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Odette Keun, and Knoxville as we don't like to remember it

by Jack Neely

Sometime around 1936, a woman with a heavy French accent got off the train in downtown Knoxville. Long-legged and darkly exotic, she was close to 50 and didn't look any younger than that, but had an enthusiastic way of moving and talking that may have made her seem younger. Vivacious, passionate, and extremely moody, she had a habit of blurting out intimacies to strangers; in her own description, she was "given to scandalize people by my language." It's the sort of habit that drives some men mad.

Her name was Odette Keun. During her first trip to the states she reveled in her foreignness; some suspected she exaggerated her accent for effect. To call her Dutch would be an oversimplification. Her father was Dutch, sure enough. Her mother was either Italian or Greek, depending on whom you believe. Because her father was a diplomat, she grew up in Constantinople. She'd been raised Presbyterian, but after her father's death, she ran away from home, riding a horse deep into the wilds of Asia Minor. She converted to Roman Catholicism and joined a Dominican convent in Holland. But disillusioned by a historical exposé of St. Dominic, Odette quit before taking her final vows to become a nun and returned to Turkey. From there she went to Paris, where she wrote a series of romantic novels. She took a lover, and moved to Algeria, then to the Caucasus. During the early days of the Soviet Union, she became a passionate Bolshevik. Jailed by the British in Constantinople, she was deported to Crimea. In Leninist Moscow, she grew disillusioned with Communism, and went back to Paris. She wrote novels, like Une Femme Moderne (1919), in which she had ridiculed a French officer who had jilted her. Some suspected she was a spy, and maybe she was, but it would be hard to guess for whom.

Then, in Geneva, she took another lover, a middle-aged married Englishman whose name was H.G. Wells. The author of The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man was appealing to Keun, who especially admired his ideas about free love. Odette Keun would become Wells' most maddening passion. They lived together in an extravagant oriental-style house in the south of France.

After the death of his wife, Wells refused to marry Odette. In book form she took her revenge on her lover of a full decade: her thinly disguised commentary on Wells, published in 1934, was called I Discover the English. She described limeys as "bad lovers...unawakened, clumsy, heavy, conventional; not disposed to caresses...."

Around 1936, when Odette was embroiled in a lawsuit with Wells over the house they had shared in France, she arrived in Knoxville. She apparently spent a good deal of time here. Visiting America for the first time, and she was especially anxious to have a look at FDR's most ambitious project, the revolutionary experiment everyone in Europe was talking about. Her book, A Foreigner Looks At the TVA, is an enthusiastic analysis of the agency. She steers clear of sexual commentary.

"TVA has blazed a magnificent trail," wrote Keun. "America, please follow." She loved Tennessee and the South in general. Kids, take your grandparents' rosy memories of the S&W's glory days with a grain of salt; the middle third of the 20th century was not Knoxville's finest hour. Trash drifted through the streets; soot covered the windows. Cheap billboards covered the architecture of a prouder era. And Knoxville may have been the biggest city in America without a downtown park.

Several visitors had already complained about it; even as gentle a soul at Ernie Pyle, the roving Scripps-Howard columnist, had suggested Knoxville might be the dirtiest city in the entire world.

As you might expect, Odette Keun wasn't shy about commenting. Getting the jump on John Gunther by several years, Keun declared 1930s Knoxville to be "one of the ugliest, dirtiest, stuffiest, most unsanitary towns in the United States." She went on to use one of the few municipal pejoratives that hadn't been flung our way: the city seemed to her corrosive.

"In a spirit of helpfulness," she went on, "I sat down and wrote to the leading newspaper, suggesting that the City Fathers should be put in stocks, and all the rotten eggs the Tennessee Valley could produce, flung at their heads until they promised on the Bible of their ancestors to clean up the streets of their town; teach its inhabitants not to spit....and repair the decaying privies of the sewerless quarters so that the expected tourists should be just a little less stifled by the reek...."

The unnamed newspaper refused to print Odette Keun's letter. So she recorded her impressions in her 1937 book for international distribution.

"I seize this occasion to tell the medieval municipality of Knoxville what I think," she wrote in her book, "and despairingly to ask all the deadly small towns with which this country is potted, why they must convert themselves into eyesores of tin frameworks, advertisements, and dump heaps. American genius has performed miracles, but a beautiful modern city and a pleasant modern village are still tragically out of its range."

A Foreigner Looks At the TVA got very good reviews, one of very few books that are both technically detailed and almost erotically passionate. It's illustrated with photographs by Charles Krutch, the TVA photographer who, nearly half a century later, bequeathed downtown Knoxville its first real park.

A Foreigner Looks At the TVA, in Lawson-McGhee Library's worn original copy, the passage about Knoxville is marked in pencil with a sweet old lady's handwriting:

Too true, I'm afraid.

March 2, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 9
© 2000 Metro Pulse