Sanora Babb: On Donkeywork & Winged Things

On the Road with Sanora Babb Part 2: Donkeywork & Winged Things

In her introduction to Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (2001), Nancy Milford writes: “To be a biographer is a somewhat peculiar endeavor… it requires not only the tact, patience, and thoroughness of a scholar but the stamina of a horse.

Virginia Woolf called it ‘donkeywork’ — for who but a domesticated ass would harness herself to what is recoverable of the past and call it A Life? Isn’t there something curious, not to say questionable, about this appetite for other people’s mail, called Letters?” (xii).

Part of the “donkeywork’ of writing biography involves meeting with those who were closest to your subject. In the case of Sanora Babb, one of those people is her literary executor, Joanne Dearcopp. So I flew to New York and traveled to her nearby town in hopes of getting insight into who Sanora was as a person.

Joanne greeted me warmly at the door to her condo on the sunny, November morning. I was immediately struck by the amount of art that covered her walls, and how well that overabundance was curated so that every piece looked absolutely right.

Joanne wore thick turquoise and coral necklaces draped around her neck. On each wrist, she wore silver cuffs, and on her fingers were thick silver rings studded with coral.

When I asked her about the significance of the jewelry, she said several of the pieces were Sanora’s. “We had a ritual,” she said, “each time I visited her at her house in the Hollywood Hills, we would each pour a cocktail and then sit down at her table to carefully unwrap each piece of jewelry collection.”

Sanora believed that the pieces were more than just jewelry; they were a ballast that connected her to the Native American community that saved her when she was a child.

After they’d admired each piece and Sanora had tenderly packed each away in her jewelry box, Joanne said they’d sit in front of Sanora’s picture window looking out at Los Angeles below.

“We would talk and watch what she called ‘the gloaming;’” the twilight settle and the dark arise. Slowly, the lights down in the valley would begin to light up until the valley “looked like a blanket of stars.”

As Joanne tells me this story, I can feel how much she loved her friend.

Joanne and I walked through her small kitchen where she’d curated boxes and boxes of papers and photographs that once belonged to Sanora.

All-day I sorted through this treasure-trove: the old menu from Ching How, the Chinese restaurant she and her husband Jimmy (Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe) opened in Hollywood on February 5, 1940, where guests like Cary Grant and Randolph Scott regularly ate.

There was a folder filled with Sanora’s publications, including The winter 1952 issue of California Quarterly where Babb’s story “The Vine by the Root Embraced” was published, alongside stories by her friends Ray Bradbury and B. Traven. Babb was in a writing group with Bradbury for over thirty years. As Joanne recalls, the first day she met Sanora, they attended her writer’s group. Joanne, who was awestruck, said Bradbury was charismatic and welcoming. And that she could see the deep bond he and Sanora shared. The writing group was the backbone of Sanora’s writing career.

There were also folders of letters that illuminate the deep intellectual connection Sanora shared with other artists including a letter from the dancer and choreographer, Waldeen Falkenstein, who’s was concerned to have not heard from Sanora in over three months.  She wonders why Sanora hasn’t sent her any recent chapters from her novel in progress (The Lost Traveler) and reveals the deep affinity she and Sanora share for Flaubert by insisting her friend read a biography she’s just read about Flaubert that revealed his own deeply troubled struggles as a writer.

And one folder even contained Babb’s field notes (gathered while she worked at the FSA camp in Arvin with Tom Collins) for her novel Whose Names Are Unknown. Maps show the path she and Collins followed up and down the state, interviewing Dust Bowl refugees and trying to convince them to come to the newly opened government camps.

Sanora Babb after finishing her first novelAt noon, Dearcopp drove me to a café near her home where we ate lobster rolls and looked through thick manila envelopes filled with hundreds of photographs of Sanora (many of which I had never seen before).

Babb’s favorite portrait of herself was taken in Palm Springs the day after her first novel, The Lost Traveler, was finally published. Around her neck is the same squash blossom necklace I’d seen Joanne carefully unwrap earlier in the day.  On her face are complete and utter joy and release.

There is also a photograph of Sanora’s beloved garden at her home in the Hollywood Hills where she’d spend hours weeding and feeding the wild birds.  As Joanne recalled, “She would pour out buckets of birdfeed every day” and wait for the army of winged visitors to descend.

Another photograph that struck me was of Sanora in cap and gown at her high school graduation in Forgan, OK. She was chosen to be the valedictorian, but she was forbidden from giving a speech at graduation because her father was a known gambler.

When we returned to Joanne’s condo, she showed me the stack of books she’s brought back into print.  Each was carefully designed by her and distributed by her press, Muse Ink. Joanne recalls how she made a promise to Sanora to get all of her books back into print. “I had no idea how I would do it.” She admitted. But do it she did.

Thanks to her arduous work, all of Sanora’s books are in print, and a collection of essays has been recently published by the University of Oklahoma about her work called Unknown No More. “I think Sanora would be thrilled by all of the attention her work is receiving these days,” Dearcopp said.

As the sun went down, I packed up and told Joanne goodbye. In a day, I felt as if I’d gained more insight into the “real” Sanora Babb than I could have gained during a week of “donkeywork” digging through her papers at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin (Texas). It was as if Joanne had poured out a bucket of seed in the yard of my mind, and all I have to do now is to wait for the wings of ideas to descend. Joanne Dearcopp, Babb's literary Executor

© Iris Jamahl Dunkle (12/1/21) Special for FF2 Media


For background, read my FF2 feature Once Eclipsed, Sanora Babb’s Dust Bowl Novel Demands Our Attention which was posted on 9/9/21.
For Part 1 of the series, read On the Road with Sanora Babb: Part 1, Origins and Oklahoma, “… young Sanora sought refuge with the Otoe people…”


Photo of Joanne Dearcopp (Sanora Babb’s literary executor) taken by Iris Jamahl Dunkle for FF2 Media © FF2 Media. Permission to use of photograph Sanora Babb provided by Joanne Dearcopp.

All images are authorized for responsible use as long as the link to this FF2 webpage is included in the credit.

A message from Jan Lisa Huttner (Editor-in-Chief of FF2 Media): 

Poet Iris Jamahl Dunkle, having completed a masterful biography of Charmian Kittredge London, is now doing in-depth research on her next subject: Sanora Babb. And FF2 Media is proud to continue traveling with her!

We have several reasons for embarking on this journey with Iris. First and foremost, Iris is a well-respected writer who delves deeply into the lives of women writers who deserve to be better known than they have been heretofore. By traveling with her, we will not only learn more about her subjects, but we will also learn more about her process. How does one talented woman go about exploring the life and work of another? What will Iris see on her journey that others have overlooked? How will Iris convince us that we need to learn more about Sanora Babb too? When will Sanora Babb reveal herself to us as someone pointing the way forward?

Tags: B. Traven, biography, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gustave Flaubert, Harry Ransom Center, Iris Jamahl Dunkle, James Wong Howe, Jan Lisa Huttner, Ray Bradbury, Sanora Babb, The Lost Traveler, Unknown No More, Whose Names Are Unknown

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Iris Jamahl Dunkle is an award-winning literary biographer, essayist, and poet who lives in Northern California. She wrote the first full-length biography on Charmian London, Jack London's wife, Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020). Her fourth collection of poems, West : Fire : Archive was published by The Center for Literary Publishing in 2021. Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and is the Poetry and Translation Director of the Napa Valley Writers' Conference and is currently writing a full length biography of the author Sanora Babb.
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