Shirley Ann Grau: “Race was a dominant theme in her writing—the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s burned a cross on her front lawn.”

From an obit by John Pope on New Orleans’s headlined “Shirley Ann Grau, author who won Pulitzer Prize in 1965, dies at 91”:

Shirley Ann Grau, a Metairie author who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 for her novel “The Keepers of the House,” died Monday night of complications of a stroke. Her daughter Nora F. McAlister confirmed the death.

Race was a dominant theme in her novels and short stories – “The Keepers of the House” featured an interracial marriage – and that made some readers irate. There were threatening phone calls, and the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s burned a cross on the front lawn of her suburban home.

The cross-burning didn’t have the intended effect, Grau told The Washington Post, for two reasons: She and her family weren’t at home – they were at their summer home on Martha’s Vineyard – and none of the Klansmen had thought to bring a shovel. Consequently, they had to lay the burning cross on the lawn, scorching the grass and frightening the neighbors.

“It all had kind of a Groucho Marx ending to it,” she said.

Threats didn’t faze Grau, who turned out six novels, four collections of short stories and a teleplay in a career spanning a half-century. She wasn’t daunted because she had spent much of her childhood with a gun in the Alabama woods hunting rabbits and squirrels.

Whenever threatening calls came, “I always answer threats with threats,” she told The Post. “I remind the people that I’m probably a better shot than they are.”

“She was fiercely independent and extremely private,” McAlister said. “She thought the term ‘eccentric’ was a positive one. To her, it meant you had the courage to follow your instincts, your dreams, your goals.”

Born on July 8, 1929, in New Orleans, she spent much of her childhood in Alabama and graduated from Ursuline Academy in New Orleans. In 1950, she graduated with honors from Newcomb College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

“She loved music,” McAlister said. “She wanted to be a violinist, but she was told she wasn’t good enough, so she turned to writing.”

She enrolled in Tulane University’s graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in literature, but, according to material in a Tulane library exhibit spotlighting Grau’s work, she withdrew when the English department chairman said he wouldn’t hire women as teaching assistants.

Fate intervened in the form of her friend Mary Rohrberger, who was taking a philosophy course at Tulane that James K. Feibleman taught, McAlister said.

After hearing Rohrberger talk about her friend, Feibleman asked to read some of Grau’s short stories, McAlister said. “He was intrigued, and he asked to meet her.”

They were married on Aug. 4, 1955, in New York’s City Hall. The bride wore a red suit, McAlister said.

While on their honeymoon, they found an old farmhouse on Martha’s Vineyard. The couple fixed it up and turned it into their summer home, McAlister said, and they became part of the island’s lively set of artists and writers that included the opera star Beverly Sills, the artist Thomas Hart Benton, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and the orchestra conductor Guy Harrison. . . .

Grau’s first book, “The Black Prince and Other Stories,” was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1956.

When the Pulitzer came in 1965 for her fourth book, Grau said she first thought the call telling her she had won was a practical joke from a friend. . . .

“I was awfully short-tempered that morning because I’d been up all night with one of my children,” Grau told Deep South Magazine. “So, I said to the voice I mistook, ‘Yeah, and I’m the Queen of England, too,’ and I hung up on him.”

It took a call from her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, to convince her the honor was real. She framed the certificate and hung it in her home office above the door “so you had to turn around and look up to see it,” her daughter said.

Although Grau has been celebrated for her works on the printed page, McAlister said her mother decided to try her hand at writing a made-for-TV movie – “Maddie’s Waltz,” starring Ed Asner and Michael Learned – because the notion intrigued her.

It didn’t go well at all, her daughter said. “It drove her crazy because she was used to writing until the story was finished, and she wasn’t used to having a limit – in this case, 43 minutes.”

Throughout her career, Grau resented being pigeonholed as a “Southern writer,” even though her novels and short stories are set in the South.

“No novel is really a regional novel,” she said in a Washington Post interview. “A novel has to be set somewhere. A Southern writer has a harder time because everybody says immediately ‘Southern regionalist.’ … I would love to get away from the Southern label. I would like once in my life to have something I write taken as fiction, not as Southern sociology.”

John Pope, a reporter in New Orleans since 1973, was a member of The Times-Picayune team that won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. A contributing writer to The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, Pope is the author of Getting Off at Elysian Fields, an anthology of obituaries and funeral stories he wrote for The Times-Picayune.


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