Thursday, June 26, 2014

Confederate History with Breasts

Imagine a woman choosing writing over domesticity and it being a big deal.

I didn't have to imagine because today's Banner lecture at the Virginia Historical Society was "Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause," addressing just that.

The last open seat in my favorite row was handed to me when the woman next to it (Style Weekly in hand) offered it up because her friend hadn't shown up.

She looked like the cultured type and once we got to talking, I learned that her husband had been Leslie Cheek's assistant. Yes, that Leslie Cheek who was director of the VMFA and for whom the theater is named.

We enjoyed conversation about the VMFA's "Posing Beauty" exhibit right up until author Heath Hardage Lee took the stage to tell us about her new book about Winnie Davis, Jefferson and Varina's daughter.

Lee was a lively speaker who'd brought some wonderful old photographs, many culled from the collection of the Museum of the Confederacy.

The cover of her book is John P. Walker's exquisite portrait of Winnie done posthumously ("I hope I look that good when I'm dead," Lee cracked) and presenting her in a fitted white dress, the better to represent her as the vestal virgin of the Confederacy.

She told us about Jefferson Davis' first wife, Sarah, who died three months after their marriage thus becoming the ideal wife since, because, according to Lee, "Not enough time to nag him yet."

Davis made the grievous faux pas of idolizing her, even making his second bride, Varina, visit her grave on their honeymoon (hello, red flag?!).

No surprise, there were epic battles for dominance in that marriage and Varina always lost. They lost son Samuel to measles and son Joe fell off the balcony and died while Varina was pregnant with Winnie.

What that meant was that Winnie's role immediately became the all-important replacement child and the all-encompassing focus of Varina's world. Not healthy - think stage mother.

At 12, they sent her off to a German boarding school, ostensibly for her protection (death threats to Jefferson), but also because Varina had had a nervous breakdown and because they were hoping the strict, spartan school would cure the teenager of her stubbornness.

Instead, she became one of the most educated women in the South, fluent in German and French, widely versed in European history and almost completely ignorant of American history and the Civil War.

Didn't matter, she tagged along as her father's secretary (bored out of her educated mind) on an 1886 train trip to dedicate Confederate monuments, even filling in when he got sick. It didn't hurt that she was terribly pretty, too.

Dubbed "the daughter of the Confederacy," they used pictures of her to hawk everything from candy to liver oil.

Lee said it was on a trip north that she met Alfred Wilkinson, not only a northerner but the grandson of an abolitionist, and it was love at first sight. Both were smitten.

Despite the times, they somehow managed a trip to Italy with Joseph Pulitzer (nearly blind) and his wife (embroiled in an affair with one of her husband's employees) acting as chaperones. "I wish they'd chaperoned my beach week in 1988!" Lee joked.

Of course there was an uproar when Winnie's engagement to a Yankee was announced and in the ultimate controlling mother move, Varina broke off the engagement while Winnie was sick in bed upstairs.

Talk about setting up irreversible mother issues.

"I'm not going to tell you about her tragic demise," Lee warned, insisting we could find out by reading her book.

She did share that once Winnie moved to NYC, Pulitzer gave her a job at his "New York World News" and she went on to live in the theater district, write two novels and ride a bike around the city like the modern woman she was.

Lee's hypothesis was that Winnie always wanted to be a writer anyway, that marriage and domesticity were never appealing to her. In other words, she ended up exactly where she wanted to be.

Isn't it lovely when that happens to a modern woman?

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