David Lauderdale

Lauderdale: Meet Pat Conroy's 'first novelist'

Ann Head
Ann Head

Ann Head thought it was cheating to write fiction based on her own life.

Perhaps she should have reconsidered.

One chapter of Ann Head's life will be on display this week with the Pat Conroy at 70 Festival in Beaufort celebrating his literary life.

Ann Head was the first novelist Conroy ever met, and she left an imprint on him like the slap of a typewriter key.

He was a senior at Beaufort High School, a Marine Corps dependent still new to town. She was a divorced mother whose stories had to sell if she was to make rent. English teacher Gene Norris cajoled her into teaching a creative writing class to six promising students. Conroy had to secretly take the class because his father hated it.

She was a Beaufort native who published four novels and scores of novellas and magazine articles in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. When Conroy wrote about her, he called her "my first novelist."

She advised Conroy to never use the word "poignant." She tried to get him into Antioch College in Ohio, where some of her own free thinking evolved. She did battle with his father, Col. Donald Conroy, before he was Great Santini and told young Conroy that someday he needed to write about that guy. Her home became an escape for Conroy.

"She wrote me all during The Citadel years, wonderful, loving, fabulous letters," Conroy told me. "She sent me books, like Ernest Hemingway's 'A Moveable Feast.'

"She had me read Ingmar Bergman's screenplays, and she told me I needed to know more of the darkness of the world.

"She told me she could not write about things because she was a native of Beaufort and she would hurt too many people in Beaufort, but I was lucky because I was a military brat and it didn't make any difference who I hurt."

HOME

Ann Head was a pen name.

She was born Anne Wales Christensen 100 years ago this Friday.

The Christensen family is known for its many businesses, and producing characters and leaders, like the late charter boat captain Stratty Pollitzer and current Beaufort County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville.

Her grandmother had arrived in Beaufort as a child of abolitionists who came to teach freed slaves in 1864. That grandmother, Abbie Holmes Christensen, started the Port Royal Agricultural School and published a book of Gullah tales, "Afro-American Folk Lore Told Round Cabin Fires on the Sea Islands of South Carolina."

Her father, Niels Christensen Jr., was a state senator and editor and publisher of The Beaufort Gazette.

But Ann Head spent so much of her youth off at school in the Northeast that she was always a fish out of water in Beaufort, said her daughter Nancy Thode. Most of the year, she lived on Beacon Hill with her Grandmother Stratton, attending private school in Cambridge. They had tea every day after school, and Anne had to sit on a backless stool for an hour because it was good for her posture.

She came home to Beaufort's Federal Street for Christmas and summers. Her parents had a pool table, and they kept a cow, chickens and turkeys. The turkeys would jump over the sea wall and have to be fished out when the tide came in.

Ann Head was at Antioch for two years. In her study of social work she took care of a 2-year-old orphan. She brought him home for the summer when she was 19.

She lost both parents within a few months' time.

She met her first husband as a Harvard student who was in Beaufort with his roommate, one of the Danner boys. She and Howard Head were divorced when their daughter Nancy was 3. He was an aircraft engineer who for years was a struggling inventor. She was making money writing mystery stories for magazines. He would go on to invent the Head ski and the Prince tennis racquet.

Ann Head and Nancy came home to Beaufort to live with her Aunt Helen in 1944.

She would never leave.

PARIS

Ann Head could be an embarrassment to her young daughter.

"She was not your average Beaufort mother," Nancy Thode said. "She was divorced. She smoked with a cigarette holder and drank at cocktail parties and wore wide-brimmed hats. She stood out. She was sophisticated. She read The New Yorker. Our house was filled with books and music. When she wrote, she played operas. I hated operas."

When Grandmother Stratton left her some money, she bought a huge skunk coat.

She loved to cook, producing soufflès and fricassees. She wrote a lot of letters, and socialized with muckraking author Samuel Hopkins Adams and his set when he was at his Beaufort home. She played Scrabble with Harriet Keyserling. She entertained E.B. White and Katharine Sergeant White when they passed through Beaufort. She met W. Somerset Maugham when he lived near Beaufort in the World War II years.

Ann Head sat at the typewriter at least six hours a day whether anything came out or not. She wrote in a small building she rented behind the McLeod home on Bay Street. Her idol was Daphne du Maurier.

In the early years, she forced herself to produce one story a month, on the theory that if she sold three per year she could survive. But at times, she had to move in with family. And once she went off to New York to find work, but had to come home. G.G. Dowling loaned her $5,000 to make it possible. She was good friends with his wife, poet Edith Bannister Dowling.

She married Beaufort physician Dr. Stanley F. Morse Jr. They had a daughter, Stacey.

Ann Head could then devote time to novels. "Fair With Rain" and "Always in August" sold well, followed by a mystery, "Everybody Adored Cara." But her biggest hit was "Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones," a story of teen pregnancy that was made into a TV movie and stayed in print and on school reading lists for half a century.

Ann Head never got to see the success of her young protege, Pat Conroy.

She died unexpectedly in his first year of teaching at Beaufort High. She was only 52. Harriet Keyserling's book "Against the Tide" says she died of a cerebral aneurysm. The Beaufort Gazette of the time said she died at Beaufort Memorial Hospital on May 7, 1968, and was buried the next day at the Parish Church of St. Helena.

Conroy says every time he has published a book, he places a rose on Ann Head's grave.

"She said one day I'll take you to Paris, or if you make it as a writer you can take me to Paris."

Follow columnist and senior editor David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale and facebook.com/david.lauderdale.16.

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