By Nick BeJeaux
In his 1984 work Parnassus on the Mississippi historian Thomas W. Cutrer compares the city of Baton Rouge of the 1930s and 40s to the legendary home of the Greek Muses, a place where artistic inspiration permeated the very air – an apt description considering it cultivated no less than six Pulitzer-winning writers since 1946.
Contrary to romantic notions, great writers are not solitary creatures. Of the six noted authors, four lived in the same apartment in the heart of what is now known as the North Gate: Peter Taylor, the not-so-happy married couple of Jean Stafford and Robert Lowell, and Robert Penn Warren. The house is now called The Palms on State Street, owned by Mary Duchein and rented out to LSU students.
“That house was built around 1940, maybe 1939,” said Clarke Cadzow, the owner of Highland Coffees, an admirer of literature and an amateur historian who specializes in the history of the North Gate area. “It was built by the Thompson family, who simply wanted to have a house near campus; they eventually rented it out. The writers we’re talking about lived there by 1941, so the house would have been brand new. Even 70 years later you can’t help but to think how well preserved it is.”
However, it isn’t the only haunt in and around Baton Rouge inhabited by these literary giants. In fact, Warren, the most successful and recognized of the group, reportedly wrote the hallowed novel All the King’s Men while living in a cabin he built off of Old Hammond Highway. The cabin is currently owned by the McMains family, of which DIG’s Art Director, Julius, is a member. Julius’ uncle, Chuck McMains, reached out to Warren in 1984 via letter to confirm his connection to the property but didn’t expect a reply. Warren did indeed respond and the family has framed his letter as a memento.
“An out-of-work carpenter and I built the [cabin] further from the road, as a stop while I was trying to find a place in the country,” he wrote. “Found one at last out at Prairieville.”
Warren is the only person in history to win a Pulitzer Prize in literature and poetry and was instrumental in founding the tremendously influential Southern Review while teaching at Louisiana State University. However, Warren would eventually leave his teaching position at LSU for a spot on the University of Minnesota faculty and eventually he would settle at Yale.
“It was ridiculous that we lost him,” said Cadzow. “I don’t know the whole story, but I guess when his contract was up for renewal the University didn’t want to pay him a little bit more. For something like $300 more, the University of Minnesota lured him away. In retrospect, this is one of the worst things that has ever happened to the LSU English Department.”
Not only did LSU lose Warren, but the literary prestige and magnetism attached to his name.
“What’s even worse is that he was a magnet for very bright people,” said Cadzow. “There was all of a sudden not a compelling reason for writers to be at LSU. Lowell and Stafford, also Pulitzer winners, left almost at the same time as Warren. Taylor left to fight in World War II. But think of all the potential talent that didn’t go to LSU because Warren had left.”
Cadzow has devoted 12 years to the study of the area, searching for every journal, article, letter and scrap he can get his hands on. His coffee shop has been in more or less the same spot for 25 years and has hosted many patrons that lived the history he now so fervently pursues.
“Customers would come to my shop who had memories of this area during the 1930s” he said. “I remember speaking to a lady who remembered this area in the mid 30s who lived in what was known as Smith Hall, which was the first girls’ dorms on campus.”
But memories seemed to be the only record of the North Gate’s history, and that didn’t sit right with Cadzow.
“I felt an obligation because there was no history gathered,” he said. “People kept talking about their memories of the neighborhood and I was aware of the history, but I felt it was slipping away. This area has been here since the 20s, it’s the historic entrance to LSU, and nothing has ever been formally written about this area. It’s nuts.”
Cadzow hopes to one day soon publish a book on his research, but the life of a coffee shop owner can be a busy one. At the end of the day, helping run the North Gate Merchants Association, roasting coffee beans in-house, chatting up customers, paying the bills and tracking down obscure historic records can be draining.
“I’m just really busy, but I think I will write a book one day because it needs to be done,” he said. “This is the oldest commercial and residential district in the city besides Downtown; I don’t think we can afford to let its history slip away.”