Remembering the remarkable Mr. Starcke

Patrick Kurata, Jim Smith, Bill Sibley, and Walter Starcke in 2009 - William Jack Sibley
William Jack Sibley
Patrick Kurata, Jim Smith, Bill Sibley, and Walter Starcke in 2009

We lost a genuine San Antonio original with the passing of 90-year-old author, Broadway producer, New Age lecturer, confidante to stars and scalawags alike, world traveler, bon vivant and raconteur sans pareil Walter Starcke on October 25, 2011.

Though born into an old German-American family in Seguin (Max Starcke Park is named after his uncle, a former mayor of Seguin) Walter grew up mostly in San Antonio. His dentist father, Walter Sr., died early on and he and his sister, Ella Mae, were raised by their widowed mother, Juanita (Knolle). Walter would frequently exclaim when passing through former stomping grounds, “I used to ride my bike down this street!” or “You do realize that building over there was a bordello during the war?” My favorite “Walterism” was the confidence he shared one afternoon while driving through a local park, “Oh look, that’s where I lost my virginity. Why, it hasn’t changed a bit!”

Graduating from Jefferson High School in 1939 he went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Trinity University in 1943. Soon afterwards he joined the Navy, serving as an officer till the end of World War Two. Ending up in New York, Walter became an immediate habitue of the theatre world. He quickly found acting jobs in several Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. He beat out an up-and-coming Marlon Brando for a role in “Night Must Fall” with the English actress Dame May Whitty. He then met the esteemed Broadway playwright and director John Van Druten (“I Remember Mama”) and they soon became, in the vernacular of the time, “great and good friends.” Walter stayed with Van Druten for almost 10 years, in the process becoming his assistant director on the Broadway premiere of “The King and I.” What really got Walter noticed in the entertainment world was his original Broadway co-production of Christopher Isherwood’s story, “I Am A Camera,” starring Julie Harris, which later evolved into “Cabaret.” From there Walter produced several more New York plays, his swan song being a work by James Herlihy (“Midnight Cowboy”) called “Crazy October” starring Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Blondell, and Estelle Winwood. The play was a flop but Walter and Tallulah remained great friends.

After visiting Tennessee Williams in Key West, Fla., Walter bought a home nearby and relocated there in the early 1960’s. He opened Key West Hand Print Fabrics and became one of the developers of the Old Island Restoration Foundation. Rubbing shoulders with the island’s gay literati (Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, etc.), Walter was definitely in his element. Tallulah herself came to visit several times and Walter’s frequent cocktail-hour retellings of “Tallulah and the Boys in Key West” was always high hilarity. One of his favorites involved going to the cinema in Key West with Tallulah to see Tennessee’s film version of his play, “The Rose Tattoo.” Apparently Tallulah and Tenn had a falling-out and she was nervous about seeing Tenn at his home afterwards (fearful she might say the wrong thing about the movie, which she hadn’t cared for). Arriving at Tennessee’s home for drinks afterwards, Tallulah, unable to contain herself burst into the front room and dramatically pronounced, “Oh Tennessee, they’ve simply ruined that bad play of yours!”

In 1974 Walter returned to his native Texas and purchased the old Olivia de Havilland/Marcus Goodrich ranch (Guadalupe River Ranch) outside Boerne. He converted it into a successful inn and corporate retreat center and finally sold most of his interest in early 2000. “Retiring” to his leafy cottage home in the River Road neighborhood, Walter could be seen most days walking his beloved stray schnauzer “Hugo” and zipping around town in his tomato-red Saab convertible. Shoulders erect, head high, and his trademark goatee trimmed to a fare-thee-well, Walter was the picture of “Golden Years” vim and vigor.

Others are perhaps more qualified to speak of Walter’s deep and steadfast commitment to the New Thought movement. Author of dozens of books, pamphlets, tapes, articles, a worldwide lecturer and innovative seminar guru, Walter's most impressive achievement was his steadfast dedication to simply “walking the talk.” Whether meditating each morning on the oceanfront balcony of his beloved winter retreat in Puerto Vallarta, dashing off another “Daily Voice” musing to devoted followers, or enthusiastically regaling a small gathering on the nature of God and self — Walter was the real deal. What I learned from Walter many years ago at a “men's consciousness raising” seminar (remember those?) was that we are both spirit and flesh. To deny the spiritual side is as pointless as denying a fondness for chocolate chip cookies. Our job is to experience both while on this earthly plane. The example he always gave was that during his years as a young man in New York he would remove himself from the clamor of city life and go to retreats to “find himself.” Always, after a period of intense naval gazing, he would find that he desperately missed his wild and crazy theatre friends who were probably singing show tunes and sipping Manhattans at that very moment. He realized that life is not about one or the other but rather a “duality” of existence (read his book “The Double Thread”), a balancing act of selves — corporeal and soulful.

A dry autocrat Walter was not. This was a man who loved his martini and red wine. Rich food, sumptuous surroundings, glamorous travel, and the occasional hit from a passing joint were definitely not anathema in Walter’s world. A lifelong bachelor, he ended up marrying his longtime female friend, companion, and devotee, Eron Howell to the surprise of many in his 90th year. Walter did as Walter pleased. One of Walter’s stock replies to the question, “What is the answer to a happy relationship?” was his reasonable if perhaps problematic retort, “Easy, I just like anyone that likes me!”

Walter became one of my dearest friends. Despite our 30-year-plus age difference I found him as interesting, funny, charming, caring, and challenging as anyone I've known. We traveled, debated, fought, wined, dined, and opined till the cows came home. I valued his advice, relished his storytelling, and marveled at his accomplishments. Here was a completely self-actualized, interested/interesting, hip and involved gay/bisexual man walking the earth in his ninth decade showing the rest of us how to keep the faith, own your self, love your self, and respect others as they walk their own paths. We Baby Boomer gays were never blessed with an abundance of guides to show us “the way.” Now, as we slouch toward our own autumnal years I cherish Walter’s gift of “action and words” and his memory for illuminating that inevitable yet hopeful path still ahead. Danke, mein herr! I can hear him chuckling now, “It’s all God, baby. All God!”


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