Katherine Anne Porter was born in Texas in 1890. Her mother died when she was just a child and her father, overwhelmed, dumped his daughter on relatives. So it’s not surprising that Katherine did her best to run away from her childhood.
After an abusive marriage, a short career as an actress, and time spent in a sanatorium, Katherine began focusing on writing. In 1920, the magazine she was working with sent her to Mexico to cover the revolutionary movement. Here she became friends with Diego Rivera.
Katherine’s life in Mexico inspired some of her finest stories including that of “Flowering Judas”, a story about post-revolution Mexico. The protagonist is Laura, a gringa, who is in Mexico City teaching children English. She sees herself as someone who wants to help the downtrodden and gets involved with Marxist insurgents.
Laura is very attractive and has many suitors. One suitor is a 19 year old youth who comes on her patio one night and serenades her for a couple of hours. To get him to go away, Lupe, the housekeeper suggests that Laura throw him a blossom from the Judas tree which she does. The young man tucks the flower in his hat band, sings one more song, then goes away. But he continues to come back, follows her around, and leaves poems for her in the doorway.
Despite all of her politically related activities, Laura lacks commitment. Towards herself, towards her beliefs. One night Laura dreams she’s eating flowers from the Judas tree thus named because it’s the tree that supposedly Judas Iscariot hung himself from. Only in a dream does Laura acknowledge her self-betrayal, a betrayal that leads to feelings of isolation and alienation.
Moral: be true to yourself if you want to get a good night’s sleep.
The story of Laura is very similar to that of Katherine’s. They were both Roman Catholics, both young attractive women living in post revolution Mexico, both more at home when away from home. Both had difficulties anchoring themselves.
Katherine’s nephew, Paul, remembers her with great affection. Everything about her, he says, seemed glamourous. She liked to rouge her earlobes and wear long stings of pearls because she saw herself as a work of art. Katherine liked troubadour songs and writing in the margins of her books. She even tried correcting the Encyclopedia Britannica (as well as her cookbooks).
Katherine was a great conversationalist and loved to read poetry out loud. You could hear the punctuation when she spoke. She loved laughter and naughty jokes but, considering herself a Southern belle at heart, could never say obscenities.
Mary Queen of Scots and Joan of Arc were her role models. Katherine was an early riser, loved cats, and collected recipes. She made her own bread believing store bought bread was only for feeding pigeons. Having studied at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, she enjoyed sighing, kissing her fingertips, and rolling her eyes when talking about food.
Ship of Fools was the only novel she ever wrote. It was turned into a film offering her some economic security to maintain her eccentric lifestyle.
To read the essay about Katherine written by her nephew, see “Remembering Aunt Katherine” by Paul Porter in Katherine Anne Porter and Texas, An Uneasy Relationship, anthology ed. Machann & Clark (on Archive.org)
To read Katherine’s short stories, see The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter also on Archive.org.
Related: Springtime in Rome + Eudora Welty (1909-2001) + Ship of Fools film 1965 trailer + host James Day talks with writer Katherine Anne Porter about her nearly fifty year career youtube + SHIP OF FOOLS on Archive.org