Tammy, Tell Me True

In 1949, Twentieth Century-Fox released Pinky, a film that would have a lasting impact on the American film industry. The movie was based on Quality, a novel by Jackson native Cid Ricketts Sumner.

Ricketts grew up on North State at a time when Woodrow Wilson wasn’t even a president, much less a street. She taught at both Jackson High School and her alma mater Millsaps College (where she graduated summa cum laude at the age of 16) before attending medical school at Cornell University. There she took classes under James B. Sumner, who shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1946. They were married in 1915 and divorced in 1930. They had four children. Sumner’s first novel was published in 1938. Her second, Quality, was published in 1946; her third, Tammy Out of Time, was published in 1948.

According to film scholar Melanie Addington, “Pinky premiered in the same year (1949) as Intruder in the Dust. Both films and novels explore legal and societal racism. Mississippi novelists at that time were helping to create some of the earliest arguments against racism and Hollywood was enamored with the idea. While Pinky may have its controversy that could limit its effectiveness, like casting a white actress (Jeanne Crain) as the lead instead of a black star like Lena Horne, the film reaches into the center of American sentiment and finds a way to move us,” Addington says. Variety reported that Pinky was one the top-grossing films of 1949 and observed that though the story “may leave questions unanswered and in spots be naive, the mature treatment of a significant theme in a manner that promises broad public acceptance and box office success truly moves the American film medium a desirable notch forward in stature and importance.”

Addington says that though an aristocratic white woman helps Pinky move towards pride in being a black female, “This leads to a more interesting conclusion for the film, given the patronizing attitude that she would listen to a white woman and not her own grandmother. Ethel Barrymore’s character (Miss Em) notes, ‘Nobody deserves respect as long as she pretends to be something she isn’t,’ and the line resonates with Pinky. Hearing the truth about ourselves from strangers often helps us stop perpetuating our own myths.” When she dies, the enlightened despot Miss Em leaves her estate to Pinky, and rumors swirl that Pinky may have killed her. Accused, she stands trial. “Much like Lucas Beauchamp in Intruder in the Dust,despite her innocence, society still finds a way to shun Pinky for ‘causing trouble’,” Addington says. “This is evident in the hushed courtroom as she slowly makes her way to freedom. Pinky, in love with a white man from the North, must choose to leave but instead realizes that she must remain in the South to claim her identity.”

Pinky stays and turns the estate into a nursing school for black women. “The film falters in the final scene, which shows Pinky standing alone and misty-eyed,” Addington says. “The adaptation avoided the ending that made Quality such an interesting original story. In the book, the home is burned to the ground by the Klan, a much stronger and more dramatic ending. The studio scrapped that outcome to provide a ‘tragic heroine’ ending that left audiences feeling good about racial issues in the South. Ricketts, not Hollywood, actually got it right with a much darker truth to an ending that sadly was too real for too many.”

Pinky was the first big studio picture to troop into race issues. The movie garnered Academy Award nominations for the three female leads, Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters, who played “Pinky’s Granny”. “It also led to an appeal before the United States Supreme Court in Gelling v. Texas, a victory for the local movie theater owner who screened the film over a local decree censoring it from public viewing. The June 3, 1952 edition of The New York Times reported, “The Supreme Court today struck down a motion picture censor ordinance by which the city of Marshall, Texas, disapproved the showing of the film Pinky.”

Sumner’s third novel, Tammy Out of Time (1948), an unabashedly romantic tale of a Mississippi girl, was a significant departure from the tense realism of Quality, but doubtless due to the success of Pinky, the studios took a look, and between its pages found an iconic figure for mid-century America, and its heroine. Tammy Tyree, provided a generation of young ladies with a smart, charming role model. One critic described the film adaptation, Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) as a “whimsical romance for middle America, which started Hollywood’s last series of proletarian family appeal before the family was entirely forsaken for four-letter words.”

Sumner’s three “Tammy” novels provided fodder for four films as well as a television series over a ten year period. Tammy was played by both Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee, and the supporting casts of the films included Leslie Nielsen, Walter Brennan, Fay Wray, Adam West, Macdonald Carey and (in his first feature role) Peter Fonda. Denver Pyle, who played Uncle Jesse in “The Dukes of Hazard”, portrayed Grandpa Tarleton in the television series (1965-66).

Writer Jill Conner Browne says, “As I was writing the first book (The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love), we decided that a modicum of anonymity regarding some of the tales might be in order, so we decided to select stage names for ourselves. As it turned out, since we are all Of A Certain Age and grew up watching and loving all of Tammy’s exploits (she was way better than Cinderella and seemed much more attainable to our young minds) we ALL wanted to be “Tammy.”  Believing that it was unfair for one to be allowed to use the name that ALL wanted, we simply decided that we would ALL be ‘Tammy.’”

The movie also spawned an eponymous Top 40 hit in 1957. Music historian Brian Hargett says, “The song, which Reynolds herself describes as a “sweet, simple ballad”, went to #1 for three weeks beginning August 26, 1957. The #2 song that week was ‘Teddy Bear’, by a young man from Tupelo named Elvis Presley. At the onset of the youth revolution, it was possible for a 25-year old like Reynolds to have a hit record sung rather simply without studio gimmickry,” Hargett says. “Until the Beatles came along, record companies happily recorded talent like Debbie Reynolds. After 1964, ‘older’ acts like Reynolds were quickly dropped off record company artists rosters. The studio first recorded ‘Tammy’ with just piano backing, but Henry Mancini sweetened it with strings, and Hollywood liked it enough to put it in the movie,” Hargett says. “The Ames Brothers sang it as the thematic introduction to the film, and they had a fair hit with it, too.” The song was also nominated for an Oscar.

Though the movies based on the works of Cid Ricketts Sumner are noteworthy, Sumner’s literary achievements seem more than modest by Mississippi standards; she garnered no literary laurels, and she is largely forgotten, even in her hometown. Still, she was a remarkable woman. She married a Nobel laureate, wrote 13 books, toured Europe on horseback, and when she was 64 she was the only woman in a group of eight who made a 31-day rafting trip down the Colorado River.

Sumners was bludgeoned to death at the age of 80 in her home in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Her 16-year old grandson, John R. Cutler, was charged with her murder.

 

Thanksgiving with Alice

Thanksgiving has a uniquely American song, not the sort that Lincoln might have imagined when he inaugurated the holiday in 1863, but “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” is revolutionary, irreverent and earthy; in short, as American as pumpkin pie.

“Now it all started two years ago on Thanksgiving, when my friend and I went up to visit Alice at the Restaurant, but Alice doesn’t live in the restaurant, she lives in the church nearby the restaurant, in the bell-tower, with her husband Ray and Fasha the dog. This song is called Alice’s Restaurant, and it’s about Alice, and the Restaurant, but Alice’s Restaurant is not the name of the restaurant, that’s just the name of the song, and that’s why I called the song ‘Alice’s Restaurant’.”

“I think a lot of people who are interested in food fantasize about having a restaurant,” Alice Brock writes in My Life As a Restaurant (1975). “I never did. I was twenty-five, married and crazy. I was a captive in a situation I had very little control over other than the role of cook and nag—being a hippy housewife was not satisfying. I had a world of fantasies; none included a restaurant, but all were based on the assumption that I would be my own person, on my own trip.”

Alice’s mother, who was a real estate broker in Stockbridge and determined to get her daughter out of her “situation”, called her one day and asked her to go with her and look at a little luncheonette for sale down an alley in the middle of town. “It had a counter down one side and three or four booths on the other side, and a tiny ill-equipped kitchen in the back,” Alice remembers. “It was painted two-tone institutional green, and it was definitely not the kind of place where I would eat, much less own. But it was a chance, a chance to escape. Before we left, I was hooked. I was already creating a menu, I was already free. Those moments, when suddenly an opportunity appears, a door opens—they are what life is all about.”

Alice called her restaurant “The Back Room”. “I knew nothing, absolutely nothing,” she admits. “I can’t believe how innocent I was. But it didn’t matter.” Opening night was a near-disaster, “a nightmare”, but she persevered, and soon she and her sister, who was also in a “situation”, were staying up all night cooking things she later wouldn’t consider for hundred-dollar-a-plate dinners and working five hours making thirty portions of some exotic soup that would vanish in twenty minutes the next day. “I was crazy, she said, “but I know that for all our unprofessionalism, we cooked some pretty wonderful dishes, and I established a reputation as a cook.”

The summer of 1966 was a magical time for Stockbridge; the Berkshire Playhouse had reorganized with an eye to becoming more than just a summer stock theater, attracting stars and would-be stars to the town. “Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman liked hamburgers with onion, green peppers, and an egg in them,” Alice writes. “Frank Langella was called ‘Mr. Mushroom Omelet’. Ann Bancroft was wonderful, and when her whole family came, I cooked giant meals; when they stayed late, she helped me clear the table.”

One spring morning a year after opening, Alice says that she walked through the front door and freaked out. “I felt that instead of owning it, it owned me. The plates were out to get me, the pots were planning an attack, the stove was laughing at me. I had a terrible urge to smash everything.” Instead, she called Eastern Airlines and booked a midnight flight to Puerto Rico, emptied the cash box and gave away all the food. “It was a wonderful restaurant. It was a success. I ran it for one year. It turned me into a madwoman. I made enemies of old friends. I broke up with my husband. I left my home. I had actually broken free and become my own person. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I would never have another restaurant. Never say never.”

Alice Brock went on to open not one but several more restaurants; she now lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she owns an art gallery. After Arlo premiered “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” before a captivated crowd of over ten thousand at the Newport Jazz Festival in July, 1967, he performed it live on non-commercial New York City radio station WBAI one night later that summer. The song became so popular that for months afterward WBAI rebroadcast it only when listeners pledged to donate a large amount of money. The eponymous (less the massacree) album was released that same year, with the song (at 18:20) taking up the entire first side, the other filled with a selection of bluesy folk tunes. The ballad has become a Thanksgiving tradition not only for classic rock stations, but for thousands of households across the nation.

Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee

It was the third of June, another hot and dusty Delta day/
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was bailin’ hay.

So begins Mississippi’s most familiar ballad, “Ode to Billy Joe,” a plaintive tune about a suicide on the Tallahatchie River, written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1967.

Bobbie Gentry was born Bobbie 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. 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.

Bobbie Lee has become as much a mystery as Billy Joe.

Daddy at the Movies

Jess Jr. was a demonstrative soul, without reserve when it came to expression of any kind, a candor that was celebrated by most, but often trying for my mother. It was especially difficult when they went to the movies, since my father’s tastes in movies resembled those of a little old lady’s rather than a middle-aged man, a World War II vet and a veteran prosecutor in Mississippi courtrooms. She said he would hear about these movies from a slew of waitresses, secretaries, and beauticians who kept him up with the latest Hollywood gossip, and whenever they went out of town he’s drag her to first runs of such films as Peyton Place,  Madame X (his favorite courtroom scene) and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

“My God, Barbara! Can you imagine what that woman must be going through!?” he’d exclaim at the screen as Lana Turner took the stand, being (unsuccessfully) defended by her own son (whom she cannot acknowledge) for murdering a blackmailer . “Why doesn’t she say something? That judge would let her off in a heartbeat if she’d only say who she is!” Mother would never respond, just stared resolutely at the screen, avoiding the chilling glances of others in the theater. On more than one occasion, Daddy was reduced to great heaving sobs of woe, like when they had to pull Susan Kohner off Juanita Moore’s coffin at the end of Imitation of Life. Mother just kept a nest of clean handkerchiefs in her purse and passed them his way.

The only one of us who inherited this sense of cinematic drama was my sister, Cindy, who bolted out of a Memphis theater during The Snow Queen and was half-way down Union Avenue, screaming, “She’s gonna get me!” before we finally caught up with her. I knew in my heart she was feeling guilty about stealing a tube of lipstick. I saw her do it.