- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

GENEROUS WOMEN: AN APPRECIATION

By Earl Hamner

Cumberland House Publishing, $19.95, 236 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.

Novelist and screenwriter Earl Hamner is best known as the creator and narrator of the long-running television series “The Waltons,” though he has many more accomplishments to his credit.

The real-life John-Boy Walton first came to fame with his 1961 novel “Spencer’s Mountain,” a forerunner of the Walton family’s story that was made into a successful motion picture starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara. He wrote the scripts for eight widely admired episodes of Rod Serling’s TV series “The Twilight Zone.” Several generations of children have enjoyed the 1973 animated version of E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” for which Mr. Hamner wrote the screenplay.

And many fans of “Mister Walton” have been a bit shocked to learn that he created the very un-Waltonesque nighttime drama “Falcon Crest,” a long-running chronicle of greed, betrayal and lust within a wealthy family of California vintners.

With Mr. Hamner having been raised in the village of Schuyler, Va. — the model for Walton’s Mountain — within a family and community that boasted many strong, gracious women, it is not surprising that all his works portray girls and women in an honest, true-to-life manner. In his latest work, “Generous Women,” he salutes a great number of the women who have shaped his life in some way, from the day of his birth to the present day, during the author’s 83rd year.

“Some of these ladies have been famous, their names and faces known all over the world,” notes Mr. Hamner in his introduction. “Others are known only through their own communities, but their gifts have been many and varied, and each has enriched my life,” helping make him the man he is today: kind, tolerant, warm-hearted, a shrewd judge of character, honest and nobody’s fool.

The “generous women” he salutes include two First Ladies of our country, several distinguished actresses (one of them a fairly notorious vamp), a blue-blooded novelist, a distinguished literary agent, and a helpful editor, as well as a housekeeper, a neighbor, a trio of aunts, the author’s mother, his wife and his daughter.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Hamner’s warmest words are found in chapters devoted to his mother, Doris Giannini Hamner, a woman of kindly firmness; his wife, Jane, who was and is the greatest love of his life; and his daughter, Caroline, who possesses the gift of self-giving helpfulness.

Mr. Hamner waxes eloquent in speaking of his daughter. He laments that we live today in a world in which “fine old customs like courtesy and gratitude and sacrifice and respect and kindness seem in short supply,” but is heartened by Caroline’s example, noting “that every action has a ripple effect, and I wonder what might happen if each of us threw aside our suspicions and prejudices and hatreds and our smug self-importance and called out to someone who seems to be in need, ‘Are you lost? Can I help you?’”

He adds, “Caroline still does that, and in so doing she makes this a better world for us all.”

This passage gives a strong clue to the thematic thread running throughout “Generous Women.” Lives are changed, families are changed, communities are changed, a nation is changed, not by grand political programs designed to reshape human nature or create Heaven on Earth, but by individuals going quietly about the task of brightening their own corners within their small circles of influence.

Children (especially) learn the rudiments of fair-dealing, coping with disappointment, and thankfulness through experiencing small, seemingly forgettable incidents and episodes during their lives, with those lessons often taking root and playing a role in forming character.

From his mother, Mr. Hamner received the gift of life, his kindly nature and the upbringing of love and acceptance illustrated in “Spencer’s Mountain” and “The Waltons.” From a neighbor, Parkie Sneed, he learned the concept of fair pay for a full day’s work. From an elementary school teacher, Olive Giannini, he was inspired to pursue his dreams as a writer.

There are many other examples in “Generous Women.” Other women who helped shape Mr. Hamner’s life include novelist Harper Lee, actress Michael Learned (“Olivia Walton”), editor Belle Becker, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, among others.

One of the most amusing chapters in Mr. Hamner’s book is devoted to his encounter with Southern novelist Frances Parkinson Keyes, author of “Dinner at Antoine’s” (1948). While working as a writer for NBC during the 1950s — the era of “live” television — he arranged for Keyes to be interviewed in her New Orleans home by “Today Show” host Dave Garroway.

A few minutes before air-time, the very proper Keyes telephoned NBC to say that she now refused to be interviewed, as she had been under the impression that dear “Mr. Galloway” would conduct the interview on-site, in her gorgeous home, rather than by telephone. She believed she had been deceived, and now she wanted no part of the interview.

Twenty minutes to air-time! A hurried attempt to smooth things over by Mr. Hamner’s hot-tempered, foul-mouthed manager only made things worse. As a last resort, Mr. Hamner was pressed into service to rescue the program. He phoned Keyes and gently, patiently assured her that there had been no intention to deceive her, and that the awful man to whom she had recently spoken was no gentleman; he was, in fact, a cad and a man with no upbringing, who didn’t understand Southern ladies.

Keyes relented, and the show went on: a triumph of diplomacy — except for the fact that Mr. Hamner emerged from his conversation to learn that every word of his conversation had been piped into NBC’s outer offices and heard by everyone on staff. The hot-tempered manager stormed up to Mr. Hamner and snarled that he deserved to be fired. “Maybe,” replied Mr. Hamner. “But I saved your show!”

Many other such episodes — some funny, some sobering, some causing a catch in the throat — await the fortunate reader of “Generous Women,” a well-crafted, heartfelt work by a writer who recognizes the high value of gratitude.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of the biography “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House).

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