Remembering Virginia Faulkner
As we honor our 75th anniversary this year, we recall and celebrate some of the most influential people in the Press’s history.
The daughter of one of Lincoln’s most prominent citizens—Dr. Albert O. Faulkner, a leading businessman who founded Modern Woodmen Accident Company, now Assurity Life Insurance Company—Virginia Faulkner was a bit of a wild child and a witty and brash woman. Early in life she forged a career as a writer in the emerging radio and film industries before returning to her hometown, where she worked at the University of Nebraska Press from 1956 until shortly before her death in 1980.
Faulkner’s colleagues remembered her as a genius, an intellectual powerhouse, an eccentric, a tough-minded but outstanding editor with high standards. Others called her a “liberated woman” who published her first novel, Friends and Romans, when she was twenty-one. An obituary in the Omaha World-Herald quoted a review of that novel, which asserted Faulkner was known in high school for driving a rainbow-striped roadster one-handed, while flashing a cigarette in the other hand. Amy Mitchell Tuttle, who worked with Faulkner at the press, said Faulkner loved telling a story about smoking a cigar in the Miller & Paine Tea Room. “Of course that was kind of ghastly and unseemly,” Tuttle said.
Faulkner graduated with honors from Lincoln High School in 1928 and attended the University of Nebraska, where she joined Alpha Phi. Virginia Faulkner, editor in chief from1959 to 1980. She also attended the Moxley School in Rome, Italy, and Radcliffe College; she joked, however, that she “never achieved past the status of sophomore.” She never earned a college degree, but her native intelligence and intuitive ability to spot talent, write, and edit were all she needed to be successful.
As a young woman, she worked in New York City for Town and County magazine, the Washington Post, Mademoiselle, and other publications. Tuttle said Faulkner was a member of the Algonquin Table in New York, famed for attracting celebrities, bon vivants, and writers. “She had a Dorothy Parker type of wit,” Tuttle said.
Television pioneer Ron Hull counted Faulkner as a friend, and she encouraged him to write a memoir. He eventually did, and Backstage: Stories from My Life in Public Television was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2012. In it, he tells of Faulkner writing radio scripts for popular national programs like Duffy’s Tavern and The Fred Allen Show while in New York. She moved to California, worked for MGM, and contributed to scripts for two Greta Garbo films. In 1947 she and friend Dana Suess wrote a well-received Broadway musical comedy, It Takes Two, which starred Vivian Vance. She later ghost-wrote A House Is Not a Home, the autobiography of Polly Adler, who ran a famous bordello in Manhattan. Her two other novels were My Hey-Day and The Barbarians.
Faulkner began teaching English at the University of Nebraska, worked as an editor for Prairie Schooner, and joined the press in 1956 as an assistant editor. She was elevated to editor in chief in 1959, a position she held until her retirement.
Her long-standing relationship with University of Nebraska English professor Bernice Slote proved to be an excellent intellectual and personal partnership. Former UNP director Bill Regier said Slote and Faulkner were “100 percent responsible for reviving interest in Willa Cather as a major American writer.” Cather’s work had slipped from the public’s mind by the mid-fifties; Slote and Faulkner’s scholarship rescued Cather from the backwater.
For the press’s fifteenth anniversary Faulkner compiled and edited Roundup: A Nebraska Reader, a collection of articles and works about or by Nebraskans. It included pieces by Cather, Robert Burlingame, John Gunther, Bruce H. Nicoll, W. F. Cody, Louise Pound, Addison E. Sheldon, Mari Sandoz, Bess Streeter Aldrich, and others. It was a best seller for the press and won numerous awards. Faulkner was co-editor, with Slote, of The Art of Willa Cather and helped write Out to the Wind, a musical drama based on Cather’s story “Edward Hermannson’s Soul,” with University of Nebraska music professor Robert Beadell.
In 1959 UNP published Hostiles and Friendlies, Faulkner’s edited collection of Sandoz’s stories, essays, and vignettes. Hull said Sandoz called Faulkner the “best editor with whom she ever worked.” After Faulkner started the Bison Books imprint with University of Nebraska Press director Bruce Nicoll, she acquired the paperback rights to two of Sandoz’s biggest books, Old Jules and Crazy Horse.
“She was remarkably kind,” Tuttle said. “She was very helpful to all sorts of people who just wanted to improve their writing.”
In 1979 Faulkner received the Mari Sandoz Award from the Nebraska State Library Association and the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Award for scholarly research and the promotion of Cather’s works.
Both Hull and Tuttle said Faulkner abhorred pretense of any sort. She spoke rapidly with an enhanced and facile command of language. Regier shared an office with her when he joined the press as a young graduate student until her death a few years later. “I was terrified at first. She was a formidable woman who spoke her mind easily,” he remembers. “She eventually warmed up to me, and she would joke. We would laugh until we cried.”
Faulkner had a relentless work ethic and spent countless hours on the job. Her exceptionally high standards lifted the press to a level of quality that earned national regard.
According to Hull’s memoir, Faulkner died peacefully and unexpectedly while watching Monday Night Football on September 15, 1980.
–Profile by Kim Hachiya