"The Man at Cross Creek"

By Danielle Flood

The year is supposed to be 1928. A slender, attractive young woman wearing a smart hat and a white dress walks away from her broken-down car and down the boardwalk fronting the businesses of a tiny north central Florida town. She comes upon an old man sitting on a ladder-backed chair on the porch of the general store.

"Excuse me," she says. "Is there a taxi available?"

"You want the hotel," he says, eager to help. He points to his left. "You want Norton Baskin. He'll help ya out."

It was an odd moment in Norton Baskin's life. Here he was, playing a character who was point out to an actress, who was playing his late wife, which way to go to meet an actor who was playing himself, Norton Baskin, in a scene that never happened.

There were other odd moments when Baskin, now 84, saw the movie Cross Creek. He knew that his wife, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, wasn't as thin and pretty as actress Mary Steenburgen and that he had not been as tall and handsome as actor Peter Coyote. He knew how much of it was made up. He knew that Marjorie didn't really leave her first husband, Charles Rawlings, in the north and come to Florida to write alone. The couple had sold their possessions in Rochester, N.Y., and struggled for some four years to make their Florida orange grove thrive before Charles, also a writer, grew tired of life in the Big Scrub and they divorced. Baskin knew that Marjorie's car never did break down when she first arrived in Island Grove, 21 miles south of Gainsville, that he never met her there or helped her get to the ramshackle farmhouse at Cross Creek she had bought sight unseen. He never did rescue her car, as in the movie, fix it up, spit-shine it and offer it to her as a gift. He doesn't even know how to fix cars.

Baskin also knew that Marjorie's black maids weren't like the one the filmmakers created. There had been a devoted maid named Geechee. And Marjorie had helped Geechee's boyfriend get out of jail.But in real life and unlike in the movie, Geechee was a drunk and when her man left Cross Creek, she went with him.

Sitting at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983, watching the movie for the first time, Norton Baskin's mind played mental tennis. From reality to unreality. Fiction to fact.

He was surprised when he eventually found himself caught up in it and taken with the actress playing the role of his wife because, he says, there was something of Marjorie in the larger-than-life Marjorie he saw on the screen. He gropes for the words: "It was her spirit."

He, more than anyone else alive, would know that. Marjorie's first husband Charles is dead, as are many of those she knew at Cross Creek. Norton is also the only person who really knows about the relationship between Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her second and last husband, Norton Sanford Baskin.

It wasn't like in the movie. Or in Marjorie's book, Cross Creek, either.



"Marjorie loved to fight," he says. 



The book, described in the movie as her "memoirs," covers only a limited period of Rawlings' life at the Creek. The book also imparts a limited view of Rawlings' life there; it is a hybrid of autobiographical anecdote, essay and detailed reporting on the animals and plants, and the ways and manners of the many black maids, hired hands and other Florida Crackers that the writer encountered during her dozen years there. 

Baskin, who met Rawlings at Cross Creek in 1933, was her friend and lover there for the next eight years; he also was her husband from 1941 to 1953.

Yet he is mentioned no more than four times in the book, only by his first name, and in references no longer than a sentence, such as: "Norton and I make useless trips every spring to the River Styx, to find the (iris) buds tight-shut week after week." So it came as a surprise to Baskin, who sold the film rights to Cross Creek for $50,000, when he learned that a character based on himself was to have such a substantial part in the movie. 

Screenwriter Dalene Young and producer Robert B. Radnitz began making "these Hollywood-type phone calls" to him in St. Augustine from California two or three times a week for two or three hours each call. "She (Dalene Young) was asking me all these questions," Baskin remembers. "Finally, I said, 'But I'm not in the movie. I'm not even in the book.' And she laughed and said, 'Oh yes you are.'"

Though the film claims to be based onthe book Cross Creek, it was really based very loosely on a blend of Cross Creek and Rawlings' classic novel The Yearling -- plus a typical Hollywood distortion of biographical data.

Baskin, who now lives in St. Augustine, does not like to dwell on unpleasantries from the past. But neither does he care to pretend that his marriage was an easy one.

"Marjorie loved to fight," he says. "I don't like to fight. I could be as mean as she could but in a quiet way.She had a thing that built up inside of her and she would just let it come railing out."

In 1933, Norton Baskin had a job running the Marion Hotel in Ocala. On his third night as manager, the local Episcopal church held its benefit bridge party at the hotel; 120 people attended.

Baskin, being a hotel man conscious of the importance of good public relations, decided he'd try to get to know some of the players. So he went around with a cart to each table and served water and introduced himself. One of the people he met was a woman named Dorothy Green, who asked he he would like to go to Cross Creek and cheer up a friend of hers who had just filed for divorce. "Where the hell is Cros Creek?" he asked.

"When I got there, Marjorie said, 'So you're Norton Baskin. I've been wanting to meet you.'" he said. "I asked her why and she said she wanted somebody who could pass water at all those tables. I laughed and said, 'It ain't easy, you have to save up.'"

They laughed and had a few drinks. Several days later, Dorothy Green asked the writer what she thought of Baskin. "Marjorie said, 'Oh he's just one of those personality boys. Throw him away.'

"I just couldn't take that kind of rejection," Baskin says now. "Who was she not to accept my charm? I reacted the only way I knew how." So he kept going back to Cross Creek to see her. Sometimes she would meet him in town. After a while they became known as a pair.

He says she grew to depend on him more and more. "In the movie, they portrayed Marjorie as strong and independent. And she was, absolutely. But at speaking engagements, she would say, 'Don't you leave me.' She was one of the shyest people I've ever seen. She needed somebody to lean on."

She leaned on him more and more. He began to choose her clothes. They would go up to New York, to Best & Company. She looked best, he says, in shirtwaist dresses. If left on her own, she would buy frilly, fancy things with bows and flowers, things, he said, that didn't suit her.

He cooked for her. Her favorite dish was okra in Hollandaise. She liked him to fix the sauce. And when he fixed the Hollandaise, she would sometimes jest, "You Alabama bastard, if you ruin it I'll shoot you."

Sometimes she wasn't being funny.



"I was her whipping boy."




Rawlings' letters to Baskin and others, published two years ago by the University of Florida Press, indicate that the discord in their marriage was not necessarily shielded by closed doors. "The street was no place to have it out," Rawlings wrote in one letter. In another, she accepted blame for another argument in front of friends. "My ugliness never does mean anything, which makes it all the uglier. Any ugliness from you is so rare that it is a different matter, and no matter how I have provoked you, I feel that you mean it."

Some things she complained about, Norton says, had nothing to do with him. But she was moody and bitched at him.

"She said I had to take it. I had to agree, before we were married, that no matter what happend, I had to take it because she couldn't take breaking up. I was her whipping boy.

"...I knew what I was getting into. I knew what she was when I married her. I knew it was my job to stand between her and her moods, talker her out of them, say, 'Have a drink.'"

They spent much of their 20 years "together" actually living apart. Baskin was based at the Marion Hotel or at the Castle Warden Hotel in St. Augustine, a mansion he had bought and converted with a $20,000 loan from Marjorie shortly before they were married.

Marjorie based herself at Cross Creek until the success of her novel The Yearling, which topped the bestseller lists for most of 1938. She sold the screen rights for $30,000, and in 1939 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The same year, she bought an oceanfront cottage at Crescent beach a few miles south of St. Augustine. She married Baskin in the fall of 1941.



"It was like living with three women."



Six years later, Rawlings bought an old farmhouse in Van Hornesville, N.Y., and spent the next six summers there writing her last novel, The Soujourner. The couple had what could be loosely described as a weekend marriage, 12 years through which they visited each other in their various residences.

Baskin says he was never sure what his wife would be like when he saw her. "It was like living with three women. I would go there one time and she was just as prim as hell. The next time she was bawdy as hell. Next time she would be hard-working and serious. You had to look to see who you were with."

The real problem, he says, was that he didn't like her world and she didn't like his.

He was a hotel man. His uncle had been a hotel man, and when Baskin finished high school he got a job at a 400-room hotel in Atlanta. He started out as a telephone operator, then became a clerk, then a house detective, then a manager. "I was the most gregarious man in the world," says Baskin.

He enjoyed hobnobbing with the hotel guests. About twice a week he held poker games for eight to ten traveling men. At hotel parties, he says, "I would pay as much attention to others as I would to Marjorie. She would pretend she wasn't jealous but she got mad as hell. 'Don't give me that hotel charm,' she'd say."

In the movie, Baskin asks Rawlings to marry him but she refuses, then later changes her mind. In reality, there were times when Rawlings asked Baskin to marry her, and he refused.

He was uncomfortable in her milieu, he says. She traveled the academic cocktail circuit. Dr. John Tigert, president of the University of Florida, was a friend, and Baskin would find himself talking with professors who would ask where he went to school.

"I was always conscious of the difference in education," he says. "Not in intellect, but in education."

Marjorie had made Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year at the University of Wisconsin. Baskin had attended Bullock County High School in Union Springs, Alabama. He says Marjorie, thought the difference in their schooling was "pure bunk." But that did not allay his self-consciousness about academics, although his hindsight is that he had "wanted to be a college man for all the wrong reasons."

But with a mother who was the breadwinner for six children and a father who "wasn't worth a damn because he was too busy being a bon vivant," there was no chance of college for any reason.

At least, Baskin says, his mother encouraged him to read, and by the age of 14 he had read most of the classics, including all of Dickens and most of Shakespeare. 

Little did he know then that he would marry the author of an American classic which would become required reading in thousands of elementary schools.

Being the husband of a famous woman had its disadvantages, he soon learned. When he and Marjorie first became known as an item, people would call up Baskin and invite him to dinner -- so long as Marjorie would agree to come too. "It would just gripe me," he says.

Then, after he opened the Castle Warden Hotel, hack drivers would point it out to tourists as the home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings "and husband."


One day, Baskins says, a woman visited the hotel wearing an outfit resembling dress pajamas. She asked to be shown around and he complied. In the elevator she said, "Well if I stay to lunch, do I get to see Mrs. Rawlings?" Baskin didn't think the woman would stay if he told her his wife wasn't going to be there and so he told her just that. A while later, he and Marjorie were having lunch inthe hotel dining room when he noticed the woman in the dress pajamas. She ordered a double crab dish. When she finished eating she came over to Baskin's table and shoot the crab shell in his wife's face.

"Do you know what I'm going to do with this?" she asked Rawlings.

"It looks like you're going to ram it down my throat," said the writer.

"No! I'm going to keep it as a remembrance of the author of The Yearling!"

Baskin didn't mind lying to protect his wife's privacy. Nor did he mind acting as a buffer between her and the public. "She was a bad judge of people," he says. "She would meet people and they would want to become close friends quickly. I would just get rid of them. I'd say, 'Marjorie's busy right now and she's not going to be available for the next two or three months."

Baskin didn't mind it, however, when Cross Creek became a best-seller in 1942, and Marjorie could no longer have the pleasure of working on the front porch of her Cross Creek house, and was forced to move her typewriter indoors.

Baskin tells the story of a Sunday morningaround 1944 when he and his wife were relaxing in the living room at Cross Creek. They were in their bathrobes, drinking Bloody Marys. A man knocked at the door. Marjorie answered.

"Is this the house of Majorie Kinnan Rawlings?" he asked.

"This is my house," Rawlings replied.

The man siad his wife was in the car, that she would like to come in, and that she had some marzipan. Marjorie liked marzipan, so she invited the couple in. The woman passed around the box of confections and proceeded to walk slowly around the room, examining every item she came across, until she came to Baskin.

"Who are you?" she asked with a little jump backward.

"I'm Norton Baskin," he said evenly.

"What do you do?" she asked.

Rawlings answered for her husband: "He's retired to the stud."

These days, Norton Baskin often sits by a window and watches the boats pass each other on the Matanzas River. He will be 85 in October. After his wife died suddenly in 1953 of a cerebral hemorrhage, people would ask him to sign her books. He refused, he says, because "I had nothing to do with the writing. That was all Marjorie."

But he did inherit the rights to all 10 of her books. The Yearling alone has been translated into 40 languages and still sells well today in school editions.

Baskin, however, is reluctant to discuss the subject of Marjorie's money, though he lives well. A maid visits his 14-room house twice a week and he drives a white Cadillac.

Last year, he was asked by the St. Augustine Art Association to give a speech at a Cross Creek celebration. He refused. Later, he was visiting his sister, Sarah, who had Alzheimer's disease, ina nearby nursing home. A woman from the art group found him there and again asked him to speak before the art association.

"My sister, I never could tell when she was there or not," he says. And so he was surprised when after he had again refused the woman's request, his sister spoke up. 

"She said, 'You don't mind taking the cash (from Rawlings' estate); why don't you take the credit?' I realized I had been hypocritical, because I was taking the cash."

When he is involved with something to do with his wife's work, Baskin jokingly refers to himself as "Mr. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings." He signs her books now, writing things like: "I know that Marjorie would appreciate so much the nice things you have said about her and I hope you enjoy her book." He spends much of his time replyihng to correspondence, dealing with a company which recently staged a musical version of The Yearling in Atlanta and Dallas, and answering the questions of doctoral candidates who are doing dissertations on his wife's work.

"I'm living more with Marjorie now than I ever did," he says, waiving toward the papers, envelopes and files that cover the tables and other eclectic furniture in his large second-floor living room. Sometimes, he says, he gets bored with being Mr. Marjorie Rawlings. Absent-mindedly, he rubs a gold insignia ring bear the initials NB.

There have been many times when he has been called Mr. Rawlings simply because people assumed that was his name. It used to rile his wife when the mistake was made in her presence. "She'd say, 'His name is Baskin. He has a career of his own. He is only the foster-father of my books.'"

There is a once-and-for-all note to the matter. In Antioch Cemetery, a few miles from Cross Creek, the writer's tombstone reads: "Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, wife of Norton Baskin. Through her writings she endeared herself to the world."

Baskins says that when, in due time, he is laid beside her, his tombstone will read simply, "Norton Baskin."

"They'll know," he says with a grin, "that the old man is right there."

Copyright 1985 Danielle Flood

Click here for home page




Enter content here

Enter content here

Enter supporting content here