2001 April: Wednesday
Next morning, Lyn drove me south towards the next venue. The countryside was still wooded but grew flatter as we neared the Gulf of Mexico. Oscar Wilde himself had travelled in this area but had approached from the west via New Orleans. He had a family link with that city. A maternal uncle, Dr Elgee, had emigrated there in 1831, had prospered greatly and had ended up as a judge. He became a leading light among the local Confederates before his death in 1864. Oscar was suspected of arriving to reclaim the family lands but denied it, declaring that his only wish was that he ‘would rather like to own a grove of magnolia trees’.
We reached the small town of Clanton at 11 30am, where Lyn passed me over to the next ESU promoters. Ted was a sprightly, sharp-eyed 81-year-old, while his wife Barbara seemed more reserved. Within an hour, I got to know quite a lot about Ted and his extraordinary life. During WWII, he had fought at the Anzio landings in Italy, before being captured by the Germans at the Battle of Monte Cassino; this was followed by two years as a prisoner-of-war in Poland. He had ended up as a lieutenant-colonel before returning to civilian life. Once back in Alabama, he had become a lawyer and legal partner in the firm of John Patterson. When Patterson was elected as Governor of Alabama in 1958, he appointed Ted as the assistant Attorney-General. Thus, Ted had a ringside seat throughout the infamous struggles over segregation.
With his transparent enthusiasm for history and conversation, I could not have found a better guide than Ted. After a quick lunch at their home in Montgomery, he drove me off on a tour of the city. One area in particular stood out. More than fifty buildings had been uprooted, restored, and clustered together to form ‘Old Alabama Town’ – an architectural record of the state. It included cotton gins, a sharecropper’s house, and even the inn where the French General Lafayette had stayed in the 1790s.
We continued to the State Capitol, a Greek-Revival style building situated on a small hill, with its white dome shimmering in the hot afternoon sun. It was beautiful in its own right but also it had been the setting for some crucial events, having witnessed both the birth of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. The interior walls were lined with portraits of previous Governors including the notorious George Wallace, and a bust of his wife Lurleen Wallace who became surrogate Governor when set term limits temporarily prevented George from continuing his reign. She died of cancer in 1968 while still in office. The State Room had been the scene of the declaration of Secession and the first Confederate Congress in 1861.
Outside the building, the historical reverberations seemed to grow even more insistent. Ted pointed out a plaque dedicated to the memory of Albert Patterson, the father of his friend Governor John Patterson. Albert had been a lawyer who attempted to combat the corruption rife in the town of Phenix City, Ala. In 1954, he had been shot dead on the orders of local mobsters; the assassin turned out to be the deputy sheriff.
Near the Patterson plaque stood the Confederate Memorial Monument, a 90ft high column dedicated to the veterans of the Civil War. Ostensibly a simple memorial, it had taken on a contemporary meaning – anything Confederate was considered to be a flaunting of white supremacy. All attempts to remove it had been fiercely rejected, but its continued presence had encouraged a considerable amount of vandalism.
Even the flight of steps leading to the Capitol entrance had a historical echo. In 1955, Rosa Parkes famously refused to leave her seat in a white-only section of a bus, thus precipitating the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Ten years later, Civil Rights workers organised the Third ‘Selma to Montgomery March’. 25,000 marchers, led by Martin Luther King, Harry Belafonte, and Joan Baez, arrived here to deliver a petition to Governor Wallace protesting against continued segregation. When Wallace refused to see them, Martin Luther King delivered one of his most impassioned speeches from these steps.
As we looked downhill along the wide Dexter Avenue, Ted pointed out a building on our left.
“That’s the Baptist Church where Luther King was pastor back in the Fifties. One day, I stood here watching it with the Governor. He asked me whether there was any way to get rid of that church. I told him that legally no, but I’d look into it. We never found a way though.”
2001 April: Thursday
Next day the history tour continued unabated. By 9am, we had reached the original Confederate White House, a pretty building that had been the residence of Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of the Confederacy, before he moved his capital to Richmond, Va. This was now a well-preserved museum of all things Davisonian.
Two days before giving his lecture in Montgomery, Wilde had stayed overnight at Jefferson Davis’s last home at Beauvoir near Mobile, Ala – ‘a beautiful house by the sea amid lovely trees’. Davis was then 74, had spent two years in prison as a result of his involvement in the rebellion, and was a symbol of the defeated South. Oscar had a romantic view of the Confederacy, seeing its struggle for independence as akin to the Irish struggle. Wilde:
‘The head may approve the success of the winner, but the heart is more to be with the fallen’.
He was impressed by Davis’s intellect, but added: ‘How fascinating all failures are’.
As we strolled around the house, Ted pointed out a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest had been an immensely rich slave trader, who became a brilliant if ruthless cavalry commander vilified for carrying out a massacre of black prisoners after the siege of a Union fort, and who became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Ted gazed at the painting:
“I guess he has a bit of a bad reputation. But he wasn’t as bad as they reckon.”
From behind I heard an indignant snort:
“You’re damn right there!”
I turned to see a white female museum curator glaring at us. She had a particularly pointed nose which she stabbed in our direction:
“General Forrest was a verra, verra great man!”
The vehemence with which she spoke almost exactly mirrored the vehemence of the black curator in the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum.
As we left, Ted said that resentment over the outcome of the Civil War still lingered.
“I have a neighbour who refuses to celebrate July the Fourth because it’s the same day that the Yankees forced the surrender of the Southern fortress of Vicksburg.”
When we reached St John’s Anglican Church, I found something really unexpected. Having taken advantage of Ted’s offer to sit in the same pew that Jefferson Davis had used, Ted told me that the venue where Oscar Wilde had delivered his lecture in 1882, the Mcdonald’s Opera House, had long since been demolished. However, he had visited this very church and donated money to buy a new carpet for the vestry. In some ways, Oscar seemed more connected with Montgomery than any town I had visited.
The next port of call, the Alabama Archive Museum, seemed to provide some musical leeway from the problems of the Confederate legacy. Two world famous musicians had been natives of Montgomery and were commemorated here – Nat King Cole and Hank Williams. But even here racial tension had bared its fangs. Nat King Cole, the possessor of a uniquely glorious singing voice, had been physically attacked on a Southern stage because he was black, and then denounced by the Civil Rights Movement as an ‘Uncle Tom’ because he had performed to a segregated audience. Nat had been caught in a political nutcracker.
Only Hank Williams appeared to have avoided the racial dilemmas of his day. However, given his other problems, this did not cheer him up much. Dying of alcoholism aged just forty, Williams seems to have raised self-pity to an art form. I listened to some of his classics – ‘Moanin’ The Blues’, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’, ‘My Son Calls Another Man Daddy’, ‘Nobody’s Lonesome For Me’, etc. By the time I reached ‘There’s A Tear in My Beer’, I was happy to return to Klan lynch mobs for light relief.
We arrived at the venue at 6pm. It was another exquisite Country Club – Doric columns, sweeping spiral staircases, chandeliers, green golf course vistas – oh well, I was getting used to it. However, for some reason, I was not feeling good about this show. Perhaps it was because after the excellent reception in Birmingham, I felt my luck would not hold. This was, after all, Alabama. I sat with Ted and Barbara at the top table and glanced around this evening’s guests. They looked gloomy.
The exception was a cheerful old lady sitting on my right. She gave me one of the most amazing pieces of information I’d come across so far. In 1918, the writer Scott Fitzgerald had been drafted to a military training camp just outside Montgomery. While attending a dance at a country club he had met and fallen in love with an enchanting local girl called Zelda. A literary legend had been born. In Fitzgerald’s novel ‘The Great Gatsby’, the hero Gatsby is drafted to a Southern military training camp where he meets and falls in love with an enchanting local girl named Daisy – the fall out from this encounter provides the theme to what is arguably the Great American Novel. The old lady told me that this was the country club where the real Scott met Zelda, and the fictional Gatsby met Daisy. Wow.
Oddly enough, Wilde also had been bowled over by the girls of Montgomery. After attending a fraternity dance, he became entranced by a young amateur actress called Alsatia Allen, presenting her with a signed photo of himself and describing her as ‘the most beautiful young lady in America’. Later, when questioned by a reporter, Oscar rather ungallantly back-tracked, saying: “That is a remark, my dear fellow, that I have made of some young lady in every city in this country.” But somehow, to me, this quip didn’t ring quite true.
At 8pm, feeling nervous, I launched into the show. And the evening crackled along – I had been completely wrong about the audience. I got to them quickly and stayed there. Two curtain calls – and another unexpected success. Only one more show to go.
2001 May: Friday
Next morning, we retraced the drive back north towards Birmingham and I took the opportunity to ask Ted about the political world he had lived in, and particularly about Governor George Wallace.
“The strange thing about Wallace was that he started out as a liberal. He was the first judge to ever address a black lawyer as ‘Mister’ in open court. Then he stood for Governor and got beaten hollow. He said that the other fellow had out-segged him, and he was never gonna be out-segged again. And he wasn’t. He told some Yankee newspaper that what Alabama needed to stop integration was a few first-class funerals. And that got him elected for sure.”
“He made one blunder. He met with the black leader, Adam Clayton Powell at the Governor’s mansion. What got the segs real mad was that he gave Powell some Scotch whisky. Not just whisky, but Scotch whisky!”
Wallace stood as a third party Presidential candidate in 1968. As potential vice-president, he initially considered Colonel Sanders of ‘finger-lickin’ chicken’ fame, before choosing General Curtis Lemay, the nuclear war enthusiast later immortalised in ‘Dr Strangelove’. Thankfully their ticket lost. Wallace was paralysed after being shot during an assassination attempt in 1972, and eventually became a born-again Christian who apologised for his former political position.
Ted: “Wallace was feisty, but not in a good way. He was like a yappin’ little dawg.”
NEXT WEEK on Tuesday July 3 – the 9th Dixie episode – in the Tennessee Balliol