Alma Neuman was born in upstate New York in 1922. Her father was a rather unimaginative businessman and her mother a talented and vivacious Viennese. A lonely child, she befriended a rather distinguished American professor and his family at Hamilton College. Her family was Jewish, and her acceptance by the Saunders family represented an unusual social opportunity in the anti-Semitic 1930’s. Alma was a welcome addition to the family string quartet, and she and the Saunders’ son fell in love.
One of the Saunders’ daughters brought James Agee, then a Harvard senior of great promise, to meet the family. Alma made the greatest impression, however, and several years after they first met she and Agee ran off to live a bohemian idyll. They motored through the South, visited the Tingle family, poor Alabama sharecroppers whose lives would be immortalized in Agee’s LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN, and hobnobbed with Agee’s collaborator, photographer Walker Evans, and the poets Muriel Rukeyser and Delmore Schwartz.
The spell was broken when Agee fell in love with another woman during Alma’s first pregnancy. In 1941, separated from Agee, Alma Neuman and her infant son, Joel, moved to Mexico, where she met the Communist writer, Budo Uhse, a German exile. He fell in love with her, and she was grateful for his sincere affection for Joel. Agee journeyed to Mexico to see his son and bring his family back to the States, but Alma eventually returned to...
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