St. Louis’ literary community lost one of its most influential members, Lorin Cuoco, 64, earlier this month. The longtime editor and poet passed away at her University City home Aug. 8 after a long illness, as reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Cuoco is perhaps best known for her work alongside the late novelist William Gass, a dear friend and collaborator. Together they founded and oversaw Washington University’s International Writers Center (now the Center for the Humanities), and she edited multiple books with Gass.
She was also a force for the St. Louis Poetry Center, the River Styx literary organization and other local efforts to raise the profile of St. Louis’ literary scene. On top of all that, she was an accomplished radio professional.
On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske discussed Cuoco’s life and legacy with two people who observed her influence firsthand.
They included Mary Edwards, a longtime St. Louis Public Radio producer who worked with Cuoco, and Joel Minor, who oversees the Modern Literature Collection where Cuoco’s papers – along with those of many writers whose careers she helped to further – are housed.
Edwards said Cuoco served St. Louis Public Radio in all sorts of capacities over the years and completed 28 different audio features that aired nationally.
“Back at that time, in the '80s, St. Louis and the Midwest was definitely flyover country as far as NPR was concerned — they concentrated so much on both coasts,” Edwards recalled. “So she really did a great service to St. Louis and the many organizations in it by pitching ideas to the network and letting them know that, yes, great things are happening in St. Louis.”
Minor, who first met Cuoco in 2012, wrote a Wash U blog post earlier this week that described her as leaving “indelible marks” on the University Libraries’ collections.
“She saw this Modern Literature Collection at Washington University as being an important legacy for literary papers, especially in the St. Louis area,” Minor said. “And so she donated some of her papers, and through her work interviewing and corresponding with many literary talents … Stanley Elkin, Howard Nemerov and others, she had many important papers there.”
The conversation also included several remembrances from listeners who reached out to share their own fond memories of Cuoco.
Roger Kaza, principal horn for the St. Louis Symphony, described Cuoco as “an arts advocate with few equals.”
“In 1985, I was a 29-year-old with zero journalistic experience,” he wrote. “Yet, as a member of the horn section of the St. Louis Symphony, she trusted me as an ‘embedded’ reporter on our first European tour. Late at night I would call Lorin with news of each day’s events and concerts. Sometimes I would turn the mic over to others, such as our guest pianist Emanuel Ax.
“We were all jet-lagged, merry from post-concert partying and barely coherent at times. Yet Lorin edited each interview to put us all in the best light. Decades later she made me a copy of the interviews, which she had archived.”
Ann Haubrich wrote, “[It’s] so hard to fathom that Lorin no longer walks and reads and opines and laughs among us. Her mark on the STL cultural community, circa the mid-1980s through today, is indelible. I had the distinct pleasure of working with Lorin on many projects over the years, from River Styx to the International Writers Center, from Bloomsday readings (at Left Bank Books and Wash U) to a marathon reading of Ovid's “Metamorphoses” (at the Pulitzer) … Lorin's wit and intellect were razor sharp. Her taste was impeccable, and she set the bar high on every endeavor. She did not suffer fools, although she was always kind and professional.”
Several listeners emphasized Cuoco’s influential role in the radio station’s transition from, as her former colleague Richard Green put it, “a sleepy little classical music radio station in the 1970s” to “the modern KWMU we know today, which more accurately resembles a big-city newspaper, in its beautiful offices in the Grand Arts district.”
“We take NPR for granted, across the country, now – but it only happened in St. Louis because of people like Lorin, with her relentless enthusiasm and excitement for NPR programming. Lorin was determined, but invariably soft-spoken. And she had an infectious giggle in her regular workday, and was an endless source of encouragement to me,” Green wrote.
Michelle Komie, who worked with Cuoco at the International Writers Center for several years, said, “[Her] book ‘Literary St. Louis: A Guide’ began as a tour for visiting writers, and eventually became an illustrated book complete with maps, historic photographs and contemporary illustrations.
“Lorin believed passionately in the importance of the arts and especially literature and writing,” Komie continued. “That book, which contains short histories of around 50 writers who were significantly affiliated with St. Louis – from famed figures like Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot and Tennessee Williams to lesser-known but fascinating subjects like Zoe Akins, Emily Hahn, Kay Thompson and Irma Rombauer – is an excellent example of what Lorin did in her life: By shining an attentive, rigorous light on a subject that has been overlooked or remains under-resourced, she helped to form and sustain a rich history.”
A friend of Cuoco’s, Stephen Schenkenberg, also wrote in to the show.
“Lorin was a serious and generous intellectual citizen,” he said. “Her standards for literature were high – she knew great work, and she knew why our lives would be richer in reading it. While quick with a laugh, Lorin cared deeply about substance. As she closed an email to me in March 2006: ‘I am interested in truth.’”
M.K. Anderson, who said Cuoco was married to her cousin, remembers interacting with her as a child at holiday gatherings.
“Even in a very carefully worded family, Lorin was the best at saying precisely what she meant,” Anderson wrote. “When I told her I was taking creative writing classes in college, she responded, ‘Ah. You want to be an artist.’ I balked. That’s a big word.
“After I graduated, I visited Lorin and her husband, John. I arrived late evening,” Anderson’s note continued. “She put on jazz and talked about her residency in the artist colony at Marfa, and how she met her husband on a movie they both worked on. During the day, we followed her itinerary of things I must see in St. Louis. The St. Louis Art Museum, of course. We went to a current artist’s exhibition. She narrated the history of buildings we drove by, of entire neighborhoods. St. Louis, she was proud of you. She took every chance she could to say she loved you.”
Tom Barclay, a former St. Louis Public Radio staff member, also sent an email singing Cuoco’s praises.
“Everything else Lorin brought to media, arts and letters in St. Louis proceeded from [these] two virtues. She had great courage, and she would accept no substitutes,” Barclay wrote. “So when I think of KWMU, I think of the many changes it’s gone through since I left about 25 years ago. I look and see and remember that, somehow or another, many changes started with Lorin Cuoco’s courage and her refusal to put up with mediocrity.”
Former STLPR and NPR producer Seán Collins also shared a remembrance.
“Lorin just about single-handedly got arts and news editors at NPR to pay attention to the arts scene here in St. Louis, and that translated into millions of listeners knowing about writers and musicians and arts organizations in our town,” Collins wrote. “That’s a huge legacy in the creative life of this city. And if that were not enough, she gave a generation of young producers the tools to go make interesting radio with passion and smarts. And that impact was heard in newsrooms and production houses and agencies across the country.
“A lot of us owe her an awful lot. I know I do.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.
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