It was not until Ed Meek was a senior at Ole Miss in 1962 that he came to discover the man beyond the myth of William Faulkner
I had never read any of William Faulkner’s books when I arrived at Ole Miss in 1958, but I quickly learned he was somebody you didn’t mess with.
At least that is what I thought, as I saw him leaning on a parking meter with pipe in hand. I walked in the street around him to avoid any contact.
Mr. Bill was not well regarded by many in Oxford who felt he wrote about things that should not have been talked about in his novels that were set in a mythical county based on Lafayette County and Oxford. Most of us college kids got the impression he was maybe a mean fella, and he should be avoided, which I did until my senior year. I had an experience then that showed me that Mr. Bill was the most kind and gentle man I came to know. All those rumor and stories I heard had nothing to do with the real Mr. Faulkner. I met him when I was invited to photograph him riding his horses to make pictures he wanted to send to his beloved and only daughter, Jill, who lived in Rowan Oak, Va.
Stonewall Jackson, a large but somewhat be haggled white horse, seemed to be his favorite.
As Mr. Faulkner rode Stonewall Jackson to jump fence hedges I was supposed to be taking pictures. While Mr. Faulkner and Stonewall Jackson jumped and jumped again and again, I watched as the pair moved from left to right, then right to left. It must have been 100 degrees in the shade.
I took no pictures.
I had been invited to this photo opportunity by the late Col. J. R. Cofield and his son, Jack. Col. Cofield was the official Faulkner photographer and asked me to take the jumper picture. But, he gave me a stern warning with this very special invitation to not take a single picture until Mr. Faulkner said to do so. Already predisposed to be somewhat fearful of Mr. Faulkner, I was waiting for him to tell me to start taking pictures.
Even in the extreme heat of July, Mr. Bill wore a ragged old London Tweed coat with five large holes in the back and with a well used handkerchief tucked up his left sleeve. As he dismounted Stonewall Jackson to come over to talk to me, he was red as a beet, sweating and wiping his brow.
“Well Mr. Meek, did you get some good ones?,” he asked. To which I responded “No Mr. Faulkner, I was waiting for you to tell me to start”, I replied. I honestly thought he was going to pass out right there in front of me as both he and Stonewall Jackson were perspiring profusely. But I was just obeying Col. Cofield’s instructions.
“Well start,” Mr. Faulkner said as he mounted Stonewall Jackson, with some difficulty, once again and began to jump the hedge row while I snapped and snapped pictures.
I was so excited to have the opportunity to photograph Mr. Faulkner. I rushed to the darkroom and printed proof sheets for him to select the desired prints. Mr. Faulkner was in a big rush to get the pictures, and I sure did not want to disappoint him. But it was nearly three weeks before he called, and that is when I learned what a kind man he was. He asked me to visit again at Rowan Oak.
The pictures were not good, he said, as he pulled that used handkerchief from the left sleeve of that same tweed coat on another very hot summer day. He put his arm around my shoulder, and we walked slowly over to a large stump that stood in front of the old smokehouse. There he laid out the handkerchief, drew a picture of a horse. He asked if I have ever taken pictures of horses before, and I assured him I had, many times.
“Take this pen and point to the most important part of a horse,” he asked?
Having made money as a freshman taking pictures at horseshows, where there usually was a lady holding a red or blue ribbon standing at the front of the horse, I was confident in my answer as I stuck the pen squarely on the main.
“That’s what I thought,” Mr. Faulkner said.
“The important part of a jumper, Mr. Meek, is not the head but the ass!
You shot from the wrong end,” he said.
I was mortified that I had screwed up the best chance in the world to please the man who is regarded as the greatest writer of fiction of the 20t Century. Mr. Faulkner was most kind and said there was no problem, we would try again later. I was delighted.
Mr. Faulkner wanted to pay me but, not having done the work, I refused to accept payment.
“I insist,” he said, to which I replied with great hesitation (dare I ask him for his autograph?), “OK, write me a check for $1 and personally sign it or autograph a picture for me.” My response was delivered so quickly I am sure he could hear the fear in my voice.
“Your choice,” he said.
“I’ll bring a picture out,” I said, to the man I now knew to be warm, kind, concerned and caring.
A day or two later, Mr. Bill died and I never got a check or my autographed photograph. I was told Stonewall Jackson threw Mr. Bill, who is said to have been three sheets to the wind. He was taken to a familiar detox center in Byhalia where it was said he fell down a staircase and later died.
When I heard of his death, Jack Cofield and I were dispatched to Rowan Oak immediately to photograph every inch of the house to assist in preservation of the home.
The first picture I took was of Mr. Faulkner’s tattered desk where he wrote many of his novels.
The pictures of Mr. Bill and Stonewall Jackson were the last made of him at his home.
I can never forget Mr. Faulkner, who was certainly no monster as I had assumed from local gossip. –– Ed Meek, publisher, HottyToddy.com
Email Ed Meek at email@example.com