born woman. They were trying to see the enigma, who produced [him]. He was marking time. Yeah, I knew him. He raised himself out of the blanket they brought him in to me. I said, “Good spine.”
And all his life he was invulnerable. Modest, discreet, born sophisticated, born mature. And I was so afraid the older boys would pommel him. If he were a puny, bespectacled little boy, they'd have pommeled him. He was tall for his age. And his classmates were two years older than he and he'd call them “those children.”
Did he dominate them?
Toole: No, no, he didn't dominate them. But the teachers told me he was convulsed quietly, he was laughing at them, you see. One teacher — at an open house, I was the only mother went — said his hand was always shooting up. He skipped twice in grammar school. He could have skipped oftener, but they wouldn't let him.
And I said, “Mrs. Thimborg, what do you think of him?” She said, “Well, he knows everything, but he's convulsed, his head is resting on his forearm, laughing.” She felt sorry for him, you know, she understood him. Well, anyway, he recited when he was six, and he came home, and I said, “How was it?” And he said, “Those children thought I was Shakespeare.”
He knew everything. He was a great driver. He went up from here to Wisconsin to visit a friend from Puerto Rico. My son died in an automobile. You know what his father let him do? When he was five years old, he let him drive the car by himself with a little friend around the block. I said, “John, I’m going to have a stroke.” One night when he was two, his father went in a store to tend to some business and he got in front of the driving wheel and said, “I can’t make this thing go.” He used to have all sorts of little cars from the dime store.
Now I found out he didn’t like sports. I don’t understand baseball or football. He was a member of the Junior Variety Performers [a theatrical group of up to 50 child stage entertainers that Thelma Toole organized and directed starting when her son was 10]. I did what I thought would give him an outlet.
Here's a photograph of him at 12 years old. That's him. That's he. Look at the class, the quality, the refinement. I'm an entertainer, and when I present a program, everybody comes up to my level, everybody. He recited “Gualberto’s Victory.” And [a] woman... said, “You could wrap up your recital. Just let me hear Gualberto’s Victory again.” He was so superior; everybody was so professional.
I'm going to give you a few characters from the book.
[Thelma Toole then proceeded to perform hilarious theatrical renditions of characters from the book, changing accents to reflect the different social levels of New Orleans. Ignatius J. Reilly thundered, “Is the Nazi proprietress in the house?” referring to Lana Lee of the Night of Joy Lounge. Myrna Minkoff, Claude Robichaux, and Ignatius’s mother Irene also had their lines. Obviously Thelma Toole knew every word of Confederacy.]
What was John Kennedy Toole’s family background?
Toole: My maiden name’s Ducoing. Isn't that beautiful? It ain't Cajun. I had French in high school. My grandfather François Ducoing: we're in the St. Louis Cemetery Number 2, for heaven's sake. When he was four years old, one cold, clear, sunny afternoon, I took him to the St. Louis Cemetery. I said, "That's François Ducoing, your great-grandfather." And he stepped a few paces away, and I said, “That’s Dominique You, that helped Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans.”
He's listening to that! See the background that guy had? "Your great-great-grandfather, Jean [François] Ducoing, was Andrew Jackson's ace gunner at the Battle of New Orleans. It's in the archives in Baton Rouge.” He was watching, his eyes were getting big. And we walked down the aisles and I called out the French names. That guy was mature. So normal, so sane.
Mr. Toole [John Dewey Toole, the author’s father] was Irish, one of eight children, the father died young. Pierre Auguste Capdau owned the Charlene Pharmacy. Mrs. Toole the widow was befriended by Capdau; she did some chores in the pharmacy. Her husband left her with eight children, she was unskilled and so on and so forth.
Mr. Toole was born with legal ability, oratorical ability, and mathematical ability. Toole made history at Warren Easton on Canal Street. He was champion state debater. He would have been a wonderful lawyer, he was a great talker, a great orator. A member of the school board was teacher of math at Warren Easton, and he told my husband that [he] and Ricky Rodriguez were the only freshmen who could solve an intricate mathematical problem. Every year he’d spring it on them in his long tenure. My son also inherited his father’s mathematical ability, and he was an artist. That does not go hand in glove.
[My son] entered high school at 12. When he was 14 he wanted to study trigonometry. He was discreet, reticent, friendly with his contemporaries, deep. He said, “Mother, call Miss Grimm.” I thought, “That's rare, a personal touch.” I called Miss Grimm. She said, “Mrs. Toole, he walked in the room and he knew everything.” Isn't that beautiful? He knew trigonometry. “Mrs. Toole, who could have produced that phenomenon?” Now she recommended him for Tulane’s engineering, he was so brilliant.
He entered Tulane at 16 on a merit scholarship; he worked hard. I didn't have the money to pay the tuition. I offered [Sheldon] Hackney, who was the former president, to reimburse him now. He didn't want to. He said, “He's credit enough.”
[John] did work in the summer months at Haspel’s Clothing Company on Bruxelles. He did typing for Wise Cafeteria. Very industrious fellow; he wanted to help me. I taught, I had a scant income. No one knew it.
I was born in that half of a double with the yard, right on this street [on property in the Faubourg Marigny that had belonged to the proudly Creole Ducoing family since the 1830s]. When I married, I moved on Orleans Street. [Later,] I liked the uptown neighborhoods because as a girl I liked knowing neighbors and talking, but after I married I wanted to be in a neighborhood where they don’t mingle, you know. [My son] grew up [“Uptown”] on Audubon Street and then on Hampson, close to Tulane.
In the freshman year [at Tulane], a doctor... he loved my son. I went to speak with him, he said, “Mrs. Toole, the others can’t spell!” That’s Tulane University! When he graduated from Tulane, he had honors in English, the only one out of 900 graduates. Columbia University gave him high honor a year later. He said, “Mother I'll be typing for a week.”
And he had food poisoning, from the cafeteria, and he had a touch of pneumonia. He lived with a tight-fisted man who wouldn't get storm windows. And I didn't have the money to go to him. He was at the Presbyterian Hospital.
After graduate school he taught at Hunter College in New York City. He kept those smart alecs in their place, yes. Oh he was a masterful teacher. He won the Pulitzer Prize, not for the comedy, for the erudition. That “Journal of a Working Boy”!
Now he taught a Myrna Minkoff at Hunter College. Yeah, he was fascinated by her name. I thought she'd sue him. In his roll book — I found it after he passed on. And I told Walker Percy. Oh she could sue him.
Were there other characters that were real people?
Toole: Yeah, I told him about them. He didn't know the people around where I grew up [“Downtown”]. They were good, worthy people. Go to work at 5 o'clock in the morning selling oysters, pine wood — we had grates then, you know, coal; some had groceries. Santa Battaglia [pronounced buh-TAZH-lee-uh] is from the Lautenschlaeger market, an open-air market two blocks from here. That's a real person, kissing her mother's picture wet with saliva. “Listen, babe, I'm praying for ya” [imitating the blue-collar Yat accent].
Claude Robichaux is typical; he must have been a switchman on the trains. That Jewish couple, ethnic groups, Italians, French, gays. The Jewish men keep their wives ensconced in the greatest luxury. They're dressed all the time, they used to live in the Octavia Apartments. He [my son] picked every angle of human... the orbit, the expanse of the mind.
Do you see any similarity between your son and Ignatius?
Toole: Brain only. Look at the girth! My son had a tendency, slightly, to be overweight. He'd go on a Spartan diet, it used to worry me. He had a slender waist, broad shoulders.
The Leidenheimer bread family — very good French bread — lived on State Street near us. Most boys are skinny, they play baseball, they work it off. He [John Kennedy Toole] was sturdy. A neighbor, she was on her porch, someone I taught piano to, she said, “Thelma, [the Leidenheimer boys] called out “Fatso!” He said, “Yes,” he was nine then, “you and your gyp bread.” But she said they didn't know what “gyp” meant. Their trade name was “Zip.” She said he turned his head away immediately. He was invulnerable.
Another time she said she saw him with a boy who called him Fatso, and he had him in the gutter — he was strong — punching on the boy. He knew how to defend himself.
They think my son is Ignatius! And, God, my son was so clean. My son had beautiful taste in the home and taste in his clothing. He bought the finest clothing, wore it a long time, kept it beautifully laundered. I bought him Aramis men’s perfume from D.H. Holmes. He loved it. He used to ask what perfume I was using, I’d change sometimes. On our window, in our living room and in his room, he’d take a piece of gauze and saturate it with Aramis and it would perfume the room. It thrilled me; I thought it was lovely. He must have been very sensitive to scents. He was an elegant gentleman. He had magnificent eyes, large, pictures don't show his eyes. Girls loved him, they’re so giddy and foolish. At Hunter College they were after him and he kept them at arm's length.
Is there any similarity between you and Ignatius's mother?
Toole: That's another thing. Culture at three years old, 16 years of dramatic arts, ten of piano, five of violin, and they dare! This is Irene, “If anything was did, Ignatius done it.” I love the reporters who say I'm Irene Reilly.
Tell me about your son’s other novel.
Toole: He wrote Neon Bible when he was 16. Neon Bible would break your heart. It's all about the Baptist Bible belt in Mississippi. It's 158 pages. Walker Percy read it and said, “It's impossible for a 16-year-old boy.”
Toole: When he [JKT] was at Tulane we went to hear J.D. Grey. That was the big hoax, a Baptist big name. Wow! Pow! Professing for Christ, you know. He took me on St. Charles Avenue, this nice old stone structure, and we each paid a dollar. And when we came out, we laughed, and we discussed it. The visiting evangelist was a good-looking fellow with a gray suit and a salmon tie.
And he was showing how sexy and chumsy-wumsy social dancing was, he was having a good time. Everybody was screaming. Oh, it was sinful. I said this is a riot, you know the hoax of that. Catholics have many defects, but we don’t do that. And he caught that in the book. You should see the sermon that the visiting evangelist makes, and these varmints... some were passing out in a paroxysm of religious fervor, screaming in a tent you know. The way he described the putting up of the tents — 16 years old.
And his heartache. He copied Flannery O'Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away in Neon Bible. He was gung ho about Flannery, I have her letters here. And he'd read, he'd let me read her novels. She would have adored him. On his suicidal journey... I didn't know it... he was gone two months and six days. He went to Flannery O'Connor's shrine outside of Milledgeville, Georgia. He went to her home with a broken heart. I never saw him again.
Publish it [Neon Bible]? It's contingent on my husband's relatives, they own fifty percent [due to Louisiana’s Napoleonic legal code regarding inheritances] and I won't permit that. He didn't even know them. Confederacy – I paid $2,065 to have it freed. They signed a waiver after a lot of hemming and hawing.
It's unthinkable, it's unreal, it's inhuman. Despondent about the novel not being published. Robert Gottlieb of Simon and Schuster said it isn't... Walker Percy doesn't want me to say anything that will hurt the sale of the book. I said “You're wrong there, Walker, I obey you. I almost reverence you for what you've done. If you hadn't accepted it, I was going to give it up.” I sent it [Confederacy of Dunces] to eight New York publishers. I couldn't take that punishment. It was a loss to the world. He would have been a great playwright. He had theater in him, as I had theater.
How did you get the book published?
Toole: I used to scan the paper. I saw that Walker Percy was teaching creative writing at Loyola. I phoned Loyola and found out his schedule. I went twice, but he wasn't there. Then I begged the chairman of the English Department, Dawson Gaillard, to tell him. “I have a genius manuscript; pin him down.” The following day he permitted me to come. I took about 10 or 15 minutes of his time and gave him that battered manuscript. He said, “You're prejudiced.” I said, “No, I'd go before the most astute publisher and say it's a genius manuscript.” He was very pleasant, very gentlemanly.
A week later, a postcard. It said, “The most flavorful novel of New Orleans I ever will read.” He sent it to Farrar, Straus and they wouldn't publish it because the author wasn't living. He sent it to two other publishers over a period of three or four months, and he became depressed. I became sadder as he became sad. He sent it to LSU Press. Six months not a word. I said, “Walker, I can't take this punishment, please phone or call them.” So they wrote a letter and Walker mails it to me. “We do scholarly books, but we are going to publish it.” And then everything dissolved, you know, the black cloud.
Did your son write anything else? Any stories?
Toole: I found one of disillusionment, very heartbreaking. I didn't read it. When he was 15, I kept his papers in boxes. Three pieces of poetry. He told Gottlieb he wrote plenty, and he destroyed it. And everybody's clamoring now. He was very sensitive to everything. His father said everything worried him. You see this jubilant mood I have? That's just surface. I go so deep, I worry so. We have a mask as we grow older. We have to get along in the world.
Ignatius talks about the decadence of the world. Is that serious?
Toole: Well, I'll tell you, he saw phoniness. There's plenty of sense in Ignatius's high-flown talk. He talked about the paper curtains from Maison Blanche. It was sold at the budget annex. Oh, he was caustic. He attacked everything. That's what makes him attractive.
Was your son critical too in that way?
Toole: Yes, very, very, but he didn't voice it. He voiced it in his novel, very discreet. And he would not take over in a group, he would not talk as I'm talking now. He would not do that. He was more of a listener. You know what he said when he was a little fellow? There were two piano teachers. ... The school had the worst piano. He was listening to their piano playing, and he said, “Miss Ferry accompanies our singing classes and Miss Henican plays for state occasions.” State occasions! He meant the programs when the parents assembled. He saw difference, and he laughed.
The principal stopped him in the hall one day and said, “Why doesn’t your mother come to the Mother’s Club meeting?” So I went. They were getting ready for the May Festival, and I promised them a piece of cake. One of the officers said she was going to make a “chauw”-clate cake. So I told him when he came home and he laughed. And I said, “Will you free me now from going to the Mother’s Club?”
I saw him watching everybody. There was a very beautiful woman in the neighborhood, natural auburn hair. She had twin boys. I used to take them to the park and amuse [them]. I said to him, “Am I pretty?” The devil, four years old, he said, “You’re nice when you smell good.” He didn’t commit himself. And as he grew older, he thought I was so attractive. But he saw it as is when he was a little boy. Children see things clearer than we give them credit for. When he was a little fellow, big time talk, true talk, oh yeah!
The interview ended when Thelma Toole went over and sat down at the piano. A 24-year-old Hollywood producer named Scott Kramer had paid her $10,000 for the rights to a film of Confederacy of Dunces, a film which was never made. Thelma had taken it upon herself to write music for it, and was going to present it later to the lucky producer.
To my surprise, it turned out to be delightful, reminiscent of Vaudeville and uncannily appropriate. She played a series of tinkling jumps and cackled loudly, “Oh, how fun!” followed by a long staccato laugh. It was the song for Dorian Greene, the gay French Quarter party-thrower that Ignatius tries to recruit for his cause. Then she interrupted herself:
You really seem to have Ignatius in your blood.
The music is Ignatius.
So often when they make movies about the South...
I know that, I had a nightmare last night. I take everything seriously. That movie will be a classic. I want the intellectuals to come back to the movie, that's what I want. They'll have to get the accent; it's going to be made here.... he wants Judy Johnson to play. I told her, “You're not only glamorously pretty, your face has a distinctiveness about it.” If I have anything to do with it, they'll let local people audition.
What am I? I try too hard. My son tried too hard. Not in studying, that was nothing. He tried too hard in his writing. Walker Percy said writing is hell. It is hell for a good writer. He suffers, he suffers.
My brother asked why do young men like my company? [Thelma had been befriended by the young gay community of her Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. They chauffeured her around and ran interference with the many people who wanted to meet her.] “I'll break down and tell you,” I said. “Your sister ain't pretty, your sister ain't young, but your sister's charming. I'll spell it for you, c-h-o-i-m-i-n. Put that in your calumet and smoke it.”
[She resumed her playing.] I'm a warbler, Walker Percy loves to hear me sing. This is “My Worldview,” I'm very fond of this. In minor keys, that's the way Ignatius was.
"Booooooooo-ethius!" [She intoned Ignatius’s theme about the ancient Roman philosopher in a deep voice, then played a little trill.] That movie will be a classic. “Oh, How Fun,” composed by Thelma Ducoing Toole. That will run through the movie from time to time. I'm going to play it first, then Al Hirt is going to come in on the second half, and then Pete Fountain, and then the three of us work up in a fine jazz frenzy.
That opens it when it comes on the screen.
Maybe it's a pipedream. Scott Kramer didn't tell me the director. He promised to come here with his scriptwriter. I'm trying to be... I can hobble a bit, I can get by. I could be Irene Reilly with a little makeup on my face, but my face is too tender. This is Robert Merrill, the opera star, singing “Boethius”:
My worldview is the ocean's expanse,
My worldview is a planet afar,
My worldview is a river's depth,
My grasp is a shooting star.
My worldview is the firmament blue,
My worldview is Einstein profound,
My worldview is orbital space,
In Shakespeare's plays I'm bound.
No trivial tract for me,
But Dante's Divine Comedy,
And Milton's soaring Paradise Lost,
Geoffrey Chaucer and Ben Johnson at any cost.
Oh many singers I embrace
And lutes with their gifted troubadours.
Yea, medieval times were bright in the past,
And their spirits still endure.
I like it, don't you? Yeah, I wrote that. Aw, that's trivial, but not bad.
I want Robert Merrill, or Robert Goulet has a fine, high-class voice. I think he'd be cheaper than Robert Merrill.
Well, darling, it has been so nice.
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