How Lafayette helped shape John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces and its hero, Ignatius J. Reilly.
"A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristle that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache, and at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs." ' The opening paragraph of A Confederacy of Dunces.
Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces, is one of the unlikeliest heroes in 20th century literature. A medievalist revolting against modern society, the huge and slovenly Lucky Dog vendor prone to belching and flatulence lives with his overbearing mother and scrawls manifestos on Big Chief writing tablets between hilarious and disastrous employment escapades in New Orleans' French Quarter. With a supporting cast including a hapless policeman, a senile secretary, bird-loving exotic dancers and flamboyant socialites, A Confederacy of Dunces shined a new light on the Crescent City's quirks and social landscape.
But truth is stranger than fiction, and Lafayette played a major role in inspiring the most famous novel about New Orleans.
John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces, was an assistant professor of English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1960. Born and raised in New Orleans, he attended Catholic schools and earned his bachelor's degree at Tulane University. In 1959, he received his master's degree from Columbia University in New York City and came back to Louisiana to keep an eye on his elderly parents. Lafayette was close enough to the Crescent City for him to see his mother and father frequently, but far enough away to shield him from his overbearing mother, Thelma Toole.
Toole's UL office was in a group of old V-12 army barracks in the area where Griffin Hall now stands on the southernmost edge of campus. Dr. Pat Rickels, director of the Honors Department at UL Lafayette, was also an assistant English professor in 1960 and became close friends with Toole.
"It's hard for me to believe that he was only here one year," she says. "He made such an impression on everybody. He was a fashion plate of the Ivy League. He always wore a coat and tie, and he would throw his tie over his shoulder."
Rickels settles herself in her office chair, links her fingers together over her stomach, tips her head back, closes her eyes and begins to reminisce. "I never knew anybody as witty, charming, or lively to be with in such an intellectual way," she says. "He was so much fun to be with and always playing games. He pretended things all the time. He had different personae. He'd send a postcard from New Orleans and sign it Flip and Sandy. They were a trendy couple, always doing chic things.
"He was never called John," Rickels continues. "He was always called Ken. He made fun about everything and everybody. The only thing he was serious about was his teaching. And, as it turns out, his writing."
According to Rickels, Toole taught three sections of freshman English and one survey of modern literature. He loved his students, but his propensity for mischief was as potent as his conscientious nature. "He loved to find characters in his classes. And he'd do impressions of people ' he'd take on anyone who was sort of an eccentric character. He made fun of his students to us. Or the faculty. He probably made fun of me when I wasn't there."
"Ken has a real gift for mimicry and a refined sense of the absurd," writes Joel L. Fletcher, author of Ken and Thelma, Fletcher's newly published memoir of his relationship with Toole and his mother. Fletcher, son of former university president Joel Fletcher Sr., was a friend and contemporary of Toole's. "The English faculty at USL, which is divided into several camps of war, both fear and court Ken because of his biting comic talent," Fletcher writes.
Fletcher and Toole spent a lot of time together in the summer of 1960 in Lafayette. "There wasn't much to do," Fletcher remembers in a phone interview. "I was 22, Ken was 20. You can imagine what it was like in the 1960s. We went drinking a lot. We drank beer in country bars. We went to Breaux Bridge often, to Les Bon Temps Roulé or Mulate's. We had some literary tastes in common. We talked about Flannery O'Connor and Evelyn Waugh."
Toole's office mate was New Orleans native Bobby Byrne, one of the most eccentric professors on campus. "He was a big bear of a fellow with a broken nose," recalls novelist James Lee Burke, who never met Toole but was his replacement in the fall of 1960 and inherited both Toole's desk and office mate. "Byrne didn't like to drive, and he didn't drive very well. He loved New Orleans. He used to maintain the best English in the world was spoken between St. Charles Avenue, Napoleon, Louisiana and Magazine Street."
Fletcher witnessed Byrne's and Toole's fascination with New Orleans firsthand. He remembers spending a night drinking with Byrne and Toole at the Napoleon House in the French Quarter. Fletcher had just returned from a trip to Paris and was eager to discuss his European jaunt. Byrne and Toole ignored him. "All they wanted to do was gossip about uptown New Orleans," Fletcher says.
Toole left Lafayette at the end of the summer of 1960 for New York City to work on his Ph.D. at Columbia and teach at Hunter College. In 1961 Toole was drafted and spent two years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, ostensibly teaching English to recruits.
"That's when we think he started writing, but we didn't know it," Rickels says. "We got just enough letters to let us know what he was doing."
When Toole returned from the service he started teaching at St. Mary's Dominican in New Orleans. "As soon as he got back he started calling us," she says. "He wanted to come to Lafayette and spend the weekend. He'd spend the night, and we would have very nice weekends. He exuded energy. Everybody gets in a good mood when you are with him. He was strictly a city boy, but when we were building our house out in the country he'd help.
"After a while there came a time when he started to be a little different. He wouldn't jump out the car and run to give me a big hug. He got less and less perky. The last time he just stayed in the car. He sat in the car, and I ran outside and he said, 'You don't really want me, you're just feeling sorry for me.' I had to coax him in. Over dinner he got very distressed and angry and began to say horrible things of people, that they were trying to steal his manuscripts. We didn't know what he was writing. Later that night, [my husband] Milton said it was classic paranoia. That's the first time it dawned on me he was not OK, mentally. Sunday he went home, he was pretty subdued, and we never did see him again."
Toole committed suicide in Biloxi, Miss., at the age of 32 on March 26, 1969.
The rest is literary legend. Toole's mother Thelma found the manuscript for A Confederacy of Dunces and badgered novelist Walker Percy to read it. Percy reluctantly agreed in 1976, and he described the experience in his original foreword to the novel: "In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good. I shall resist the temptation to say what first made me gape, grin, laugh out loud, shake my head in wonderment. Better let the reader make the discovery on his own."
The novel was published in 1980, and Toole was posthumously honored with the Pulitzer Prize. Rickels vividly remembers seeing Dunces in print for the first time. "We were subscribers to New Orleans magazine and they printed the first chapter," Rickels says. "It was so obviously Ken and so obviously Bob Byrne. Everything in Bobby is in Ignatius. His size, his indigestion, his greed, his love of Boethius. All of his little verbal tags are in Ignatius, being under the wing of his mama, all of his strange medieval obsessions. But there is a whole lot more to Bobby.
"What Bobby had that isn't in Ignatius was that he was one of the most knowledgeable people," continues Rickels. "He knew church law and church history. He loved to learn things that were not of any practical use. He learned classic Japanese. He couldn't speak it to any living person. There is a lot of pretentiousness in Ignatius but none in Bobby. He smoked and lived off coffee and stayed up all night. He always wanted everyone to talk and stay up all night. His conversation was the great thing."
Several years after the book was published, Burke and Fletcher were visiting Lafayette, and Fletcher was telling Burke stories about Bob Byrne. "Bob and Joel were walking at the corner of Johnston and University, and there was an elderly black man who used to have a tamale cart there, a white cart on bicycle wheels and an umbrella," recounts Burke. "The man was whistling. Bob says, 'Excuse me, is that from the third act of Aida?'"
Fletcher burst out laughing and commented, "Only Ignatius would ask a question like that."
If that scene sounds familiar, consider this section from A Confederacy of Dunces, where Reilly is eating a Lucky Dog while talking to the company owner:
Ignatius chewed with a blissful savagery, studying the scar on the man's nose and listening to his whistling. 'Do I hear a strain from Scarlatti?' Ignatius asked finally.
'I thought I was whistling 'Turkey in the Straw.'
'I had hoped that you might be familiar with Scarlatti's work. He was the last of the musicians,' Ignatius observedâ?¦"
Rickels claims that Byrne also sparked Ignatius Reilly's insatiable appetite for Lucky Dogs. Byrne's mother didn't believe that children should eat hot dogs and would trick her son when he asked for one. Byrne's mother "would butter a hot dog bun, put a wiener inside, show it to little Bob, then hand it to him, squeezing the wiener out and giving him the empty bun. 'All my life,'" Rickels quotes Byrne, "'I felt cheated. I never got my weenie.'" (Rickels uses the story as an essay topic when she teaches A Confederacy of Dunces.)
But another UL professor has also been rumored to be the inspiration for Reilly; English professor Maurice duQuesnay was a high school classmate of Toole's at Alcee Fortier in New Orleans. It's become a Lafayette urban legend that duQuesnay provided the model for Ignatius. He dislikes driving, continues to live in the same neighborhood that Byrne lived in, and longtime friends have made the association between duQuesnay and Reilly. Next-door neighbor Leslie Mann says she has always thought duQuesnay was the inspiration for Ignatius.
"Maurice is a very brilliant man, and eccentric," she says. "Is [Confederacy of Dunces] based on him? I read the book. I think it is."
DuQuesnay dismisses the comparisons. "He and I were in the same Latin class and as I remember the same sophomore English class," writes duQuesnay via e-mail. "Toole was recognized by many of us as a brilliant student, modest, reserved and almost shy. I had a few conversations with him, friendly but brief. Surely at this time, Ignatius Reilly was not even a wisp in his imagination. After high school, we never met again. At UL, then the University of Southwestern Louisiana, he taught in the English Department in 1960. I began teaching in the same department in 1968."
Questioning the relevance of second-guessing Toole's intentions and inspirations, duQuesnay says, "I fail to understand why so many are seeking of a 'model' for Ignatius. There is no single model; perhaps there is no model at all. There is no doubt Ignatius carries certain mannerisms, habits of speech and dress, and also intellectual interests which remind us of Professor Robert Byrne, a member of the English Department for many years. Ignatius bears the immediate impress of these qualities, used by Toole to create the external Ignatius. But Byrne in no way should be identified in the totality of the character Ignatius."
DuQuesnay takes exception with readers inclined to transfer Byrne's personality and intellectual traits wholesale to Ignatius. "In New Orleans Byrne knew the young Toole, and when later Toole taught here, he became friends with Byrne," he says. "This was perhaps the genesis of Ignatius. Toole 'took' a style of life uniquely Byrne's (which some thought 'eccentric,' but most of us saw as reflective of a moral character, deeply and inwardly self-directed, and a gift of mind which was none less than extraordinary), and created the mold of Ignatius. Into that mold Toole poured his own unacknowledged and unexpressed hostilities toward his parents and his hidden anarchic impulses toward modern civilization. What were admirable expressions of Byrne's engaging personality became slapstick vices in Ignatius."
For duQuesnay, it's a matter of allowing literature to retain its mystery. "Ignatius is neither Byrne nor Toole: he is a magical amalgamation born of Toole's imagination," he says. "Here the warning of T.S. Eliot assumes much relevance: art, for Eliot, is not an expression of personality but an escape from personality."
Fletcher sees no gray area in the matter. "Bobby Byrne is indisputably the inspiration for Ignatius Reilly," he says.
Byrne retired in 1985 and passed away in 2000. Rickels says she is probably the last person alive on the faculty who knew Toole and Byrne well. "Any day I can spend talking about Ken and Bobby is a happy day for me," she says. "When we first saw that chapter in New Orleans magazine," Rickels says, "We thought, 'How awful.' We thought it would destroy Bobby.
"Finally I had the courage to ask Bobby if he liked Confederacy of Dunces," she remembers. "Apparently he never saw it. He knew he was the inspiration for Ignatius, but he didn't care. He didn't read modern books and said he never read best sellers. He was reading Boethius."
Mapping the Lafayette residences of A Confederacy of Dunces author John Kennedy Toole and Ignatius J. Reilly inspiration Bobby Byrne.
By Erin Zaunbrecher
When he moved to Lafayette in the fall of 1959, John Kennedy Toole rented a small apartment on the corner of Convent and Lafayette streets from high society matriarch Elisabeth Montgomery. Toole lived on the bottom floor of the two-story, green wood-frame apartment located behind the main house, which was named Shadowlawn for the many trees and gardens that surrounded it. "Ken found this superannuated Southern belle amusing," recalls Joel L. Fletcher in his recent book, Ken & Thelma. "He was less amused by the depressing furnished apartment where he spent too many hours alone," Fletcher writes. "I don't recall ever seeing the inside of that apartment ' perhaps we had coffee together there once ' but I do remember him describing it in Conradian metaphor: a cramped heart of darkness with cockroaches and a linoleum floor, made even darker by Mrs. Montgomery's frequent admonitions, since utilities were included in the rent, to keep the outside light turned off." Toole lived there through the summer of 1960, before heading to Columbia University.
When Elisabeth Montgomery died in 2001, the house was put up for sale and acquired by First Baptist Church and scheduled for demolition. Kolleen Bowen Verlander, daughter of former Mayor Kenny Bowen, purchased the house and moved it to Girard Park Drive, saving it from demolition and saving the second story of the apartment. Now called the Denbo-Montgomery House, the main house is used as a bed and breakfast and the apartment behind for family guests. The bottom floor of the apartment, where Toole lived, had termite damage and couldn't survive the move. Verlander did save its doors, windows, tub, commode and sink and made a diagram of the layout so she could recreate the space. "We are raising the cottage," she says. "I've kept it the same. It's all been rewired, reworked." Verlander plans to rebuild the bottom and turn it into a mini-museum honoring Toole.
Bobby Byrne, the model for A Confederacy of Dunces' Ignatius J. Reilly, also lived in Lafayette in an apartment on Cherry Street. Attached to the garage of the home of Ralph Lynch, Byrne lived there for many years and used the adjacent log cabin as his study. He also created an intricate garden that is still there today. "The back garden of Byrne's house, although a fantasy landscape of stone lanterns and garden statuary, was neat and well tended, something Ignatius would never have been able to accomplish," according to Ignatius Rising, a biography on Toole. Andre Billeaud and his wife Jenn Steele now own the home, and the garden's stone paths hold their large vegetable garden. The couple plans to renovate the garage apartment and cabin, which is now used for storage.
Billeaud says his parents owned the house during the time that Byrne lived there and rented it to Ralph Lynch, who in turn rented to Byrne. The cabin was also where Byrne kept his musical instruments. "He lived a rather solitary life with stacks of books and journals and sheet music and a harpsichord he played very badly," writes Fletcher in Ken & Thelma. Byrne later moved to a house on Agnes Street and recreated the Cherry Street garden. The Agnes Street house is where he died.
Roommate With a View
Elemore Morgan Jr. remembers Toole.
By R. Reese Fuller
From 1959 until 1971, local artist Elemore Morgan Jr. rented a second floor apartment from Elisabeth Montgomery, and John Kennedy Toole lived in the smaller first floor apartment in 1960. At the time, Morgan was working with local architect Neil Nehrbass creating mosaics, and Toole was teaching at SLI. "We got to be pretty good friends," Morgan says. "We were both single guys."
"Ken was an interesting guy," Morgan recalls. "He was basically sociable, and he was very dapper. He always dressed neatly and crisply. His hair was always smoothed back. He had a little Chevrolet Corvair, and he kept it up. And he was a really brilliant guy, very smart. Ken saw everything as absurd. Life was just a grand folly. He saw the ridiculous easily and quickly. He always gave the impression that he was about to break into an ironic comment or smile."
Morgan says that even then, Toole had an uncanny knack for spinning yarns. "Before I knew he was a writer or before I had heard about his book or anything, I used to repeat some of his stories, because he had such a line on New Orleans. He would tell you these unforgettable stories about New Orleans. He often characterized New Orleans people as having to maintain the correct façade, even though they might be broke and going into debt to be in the correct Mardi Gras ball. He would talk about these families where they would be struggling to maintain these appearances, and then behind the scenes they would be borrowing cups of sugar from the neighbors."
On one Sunday evening, Morgan met Toole's parents, who had traveled from New Orleans to visit their son. "Immediately, this lady [Toole's mother, Thelma], you knew you were meeting a formidable person. She had a pretty strong personality. And the father was, as you might imagine, he appeared shorter, but I don't know if he was or not. He just wasn't as assertive as she was."
Later that evening, while Toole's mother stayed in the downstairs apartment, Toole and his father, John, visited with Morgan upstairs. "His father opened up," Morgan says. "He was livelier and much more outgoing. He was funny. He had the same kind of ability to mimic that Ken had. I could see in his father that same sense of humor similar to Ken's. He told me this wonderful story about going to a baseball game in New Orleans, and he clicked his tooth like he hit a ball. It was a nice little scene when he told that."
Morgan still has a letter that Toole wrote to him after leaving Lafayette. Dated January 31, 1961, Toole wrote: "Barring a coup by the communists, Lafayette is probably very much the same; and, with all the snow, slush, and freezing cold of N.Y., that 'sameness' of Lafayette would be very pleasant to me now." But Toole showed no sorrow in parting with his Lafayette lodgings. "With your downstairs neighbor Mrs. Montgomery again has a full house at Shadowlawn; I hope the tenant doesn't grow depressed in his cramped quarters ' as I was prone to do at times."
The tone and content of Toole's letter is similar to that of A Confederacy of Dunces and even predicts future problems with publishers.
Toole wrote: "The news that I have from Southwestern indicates an unusually high percentage of mental illness on the English faculty this year ' which in turn is leading to new and hitherto unexplored fields for gossip and possible feuding. Ah, well. I have escaped from that to a college where the faculty doesn't even talk to one another. Which is better?
"The students at Hunter [College], these aggressive, ill-kempt, pseudo-liberal girls, are extremely interesting and constantly amusing. They are continually off on some new crusade, such as helping southern Negroes, fighting latent Nazism. Where I had to stir up students at SLI, I have to sit on them here. But, for all of their craziness, the girls are likable ' almost lovable.
"I still hope to write something about my experiences at SLI, but I'm procrastinating, as usual. Anyway, no publisher would believe what I'd write."