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REX NELSON: Charlie May's Johnswood

by Rex Nelson | October 24, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The weather is almost perfect for sitting in the backyard of the wood-and-stone home near where Cantrell Road crosses Interstate 430 in west Little Rock. The home, known as Johnswood, was well outside the city when Max Mayer built it in 1941 for writers Charlie May Simon and John Gould Fletcher. For Simon, who was born on a family farm in Drew County, it was a big place. For Fletcher, who was raised in a mansion, it was a cabin.

"Fletcher was reared and educated by tutors in the company of his two sisters, Adolphine and Mary," writes historian Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia. "As a child, he was rarely permitted to leave the grounds of the antebellum mansion--built by Albert Pike and purchased by the Fletchers in 1889--that was his home. Fletcher developed a dense imaginative life, nurtured by his reading of Poe, Coleridge and Goethe."

Simon was raised in more humble circumstances. Her father was a teacher, and her mother was a homemaker. Simon was born in 1897, and her father moved the family to Memphis in 1901. Simon began writing at an early age. She was discouraged when her first novel was rejected by publishers, so she turned to art. In 1918, Simon married wealthy businessman Walter Lowenstein, whose family owned Lowenstein's Department Store at Memphis. He died seven years later, leaving Simon a fortune. She would remind friends that it was just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one. In 1926, she met and married artist Howard Simon in Paris.

The Great Depression hit Arkansas particularly hard, but the couple moved to rural Perry County to homestead at a place called Possum Trot. Charlie May Simon planned the cabin in which they would live. She returned to writing in the 1930s because the couple needed money and because she wanted to tell the story of those who lived in the Ouachita and Ozark mountains.

Simon finally began to experience literary success, especially with a 1934 children's book, Robin on the Mountain. A string of children's books, biographies and short stories followed. Her husband decided to return to Paris, and the couple divorced in 1936. Simon wasted no time marrying Fletcher (she continued to use the last name of Simon for professional reasons).

Johnswood, which overlooks the Arkansas River, has a living and dining room, office, sitting room, three bedrooms and porch. It covers 2,840 square feet. Mayer was born in 1887 at San Antonio and received architectural and engineering degrees from Texas A&M before studying in Europe. He came to Arkansas in 1914 to work for the well-known architectural firm Mann & Stern until 1921. Mayer then opened his own firm and became known for residential designs in the Heights neighborhood of the state's largest city. Simon lived in the home until her death in March 1977 at age 79. The home is now owned by Bob and Charlotte Brown. Bob Brown served as an associate justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court from 1991 until his retirement in 2012.

The event I'm attending is being sponsored by the Center for Arkansas History & Culture (part of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock) to celebrate the launch of a virtual exhibit, "Charlie May Simon: Pushing Against the Stream of Time." The online exhibit includes a selection of Simon's unpublished works along with photographs, commentary from scholars, an extensive media gallery and other materials archived at the center. The center is also the home of the John Gould Fletcher papers and the Fletcher-Terry family papers.

"The hearth and the books were Johnswood's most important features," Toran Isom writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "Fletcher and Simon believed that writing was something of an individual pursuit. After breakfasting together, each would retire to his or her respective study, where they created their individual works. Afternoons were spent enjoying and keeping up the grounds. A raccoon appeared regularly, accepting its daily bread from Simon's hand. Though the two had great respect for each other's writing, their styles remained distinct, Fletcher in the spare style of the poet; Simon in her painstaking, conscientious prose."

Fletcher walked to a small pond on the property and committed suicide by drowning in 1950.

"Simon continued to reside at Johnswood after initially doubting whether she could, though she did travel the globe," Isom writes. "Her writing in her later years moved significantly toward the biographical. She focused on the truly great difference-making people of her day, people often associated with bringing peace and a sense of humanity to the world. Simon spent some time in Japan and taught English at the Women's University in Tokyo. She continued to work hard on her writing craft and was known for her in-depth research."

Isom notes that Simon understood the Ozarks region and its people, having been "brought up among its humblest citizens [while coming] to know its most literary. Her experience and her observations imbued her writing with the great diversity that marks the culture of the South, and of Arkansas in particular."

The Charlie May Simon Children's Book Award for children's literature is presented annually to an author whose book is selected through a vote taken by Arkansas students in grades four, five and six. The award, presented by the state Department of Education, was established in 1971. Simon and Fletcher are buried in Little Rock's historic Mount Holly Cemetery.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 10/24/2018

Print Headline: Charlie May's Johnswood

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