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A Kansas City writer seeks answers about the 'mysterious' author of the Mr. and Mrs. Bridge books

"Literary Alchemist" author Steve Paul in front of Evan S. Connell's boyhood home in the Armour Hills neighborhood.
Steve Paul
"Literary Alchemist" author Steve Paul in front of Evan S. Connell's boyhood home in Kansas City's Armour Hills neighborhood.

Veteran Kansas City writer Steve Paul's new biography of Evan S. Connell digs deep into the mysterious novelist's life.

Steve Paul went to New Mexico, on a sort of pilgrimage. His was not a spiritual journey or one to gather pieces of his own past. It was an attempt to discover information about a fellow Kansas City writer who had long seemed unknowable.

The year was 2018, five years after Evan S. Connell — the man who wrote the novels "Mr. Bridge" and "Mrs. Bridge" — had died in Santa Fe. And Paul’s trip to the Land of Enchantment had been largely successful, except for one loose end.

In his new book, "Literary Alchemist: The writing life of Evan S. Connell," Paul writes that he had a decision to make: “Turn left out of the motel parking lot and head straight to the airport in Albuquerque or turn right and make another attempt to find Connell’s final resting place.”

Connell’s niece, Janet Zimmermann, had given Paul a photo and description of where she’d poured her uncle’s ashes. A tree marked the spot.

But even today, many roads and houses in the ancient tourist town remain unmarked and known only to locals — a town after the mysterious Connell’s own heart.

Paul turned right, even as he wondered what difference it would really make if he found the tree. As he drove, he reminded himself that “reporting a life means turning over every stone, tracing every thread that might lead to a mote of meaning.”

Paul did exactly that with his research: he turned over every stone and traced every thread.

"Literary Alchemist" appears to leave out no detail of Connell’s life. The author never married or had children, but Paul gathered an extraordinary amount of information by speaking to those who knew him well: his sister, a girlfriend, friends, relatives, an editor and other writers.

He also worked from Connell’s papers, housed at Stanford University, and his 18 books — or 19, depending on how you count them, Paul says.

Paul, whose first book was about Ernest Hemingway, didn’t have far to look for the subject of his second major project. In his 40 years as a book critic and features editor at The Kansas City Star, he was well versed in many things Connell and had already been in touch with Connell's sister.

Moreover, Paul says, he spent a lot of evenings in Connell’s childhood home in Brookside after ownership passed to a friend of the Paul family.

Yet he didn’t really know all that much about the elder author, perhaps because, as Paul writes, Connell wasn’t self-promotional.

Paul begins a paragraph late in the biography with “Evan who?” and explains that it’s not unusual to run into people who say they’ve never heard of Connell. Yet those same people easily remember "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," the film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and shot in Kansas City in the late 1980s.

Connell was deliberately private, but it also hadn’t helped his legacy that no biographer had tackled the man’s life.

One reason no one had, Paul speculates, is that Connell wrote about a wide range of topics. But range shouldn’t be a handicap and was exactly what interested Paul.

He cites what he calls the “intimate minimalism of 'Mrs. Bridge'” as juxtaposed to the “maximalist approach in 'Son of the Morning Star.'” Those books were each made into successful movies and became bestsellers, but they were very different.

“We know what to expect from a lot of those great American writers of the 20th century, because they gave us you know, not the same thing over and over again,” Paul says, “but they gave us things that felt familiar to us. With Connell, he was all over the board; he was unpredictable.”

All the same, critics paid attention to his work, even if only to wonder why he’d write a novel like "The Alchemist’s Journal," which Paul describes as “channeling these medieval voices,” when he could have just written another about the Bridge family.

“It won some critical regard,” Paul explains about "The Alchemist’s Journal." “It’s still a book that I think if people ever went back to it and spent time with it, they would find it to be fascinating. For the time, 1991, it just felt like the wrong thing to do. But that’s how he rolled.”

Connell continued to "roll" how he pleased until a double knee replacement didn’t go as planned, and he had to move to a Santa Fe retirement home.

Paul connected with a former staff member who remembered Connell fondly and could fill in some final descriptions, such as how he remained an “elegant handsome man” even as his health deteriorated.

At the end of Paul’s 2018 Santa Fe trek, he may have found the tree where Connell’s ashes are scattered.

“Or not. I have no idea,” he writes.

Regardless, Paul says, the trip gave him, as Connell’s biographer, a sense of finality even as in many ways, his subject continues to remain as elusive as those scattered ashes.

Connell addressed that unknowability of artists at some point as well. Paul quotes him as having written about an artist as an onion: “If you continue peeling away in hopes of catching him you end up with nothing in your hand.”

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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