Southern writer Lula Carson Smith was born in Columbus, Georgia, on February 19, 1917, to Lamar Smith and Marguerite Waters Smith. As a child, she showed a propensity for music, and her mother enrolled her in piano lessons at age ten. She studied seriously and intended to become a concert pianist, until she contracted rheumatic fever while a senior at Columbus High School. McCullers endured a long, tedious recovery from the illness, and her health was never the same. She soon realized that she would not have the stamina to be a concert pianist and, having read books avidly during her convalescence, she set her sights instead on being a writer.
McCullers graduated from high school at age sixteen, and at seventeen she went to New York, where she worked several jobs and took creative writing classes at Columbia University and Washington Square College of New York University. She was forced to return to Columbus in the fall of 1936 to recuperate from an illness, and during that time she started work on her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. While she was recovering from illness, her first story, “Wunderkind,” was published in December 1936 in Story magazine. McCullers was only nineteen.
Less than one year later, on September 20, 1937, the twenty-year-old Lula Carson Smith married another aspiring writer, James Reeves McCullers. The pair lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, and had a tumultuous marriage undermined by drinking, jealousy, and the fact that both were bisexual. They divorced in 1941, yet remarried in 1945. In 1953, Reeves McCullers committed suicide.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published in June 1940 to much critical praise. Originally titled The Mute, the novel features a deaf mute in a small Southern town who listens as four people—a restaurateur, an activist, a black doctor, and a teenaged girl—spill their secrets to him. The novel’s themes of loneliness and isolation would recur in McCuller’s other novels as well. Reflections in a Golden Eye was published in 1941, and The Ballad of the Sad Café was published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1943. The Member of the Wedding, McCuller’s fourth novel, was published in 1946. McCullers collaborated with playwright Tennessee Williams to adapt her novel for the stage, and in January 1950, the play opened on Broadway. The play was critically successful and earned McCullers the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. The Ballad of the Sad Café was also adapted as a play and earned six Tony Award nominations.
The last fifteen years of McCullers’ life were marked by pain and illness. She suffered two strokes in 1947 that left her paralyzed on her left side, and in 1948 she attempted suicide. In 1962, McCullers had breast cancer surgery, and in 1964 she broke her right hip and her left elbow. In 1967 she had another stroke. She died on September 29, 1967, after being in a coma for forty-seven days. McCullers was buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery on the banks of the Hudson River on October 3, after a funeral attended by over 200 people, including Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and the actress Julie Harris.