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Sally Fitzgerald; Flannery O'Connor's Friend, Editor and Literary Steward

Obituaries

July 14, 2000|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the fall of 1949, Sally Fitzgerald's life became permanently entwined with that of a quiet, sandy-haired young woman with penetrating blue eyes who joined her rural Connecticut household as a boarder.

The young woman, Flannery O'Connor, would become one of America's most cherished writers. Fitzgerald, a homemaker and occasional book reviewer who once considered a nun's life, became one of O'Connor's closest friends and steward of her small but exceptional collection of short stories and other writings.

Fitzgerald, who was 83 and died of cancer June 25 in Cambridge, Mass., was the editor of "The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor," which she described as a "self-portrait in words" of the Southern writer often compared to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Fyodor Dostoevski. The letters, published in 1979, earned an unprecedented special award in 1980 from the National Book Critics Circle.

She also was co-editor with her then-husband, Robert, of "Flannery O'Connor: Mystery and Manners," a 1969 selection of essays and lectures that illuminated many of O'Connor's ideas about writing. She was editor of the Library of America's "Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works," published in 1988, and was completing a biography of the author when she died.

"There is no question she was probably the preeminent O'Connor scholar," said Sarah Gordon, an English professor at Georgia College and State University and editor of the O'Connor Bulletin, a scholarly journal. "She made O'Connor much more available to us as a human being, particularly in the letters . . . and she gave readers great insight into O'Connor's stated intentions and motives."

Born Sally Morgan, Fitzgerald was a judge's daughter who grew up in Texas. She studied briefly at Stevens College in Missouri, then went west to USC, graduating in 1938. She also studied at the Chicago Art Institute and at the Art Students League in New York.

In 1942 she joined the Navy, earning the rank of lieutenant as an intelligence liaison with the Soviet navy. She gave up her plan to become a nun when she met her husband, Robert, a poet, classical scholar and translator who served in the Navy at Pearl Harbor and Guam.

After the war, the Fitzgeralds settled in Connecticut and were active in New York literary circles. Through New York contacts, they met O'Connor, who was seeking a quiet place to finish her first novel. They soon agreed to rent her a room over their garage in Ridgefield, Conn.

Sally Fitzgerald was, like O'Connor, deeply Catholic. Such faith permeated O'Connor's work, which explored God, divine grace and redemption through stories and characters so grotesque that the author was often classified as Southern Gothic.

Although elegant, witty and ferociously intellectual, Fitzgerald lacked her husband's literary education. Yet the religious beliefs she shared with O'Connor gave her ground to stand on when she offered the young writer occasional suggestions, sometimes while the two washed dishes on a quiet Saturday night. Their roots in the South--O'Connor was from Georgia--provided another link between the women, who would become the closest of friends.

O'Connor had graduated from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and was finishing a fellowship at Yaddo, an artists' community in New York, when she came to the Fitzgeralds. She lived with them for a year and half while she worked on her novel. Remembering her reaction upon reading the story that became the beginning of "Wise Blood," published in 1952, Fitzgerald said, "I knew I was in the presence of a formidable talent."

O'Connor became such a part of the expanding Fitzgerald household--the family would eventually grow to include six children--that she usually left only to attend daily Mass or to walk half a mile down the hill to the mailbox. She became godmother to one of the Fitzgeralds' children.

"She wasn't interested in going off to New York. She didn't want to 'get away,' " Fitzgerald told the Washington Post in 1980. "If she was snowed in or iced in, that didn't bother her. She would write in the morning, come down to lunch and nap or baby-sit in the afternoon. There was no company but our own. We were just very happy."

In December 1950, when O'Connor was 25, she fell ill and returned to Georgia. She was hospitalized and nearly died of the lupus that eventually killed her at 39.

Fitzgerald saw the writer only three more times, the last time in 1958 in Italy, where the family was living while Robert Fitzgerald translated "The Odyssey."

They stayed in touch through letters. Their correspondence formed an important part of "The Habit of Being," along with letters from Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Elizabeth Bishop, John Hawkes, Walker Percy and others.

Fitzgerald selected each of the letters and provided a sensitively written introduction and connecting passages. She preserved O'Connor's misspellings, explaining that "to have corrected them would have destroyed some of the savor."

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