On June 4, 1940 22-year-old Carson McCullers’ first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, is published. The novel, about misfits in a Georgia mill town, is an instant success.
McCullers, born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, in 1917, was strongly encouraged in her childhood artistic endeavors by her mother, who believed she was an artistic genius. McCullers planned to be a concert pianist. Meanwhile, she began writing plays for her siblings to perform. At age 17, she went to New York to study at Juilliard, but on the subway, she lost all the money her parents had saved for her tuition. She supported herself for a year at school, then gave up music for writing and returned to Georgia.
In 1937, she married a soldier named Reeves McCullers. Three years later, her first novel was published to great acclaim. Her fame, and her husband’s own thwarted ambitions, strained the marriage, as did their mutual sexual ambiguity. Both tended to fall passionately in love with members of both sexes. In 1940, the couple separated, and McCullers took an apartment in a Victorian house in Brooklyn Heights shared by other prominent writers as well as musicians such as Aaron Copland and artists like Salvador Dali. Reeves McCullers returned to the Army, becoming an esteemed war hero, and the couple remarried, but Reeves later drank heavily and killed himself in a Paris hotel room.
McCullers continued to churn out popular novels and stories, including The Member of the Wedding (1946), which became a successful stage play and movie. Playwright Edward Albee dramatized her novella The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1951) in 1963. McCullers died at age 50, after battling breast cancer and a series of paralyzing strokes.