Sunday, January 31, 2010

Note on Duchess of Palms
Duchess of Palms by Nadine Eckhardt
Nadine Eckhardt was at the center of Texas literary history and Texas (and U.S.) political history. Her life really encompasses the changes in American society from the 50s through the 70s. She married Billy Lee Brammer, the author of The Gay Place (a great novel about Austin and Lyndon Johnson), in the early 50s and was part of the liberal Austin political scene of the 50s that informs so much of The Gay Place. She worked in Johnson's office with Brammer for several years when Johnson was Senate leader. After divorcing the chronically irresponsible Brammer, she met and married a state legislator, Bob Eckhardt, who later became a Congressman from Houston in 1966 (he served until he was defeated in 1980). Eckhardt was author of the Open Beaches act (one of the most liberal pieces of legislation in Texas ever--it essentially made a huge chunk of valuable Texas land public property forever--although there have been recent attempts to undermine it) and was a sponsor of the War Powers Act in Congress. Nadine Eckhardt wasn't a retiring wife--she was actively involved in her husbands' careers. She was also witness to some important events.

Unfortunately, she is not a good writer. This memoir is useful for filling in bits of history, but whenever you want Eckhardt to dive in and give you details, she moves onto the next thing. For example, for readers of The Gay Place, what would be interesting would be a non-fiction description of the scene in Austin among young liberal political types in the 50s. What was a typical evening like? Who was sleeping with whom? What happened when Representatives from bumfuck Texas came to Austin for the legislative term--and went wild? At first, I thought Eckhardt wasn't describing this scene because it was, perhaps, embarrassing. But she readily admits to affairs, flings, one-night stands, and various infidelities. She clearly isn't embarrassed by them. So why not describe the milieu? It was an interesting time, sort of a pre-history of the counter culture, a precursor to what Austin would later become. But you get the barest outline of it here.

Another thing she does as a writer is to suck the suspense out of a story. When she meets Bob Eckhardt, she talks about being so in love that she became blind to some of the faults he had--faults that would later lead her to divorce him. Urgh. I understand she didn't write a novel here, but by telling the reader that she would be divorcing Eckhardt several years later just as she is describing falling in love with him, she sucks the interest out of the arc of their relationship.

So a frustrating read. Still, you get an excellent feel for Lyndon Johnson and life in his office. You get a good picture of life in Washington, D.C., during 1968 when cities burned after the assassination of Martin Luther King and when antiwar activists were mainstreaming the counterculture. (Eckhardt starts smoking pot and sleeping with a Georgetown student around then.) Her encounters with black radical Ray Robinson in Resurrection City are recounted in some detail and are really interesting.

Duchess of Palms is a very short book, and a quick read. My main disappointment is a nagging feeling of what it could have been, which is probably unfair. Nadine Eckhardt is not a novelist or even a professional writer--she is someone who has lived an unusually eventful and interesting life, and provided us with a sketch of that life.

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