When Ernie Bulow, in his CONVERSATIONS WITH WALTER SATTERTHWAIT, asked Walter what he’d like written on his gravestone, Walter suggested maybe…
On February 26th, 2020, in Poulsbo, Washington, Walter Satterthwait died of complications from COPD and congestive heart failure. He was 73.
A well-respected writer and one of only eight Americans to win France’s Prix de Romans d’Adventures, Walter wrote mysteries full of complex and colorful characters, often making imaginative use of historical figures like Lizzie Borden and Oscar Wilde. The same insight and empathy that informed his work also expressed itself in an extraordinary gift for forming and maintaining deep friendships wherever he went — and he visited many countries across four continents.
Born in Philadelphia in 1946, Walter demonstrated what was to be his life-long love of books and of artful duplicity when, as a teenager, he took full advantage (and then some) of burgeoning ‘50s paperback book clubs. He filled the house with mystery novels. He started writing early on. A 1998 Tampa Bay Times article by Jean Heller quotes him as saying: “[B]ack when I was in high school, a terrific teacher, Duke Schirmer, encouraged me to keep at it. [We] are still in contact, and,” he added deadpan, “about two years ago, I forgave him.”
Although the patrician good looks, elegant style, and lanky grace that earned him the nickname “Cool Walt” in college made you think he came from money, it was a scholarship that allowed him to attend Reed College in Portland, Oregon. When offered an opportunity to sell encyclopedias in Buffalo, NY, he took a break from his studies to ply a trade where his charm brought lucrative rewards.
A few years later, after an extended stay in Greece with his brother Mark, Walter returned to Portland. An old Reed friend who was renting a rambling old house happened to offer Walter a room there at the same time that he had invited a friend from Greece, Lelli Rallis, to stay. Walter and Lelli fell in love and married, and although they didn’t stay together long, he remained close to her for the rest of his life, visiting her whenever he could get to Greece, where she had settled.
Next stop: New York. He tended bar at the hip hangout One Fifth, and a woman he met there (who, like everyone he connected with, became a lifelong friend) offered him a house in Connecticut to complete his first book.
Walter had already published two novels by the time he settled in Sante Fe, where he again tended bar. He fell in love with the bartender who worked across the street, Caroline Gordon, and when they decided to marry, they held the ceremony on the street between their two bars. Both were such popular local figures that the street was jammed with a mob of well-wishers, who diverted traffic to help the happy couple celebrate.
Publication of Wall of Glass (1988), set in Sante Fe, began the Joshua Croft series for which he is best known. Written in the hard-boiled mystery tradition (“In any other American city this size, the road would have been paved. But in Santa Fe, raw earth is as chic as raw fish”), the series became a bit of a cult hit.
Yet despite the critical acclaim and devoted fan following he received, he rarely made enough as a writer to live on. He would go back to bartending until his next small book advance, which would stretch far enough for him to spend a year or so working on his new book somewhere cheap but beautiful — Greece, Kenya, Thailand, Grenada.
He traveled often to England, France and Germany to attend mystery conventions and visit friends. When a German fan wrote to ask him to autograph a book, their friendship grew via email and phone, and he ended up making two extended visits to the home she and her husband owned in Curaçao, in the Caribbean. She later noted that he was the only man she knew who cleaned a fish in a white shirt — which, together with his cowboy boots, was his signature style statement.
The late, lamented mystery writer Sarah Caudwell, also a lifelong friend, wryly described those years in an introduction to one of his books:
The usual address is Poste Restante though seldom for long in the same city or continent. Noting the latest change in overworked address-books, friends of Walter Satterthwait tend to think of him as not merely a man on the move but on the run, keeping, only by constant vigilance and amazing agility, one step ahead of pursuit. By whom or what — disappointed creditors? chagrined lovers? or merely hostile weather conditions? — we are never sure; but we imagine him always as departing suddenly from places, in the early hours of the morning, without luggage save for his faithful word processor.
In a 1999 article for the St Petersburg Times, Jean Heller reported on the time he travelled from London to Greece via Paris and Milan so he could lunch with his publishers there, who would pick up the tab. “When I added up the transportation and hotel costs, I figured out those two free lunches cost me $1,275,” he told her. “But when it comes to free lunches, money is no object.”
Altogether, Walter published fifteen novels and three short story collections, and was working on a final book the year he died. Miss Lizzie (1989), featuring Lizzie Borden, broke ground as the first modern mystery to feature a character from history as the detective.
He brought Lizzie back for a 2016 sequel that included Dorothy Parker as a sidekick (“‘Brave?’ Mrs. Parker laughed, sounding somewhat frayed. ‘My sphincter was plucking buttons off the car seat.’”) and wrote three of what were dubbed the Pinkerton mysteries, which made imaginative use of Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein as characters.
When his publisher couldn’t fund a book tour for the second Pinkerton mystery, Masquerade (1998), Walter decided to launch what he self-deprecatingly called the Trailer Trash Tour to attend signings he arranged himself at bookstores across the country. He decorated a Winnebago with a 5-foot-high copy of the book cover on the outside, and a black and gold interior with fake leopard-skin accents and a pair of red fuzzy dice that lit up when plugged into the cigarette lighter. Heller quoted him as saying, “I’m not a big believer in writers promoting themselves. But I decided blatant self-promotion is okay if it’s low-key, tasteful and elegant.”
Wilde West (1991), in which Oscar Wilde investigates a murder while touring the American West, was his favorite among his books. Not surprisingly, since, like Wilde, Walter had a quick, biting wit (Walter channeling Wilde: “The road to hell is paved with good inventions.”) Even in his last days, when most of his other faculties were deserting him, Walter could craft a clever mot on the spot.
In contrast to his Wilde side, he was a passionate Zen Buddhist for 35 years. “I’m a kinder person,” he told a reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in 2013, describing the influence Buddhism had played in his life. Caught out in a reflective moment, he quickly added: “a kinder egomaniac.”
At the start of the past decade, while living with his sister Ann near Tampa, he began visiting a makeshift temple in a suburban home nearby. He eventually moved in there to act as “steward” to the resident monk.
When he learned he was dying, he had what he called a “small satori,” which allowed him to accept death with calm and grace. When Ron and Jill Hinckley visited Walter in his nursing home shortly before his death, Ron pushed him in his wheelchair to a nearby bistro, where, despite having hardly touched his institutional meals, Walter happily downed some oysters with bacon and a single malt scotch. He never lost his appreciation for the good things in life. Despite being tied to an oxygen tank and often in considerable pain, when he discussed end-of-life plans on the day before he died, he expressed his desire not to be ushered out too quickly, lest he “miss the rest of the party.”
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