2001 May: Monday
The last journey across the Old South took place on a local bus from Birmingham to Atlanta, Georgia. My fellow passengers were blacks and Hispanics who regarded me silently but with curiosity. It seemed that whites were a rarity on these buses, especially British whites. It stirred yet more Wildean memories.
When Oscar had reached Atlanta, he purchased sleeping berth train tickets for himself and his black valet. He was told that no blacks were allowed in the sleeping berths and that if he went ahead he would be both legally fined and physically attacked. Under protest, he was forced to give in.
He gave a performance at the city’s De Gives Opera House on July 4th 1882. Eight months later, a black man and two black women entered the same theatre and attempted to sit in a ‘Whites Only’ area. After refusing to move, they were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. It was an uncanny foretaste of the Rosa Parkes bus controversy 72 years later.
Having re-set my watch to Eastern Time on crossing the Georgia state border, we pulled into Hartsfield-Jackson Airport at 2 30pm. An ESU contact called Jean drove me through Atlanta to the next lodgings.
Atlanta – the setting for my original infatuation with the Confederate South and the heart of ‘Gone with the Wind’. Now, of course, it bore no resemblance to its ante-bellum state – firstly, having been burnt to the ground by Sherman’s army in 1864, and secondly, being replaced by a sprawling modern city and the soaring HQs of the CNN and Coca Cola empires. The only things that hinted of its past were the trees. Oaks and magnolias, dogwoods and pines – there was so much foliage that I commented on it to my driver. She said that the city was famous for its woods:
“If you take the whole metro area, almost 40% of it is forest.”
My last hostess was Peggy, a vivacious widow who lived in yet another enormous mansion, this one set beside a lake in the northern environs of Peachtree Creek. After I’d insisted on a siesta, we drove off to a steak restaurant for dinner with some of her friends. It was a bustling venue hampered by exceptionally subdued lighting. It was only after the waiter lit the candle at our table that we could make out what was on the menu. In truth we didn’t really need a menu as steak appeared to be the only dish on offer. I had not counted on the sheer size of the meal.
My Porterhouse literally covered two-thirds of the large plate and measured over an inch thick. A few sad sprigs of salad cowered beside its vastness as a derisive shrug to the health lobby. I chewed on and on. And on. After an hour I’d only managed to carve an inroad into the meat. As I rested my jaws, Peggy suggested that I used a plastic ‘doggy bag’ and take the remains back home. The doggy bags were routinely provided by the management. It seemed that they were quite used to defeating their customers in this bizarre joust of conspicuous consumption.
2001 May: Tuesday
Over breakfast, I received another dose of American TV – the morning ‘News Hour’. It contained an item called the ‘Global Minute’. After 45 seconds had been expended on fanfares proclaiming its existence, we were treated to exactly 60 seconds of world news. ‘Six Palestinians killed in Israel’ got 15 seconds, ‘An anti-capitalist riot in Australia’ got 8 seconds, and ‘A foiled coup in the Philippines’ got 12 seconds. This was in an hour that contained 20 minutes of advertising and 39 minutes of fluff about the USA, including 10 minutes devoted to the retirement of Bozo the Clown.
Later I went for a walk through the woods bordering the lake behind Peggy’s house. It was a windless, sunny day and the local wildlife was taking advantage. Squirrels scrambled along the tree branches; two small turtles sunbathed on a half-submerged tree trunk, sliding into the water on my approach.
Then an extraordinary bird turned up. It was about eight inches tall with a crest on its head and with a vivid red plumage – I found out later it was called a cardinal bird. But the most amazing thing about it was that it actually joined me for the walk. It hopped along the path about six yards ahead, turning to see if I was following. Occasionally it would dart into the trees to watch me, then return to take up pole position, rather like a herald in a medieval progress. This continued for over a mile. I had never seen anything like it before. After the inanities of the TV News Hour, it entirely restored America’s capacity to charm.
That evening, as we drove to the venue on Peachtree Road, Peggy pointed out a nearby tower block.
“That’s where Elton John lives. He bought six floors of it and knocked them into one flat. That was because Whitney Houston also lives there and knocked five floors into one flat. He had to go one larger.”
Arriving at a traffic island known as ‘the Jesus Junction’, we parked outside the venue. This turned out to be St Philip’s Episcopal Cathedral with a congregational membership that numbered 7000. My audience however numbered about seventy. An organiser explained:
“I’m sorry, Mr Titley, but the crime writer P.D. James is speaking tonight, and she’s creamed off most of your audience.”
The hall was enormous and there was no radio mike, but luckily the acoustics were the best I’d come across in the States. I arranged my remaining (presumably anti P.D. James) flock in a semi-circle of chairs and launched into the last US show. Thankfully it went well and at the end a few people half stood to clap. It was not the standing ovation of Columbia, more of a crouching ovation, but it was still a great way to end the tour.
As we drove back, we passed the infamous Gold Club. Two years earlier, its owner had been indicted on an array of charges ranging from prostitution to police corruption to Mafia connections. In its heyday, the Gold Club seems to have been quite a spot, offering free sexual favours to celebrities while looting the credit cards of less favoured clients. It was alleged by the owner’s legal team that the King of Sweden had been a visitor during the Atlanta Olympics, and that the singer Madonna had been furnished with a striptease dancer named ‘Baby’ for the night. And all this within a stone’s throw of ‘Jesus Junction’! It shone a new light on the Bible Belt.
2001 May: Wednesday
The next day was given over almost entirely to the events of 1864. Atlanta had been at the centre of a series of desperate battles, the most spectacular of which had been fought at Kennesaw Mountain, a 600ft high hill to the north of the city. We drove almost to the summit, then wandered around amongst the immaculately restored trails and cannon emplacements. Even here there was a slight Wildean connection.
When he arrived in the USA, Oscar had been surprised to receive an unprovoked attack from the writer and arch cynic Ambrose Bierce, who described him as a plagiarist and ‘twin show to the two-headed calf’. Oscar was probably thinking of Bierce with his remark: ‘A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’
Bierce was famed for the savagery of his judgements. He was the man who coined the adage: ‘War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography’. It is possible that his view of the world had been jaundiced by his experiences at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain when he had been hit in the head by a bullet.
At the foot of the mountain, we visited a museum dedicated to ‘the General’, a Civil War locomotive that had been at the centre of an extraordinary episode during the conflict. It had been hijacked by a gang of Northern infiltrators in an effort to take it northwards to Chattanooga. A dogged Southern train official named Fuller had chased ‘The General’, first on foot, then by handcar, finally by a series of other trains, until the Northerners ran out of fuel and were forced to abandon the train.
The story had been the subject of two films, one by Disney starring Fess Parker, the other a silent movie starring Buster Keaton. I mentioned the latter to the museum guard. His face darkened:
“That Keaton guy. He didn’t get it right. He took some liberties with the story.”
Back in the city itself we went to Grant Park to see another Civil War relic – the Cyclorama. This was at one time the largest oil painting in the world, measuring 42ft high and 358ft long. In order to view it, we took up position on a bank of cinema seats. Then the central cylinder on which we were sitting slowly rotated to reveal the painting as a panorama on an outer cylinder. It represented the Battle of Atlanta itself, and had been commissioned after the war by the Union General Logan who had taken part in the original conflict. Not surprisingly, Logan figured prominently and heroically in the reproduction. The guide also pointed out a familiar face. In 1939, the film star Clark Gable had visited the exhibit and suggested that he should himself appear in the picture. The management obliged and Gable’s features were assigned to that of a dying soldier.
That evening we had dinner with a couple who had that day donated half a million dollars to endow an arts college in Savannah.
During the meal, one comment struck me more than most.
“The South is different to the USA. The South is a country with echoes.”
2001 May: Thursday
The final morning in the USA provided an experience that in effect brought me to full circle. ‘Gone with the Wind’ had been the origin of my interest in the South and an enduring thread during my tour. Finally I got to visit the home of its author Margaret Mitchell – a Tudor Revival three-storey building where Mitchell lived from 1925. While there, I received a few surprises.
One was that Mitchell had borrowed the title of her book from a line written by Wilde’s friend, the London poet and decadent Ernest Dowson. Another was that while writing her relatively decorous novel, Mitchell had also been an avid collector and reader of pornography, ‘Fanny Hill’ being a particular favourite.
However the biggest surprise concerned the opening of David O. Selznick’s film of the book, arguably the biggest movie event of all time.
Oscar Wilde had given his 1882 talk at De Gives Opera House in Atlanta. Although he rebuilt the building nearby and renamed it De Gives Grand Opera House, Laurent De Give later leased it to the Loew family. It became known as Loew’s Grand Theatre and subsequently world famous as the venue for the 1939 opening night of – ‘Gone with the Wind’.
Flew out at 3pm.
Still from ‘Gone with the Wind’
Next week on Tuesday July 9 – For a total change of scene – off to Zimbabwe.