Kenneth E. “Kenny” Snedeker, 80, who joined the Handy Writers’ Colony in 1954, died on April 2017. As a young man right out of high school, Snedeker joined the Colony in Marshall, Illinois. Even before then, in 1952, he met James Jones and Lowney and her husband, Harry.
Kenneth was a resident of West Terre Haute, Indiana at the time of passing. His mother passed away when he was eleven years old and he later went to live with his Uncle and Aunt Johnie and March Snedeker, where he made his home until he graduated from Marshall High School in 1954. He served in the United States Army from 1955 to 1957 and after returning from the service he went to work at Quality Lime Company.
In 2001, Terre Haute journalist Steve Kash interviewed Kenny about his experiences in the Handy Writers’ Colony.
Kash: Kenny, how did you become involved with the Handy Writers’ Colony in Marshall?
Snedeker: My uncle Johnie [sic] Snedeker was the contractor hired to build the Colony and Jim Jones’s bachelor house. When I was in high school, I would come out and visit my uncle and the workmen after school let out for the day, and I met Jim and Lowney during these visits.
Kash: What year was this?
Snedeker: 1953 and ’54.
Kash: When did you move onto the Colony grounds?
Snedeker: When I graduated from high school in April of 1954, I went to Lowney. I was kind of down and out, and she was known to take in the downtrodden, and so on, and she invited me in and said, “I’ll get a book out of you.” Then I told her I’d lost a tooth, and she said, “We’ll fix that tooth, too.” Well, she never did, but that’s how I came to be invited in.
Kash: Was she like a mother figure for you?
Snedeker: Well, I was an illegitimate child, and my mother had died when I was ten years old, and my uncle and aunt, bless their hearts, took me in, but once I graduated from high school and was seventeen, they said, “You’re out on your own—you know—go find work and make your own way in the world.” I was scared and went to Lowney, and she took me under her wing.
Kash: How long had the Colony been in operation before you went and lived there?
Snedeker: It opened in 1949.
Kash: So, there were several colony members before you arrived?
Kash: How many people were at the colony when you went to live on it in April 1954?
Snedeker: Approximately 15. I think ten were permanent and five were coming and going.
Kash: What age people were they?
Snedeker: They were all ages. I was probably the youngest. I’d say the oldest were in their late fifties.
Kash: Were there any females, or was it all male?
Snedeker: Let’s see, there was one female was there for a while (I think she was Lowney’s niece), and the rest were male. Lowney discouraged females, because, you know, that causes problems.
Kash: Had you been interested in writing in high school or in literature when you were in high school?
Snedeker: No. No interest at all. Lowney got me interested.
Kash: Did it cost you anything to move onto the colony?
Snedeker: No, not a penny.
Kash: Everything was provided?
Snedeker: Everything was provided. You just needed to bring your clothing.
Kash: And she provided all the food?
Kash: What if a person needed some extra spending money?
Snedeker: They kept a little cash pot in the Ramada kitchen, and you could take money out of that and buy some postage, or if you needed a pair of socks, or maybe some underwear, but you couldn’t buy booze with it.
Kash: What was the daily schedule at the Handy Colony?
Snedeker: Well, reveille was 5:30, and when I would hear Lowney’s screen door slam and her shower shoes clapping on her feet and heels as she walked across the white rock to the Ramada, I knew it was time to get up to go eat breakfast.
Kash: What kind of breakfast would you have?
Snedeker: Well, it was a frugal breakfast. We had raisin toast; also you could make some hot cereal, or cold cereal. There was no talking allowed during breakfast—none whatsoever. You were supposed to be gathering your thoughts about what you were going to do that day. And after taking thirty minutes or so for breakfast, you’d go back to the barracks where you’d work on your daily assignment from Lowney of what author she wanted you to copy.
Kash: How much of the time you spent in the barracks was copying other writers’ works?
Snedeker: A couple of hours a day.
Kash: Can you give me examples of the works of the writers you copied?
Snedeker: Well, let’s see, there was Faulkner, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald—Hemingway was a big one.
Kash: Did Lowney allow students to talk between yourselves about your writing or what you were interested in writing about?
Kash: Do you know why she had this rule?
Snedeker: She never really explained it, but I can understand it. You just concentrated on your own work, I guess.
Kash: How long were you expected to write every day?
Snedeker: Until noon to one—then we would eat lunch.
Kash: After that, would you free to do anything you wanted to do, or did Lowney have other expectations?
Snedeker: We had work around the Colony to do—mowing, maintenance.
Kash: Did you work on building the swimming pool?
Snedeker: The swimming pool was already built when I got there. I remember seeing earlier students working on it when I visited there in 52, 53, 54—they had a huge pile of bricks that still had the mortar on them that came from the Robinson refinery, and these guys were out there chipping the mortar off. Each brick was cleaned and hand-laid in that pool.
Kash: Where was the pool located?
Snedeker: It was in the area between the barracks and the Ramada. Before the pool was built a hollow had been there. They brought in a bulldozer from the Robinson oil refinery where Harry Handy was the superintendent and dug out the hollow and built a dam on the west end.
Kash: So for the colony members in 1954 laboring was easier laboring than 1953 and 1952?
Snedeker: Oh yes. Right.
Kash: Did you get a chance in the afternoons to goof off, play football, run around out in the yard, or play games?
Snedeker: Some played ping-pong or shuffleboard in the Ramada. I mainly did a little trampoline. Not very much, I was scared of it, but Jim would come over once and a while and I’d get up on it.
Kash: Jim was Jim Jones?
Snedeker: Jim Jones. And he was good on the trampoline! He could jump up there and do flip-flops.
Kash: Did he ever criticize the other Colonists for their technique on the trampoline?
Snedeker: Yes. Those of us who were awkward on it, he’d get impatient and think we should learn quicker.
Kash: Was he a show-off?
Snedeker: Yes. Jim was very much a show-off—with about everything he did.
Kash: Was anybody as good as him on the trampoline among the other writers’ colony members?
Snedeker: No. Couldn’t be.
Kash: What did you do in the evenings at the Colony? Did you have TV to watch, or did Lowney let you listen to radio?
Snedeker: No. You were to read.
Kash: What kind of books did you read?
Snedeker: Mostly assigned books, which were by the same authors, like Hemingway and Steinbeck, that she had us copy. Sometimes we’d read dime novels. She wouldn’t have liked that if she knew it.
Kash: Were there other ways you passed free time in addition to reading?
Snedeker: Some of the fellows could go to Terre Haute to the whorehouses, if you had the money, which I never did.
Kash: Would she give you money to go the whorehouses?
Snedeker: No, no, couldn’t do that.
Kash: Was it was OK, as far as she was concerned, to take a trip to the whorehouses if you had the money?
Snedeker: Sure. And a lot of people at the colony went drinking to Bohannon’s in Terre Haute. It was there on Wabash Avenue. I think it’s still in business.
Kash: Were there any other establishments that colony members frequented that are still in existence now in 2001?
Snedeker: Not that I know of except for Bohannon’s. I know Jim frequented that one quite a bit.
Kash: Were you expected to write or work on Saturdays, or did you have a more relaxed schedule?
Snedeker: No, same schedule.
Kash: You are from the Marshall area, so did you have any visits from your friends? Were you able to visit your friends?
Snedeker: Yes, I invited two out there one afternoon. Joe Smitley and Norman Duzan. I wanted to impress them. And I could go leave and have dinner with my family any time I wanted to since they lived right there in town.
Kash: What was your routine on Sundays?
Snedeker: Didn’t do a whole lot, really. Just kind of lounged around. A lot of them swam, played games and cards or chess.
Kash: Would you go to movies? Was there a Marshall movie theater?
Snedeker: Yeah, we still had the Marshall movie theater.
Kash: Was there a drive-in theater?
Snedeker: No, had to go to Paris for that, but we had a nice theater in Marshall so we could do movies on the weekend.
Kash: How about girlfriends? Were you allowed to have a girlfriend if you were on the Colony.
Snedeker: No, you were discouraged, although I broke the rules and had a girlfriend.
Kash: Why did Lowney not want the guys to have girlfriends?
Snedeker: It interfered with your writing as far as Lowney was concerned. I remember Lowney saying to me one time that marriage, or women, were the kiss of death to an artist.
Kash: How were lunch and dinner meals at the colony?
Snedeker: Good food. Simple food. Lowney would usually cook, but sometimes some of the other Colonists would fix it if they had a particular item they excelled in cooking.
Kash: What were Lowney’s favorite things to cook?
Snedeker: She loved hot jell-o! Hot jell-o was good for you, she said. And we had a lot of lentil soup and chicken salad sandwiches.
Kash: Why did she like lentil soup?
Snedeker: Well, she told me once that it dated from the biblical days, and that it was one of the few foods mentioned in the Bible—so it had to be good for you if it was mentioned in the Bible.
Kash: Did Lowney offer writers colony members classes in writing when you were there, or did Lowney teach you writing techniques in individual tutorials?
Snedeker: Maybe individually, not as a group. You could turn in your weekly work to her at her bungalow, and sometimes she’d ask you in discuss it, and go over it, and she’d edit it—she often wrote notes in the sidelines.
Kash: Would she offer you some other written materials on the subject of how to write?
Snedeker: I remember she gave me Tom Uzzell’s Narrative Technique Handbook. She thought a lot of that book.
Kash: Did she encourage any certain styles of writing?
Kash: Did she suggest subject matter for your stories?
Snedeker: Just your life’s experiences—and those of other people.
Kash: What role did Jim Jones have with the Colony members?
Snedeker: I believe it was strictly financial, because he could afford it then. He was rich and famous by the time I knew him.
Kash: Had he ever involved himself with helping people with their writing projects, or did you ever have any direct contact with him?
Snedeker: I didn’t really, but I think he might have after I left the colony. I remember reading somewhere that Lowney had taught him how to teach creative writing and he had worked with Rex Bollen some on Rex’s novel, which I don’t think was ever published, but maybe it was. I’m not sure.
Kash: Did you ever attempt to get Jones’s personal help?
Snedeker: Yes, one evening I went over to his house. He was sitting up drinking martinis, smoking the usual cigarette. I asked him how he handled a flashback, and he didn’t elaborate very much, just small talk. Then I said, “OK, I’m out of here.” And he later told Lowney that I’d been over there nosing and bothering him, and she balled me out for it—the only time she ever got on me. She said: “I’m the teacher, not James Jones.” I felt so low. It just broke my heart—I’d broken her confidence.
Kash: Did nationally prominent writers visit the Colony during the time you were there?
Snedeker: No, I think in ’53 Montgomery Clift and Norman Mailer visited, but no famous people visited while I was there, other than Tom Chamales.
Kash: It’s my understanding that Tom Chamales was, like you, a member of the colony, and he sold a book after working on it in Marshall.
Snedeker: That’s right. The novel Never So Few was written by Tom. Later, a movie was made of Never So Few starring Frank Sinatra and Gina Lollabrigida.
Kash: What age of a person was Tom when you knew him, and what was his background experience before coming to the Handy Colony?
Snedeker: Well, his background experience was, he was a very handsome Greek, and a large man, black haired, big black moustache. I thought he was very handsome. He was light complexioned. He’d just been through hell and back when I met him. He had fought with Merrill’s Marauders and guerrilla forces in Burma during World War II and had seen death, misery, suffering that no human should ever have to see. I felt so sorry for him, but he was able to put that experience down on paper so perfectly. Once Lowney told me he was the only student she ever had who could turn out almost perfect chapters, whole chapters, where she’d have to do very little editing. As soon as he wrote it, his stuff was ready to go to the publisher.
Kash: Was he a friendly guy?
Kash: Would Tom goof off with the other colonists—play pong, swim or whatever?
Snedeker: Yes. He was very outgoing.
Kash: I’ve heard that Lowney believed in writers and all people having enemas. Do you know how she came to believe this and did she persuade you to do it?
Snedeker: Well, one time I asked her why you do enemas. She told me that she had learned about it from some of her Far Eastern readings and teachings. She said a tribe in India had observed this stork-like bird sticking their beak up their read-ends and giving themselves enemas. These storks were long-lived—like a hundred years old. So if it worked for them, it should work for us, these Indians reasoned, and they began the practice. Apparently it worked, at least Lowney believed it did, so she encouraged students to do the enemas. I wasn’t into it, but I remember Tom Chamales once came out of the Airstream trailer where he lived, and he was huge! He looked like he had about five gallons of water in his stomach. He was holding it, walking around, jigging it like jell-o, and in about ten minutes he was back in the trailer. I guess to relieve himself.
Kash: Do you remember anybody else who used to do enemas regularly?
Snedeker: Burt Bliss—he seemed to be into it.
Kash: Any other guys?
Snedeker: No, I never observed them.
Kash: Do remember what kind of stories you wrote when you were a colony member?
Snedeker: Well, it was just about life experiences I’d had by the age of eighteen: living with my uncle, carpenter work, cutting wood out in the woods at wintertime, motorcycle riding—my Uncle Johnie introduced all of us to motorcycle riding, including James Jones. My uncle was an accomplished motorcyclist. He’s the reason James Jones bought his first Harley-Davidson. That really made Lowney unhappy when Jim bought the Harley-Davidson. He was not a good rider. Good writer, but not a good motorcycle rider.
Kash: Did Jones have motorcycle accidents?
Snedeker: No, none that I ever knew of, but I’m surprised. But, boy, he immediately bought the studded leather jacket, and the motorcycle rider’s cap, and really got into the scene.
Kash: Did you ever have a chance to ride with Jim?
Snedeker: No, never did. He let me ride his motorcycle one time, though.
Kash: How far?
Snedeker: Just around town.
Kash: Now did you remain friends with any of the people on the Colony after your experience there?
Snedeker: No. I don’t know where any of them are or I would. I probably would if I knew how to contact them. I think several of them are dead.
Kash: Why did you eventually leave the Writers’ Colony?
Snedeker: Well, when they closed for the year—they always made their seasonal close in October—Lowney sent me to her friend Helen Chezney who lived in Hollywood, Florida. I stayed with Helen a couple of months, and after a while I found a flophouse where I lived for three months. I was broke. It was the coldest winter Florida had ever had. I got a job as a busboy, which would depend on tips—no tourists, no tips. And I had to sell my motorcycle, which I had ridden down there, for a hundred dollars to get a train ticket back to Marshall. Came back to Marshall flat broke, and I had a terrible cold. Then my uncle advised I join the military. So I joined the Army for two years.
Kash: After you returned to Illinois from the army, how have you made your living throughout most of your adult life?
Snedeker: Well, my Uncle Johnie was to play just as big a role in my adult life as he had in getting me involved with the Handy Writers’ Colony. The year before I lived on the colony, he built a room edition for a wealthy family in Marshall named Murphy. I used to go and visit on the job site there just like I did at the James Jones bachelor pad, and while I was visiting I became acquainted with the Murphy’s daughter, Dee Ann, who was 15 at the time—rich, spoiled, somewhat wild, and real sexy to be around. Dee Ann’s folks were one/third owners of a large stone quarry called Quality Lime, plus a farm, which were just outside of Marshall. Dee Ann was just the kind of girl Lowney would hate—she turned me on a lot more than writing. Anyway, Dee Ann and I married while I was in the army. She came and lived with me while I was stationed in El Paso, Texas, and she got pregnant with our first son, a boy named Van—we later had another boy and a girl. After I was discharged from the service, I went to work in the office at Quality Lime. I ended up getting along a lot better with her grandfather, Van Tarble; her uncle, Martin Tarble; and her father, Dean Murphy, than I did with her. They were all nice men. I worked real hard for them, and they have taken good care of me and my family for my entire life, because when I divorced Dee Ann in ’62, I stayed on with Quality Lime. I married my wife Sue in ’64, and I have stayed married to her ever since. Dee Ann passed away in 1966. I have always said that I was one of the few men that married money, then divorced out of it.
Kash: Do you have final recollections about Lowney?
Snedeker: I loved her dazzling white smile and her dark eyes, which seemed to be a Turner trait—I knew her brothers and they had dark eyes. Lowney just loved human beings. She was prone to take in the downtrodden. And she was so articulate. I just never knew anybody like her. It’s really hard to explain about Lowney—I’ve never known anybody like her in my whole life.
Kash: Did you ever have any contact with her after you left the Colony?
Snedeker: I wrote to her a few times, but then after I got married the relationship pretty well soured—probably due to my neglecting her—and I regret that I didn’t maintain a relationship, because she died in ’64.
Kash: Did you see her again, or Jim Jones, after your time at the Colony?
Snedeker: No. No, I never did.
Kash: Looking back, what strikes you the most about your time at the Colony and being part of history?
Snedeker: Well, holy cow. I’m really proud that I did that experience. I met a lot of nice people, especially Lowney. I lived in a group setting like that, which was so unorthodox in this country. Despite all the rumors, believe me, it was not a nudist colony. And to have known famous people is pretty important to me. I’ll never ever forget it.