My Father

Jesse L. Yancy, Jr. was an attorney, politician, and humanitarian who served the people of Bruce, Calhoun County, and Mississippi from 1956 until his death in 1970.

Born in Springville, Mississippi on Jan. 17, 1926, Yancy moved to Bruce ten years later, where his father, Jesse Lee Yancy, Sr. had established a general store. He graduated from Bruce High School in 1944, joined the Army Air Corps in 1945, and served overseas in the Pacific. He attended the University of Mississippi School of Business and School of Law, earning his J.D. in 1951. In 1952 he married Barbara Young. They had three children.

Yancy was first elected to office in 1956 as district attorney for the Third Circuit Court District. During the Meredith Crisis at the University of Mississippi, Yancy entered the national spotlight when a Lafayette County grand jury issued an indictment against Chief United States Marshall James P. McShane, Meredith’s escort to registration at the University, for inciting a riot.

While serving as D.A., Yancy became president of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association. Elected to the Senate in 1968, during his first term Yancy, as chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, guided the state’s first Open Election Law to passage.

A member of the Senate Commission on Appropriations, he wrote and gained approval for the Idle Funds Bill, which authorized the investment of in place funding for the state, a key piece of legislation that has garnered Mississippi millions of much-needed dollars for over four decades.

Yancy served as an attorney for the City of Bruce for 17 years. His most influential act in that capacity came in 1961, when Bruce had outgrown its fledgling infrastructure, and the city was badly in need of repairs and updates to its streets, water, and sewer systems.

Yancy commandeered a grant of $25,000 for the city to hire Cook Coggin, an engineering firm in Tupelo, to conduct a survey of what repairs and improvements were needed. On completion of this study, the city secured a loan of $500,000 to fund the improvements. Yancy helped Bruce to grow into a clean, attractive town, appealing both to current and potential citizens as well as businesses and industry.

He was a president of the Bruce Rotary Club, the Bruce Chamber of Commerce, the Calhoun County Bar Association, and a founder and commander of VFW Post 5571. He served on the Pushmataha Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and taught Sunday school at the Bruce United Methodist Church.

A Farish Street Financial Timeline

 

DATE

AMOUNT ($)

SOURCE

PURPOSE

110/9/81

200,000

CDBG*Revitalization study
2

34,000

CDBGExtension of study
37/23/82

100,000

Grant, National Endowment for the Humanities via JSUHistorical survey of Farish Street
412/10/89

1,600,000

CDBGInfrastructure, business loans, housing
5

85,000

CDBGFarish Street park
611/22/94

50,000

Jackson/Hinds Co.Mary Means (Means Consulting)
711/22/95

1,500,000

State of Ms.Alamo renovation
83/7/96

130,000

National Trust for Historic Preservation/State of Ms.Renovation of Scott Ford House
9

200,000

Acquisition of property in Farish St. district
103/26/98

2,500,000

National Equity Fund; $600,000 from local banks; $350,000, CDBG (city)“Rehab” of 37 historic houses
114/27/99

6,000,000

State of Ms.Farish St. revitalization
124/27/99

6,000,000

Fannie MaeFarish St. revitalization (matching of state funds
133/23/01

1,500,000

HUD?Infrastructure
145/22/01

900,000

City of Jackson water and sewer fundInfrastructure
151/12/02

74,000

($50,000 J. Paul Getty Trust; $12,500 Ms. Dept. Archives and History; $3,500 Gannett, Inc.; $8,000 ChemFirst, Inc.)Farish St./Scott-Ford Museum
163/8/11

210,000

Civil rights grant(?)Medgar Evers House Museum
 TOTAL

21,082,000

*(Community Development Block Grant – HUD)

Not included in this document are amounts for donations of real estate (e.g.: from state of Mississippi; donation of Alamo from Sunburst Bank), funding for the Smith-Robertson Museum and contract fees paid to Performa Entertainment and subsequent developers.

1) Hester, Lea Ann. “City expected to extend study of Farish Street.” The Clarion-Ledger 19 October 1981: 1B. Print.
2) Ibid.
3) Hester, Lea Ann. “Farish: Older than thought?” The Clarion-Ledger 23 July 1801: 1B. Print.
4) Scruggs, Afi-Odelia E. “Development plan fails to revitalize Farish Street.” The Clarion-Ledger 10 December 1989: 1A. Print.
5) Ibid.
6) Simmons, Grace. “Farish Street consultants to share info.” The Clarion-Ledger 9 October 1993: (no page cited)
7) Gates, Jimmie. “Renovation closer for Farish Street’s Alamo Theatre.” The Clarion-Ledger 22 November 1995: (no page cited)
8) Harris, Barbara. The Jackson Advocate. “Farish Street Historic District gets infusion of national, state funding.” 7 March 1996: 1A. Print.
9) Ibid.
10) Fleming, Eric. “Farish Street renovation under way.” The Mississippi Link. 26 March 1998. 1A: Print.
11) Henderson, Monique H. “Draft document targets Farish St. Historic District:12M allotted for development of district.” The Clarion-Ledger. 27 April 1999. 1B Print.
12) Ibid.
13) Mayer, Greg. “$1.5M grant going to Farish Street.” The Clarion-Ledger. 22 March 2001. 1B: Print.
14) Ibid.
15) _______. “Black museum receives grant.” The Picayune Item. 12 January 2000. (no page cited)
16) Mitchell, Jerry. “$2M-plus in grants awarded to state civil rights sites.” (“$210,000 will help stabilize the foundation and repair the Medgar Evers House Museum in Jackson.”) The Clarion-Ledger. 3 August 2011. (no page cited)

farish_street_north_blog

Down in Doodleville

For Jackson, Mississippi the Civil War was catastrophic, but by the 1880s, the city had begun to rebuild and slowly piece itself together along two main two axes, Capitol and State Streets.

The Pearl River provided then as it does now a natural barrier to expansion to the east, so that the city grew west along Capitol behind the bluff and north along State following the bluff. The southwesterly course of the floodplain largely prevented significant development on South State Street beyond its parallel to the divergence of the Illinois Central and Gulf & Ship Island Railroads, yet inevitably attempts were made, paramount among them the hamlet that became Duttoville.

Located south of Porter and on either side of Gallatin adjacent to the Illinois Central Railroad, Duttoville was named for Father Louis Anthony (Luigi Antonio) Dutto, one of the most fascinating figures in the ecclesiastical history of Mississippi. Dutto was born in the commune of Boves in Italy’s Piedmont region and educated at Brignole-Sale, a pontifical college in Genoa. A very learned man, Dutto was the author of The Life of Bartolome de las Cassas (published posthumously; 1902). He was ordained for the Diocese of Natchez before he was 24 years old and arrived in Jackson on August 25, 1875 to assist Fr. Picherit in attending the surrounding missions. Dutto succeeded Picherit as pastor in 1885.

Fr. Louis Dutto

According to an anecdotal biography written in 1932 by Rev. P.H. Keenen, a personal friend, “Father Dutto was a great financier, having special aptitude in this line. He was sought as adviser in matters financial by young businessmen, and his advice, when followed, usually brought success, and often wealth. . . .  He himself acquired much property. On the missions he seldom asked his people for funds—he gave instead of asking. His business acumen enabled him to do this.”

In 1886, Fr. Dutto bought land in what was then the southwestern portion of the city, which, according to the account given by McCain in The Story of Jackson, “he divided into lots on which homes were erected and gardens cultivated by certain Catholics who had to come to the city to engage in commercial and agricultural pursuits. This section is still known as Duttoville.”

By another account (Jackson Daily News, May 30, 1979 p. 15A) Dutto acquired the property in 1891 from F.A. and Mary F. Wolfe, J.W. Langley all along Gallatin Street and the I.C.R.R. and the G.&S.I. Railroad and the “Muh (pronounced as the pronoun “me”) Estate, “vast acres” of land just outside the city limits, Dutto sold lots to working class people who could not pay taxes on simple homes, including many Italian immigrants (likely the “certain Catholics” referenced above). The area soon became a thriving community with a planing mill, brickyard and other enterprises that provided work for residents, and many worked in Jackson proper. Anticipating being acquired by Jackson at an early date, the settlers, to avoid city taxes, incorporated in 1903.

Jackson topographic map, 1905

The original Duttoville was bounded on the north by Town Creek, the east by the Pearl River with the Illinois Central and Gulf & Ship Island railroads to the west. Later the village expanded west of he railroad tracks to Terry Road. The first (and only) mayor was J.R. Root; aldermen were W.L. Porter, Joe Karese and Will Muh; J.E. Robinson was town marshal, and J.W Langley was city clerk. We’re told a small jail was built but “never occupied”.

 When Jackson first attempted to incorporate Duttoville, the tiny village put up a fight. The Duttovillers went to court and fought the incorporation and won. The city of Jackson appealed, and after two years, while the case was still pending in court, the citizens of Duttoville and Mayor Hemmingway of Jackson made a compromise.

The city agreed to extend water, lights, telephone, a fire station, police protection, a grammar school (George School) and other amenities. But the area continued to be called by its original name, which in time became corrupted into “Doodleville” or “Dooleyville” both used well into the mid-20th century as a popular though derisive term for the part of town bordered by Battlefield Park on the south, Terry Road on the West, Hooker Street on the north and South Gallatin on the East, well west of the original settlement.

Belhaven resident Wilfred Cunningham, who grew up on Farish Street, remembers going to Doodleville as a very young man. “This was in the late Forties, and I was in my early teens. Anything south of Capitol Street on Farish Street we considered Doodleville,”

“The area was much more depressed than North Farish. I seem to remember the roads weren’t paved, the streets were graveled, I thought we lived poorly on Farish, but Dooley was a lot more run down.” Cunningham said.

“The houses were row houses, shotgun houses like we had on Farish. People from Doodleville would come to Farish where we had the ice cream parlors, the stores, the clubs, and the Alamo. There wasn’t any industry of any kind there for jobs, so most of the people worked in north Jackson.”

“For some reason I was always told not to let the sun go down on me there. I never ran into such a problem, but I always got the impression that there was a gang of some kind that kept Doodleville for people who lived here and weren’t friendly to outsiders.”

Jackson bluesmen Cary Lee Simmons and Bubba Brown composed the “Doodleville Blues” in the 1930s, and it was a local hit, getting lots of laughs when Simmons performed it for his friends in Jackson. He made a recording in 1967, which you can listen to here.

I got a girl in the Bamas, I got on that lived out on Bailey Hill.
I got a girl in the Bamas, and I got one that lived out on Bailey Hill.
But don’t none of them suit me like that one
I got down in Doodleville

 The womens on Farish Street shakes until they can’t be still.
I said, the womens on Farish Street shakes until they can’t be still.
But they cannot sake like those gals
Live down here in Doodleville

 Turn your lamp down low. Somebody done shot poor Bud, Buddy Will.
Turn your lamp down low. Somebody done shot Buddy Will.
I told him to stay off Mill Street and get him a gal in Doodleville.

 I won’t have a gal on Farish Street,
Wouldn’t speak to one that lived on Mill.
I won’t have a gal on Farish Street,
Wouldn’t speak to one that lived on Mill.
‘Cause the next woman I got, she got to live in Doodleville.

 They got the meat from the slaughterhouse
And the wood from Grimm Stage Mill.
They got the meat from the slaughterhouse
And the wood from Grimm Stage Mill.
And if you want to live easy, get you a girl in Doodleville.

Spoken: I got a secret for you though.
It’s a mad dog out, and boys, it ain’t been killed.
It’s a mad dog out, and boys, it ain’t been killed.
And you better be careful, careful, careful
how you doodle in Doodleville.

Even studded with jewels such as the old fire station and the magnificent Art Deco George School, Duttoville languishes in slow decay, but it’s the most fascinating neighborhood in the city of Jackson, the sad shadow of the good Father Dutto’s dream.

Home to the Flowers

The most evocative personal memoir to come out of Calhoun County, Mississippi, Home to the Flowers is described as an “anecdotal history” in Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967, and though it’s certainly populated with folk tales—some of them quite “earthy”—Smith’s account of his life in the area during the first two decades of the 20th century is lyrical and poignant, the detailed observations of an educated man living in a quasi-frontier setting.

Tilmon Henry Smith, son of Tilmon Holley and Fannie Hawkins Smith, was born in 1883 in Water Valley, Mississippi, and received his M.D. from the University of Tennessee in 1915. He began practicing medicine in Banner, Mississippi in 1915. He moved to New London, Ohio in 1922 where he remained until his death in 1969. His memoir, Home to the Flowers was published privately in 1964.

When Smith was six, the family moved to Pittsboro, where his father was postmaster before becoming pastor of a church in Ellzey, where they built a home, he remembers his mother surrounded with flowers, particularly roses. Young Smith attended the school there, which was established by brothers W.T. and B.G. Lowery and T.C. Lowery, who later founded Blue Mountain College. When still a boy, he and his brother started a brick manufacturing business and built the J.D. Richards store in Vardaman, which is still standing. Smith moved to Vardaman in 1901 after his father’s death. He was still in the brick business, but he also worked on Mississippi river barges and as a logger in Yazoo County to help support the family. He attended Meridian Medical College, and graduated from the University of Tennessee Medical School after a short stint in the Chicago School of Medicine. He served as the health inspector for Calhoun County throughout World War I and beyond.

Here he recounts the struggles of the people of Calhoun in the early decades of the 20th century against typhoid and the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918:

One must realize the primitiveness of our existence to understand. These people had no indoor water supply or toilet facilities. Water was secured from a well in the yard, or a spring or a creed–often a quarter of a mile away. Toilet facilities were at best an outdoor privy in the back yard. Many times, during this period, my first duty upon arriving at the patient’s home was to bring buckets of water from the spring and remove the offal from another bucket beside the bed.

This time of trial and ordeal gave me an abiding faith in people. They exhibited gallantry far beyond the call of duty. Some people had a mysterious resistance to the flue germ. A dozen people would be stricken down around them and they would nurse and care for them all. When this group was reasonably comfortable and cared for, they would walk to miles to minister to other friends or relatives who had no well person to look after them. Some people cut and ran. They used all sorts of low excuses, but it came down to the fact that they were overwhelmed by the solid fear of death. I was continuously amazed by those who really had the sand, as well as those who did not. There were so many heroes and heroines in this terrible tragedy that all cannot possibly be mentioned, but some of my expected friends let me and themselves down, as well as their dependents. I do not remember this with bitterness or condemnation, but with pity.

During the epidemic the community drunk, faced with adversity, found himself and became one of the noblest men of my acquaintance. He sobered up for the first time in years and walked the roads giving help to all in need. It was not unusual to find him carrying water to the sick in one community, and a day later he would be ten miles away cutting wood to warm another family, both of which had probably ignored him in the past. It was just as astounding to find a logging camp lady of the evening bending over the sickbed, tending the sick with all the tenderness of a Florence Nightingale. My dear old mother always referred to her in a disdainful manner as a scarlet woman. I thanked God for this scarlet woman, and learned again that nobility of the soul is sometimes lodged in strange places.

The Yellow Rose of Schoona

A poignant tale of love, loss and thralldom, doubtless embellished with the romance of legend as tales of that time often are, this story was published almost a century ago in The Calhoun County Monitor-Herald.

In the cold, dreary winter of 1852, just after the organization of Calhoun County, quite a number of citizens of Spring and Brushy Creeks were sitting in a rude log cabin by the roadside, where John McCord kept a store, lightly stocked with the necessities of life, discussing the new county and squirting tobacco on the old, rickety stove. Bob Brown, the Postmaster, (for there had recently been established at this place a post office called Banner), came around and stood in the door. Snow and sleet were falling thick and fast and the cold north wind howled through the towering pines and drifted snow against the rude fences. All nature seemed at war–and the howling storm quelled the spirit of those pioneers, who were acquainted with trouble and knew danger and privations.

“The coldest day I ever felt,” said Bob. “Everything outside is freezing.”

While the men were buttoning up their coats, preparatory to breasting the storm en route to their homes, Bob looked eastward along the road and saw a lone woman trudging through the snow storm, coming in the direction of the store. She soon appeared at the door and asked permission to warm at the fire. The gentlemen gallantly gave way and tendered her a seat near the stove.

“Bad weather to be out,” remarked McCord, the merchant. “Quite unpleasant,” replied the woman in soft, sweet voice. She was well and comfortably clad, and had in her hand a well filled grip. She was tall and well formed, with a handsome figure and soft, appealing eyes. Her hair was long, dark and wavy, and her skin was a soft yellow–not quite as dark as the Indian. Her features were animated and her countenance sparkled with every change of expression. Her step, quick and elastic; voice, soft and musical; her language, pure and faultless English and her age about 22 years. The men soon started for home through the drifting storm, and left McCord, Brown and Sid Brantley and the woman still clustered about the stove. The able, big-hearted Brantley asked the woman how it happened that she was caught out in the storm, and where she was going in all this bad weather.

After some hesitation, she answered in a low, musical voice, “I am part Indian and I am making my way to the Indian Nation, where my tribe, the Chickasaws, went in 1836. I was then a small girl living with my grandmother. My mother, a Chickasaw died when I was a baby. My father, a white man, went with the tribe. My grandmother, being very old, was left with me. After grandmother died, I was taken by a nice family of whites, who gave me a home, taught me the art of dressmaking and educated me. But I could not forget my brothers and sisters in the Indian Nation and at last resolved at every hazard, to make my way to them. I have no money or friends that I can call upon for assistance, so I am trying to make my way afoot.”

Her simple story touched Mr. Brantley’s heart, and he cordially invited her to his nearby home. She, with some hesitation, accepted his generous invitation and accompanied him home, where she remained until the storm was over. In conversation, on the way home, Brantley asked her name. She modestly answered, “Bombazelle McAllister”. She was introduced to the family and assured that she could make her home with them until the weather settled. She was assigned a room with Brantley’s oldest daughter. The next day was still cold and blustery and the ladies were confined to their rooms. The stranger soon became familiar with the family. Miss Brantley had a nice new dress pattern she was preparing to make up. Bombazelle examined the goods with great care and suggested how it should be designed. Sissy was delighted. Bombazelle took her measure–a thing heretofore unknown in these wild woods–and she assisted in making the dress. The family was delighted with the attractive design and the gracious fit of the dress. Hence the news spread rapidly throughout the neighborhood that a marvelous designer and dressmaker was stopping at Sid Brantley’s–and the blushing lassies in all the region gathered ’round to have Bombazelle cut and fashion their dresses. She moved from home to home as her services were requested, and at night, occupied rooms and beds with the young ladies of the community.

The snow storm had passed, but Bombazelle remained, kept busy cutting out and making dresses. She was well paid and was kindly received by every family. She was ready and willing to give the young ladies instructions in cutting materials and in dressmaking. She was a fine talker and a lovely girl, her color rather dark, but being part Indian, this was understood. She soon became the Belle of Banner, and the boys called her “The Yellow Rose of Schoona”, and she received the attention of all the nice young men in the neighborhood. John McCord fell desperately in love with Bombazelle, and after a spirited contest with the young swains about Banner, won her heart. McCord was, as the term was known in those far-off days, “well-off”. He had a good house, servants and quite a number of Negro slaves. The couple was married at Brantley’s home, Esquire John Hankins making the happy couple man and wife. There was quite a gathering at the wedding, and, as was the custom, all who wished, were privileged to kiss the bride, as did some of the girls and women present.

The springtime in all its beauty was rapidly approaching. The dogwoods were budding, the birds were all a-twitter and the geese were flying north to their faraway homes. Bombazelle was happy in the home of John McCord. She had a husband who was a leader in the young county and was loved and admired by everyone. She also had Old Sylvia, her trusted servant, and her flock of boys and girls, to attend to her every want. She kept a close eye on the servants, and they had to “toe the mark”. She had her rooms well furnished, wore wonderful clothes, and kept everything about the place in “apple pie” order. Every servant jumped when she spoke, for she was a firm mistress, and ran the house with energy and ability. McCord, too, was happy with his beautiful wife and his elegantly arranged home. The “Yellow Rose” was happy and excited because she was the leader in style and fashion in the whole county. She was constantly sought out and consulted about dresses and was a close friend to the young belles for miles around.

Spring opened in all its glory. The whippoorwills sang at evening, the sun smiled all day on the new fields, just wrested from the primeval forests, and the birds and animals made love in the swamps and endless forests. Late one afternoon, a fine looking gentleman was seen riding a splendid blooded horse into Banner. Mrs. McCord (Bombazelle) observed him–and, in consternation, made it convenient to disappear at once. The traveler alighted and entered the saddle shop owned by J. Brown, and after passing the compliments of the season, inquired if there had been seen in that place a woman who had disappeared. He gave an accurate description of Mrs. McCord. Bob hesitated, looked wise and gave an evasive answer. Night was approaching, so the stranger asked if there was a house of entertainment in town. Brown directed him to Mr. Arnold’s home, just west of town. He made his business known to Mr. Arnold, and said he had traced the woman to Banner–and that she was his Negro house servant and seamstress–and that she had run away from the family home at Aberdeen, Mississippi. Arnold repeated to him the story of Bombazelle’s appearance, her captivation of the community and her marriage to John McCord months before.

“That’s my Negro,” said the stranger, “she is almost white in appearance and is very smart.”

It is hardly necessary to add that the people of Banner were stirred up and greatly excited by his revelation. The belles and beaus were crestfallen. The girls who had entertained and associated with Bombazelle were dumbfounded. The idea of having so cordially entertained this servant in their homes was humiliating. And the young men who had called upon Bombazelle and sought her hand were shocked beyond expression while the older men, who had so fondly kissed the yellow blushing bride, were punched in the ribs by their wives for having embraced the woman in their presence. But the “Yellow Rose”! Where was she? McAllister (the stranger) could not find her anywhere. She had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. McCord was wild and miserable. His happiness was swept away in the wrinkling of an eye. Dispirited and troubled, he stood about, wondering what to do! His wife, with his knowledge, had been secreted in a cabin on Schoona, there to await the issue. McCord was a good man, law-abiding and honest, yet he did not know but that McAllister was a fraud.

McAllister posted off to Hartford (the community now known as Oldtown, which was the county seat at that time), here he learned that the marriage certificate had been issued to John McCord and Bombazelle McAllister, and that it had been returned by Esq. Hankins. He at once instituted suit against John McCord and his securities, for marrying a Negro, contrary to the laws of the State of Mississippi. McCord’s friends were in close consultation all day, devising ways and means to extricate McCord from his dilemma. Brantley, with a keen eye to business, also went to Hartford, and there met McAllister. Brantley, being always a friend for anyone in distress, had a long interview with McAllister, and induced him to suspend legal proceedings until he could see McCord, assuring him that it was a fraud practiced on McCord, and McCord truly believed that she was part Indian, but had never dreamed that she was a runaway slave–and that she would be found and returned to McAllister. Old Sylvia was the happiest Negro in the county. She and her children clapped their hands at being relieved of such a hard head mistress.

Brantley returned to McAllister that afternoon, after having a long talk with McCord and Brown, entertained him that night and promised him that Bombazelle would be forthcoming in the morning. So, in the morning, bright and early, “The Yellow Rose of Schoona” fondly embraced Mr. McCord, bid him an affectionate farewell, and promptly reported to her master, and they departed for Aberdeen.

Editor’s Note: [1972] In the 1940’s, Dr. W. A. Evans of Aberdeen researched The Monitor Herald story of Bombazelle McAllister in the county courthouse records at Aberdeen. He found advertisements by the man McAllister, giving notice that his slave Bombazelle had run away. After McAllister took her back to Aberdeen, he sold her at once, as she had given trouble before. The money paid for Bombazelle went into the building of a new McAllister home, located in the city of Aberdeen. Dr. Evans reported that no further evidence of Bombazelle exists after she was sold.

A Mississippi Hill in the Australian Outback

Roving Google Earth is a fascinating experience, particularly for those of us who, for whatever reason, will never be able to visit the far-flung edges of the globe. It’s one of my favorite diversions, and that’s how, when bouncing between the Timor Sea and the Great Australian Bight, to my astonishment I found, on the southern tip of Western Australia’s “Golden Outback,” Mississippi Hill.

Mississippi Hill is in Cape Le Grand National Park in the extreme south of Western Australia, 35 mi. east of Esperance. The southwest section of the park is dominated by rock outcrops of gneiss and granite. These form a distinctive chain of peaks including Mount Le Grand (1,130 ft.), Frenchman Peak (860 ft.), and Mississippi Hill (590 ft.), named by a British explorer, Edward John Eyre.

In February,1841, Eyre began one of the great treks across the Australian continent, passing over 1000 mi. from Port Lincoln, South Australia, to Albany, Western Australia through the arid expanses of the Nullabor Plain. Nearly 800 mi. into their journey, exhausted, near starvation, and eking by water from sporadic rains, on the 2nd of June, slightly east of today’s Esperance on the south Australian Bight, they climbed a rocky hill and saw a ship at anchor, barely 7 miles away.

It was a French whaler, the Mississippi—the French had been invested in Mississippi for some time, e.g. the Mississippi Bubble—and the ship’s captain, as luck would have it an Englishman named Rossiter, pressed supplies on them – cognac and Dutch cheese – and they continued the 280 miles east to the British settlement of Albany.

For his trek, Eyre was awarded the Royal Geographic Society gold medal and has had a number of geographical features named after him, including Lake Eyre and the Eyre Peninsula. And while I have yet to hear back from the Western Australia Parks and Wildlife Service—of course I did—perhaps it’s safe to assume that the rocky hill from which Eyre’s company spied the ship that saved them was named “Mississippi” out of gratitude.

Billie Joe and Bobby Lee

Bobbie Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter July 27, 1944, on her paternal grandparents’ farm near Mantee, Mississippi. Her father, Robert H. Streeter, lived in Greenwood, Mississippi, where she attended school. Gentry moved to Arcadia, California at age thirteen to live with her mother and stepfather. They relocated to Palm Springs two years later, where Bobbie graduated from Palm Springs High School. She changed her name to Gentry after seeing the 1952 film Ruby Gentry, starring Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston. Gentry briefly attended UCLA and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, then drifted between secretarial and nightclub jobs and eventually found herself in Las Vegas working as a showgirl.

Gentry approached Capitol Records in early 1967 with two tunes, “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Mississippi Delta,” which she recorded. “Mississippi Delta” was made the B-side, and despite its lengthy four minutes and thirteen seconds, “Ode to Billy Joe,” the featured song. The recording was released on July 10 and became an immediate hit. By the end of summer 1967, “Ode to Billy Joe” had climbed to the number one position on all three major American music charts–Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World. The album was No. 1 on the US Billboard Top LP’s chart, the only album to displace the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from its 15-week reign at the top of the chart. It also peaked at No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot Country Albums chart and at No. 5 on the US Billboard Top Selling R&B Albums chart.

“The burning question of the day,” wrote Jackson Daily News arts editor Frank Hains, “is not how to un-snarl ourselves from Vietnam or how to un-uppity H. Rap Brown…. It’s what did Billy Joe and that girl throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

“People are trying to read social comment into the song, but none is intended,” Gentry said at the time. The song was simply about human indifference. And she wasn’t even protesting indifference in “Billy Joe,” just describing it. “I’m not so sure indifference isn’t a good thing,” she said. “If we were all totally affected by tragedy, we’d be afraid to go anywhere or do anything.”

Gentry insisted that the “Ode to Billy Joe” narrative, despite its perceived genuineness and its use of actual place-names, was “not true;” however, she conceded that, of all the bridges spanning the Tallahatchie River, she referred in her song to the one just outside Greenwood. She also said that Choctaw Ridge was also located in Leflore County, she noted, near the former home of “Greenwood LeFlore (sic).” Print media outside the South commented on both the song and Gentry’s authenticity. Newsweek called her “a true daughter of the Mississippi Delta who can vividly evoke its pace and poetry and smells and style.” Time reported that “Ode to Billie Joe” was “based on (Gentry’s) recollection of life around Greenwood, Miss.,” and that “millions of puzzled Americans coast to coast [were ready to start dragging] the Tallahatchie.”

Gentry appeared on the most popular variety shows (the Smothers Brothers, Ed Sullivan, Bob Hope, Perry Como, and Carol Burnett) and piloted a BBC series that had some success in other countries. Eventually, Gentry’s fame subsided. She married renowned casino owner William Harrah in late 1969; news reports focused on the couple’s thirty-year age difference and on the bride’s $150,000 pear-shaped diamond ring. The marriage lasted four months.

Gentry eventually signed away rights for both a film adaptation and novelization of “Ode to Billy Joe.” When they both appeared in 1976, nine years after the hit single, they were extremely popular. The book, issued exclusively in paperback by Dell, enjoyed over a dozen print runs that year, and the movie grossed over $10.4 million, placing it fifteenth in earnings among films released in the U.S. in 1976.

The film premiered in Jackson, Mississippi, with much hoopla on June 3, the anniversary of Billy Joe’s swan dive. Mississippi governor Cliff Finch proclaimed it “Bobbie Gentry Day,” and Lieutenant Evelyn Gandy presided over a dedication ceremony at one particular bridge over the Tallahatchie, which Boxoffice magazine claimed was designated as “the official Billy Joe McAllister leap site.”

The picture opened as well in 550 theaters across the South, followed by national distribution. The concern with specifying the exact date and the precise site of Billy Joe’s demise ironically eclipsed the questionable truthfulness of the story. Janet Maslin pointed out in Newsweek that, though the beginning of the film included a title explaining it was shot on location in the Mississippi Delta, “where this story actually took place,” the final frames contained the standard disclaimer that all individuals and incidents depicted were fictitious.

Most reviews and promotional materials stressed the film’s perceived authenticity and its successful evocation of setting. Most of this was due largely to the producer-director. Max Baer, Jr. Born in 1937, in Oakland, California, Baer was best known for his role as the lumpish Jethro in the popular television series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” New Englander Herman Raucher was chosen to write the screenplay and novel. The characters Baer and Raucher created were certainly not “free of cliché,” as Variety asserted. These figures were nothing more than a confusing crowd of Southern stereotypes, and the place depictions were just a mishmash of rural images. Robbie Benson and Glynnis O’Connor played the young leads, Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee, with awkward accents, and though the film was set in the Mississippi Delta, which has a majority black population, the film had not one African American character. Most surprising, for a film based on a song, the music also was displaced; when characters attended a jamboree, they were treated not to Delta blues but rather to upcountry bluegrass.

For all its awkwardness, the film did give a reason for his suicide, one which dredges up a toxic stereotype, as Vito Russo puts it in The Celluloid Closet, of gays “falling victim to their own inherently villainous sexuality.”. After an unsuccessful attempt at intercourse, Bobbie Lee tries to assure Billy Joe that “it’s alright,” but he insists: “It ain’t alright. I ain’t alright. Bobbie Lee, I have been with a man, did you hear me?— which is a sin against nature, a sin against God. I don’t know how I could have done it, I swear.”

Was this reason for Billy Joe’s suicide, the resolution to the question unanswered by “Ode to Billy Joe,” the invention of Herman Raucher, or was the character of Billy Joe McAllister somehow based in reality? Herman Raucher confided in a Jackson Daily News reporter that “the song’s lyric is not quite all fiction. We’ve got an odd combination of fact and fiction in it.”

Gentry’s final public appearance was at the Academy of Country Music Awards on April 30, 1982. Since that time, she has not recorded, performed or been interviewed. On May 14, 2012, BBC Radio 2 in the UK broadcast a documentary titled Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry? presented by country music artist Rosanne Cash. One 2016 news report stated that Gentry lives near Memphis, Tennessee, but according to another, she lives in Los Angeles.

Levee Press, the Delta Imprint

“For reasons best known to ourselves,” Hodding Carter, Ben Wasson and Kenneth Haxton decided “one low-water night some time back” to organize “still another addition to the multiplicity of publishing houses whose directors dream of an America that will some day read instead of write.”

Their brainchild, Levee Press, ranks with the Webbs’ Loujon as a distinguished “small press” in the South. Though its output was miniscule by any standards—only four publications in roughly that many years totaling somewhat less than 3000 copies (2635 “official” count)—Levee Press imprints command a significant price among an elite of discerning bibliophiles because the names of the four authors—Foote, Welty, Faulkner and Percy—resonate in the state, the region and the world. Had Levee Press maintained production at such a level of quality, the Greenville publishing house could very well in time have become one of the premiere imprints in the nation, but indifference, dissent, certainly some combination of the two—melded to bring an end to it.

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In the late 1940s, during the “golden age” of Mississippi literature, the output was phenomenal, with Welty and Faulkner as cynosures in a stellar flurry of belles lettres including works from Carter himself, who had commandeered the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times—as he had the Hammond Daily Courier—into a newspaper of integrity and distinction, an achievement acknowledged by the Pulitzer jury that awarded him the prize for editorial writing in 1946. Hodding was at the peak of his career; his reputation as a capable spokesman for a progressive South was solidly entrenched across the nation. Ben Wasson, who had worked in New York theater with Leland Hayward and acted as Faulkner’s first literary agent, wrote on the arts and as a literary critic for the newspaper. Kenneth Haxton, a composer and husband of National Book Award nominee Josephine Ayers Haxton, who wrote under the surname Ellen Douglas, worked full-time at his family’s department store, Nelms and Blum’s (his mother was a Blum), where he had installed a bookstore. Carter also had young Shelby Foote working for him at the Delta Democrat-Times then, and while Hodding can dryly drawl about the enterprising intentions of him and his cronies in their cups, it was Foote who came up with the idea to publish a book using the resources of the Delta Democrat-Times.

Shelby Foote grew up in Greenville alongside his fraternal friend Walker Percy under the patriarchal wing of planter/poet William Alexander Percy. Foote, like Walker, had literary ambitions which in time both realized, but in early 1947, Foote had just turned 30, had only one major work in progress (Tournament), and his expenses were mounting. Apparently quite on his own initiative, he decided to print and publish his own work with the limited resources of the Delta Democrat-Times print shop. Since his enterprise just happened to mesh with their own previous plans to publish books in the hub of the Delta, Ben Wasson, representing Hodding Carter and Kenneth Haxton, asked Foote if he would add the name “Levee Press” to the pamphlet they had heard he was planning to print. “We gonna call it the Levee Press,” Wasson said, nodding out the window at the earthworks against the river.

From within the Tournament manuscript, Foote excised the grim story of Abraham Wisten, the tragic story of an ambitious Jewish immigrant, entitled it The Merchant of Bristol and hired co-worker Bill Yarborough to typeset and print 260 copies of the 20-page novella on June 2, 1947. Foote stapled them together himself and—with considerable pluck—signed,  numbered and marketed his work in the book section of Nelms and Blum’s at $1.50 a copy. More than one wit remarked that just as much would buy a good dress shirt, and sales were predictably disappointing, not only perhaps because of Foote’s perceived pretentions but more likely because as a publication, The Merchant of Bristol is nothing more than a pamphlet, reminiscent of the blue essay books used for university examinations. Wisten’s tragedy was reprinted in Foote’s first work of fiction, Tournament, in 1949.

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Writing in the Commercial Appeal on July 6, 1947, columnist Paul Flowers announced, “Freshest literary venture in the South today is the Levee Press at Greenville, Miss. (there’s always something going on among the literati of Washington County.) The Levee Press is the idea of a group of writers, for the perpetuation of stories, essays, and other literary material which may not have enough general interest for publication on a national scale, but too good to be forgotten… Shelby Foote broke the ice with a short story, published in pamphlet form, and 250 copies, each one numbered and autographed, went out to persons who had subscribed. The project is non-profit and there’s no incentive except to keep alive bits of writing which ought to live. More small volumes will be coming from the Levee Press. It will not be commercial, and no one connected with it is looking for material gain (except Foote, of course: JY) However, most, if not all of its insiders are welling manuscripts in the open market, but they will publish at home, just for collector’s items some of the pieces nearest their hearts.” Flowers doubtless received this description of the Levee Press’s objectives from Hodding Carter himself by way of promotion, and perhaps this is an echo of the “reasons best known to ourselves” that he referred to some six years later in Where Main Street Meets the River, where he claimed—again, after the fact—that the purpose of the Levee Press was to “publish limited, signed editions of new, relatively short books—“novella” sounds better—by established Southern writers.”

With the publication of A Curtain of Green (1941) and The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), Welty had garnered three O. Henry awards and a Guggenheim fellowship, which made her a clear candidate for publication with the Levee Press. Wasson “brazenly” asked Welty if she would permit the new publishing firm to issue one of her manuscripts as a book and had told her the plans for the new press. In Count no ‘Count, Wasson recounts, “The great and gracious lady replied that she approved of such a venture, that Mississippi needed a limited editions press, and that, as it happened, she did have a manuscript. It was a novella, Music from Spain.” In December, 1946, Welty traveled to San Francisco to visit her friend and ofttime paramour John Robinson, rented her own apartment there in January and between then and March wrote a lengthy story, “Music from Spain”. The story stands at somewhat of a distance from the body of Welty’s oeuvre because it is set outside of Mississippi, in San Francisco, its narrative is stream-of-consciousness and it is distinctly erotic—indeed, homoerotic— a daring element in a work for publication in Greenville, Mississippi in the late 1940s. After contacting Welty’s agent, Diarmuid Russell, Carter and company contracted Welty for 750 copies was agreed to give her 25 per cent of the $2.50 price—Wasson claims $4—in exchange for non-exclusive rights to “Music from Spain”.

When Ben Wasson proposed that Levee Press “do a Faulkner”, the other two laughed. Even though Faulkner in 1946 was one of three finalists for the first Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Award (second to Rhea Galati), he was by most other standards the single most important Southern American writer of his day, but Wesson had a card up his sleeve. Not only had he been Faulkner’s agent when Faulkner was struggling to publish Flags in the Dust, but it was Wesson who for fifty dollars a week pared down Faulkner’s novel for the demands of Harcourt, Brace. For two weeks, while Faulkner sat nearby writing The Sound and the Fury, Wasson cut almost a fourth of the book, and Harcourt, Brace published the truncated version on January 31, 1929, as Sartoris. Some might say that Ben Wesson was calling in a debt, but for whatever reason, in late February, 1948, Wesson traveled with Carter to Oxford for an evening at Rowan Oak. Faulkner, “at-first-reticent”, gradually warmed his visitors, who left with an original manuscript, a “horse race piece” Faulkner suggested they call “A Long Dangling Clause from a Work in Progress.”

On March 1, Faulkner reported his commitment to his agent, Robert K. Haas: “Hodding Carter and an old friend of Mine, Ben Wasson, have what they call the Levee Press, at Greenville, Miss. Three times a year they get out an issue, which is sort of a colophon thing: a single story or article, limited number. I am letting them have the section of the big mss. Which Ober offered to Partisan Review and was declined. It will resemble a special edition pamphlet, bound of course, signed by me, to sell at $2.50. I get 25%. This is all right with Random House, isn’t it? The section is about 80-100 pages typescript. They will call it Section (of from) Work in Progress. I think. I want to do it mainly to confound the people who say nothing good out of Miss. The Press is less than a year old, is already getting known even though in slightly precious circles, like Yale reviews etc. Its foundation is Carter’s Greenville daily newspaper. His name is familiar to you, probably: lecturer, liberal, champion of Negro injustice though no radical, no communist despite Bilbo and Rankin.”

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So it was with these commitments an announcement was made in the Commercial Appeal on May 2, 1948: “The Levee Press probably will be doing some celebrating about that time also (2nd week in May with publication of Cohn’s Where I Was Born and Raised), announcing books by Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, to be issued by the Greenville house. That won’t hurt the Levee Press, either, starting off with a pair of names such as Welty and Faulkner, for those are two writers highly esteemed in the English speaking world. The Levee Press may turn into an important venture in the American publishing world. It got off to a modest beginning about a year ago with a short story by Shelby Foote.”

For the Welty book, Carter stepped up his game considerably. Always the consummate newspaperman, he purchased a Jansen type plate that he had admired in certain Knopf publications. With no local bindery available, he contracted that job to a publishing company in Texas Dickens. Carter also hired local artist Elizabeth Calvert to design the colophon, a stylized “L” bracketing a river steamer, which was ensconced beneath those of Welty and Faulkner (Percy died in 1943). Ken Haxton designed and drew the Picassoesque/art deco guitar for the terra-cotta cover and chose for each of the seven section headings musical motifs from the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz, Recuerdos de viaje, “En la Alhambra”.  Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1949, Charles Poore called the volume a “handsome example of bookmaking”. Music from Spain was incorporated into Welty’s third collection of short stories, Golden Apples, published by Harcourt, Brace in 1949. Welty’s 25 per cent of the $2.50 take was the price of literary notoriety in Mississippi at the time, but on the current market a (quality) copy of Music from Spain published by the Levee Press sells for $1000, a distinguished association copy, inscribed and signed by Eudora Welty, to authors Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon: “To Caroline + Allen/ with love/ from Eudora”.)

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Though Levee Press’s relationship with Eudora Welty is undocumented, Faulkner’s exchanges are unsurprisingly high-profile, with vibrant accounts provided by both Carter, in Where Main Street Meets the River and Wasson, in Count no ‘Count, given that the author was awarded the Nobel Prize during the publishing process. Carter, Wasson and Haxton shortened the title of the Faulkner manuscript to Notes on a Horsethief. “It was good,” Carter claimed, “even though a few readers have since complained that they never before had read thirty thousand words divided into only three sentences.”  Again, Levee Press extended its resources for Notes on a Horsethief. Elizabeth Calvert’s flowing, linear artwork for the rich, Sherwood green cover and the endpapers, described by Jean Stein as “horses in flight”, are striking and dramatic. Horsethief is arguably Levee Press’s highest achievement both in terms of art and letters.

Notes on a Horsethief was printed on November 4, 1950, and the following January, on the 23rd, Estelle Faulkner phoned Carter, telling him that her husband had decided that there was no sense in unpacking the nine hundred and fifty books he had received the month before for signing only to ship them right back, and he had put the unopened crate in his station wagon early that morning and was on his way to Greenville.  Carter alerted Wasson, who “smuggled” Faulkner into Hodding’s office at the Delta Democrat-Times, sent out for the crate of books, and an ad hoc assembly line was organized with Wasson opening the books for a signature, Faulkner—standing, in a half-crouch—signing and numbering them and a young woman from the bindery took it from him to blot the signatures and replace them in the box. Carter sent out to Al’s Café for beer. “Hospitality dictated that I do something for a man who had driven one hundred and twenty miles just to stand in my office and sign his name to copies of a book for which he could have received far more than our limited edition’s twenty-five percent royalty could bring him at six dollars a copy,” Carter wrote, recording “for the factual-minded” that Faulkner’s ration of signed books to beers turned out that day and the next morning to be “sixty volumes of Faulkner to one bottle of Budweiser.”

Notes on a Horse Thief was published scarcely a month before Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize Stockholm’s City Hall on December 10, 1950. The nine hundred copies sold out quickly, and soon copies were selling for as high as $25 in. Irving Howe, reviewing this “privately printed and fabulously pieced story” in The Nation, said it was “a bad piece of writing,” but Charles Poore in the New York Times Book Review, called it “at once a brilliantly told story of a manhunt and a subtly woven allegory on man’s fate.” Notes later became a section in Faulkner’s much-belated Pulitzer winner, A Fable, with gracious thanks from the author to Levee Press for permission to reproduce the material.

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Choosing the next work to be published proved problematic; Carter, Wasson and Caxton intimated later that it had nver been their intention to publish Mississippi writers exclusively, but in the end it just turned out that way. In fact, Carter was considering publishing a book of poems by John Gould Fletcher of Arkansas that had been turned down by his New York publisher, but at the last minute the decided to print them after all. Wasson wrote to Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and Robert Penn Warren, but none had a manuscript of suitable length ready for publication. Writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, who Gertrude Stein had appointed her literary executor, sent some unpublished works by her, but the three principals of Levee Press found them so mystifying that they returned them, regretfully, to a subsequently indignant Van Vechten. Unknown writers (including Greenville son Howard Mitcham jly) submitted hundreds of manuscripts, but none of them seemed good enough.

The shadow of William Alexander Percy looms large in Greenville, and Carter, Wasson and Haxton all knew the man well and admired him immensely. Percy died in 1942, and Knopf published The Collected Poems of William Alexander Percy in 1943, with a second edition the following year. Yet Ann Stokes, who claimed to have worked with Percy in editing the poems for the collection, claimed that she had variant forms of some of the published poems that should be printed, and insisted with no small degree of persistence that Hodding Carter publish these poems as well. Carter felt some degree of obligation to Stokes, who sold him the land on which he had built his new Feliciana house. Ben Wasson thought publishing Percy’s poetry was redundant and the book would not sell, and Carter, while engaged in a lengthy and complicated correspondence with Alfred Knopf, whose company held the copyright to the Percy poems, actually went so far as to ask Knopf to deny him permission to reprint the poems, Knopf consented, giving Carter no excuse to refuse Stokes’ nagging.

Of Silence and of Stars, with a forward by Carter, edited by Anne Stokes, decorations by Elizabeth Calvert, was issued in mid-1953, the title taken from the poem “Home” (“I have a need of silence and of stars…”). It is a handsome volume, with a deep blue cover featuring a sketch of herons somewhat similar but not as striking as the horses on the Faulkner cover, and the end papers are illustrated with drawings of cypress in a bayou. A note on the dedication page is a quote from Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech. Stokes dated each poem and divided them into three groups: those written before 1915, those written between 1915 and 1920 and those completed after Percy’s World War I experiences. Six hundred and fifty copies were printed, and while each copy was numbered, of course they are unsigned.

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Although Ben Haxton placed “The Levee Press” on the title page of his 1997 work The Undiscovered Country as a tribute to the spirit of the enterprise he shared with Carter and Wasson, Of Silence and of Stars proved to be the last book issued by Levee Press. Carter toyed with the idea of publishing “lost literature” of the South, particularly a stirring antebellum courtroom plea that Natchez lawyer Sargent S. Prentiss made in a Kentucky court to save the lives of three Mississippi planters involved in a bloody brawl while attending a wedding, this idea never came to fruition, and after failing to get a manuscript from Tennessee Williams, the Levee Press passed out of existence. Carter, Wasson and Haxton all had other, more pressing involvements, and Wasson, evidently the principal behind the publishing venture, clearly lost interest after the Percy work was foisted on the house.

Willie’s Liver

Willie Morris is one of Mississippi’s most beloved authors, perhaps particularly due to his homespun memoir, My Dog Skip (1995).

Morris is less fondly remembered for his autobiographical North Toward Home (1967; written when Morris was all of 33), which was damned with faint praise by the Sunday (New York) Times as though “lacking in focus” was “well-written.”

Then there’s The Courting of Marcus Depree (1983), which Christopher Lehmann-Haupt says that, “Instead of catching a story by the tail, Willie Morris staggers around, lunging after whatever happens to catch his eye.” (“Lurching” would have been more apt.)

Morris’s early promise as editor of Harper’s led to early failure. After his summary dismissal by John Cowles, Jr. in 1971, Willie hit the skids. He bummed around Long Island for a while, soaking up booze with the likes of Craig Claiborne, whom he recklessly advised to write an embarrassing memoir.

He then he came home to Mississippi, to Oxford, the literary nipple of Mississippi, where he quickly became the central figure of a dissolute group of rakes and hangers-on who trolled the bars in varying degrees of pixilation and retired to his home at closing time for late-night revels with Willie as the Prince des Sots.

At that time, I was working at The Warehouse, a restaurant in Oxford that saw its heyday in the early 80s, where James Ruffin was the head cook. Garrulous and scrappy, James scared the hell out of me when I came to work there as his right-hand-man. James was blind in one eye, as I am, so I figured between us we would get along like those old women from myth who shared a single eye.

And we did, working together in a cramped, noisy, hot kitchen. We came to know and trust each other well. The last time I saw him was the day after the Warehouse burned in the wee hours of February 15, 1986. When he died many years later, our old boss Frank Odom let me know, and I was saddened. James was a good man who lived a hard life.

The Warehouse enjoyed a somewhat upscale reputation and business was good. Now, after-hour diners are always an irritant to restaurant staff, but they hold big appeal for management who enjoy enabling significant people to entertain themselves and their significant friends after the riff-raff have gone and a strategic table can be commanded.

Willie Morris always came in at closing time with a number of his adherents to occupy the big round table in the southwest corner of the floor, far enough away from the noisy bar where Willie could hold court without distraction. The management always alerted us that they were coming, which gave me and James ample time to halt our closing procedures and grumble until the table had been seated and lubricated with ample rounds.

Almost invariably, Willie ordered the calf’s liver, which came to us pre-sliced and individually quick-frozen. A serving consisted of two 4-oz. slices of liver, dusted with seasoned flour and cooked on a well-oiled griddle and served with potatoes and a small salad. At $9.95, it was our cheapest entrée.

Cooked properly, a seared slice of liver is a wonderful thing. But it takes a little consideration, and by 11 p.m., James and I were on our last legs of the day. His wife had been waiting for him in the parking lot for an hour (he couldn’t drive at night), and I had less than 30 minutes to have a beer with my friends at the Rose before it shut down. So when it came time to prepare Willie’s liver, James put a griddle iron on it and let it cook while we mopped the floor. The end result was leather. Neither the besotted nor the hungover Morris ever complained.

This grumpery against Morris can easily be dismissed as carping of the pettiest sort, but one day I was in the Gin, a landmark Oxford restaurant and watering-hole. At the bar, in his usual corner on the south end, sat Doxie Kent Williford, one of the smartest, kindest people I’ve ever known and one of the very few openly gay men in Oxford at the time. You rarely heard Doxie say an unkind word about anyone (including Willie Morris), and he was regarded with affection not only by the staff in the Gin, but by many Oxford residents and students.

I remember it was a late afternoon. Willie came through the swinging doors with his entourage and characteristic bonhomie. They settled in at a large table in the center of the floor. Not a half-hour passed then Willie, in a very loud voice, said, “Look at that faggot at the end of the bar!” and snickered.

The room fell silent. Doxie put his head in his hands, asked for his check and left. Willie laughed more at that and resumed telling whatever impressive lie he had launched upon earlier. Those of us at the bar were all in shock, and I tried to catch Doxie in the parking lot to say something, but he waved me off and left in a hurry. He was back the next day, but refused to talk about it.

And there was nothing to be done about it, because Willie had–for better or worse–become a poster boy for Oxford’s development as a cultural Potemkin village. Morris has been enshrined, but his brutal public incivility to a man I loved remains for me a defining moment of his egoistic, dissolute character.

Season liver with salt and pepper, sear in light oil, turning once until just done and set aside; working quickly, add more oil, increase heat, add clove of crushed garlic and a half an onion, sliced into slivers or rings. Layer liver atop vegetables and cover for about five minutes, or until the meat is firm. Invert to serve.