Katherine Anne Porter was uninterested “in anyone’s personal history after the tenth year,” she professed. “Whatever one was going to be was all prepared for before that. The rest is just confirmation, extension, development.” Porter had been born in 1890 in a log cabin, but told others it had been in 1894, two years after her mother’s death. She said that Daniel Boone was her great-great-great-granduncle. She was born Callie Russell and later adopted the name of her grandmother, Catherine; she would claim that Callie was just a nickname, that her birth name was Callista Russell, and later that her real birth name was Katherine Anne Maria Veronica Callista Russel Porter. She had between three and five husbands. “I was fed from birth on myth and legend,” she said.
Porter contracted tuberculosis in 1915 and recovered in a “pest house” in Dallas and a sanatorium in Carlsbad, Texas. “Authors, dear Poppa, are subject to vapors,” she explained to her father the following decade. She was released in 1917, moved to Colorado to write for the Rocky Mountain News in 1918, and contracted influenza. Her family made burial arrangements, and she confessed to being “sorry I had been born because I hadn’t been strong enough to work out my dreams.” In the margins of her copy of Freud’s General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, next to Freud’s remark that “childish nervousness is carried on into lifelong illness,” she wrote, “Yes indeed!”
She moved to New York in 1919, and the following year made her first trip to Mexico, where she would live periodically over the next decade and write many of her most acclaimed short stories, publishing her first collection, Flowering Judas, in 1930. She also lived in Paris, Berlin, Madrid, New Orleans, Houston, and Baton Rouge, among other destinations. She called herself “homeless,” and a friend referred to her as “a wanderer, a seeker, a person looking for the bluebird of happiness.” She protested against the executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti; Hermann Goering made a pass at her in 1932 and, she recalled, “began to tell me that he and Hitler were going to make world history within the next half-year”; a drunk Dylan Thomas lifted her in the air over his head and held her there; she fought for gender equality and was an active suffragist in the 1920s, though she also admitted that she didn’t “really like homos or Lesbians,” and in the 1960s she responded to the publication of The Feminine Mystique with: “Oh, Betty, why don’t you go and mix a good cocktail for your husband and yourself and forget about this business.” She alternately adored and savagely mocked Gertrude Stein, Diego Rivera, and Ezra Pound; only James Joyce and Virginia Woolf emerged as the modernists she consistently admired. She was often depressed. “I wonder why sometimes I am so gloomy and useless,” she wrote in 1931.
In 1962, her novel Ship of Fools, based on a journal she had kept during a sea voyage in 1931, was published; it would be her greatest commercial success. Porter received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1966 for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965), and she passed away in 1980 at the age of ninety.