ROBERT McALMON 1896 - 1956
When he died in Desert Hot Springs on the second of February (Joyce’s birthday and the publication date of Ulysses) in 1956, few of his neighbors suspected Robert McAlmon had been one of the shining stars among the expatriates in the 1920s. Born in Kansas, McAlmon lived in Greenwich Village where he collaborated with William Carlos Williams in publishing Contact magazine. Shortly after marrying the English writer Annie Winifred Ellerman, better known as Bryher, the couple moved to Paris in 1921. There McAlmon established Contact Editions to publish his own works, those of Bryer, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Williams, and other modernist writers of the “lost generation” - that extraordinary gathering of expatriate writers who for a decade turned Paris into the literary capital of the world. He assisted Joyce in the editing of Ulysses and was encouraged to publish his stories by Sylvia Beach. Unable to remain in any place for long, McAlmon traveled throughout Europe, the United States, and Mexico from 1927 to 1940. He published a bitterly honest memoir, Being Geniuses Together, in 1938. After the outbreak of the war in 1940 he returned to the States and worked as a salesman for his family’s firm of medical suppliers in El Paso, growing increasingly bitter as he tried to revive his literary reputation. In 1951, suffering from consumption and alcoholism, McAlmon moved into a house at 66,299 Second Street in Desert Hot Springs owned by his sister. We would know little of this period except for the interest of a Los Angeles bookseller and collector, Robert Wetterau, who bought some of McAlmon’s remaining rare books and who encouraged him to publish.
In a letter to Wetterau dated Oct. 6, 1951, McAlmon writes: “It is very nice here, with one very fine restaurant when I want to eat out, and still quiet. My sister bought a house and I am living in it. She and other sisters will drive down now and then to see me, and I hope they don’t bring elderly women friends as one did last weekend. but she did cook, fill the refrigerator with her own canned fruits and fresh vegs. etc. Can’t kick much. Have to get mail at the postoffice, and if you should chance down here, let me know, or if passing through get instructions to get to my place (2 blocks from the town market) from A.A. Borrows real estate agent, next to post office. Will always be glad to hear from you. Best to you, Rob McAlmon.”
Another letter dated March 14, 1952, includes an interesting note on Desert Hot Springs: “The weather today is clear and snappy but the wind hits one in the belly and cuts into one like an ice pick over the navel. But the weather ought to get better.”
James Mortensen and Katherine Heinemann later wrote to Wetterau: “Both Katherine and I feel uneasy about McAlmon’s last years, the years he spent in Desert Hot Springs. Edward Dahlberg writes that McAlmon was a bitter and difficult man in a dumpy town. Grace says her brother in his last year often drank too much and had crying spells.”
Although his literary reputation had sunk into obscurity, many friends, Pound, Kay Boyle, and Katherine Anne Porter among them, remained loyal. These letters reveal that McAlmon was continuing to revise his work and to desperately searching for a publisher to the end of his life.
McAlmon with Hemingway