In the late 1970’s, long after his death (1955), Alma Neuman received a letter from her first husband, the famous American journalist, novelist, and film critic James Agee. Written in 1953, the letter had taken more than twenty years to reach her. A “stranger” had found the letter among Agee’s manuscripts shortly after his death, misplaced it, and then found it again years later and sent it on. Agee had remarried, was the father of two children by his second wife (Alma was the mother of Agee’s first child, Joel), had taken an “Irish girl” as lover, and yet, despite all the intervening years, confessed in this long-lost letter that he still loved Alma more than his second wife and his mistress.
Receiving this letter was a great shock for Alma Neuman, who had built an entirely different life for herself after Agee had fallen in love with another woman while she was pregnant with Joel. In 1941, when the couple separated, Alma took Joel to Mexico on what was supposed to be a long vacation. Agee eventually journeyed to Mexico to bring her and his son back to the United States, but she chose to return to Mexico and stay with a German emigre’ writer, Bodo Uhse, who offered her the emotional stability that Agee was unable to provide.
Uhse was also a marvelous father to Joel, and Alma was as grateful for his attention to the child as she was touched by his adoration of her. There was, however, a problem. Sex with Uhse was not what it had been with Agee; indeed, the absence of true passion with this man eventually drove Alma to take as her lover Uhse’s best friend in Mexico, Alfred Miller, a fellow emigre’ and Communist who lacked Uhse’s intellect but radiated compassion and was able to satiate Alma’s sensual needs. Eventually, however, Miller died of a sudden heart attack. After a series of other misunderstandings, this time involving Uhse’s attraction to another woman, Alma and Uhse realized that their bond was a true one, and Alma agreed to accompany him after the war to East Germany, where he was welcomed back as a respected anti-Fascist and Communist writer.
The woman who opened Agee’s letter in the late 1970’s had long since resettled in New York after Uhse’s attempted suicide in Berlin. Her burning desire to answer Agee’s poignant love letter was translated into the decision to write the present memoir. Her complete truthfulness would be her way of meeting Agee’s desperate love call across the years that had separated them in life and now, as well, in death. Alma Neuman died in 1988, and her son Joel published the memoir in 1993.
So much for the bare outlines of her story. There is much more that could be told:
the tragic fate of Uhse and Alma’s son, Stefan, who accompanied his mother back to New York and eventually threw himself out of a window in despair over his incurable schizophrenia; in a lighter vein, Alma’s working as a receptionist in a Mexico City art gallery and befriending Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, and the greatest Mexican artists of the day, Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros; the important witnessing of Agee’s visit in Alabama with the Tingle family, the impoverished sharecroppers Agee would immortalize in his famous book-length essay Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941); or the high drama of being physically threatened by a mob in June of 1953 when East German workers rose in revolt against the Communist regime.
Despite the honesty and unpretentious manner in which Alma Neuman shares with the reader the unusual and often searing incidents of her life, one has the impression, finally, that it was a...