Styron's Havanas in Camelot

Wednesday would have been the 83rd birthday of William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Darkness Vis


June 13, 2008

Wednesday would have been the 83rd birthday of William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. His final(?) book was published posthumously a couple of months ago and has just found its way to our public library’s shelf.

Havanas in Camelot is a collection of Styron’s essays, most of which appeared originally in periodicals such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Le Figaro. The title implies something transgressive, prohibited things in the kingdom, a theme I haven’t seen discussed in reviews of the book.

The title essay explains Styron’s acquaintance with John F. Kennedy, through friendships with Arthur Schlesinger and Richard Goodwin, “both of whom were so passionate about cigars that smoking appeared to me to be almost a White House subculture…. Havanas were, of course, the sine qua non….”

JFK is said to have most liked the Cuban Petit H. Upmann. A similar cigar is still sold, but you may not have one, since Kennedy signed into existence the ban on Cuban goods that still stands, after having press secretary Pierre Salinger buy up as many Cuban cigars as he could find in the D.C. area. The stash must have lasted awhile after the embargo began, or else Kennedy got them through diplomatic channels, because Styron notes that after a luncheon on Kennedy’s cruiser Patrick J, in 1963, the president passed out Cuban cigars.

“I rolled mine around between my fingers delightedly,” Styron writes, “trying not to crack too obvious a smile. I was aware that this was a contraband item under the embargo against Cuban goods and that the embargo had been promulgated by the very man who had just pressed the cigar into my hand.” Styron saved the cigar as a “naughty memento.” He saw Kennedy only once more, and two weeks after that meeting Kennedy was dead. “I smoked the Partagas in his memory,” Styron says.

Havanas in Camelot also contains some of the funniest scenes I’ve read this year, again with the theme of transgression. In “I’ll have to Ask Indianapolis,” a 14-year old Styron tries to get his hands on his library’s copy of Grapes of Wrath, because he’d heard there was “coarsely realistic language” in it. “[T]he idea of seeing these words [“condom” and “whore”] in print made me nearly sick with desire,” he writes.

The librarian, “the elderly Miss Evans,” stamped the book and began to hand it to him, but then asked his age. When he answered, “she gave a kind of a squeal and began to snatch the volume away. ‘Unfit! Unfit!’ Miss Evans cried…. There was a tugging match that both embarrassed and horrified me—she kept repeating ‘Unfit!’ like a malediction—and I finally let her grab the book back in triumph.”

In “Transcontinental with Tex,” Styron and Terry Southern, writer of Dr. Strangelove and counter-culture figure (he’s on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s), stop to see Nelson Algren, who promised to show them the real Chicago, but spends a lot of time going “off on a riff of giggles that was not unlike Richard Widmark’s in Kiss of Death. Terry and I exchanged bewildered glances…. Early the next morning, still behaving like a man withholding knowledge of a delightful mystery, Nelson took us by taxi on a meandering route through the city and deposited us at the entrance of the Cook County Jail.” Southern, hungover and “wearing his shades, said, ‘Well, Nelse old man, you shouldn’t have gone to all the bother….”

After a series of adventures inside, including being introduced to “Witherspoon, a mountaineer transplant up from Kentucky (and known in the press as ‘the Hillbilly from Hell’) who had committed a couple of particularly troglodytic murders in Chicago,” Styron, his wife, Rose, and Southern are taken to view the electric chair as the highlight of the tour. “I felt Terry’s paw on my shoulder, as from somewhere behind me he whispered: ‘Did you ever dig anything so fucking surreal?’”

And in “A Case of the Great Pox,” Styron recounts being put in the “clap shack,” or venereal wing of the Marine base infirmary, as a young trainee bound for certain death in the Pacific Theater. The doctor is a sadist and voyeur, and his stepmother writes to say that she “had no intention of judging me…pointing out that there was, of course, a Higher Judge…but then she asked me to look back on my recent way of life and ponder whether my self-indulgent behavior had not led to this….” When Styron is finally discovered to have a gum infection instead, he writes his stepmother:

Dear Old Girl,

My frantic, obsessive copulations produced not syphilis but trench mouth. (Escaped from the Clap Shack in time to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior.)

Much Love,

Other essays pay tribute to friends and writers important to Styron, but even in his pieces on Twain and James Baldwin the theme of transgression continues, perhaps since Styron himself was often criticized for it. One of his working ideas, shared with Baldwin, is that “in the creation of novels and stories the writer should be free to demolish the barrier of color, to cross the forbidden line and write from the point of view of someone with a different skin.” (See Styron’s response here to a criticism of Nat Turner.)

The NY Times said in their review of the book that he lived a life in good company, and so he did. Here’s an old Charlie Rose interview of Styron talking about his generation of writers. They're an Old Guard, and passing, and each final book is a gift.


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