For the love of stories: The Unchained Tour’s simple majesty

In the final story of The Unchained Tour on Friday night, Savannah native Edgar Oliver told stories of growing up here, painting an image of himself as a child desperate to understand his real and imagined worlds.

Near the end of his 10-minute story, Oliver talked about the effect on him of the title of Harry Hervey’s celebrated and sordid novel The Damned Don’t Cry. As a child, Oliver thought that he knew what that book was about — and that it was about him.

“The idea of that book somehow lived with me my whole life,” Oliver said.

Years later he was to find that it was the story of young Irish girl in Savannah who goes on an odyssey through various social groups before returning to Savannah and setting up a brothel in one of the city’s most storied homes.

For those of us who have long thought that Hervey and his novel deserve wider acclaim, it was a great moment, and it led fittingly to his beautiful conclusion: “I’ve always written about longing,” Oliver said. “Longing is the only magic of which I am capable.”

This year’s cast of The Unchained Tour, created among others by The Moth founder George Dawes Green, included Oliver, host Peter Aguero, Elna Baker, Tina A. Brown, Joan Juliet Buck, Green, and musicians Shovels and Rope (the married couple Michael Trent and Carrie Ann Hearst).

The Unchained Tour at each stop focuses its time and energy on supporting independent bookstores — so the Savannah shops The Book Lady and E. Shaver Bookseller got prominent plugs.

I was most interested in Oliver’s story, but all of them were moving or provocative in their own ways. George Dawes Green deserves great credit for giving such cultural prominence to something so simple — to ordinary people gathering to listen to stories of each other’s lives. The Unchained Tour board and other organizers deserve great credit too, for taking such a tremendously important experience and message on the road

Here’s 9 minutes of Oliver talking about his youth in Savannah in his sonorous voice:

For more on Harry Hervey, here’s what I said about him in a 2005 column after a cache of his papers was given to the Georgia Historical Society:

Most Savannahians at one time or another have heard Lady Astor’s 1946 characterization of the city: “A beautiful lady with a dirty face.”

I suspect few of you, however, have heard Harry Hervey’s correction. He didn’t think Lady Astor had gotten it right, and in an article for “Pageant” magazine he described Savannah in quite different terms: “the grande dame who carries her age with a certain forbidden charm.”

That’s just one of the many gems I ran across this week in a relatively new collection at the Georgia Historical Society at the corner of Gaston and Whitaker.

Hervey, of course, was the author of “The Damned Don’t Cry,” a provocative 1939 novel which was republished just over a year ago, as well as numerous other books. According to the Internet Movie Database, Hervey received writing credits for 15 Hollywood productions, including “Shanghai Express” with Marlene Dietrich and “Road to Singapore” with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. He also did work for the stage.

The GHS collection contains many of Hervey’s manuscripts (essays, screenplays, short stories) and professional papers, but at least as interesting are his personal letters.
After Hervey’s early death – he was born in 1900 and died in1951 of throat cancer – the documents went to his occasional literary collaborator, traveling companion, and longtime partner Carleton Hildreth, under whose name the collection is filed.

Hildreth (1908-1977) was an actor in his younger years, but seems to have found little work during the Depression, and obviously devoted many years of his life to Hervey. After his partner’s death, Hildreth worked for this newspaper as a proofreader. After Hildreth’s death, the papers passed into unknown hands before resurfacing after the republication of Hervey’s novel.

Hervey, whose mother was a longtime head of housekeeping at the DeSoto Hotel on Liberty, wrote some of his most interesting letters in 1943 from Hollywood while Hildreth was in Savannah. Using MGM stationery, Hervey writes of the vicissitudes and stresses of trying to get more work and more pay from the studio.
In the end, it seems he got more work, but not more pay.

Reading Hervey’s various papers is like peeking behind a curtain. Several curtains, in fact. They provide an inside look at how one Savannahian negotiated certain literary and film worlds, but they also provide a rare glance at the life of a gay couple in Savannah in the first half of the 20th century.

In fact, I was first contacted about the collection by GHS Library Assistant Mary Murphy, who received her MFA in Historic Preservation from SCAD after writing a thesis on gay and lesbian historic sites in Charleston. She noted that relatively little research in that area had been done in Savannah.

It’s striking how mundane and obviously widely known Hervey and Hildreth’s relationship was at the time. In the letters, they refer often to visiting each other’s families – even when one or the other was out of town – and frequently pass along news from their extensive network of friends. (By the way, the surviving letters are pretty much all written by Hervey, but he responds so specifically that it’s often obvious what Hildreth had written.) In a letter from the late 40’s, Hervey mentions how excited the staff at the DeSoto is that Hildreth will soon be returning from a recuperative vacation.

They share ordinary domestic concerns – about such things as their weight and frequently about money. These are punctuated by more personal moments: “Sometimes I pick up some of the things you helped me pack – simple things; a nail file or a knife – and I say to myself, we did this together,” a homesick Hervey writes from Hollywood in 1943.

There are a few slightly more explicit moments in the correspondence, and there’s regular mention of meeting soldiers who were stationed here or just passing through, although Hervey takes great pains to reassure Hildreth that nothing untoward is going on.

Some of the visual materials from the collection have just recently been made available to the public. Disappointingly, there are few good photographs of Savannah, although the GHS has plenty of other collections that have those. There are, however, as the GHS dryly notes, “a significant number of images documenting handsome young men in bathing suits and Hervey in costume.”

A few more thoughts on The Unchained Tour, which concludes with a show in Atlanta today:

The Savannah venue — the small theater at the Savannah Visitors Center on MLK — was an interesting choice. Nice stage, good sound, high ceilings. But uncomfortably narrow seats for a big person like me, and a capacity under 200. The event sold out a couple of weeks ago and I probably knew half the attendees by name. It’s tough to balance the intimacy of the experience with the advantages of reaching a bigger, broader audience — and perhaps raising considerably more revenue.

There weren’t any moments that I didn’t enjoy, but with the intermission and a 10-minute late start, the evening was 2 hours, 40 minutes with just an hour of actual storytelling. As much as I love Shovels and Rope, I probably would have cut one song. I also would have cut some of the banter, and would certainly have trimmed or eliminated the intermission. But that’s me — I like streamlined events.

I’ll add that I think the Unchained Tour is running the risk of its iconic but problem-ridden old bus interfering with its messaging.

But those are minor issues compared to the simple majesty of the storytelling itself.