Harold Preece and The Lady Poet

Last month a woman from Oklahoma named Linda Jones e-mailed me and asked if I’d be interested in a photo of Harold Preece taken on the occasion of his 77th birthday. Also appearing in the photo was his lady friend, the poet Winona Morris Nation. Of course, I replied with an enthusiastic “yes.” The photo appears above and was given to Linda by her good friend Winona with the following inscription on the back:

Winona Morris Nation
Harold Preece on his 77th birthday
January 16, 1983
To Linda Poo: whom we love

“Poo’” was a nickname given to Linda in high school. Winona and Linda were very close – kindred spirits – even though Winona was old enough to be her mother. In addition to providing the photograph, Linda was kind enough to share her memories of Harold and Winona with us, giving Howard fans a rare insight into the later years in the life of one of Howard’s friends. I have incorporated those memories into this blog post.

Linda was friends with Harold too and they shared a common career – being newspaper reporters. Harold recounted to her his adventures as a newspaperman in Chicago. When they first became friends, Linda was a reporter for the Edmond Evening Sun, later the Daily Oklahoman, and as a stringer for the Dallas Morning News. Harold used to tell her he wished the two of them could have covered a beat together — just like the old days.

Of course, Harold Preece is known to Howard fans as a good friend of Robert E. Howard. Born in Austin, Texas on January 16, 1906, Preece was a journalist, writer and an expert on Texas history. Truett Vinson, who was already acquainted with Preece, introduced him to Howard at a 1927 get-together in Austin. However, Preece is often overlooked as a member of Howard’s inner circle due to the fact he was not from the Callahan County—Brown County area and moved around a lot, winding up in Mena, Arkansas attending college in 1931. Sortly afterward, Preece got in some hot water espousing his Socialist political beliefs and Howard’s last known contact with him was in the spring of 1932. For more on Howard and Preece, check out Rob’s outstanding “Harold Preece and Robert E. Howard” blog post from December of 2010. Linda remembers that Harold was still a Socialist in his later years, but not a true communist. She said he was an outspoken champion of the downtrodden worker and very much engaged in union causes.

Harold was immensely proud of his association with Howard, but since Linda was not a fan and knew little about the genre, she didn’t pay much attention to the stories he told. Imagine if she had; we’d have a new batch of Howard’s real life adventures.

Linda does not recall when or where Harold and Winona first met, but odds are it was some time after he moved from New York to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1972. As for Linda, she met Harold after he relocated from Oklahoma City to Edmond, Oklahoma in 1978. She fondly remembers him as the special gentleman friend of Winona. Their relationship was very affectionate and entirely platonic. Harold lived in a low rent housing complex near the university, about ten blocks from Winona.

Winona had what might have been called a “salon” in the old days. Writers of all ages and persuasions gathered at her modest home. Linda often referred it as a tree house. It actually was a second story garage apartment with an enormous tree shading the balcony on the back side. The pair had a large contingent of friends and they liked to give people nicknames. One young lady was called “Tall Susan” and Winona’s mentor, Dr. Cliff Warren was “Teacher.” He still lives and teaches in Edmond, Oklahoma. Harold had a nickname too – Winona always called him “Tex.” The two of them were always joking and making up stories about their friends.

Winona Morris Nation was born in Dryden, Oklahoma on May 7, 1919 to Thomas and Mae Morris. She had a sister and two brothers. Winona was Oklahoma’s “most famous unknown poet.” She won almost every poetry competition she entered but never had a book published during her lifetime. However, one of her sons had a slim volume of her poetry entitled If I Still Hold Earth As Dear published by Vantage Press in 2000.

Winona looked every inch the eccentric poet. She wore dramatic clothing, dyed her hair coal black and wore very pale makeup with black Barbara Stanwyck arched eyebrows, heavy black mascara and bright red lipstick. She turned heads everywhere she went. Winona smoked those little thin brown cigarettes for women that looked like a real skinny cigar (Virginia Slims?) Linda and Winona often went out to eat at local restaurants, and since Linda didn’t smoke, Winona would go up to perfect strangers and ask for a light; she never seemed to have a match or a lighter.

Her eyesight was poor and she had glaucoma. This combined to make things hazy and rosy, which she preferred to perfect eyesight.

She was married at least twice. Her first husband and the father of her three sons was Oliver Nation, Jr. However, Winona was in love with another man, a Native American who was killed in World War II. Her second husband, whose name she never mentioned to Linda, was a horrible, abusive man who would throw her poetry into the fireplace and burn it. Living with such a beastly man created a stressful situation that contributed to a nervous breakdown. After recovering from her mental breakdown, she started school at Oklahoma City University where she met Dr. Warren.

They both moved to Edmond to the University of Central Oklahoma where she earned her Master’s Degree. Her thesis, Under the Shadow of the Hawk, is available in the library there. In the late 1970s she taught creative writing courses in the English department. As a student Winona placed third in the National Collegiate Poetry Contest, behind poets from Princeton and Yale. As a professional writer she received the Lasky Literary Award, and was chosen as one of the Top Twenty Poets in America by Atlantic Monthly. Her poems were widely published in such magazines as The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and Ebony. In 1991, she donated a large amount of her papers to her alma mater, the University of Central Oklahoma.

There was a time that Winona had no income. Like a Tennessee Williams character, she depended on the kindness of strangers and friends. Linda recalls that Harold fed her and gave her money from his meager retirement, as did Linda and Dr. Warren.  Also, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services paid her a small salary to do light housekeeping and cooking for Harold several days a week. Her children seemed to ignore her plight. Finally, her brother realized she was penniless and shared an inheritance with her from their father’s half-brother — oil money.

Possibly encouraged by Harold, Winona contributed a small batch of poems to Jonathan Bacon’s publications in the late 1970s (Fantasy Crossroads #13, Fantasy Crosswinds #2 and Omniumgathum). Cliff Bird also used two of her poems in Simba #2. Here is her poem “Leopard Night” from Fantasy Crossroads #13:

Leopard Night

by Winona Morris Nation


The golden leopard in the jungle night
Still stalked the leopardess he had been seeking
And found her waiting, compliant and unsurfeited
Beneath a banyan tree dripping black rain
A tympany orchestrating the growing feral rythmos
That had moved his loins to follow her.

In similitude we met,
In a room rented for the night
Where the sounds of nocturnal rains dripped like a Roman fountain
From the mansard roof; our temporary shield against the world.

And some old residual hunger slipped its noose
And dipped its tongue into forbidden water
there was upon my own
The taste of dripping banyan leaves.

Meanwhile, in the indifferent dreaming jungle
The wild things mated
And their unpremeditated consummation
Went unnoticed by strident cockatoos
As the rain fell like a benediction.

From the mansard roof we heard sibilant dripping
And the forbidden fountain was a blessing
Between your lips and mine
Now, day and the cockatoos are still chattering,
Feline and feral the gliding leopardess moves with subtle grace,
Still warm and tumescent with the memory
Of her mate between her thighs

I walk in the harried jungle of the citys morning
Where chattering people move in unison
Obeying the green and red of traffic lights
And I know I am more leopardess than woman,
feeling my silken stride become more supple and sensuous,
And my spots are shining as I remember.

Winona also corresponded with Glenn Lord. Here is one of her letters to him dated May 14, 1979:

May 14, 1979

Dear Glenn,

As Harold writes what will be his great book on Bob Howard, I’ll be seeing that he keeps healthy and happy. Harold is no carpetbagger like that other character with the elegant sounding name, but one of our own kind. He could write with equal ease and knowledge a biography of Bob or a history of the Southwest. Mr. D.C. can do neither without creating a sorry pastiche. I’m hoping that you and Harold can work out soon an arrangement for publication of his emerging fine work on his fine old friend.

Come see us soon.

Sincerely,
Winona

Of course, we all know Harold never completed his biography of Howard. Curiously, Harold’s papers were not donated to a university or other institution and Linda does not know what became of them.

Winona and Harold had a cat they named Mr. Kitty. They made up stories about his escapades. Being a Tomcat, he would disappear for days at a time, and that led to all sorts of story lines. Indeed, Mr. Kitty had an amazing life and traveled to the four corners of the earth in their imaginations. One day Winona found their beloved cat dead and she didn’t have the heart to tell Harold of his passing. They just continued to spin stories of his imaginary life and many loves.

Winona passed away October 30, 1992. Harold joined her in death just 25 days later on November 24, 1992. I find the romantic in me speculating that Harold, upon losing his close companion, could not live on without her and was ready to join her and Mr. Kitty for more adventures in the afterlife.