Born in Jackson, the daughter of an insurance company president and a homemaker, Welty was raised on southern hospitality—and storytelling. "There was no TV, you'd have to travel a while to see relatives, so you'd always be telling stories," says longtime friend Roy Winston Wilkinson. Her own finely observed tales of small-town Mississippi life, which she started writing in earnest after forays North for college and jobs as a WPA publicist and photographer, were acidly funny and as southern as a hot buttered biscuit. They also garnered her much glory: In addition to her 1972 Pulitzer Prize for The Optimist's Daughter, she won numerous other awards and influenced the unlikeliest of fellow artists. "She said prose should read like music plays in the heart," says singer Nanci Griffith, 48. "That helped me define my own voice."
Never married, Welty cultivated a circle of devoted friends. Housebound in recent years, she remained "sharp as a tack," says one friend, author Ellen Douglas. Recalls pal Patti Carr Black: "Once Eudora and [author] Willie Morris were driving, and he said, 'Eudora, we are going to turn left on Paradise Road.' " Welty's response: " 'We'd be fools not to.' "