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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Matters familias - Natchez Characters

Utter the name "Katherine Miller" in Natchez, and the reactions you get vary wildly. She's either the patron saint of Natchez or evil incarnate. Sometimes both. But you have to give the old girl credit, for it was Katherine Miller who spearheaded the formation of the Natchez Pilgrimage, which saved this town from certain doom.

During the 1930s, Katherine traveled the country with a projector slideshow of antebellum homes, inviting prospective visitors to see the plantation homes of the Old South. Because of the success of her campaign, people who were barely eking by in the great Depression were able to hang onto their homes in Natchez.

For over 60 years, she ruled Natchez society engendering fear, admiration, adoration and loathing in equal measures.
Under her direction, grown men were persuaded to dress up like Southern planters and dance the Soiree for strangers. They even allowed their wives to smear rouge and lipstick on their sons, and dress them in lace and knickers and ballet shoes to dance around a Maypole with little girls in hoopskirts.

Sure for the rest of the year they wore camouflage, slapped each other on the back, broke wind, went hunting, played football and talked about the price of oil. But March belonged to the women. No disgrace was too demeaning to keep them from following the orders of the matriarchs of Natchez.

When General Douglas MacArthur visited Natchez after the second World War, a photographer captured a photo of him being told to look at the camera by the Mighty Katherine Miller. She was ascared of nobody, and her legacy lives on even now as every year March comes in like the lion....or lioness and goes out like the lamb.

It was under the shadow of this matriarchal monopoly that my father spent his childhood. His mother, Bessie Rose, was Katherine's sister and, boy, was she disappointed when her only child turned out to be a boy and not a girl. She'd had visions of playing dress-up with a beautiful little girl, and the fact that the child she'd produced turned out to be a boy was but a momentary disappointment.

Bessie Rose decided she'd dress him any way she darned well pleased, and that's exactly what she did.
Every morning she'd send Howard off to school in these Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits where he'd get beaten up for wearing sissy clothes. When he got home, she would throw a temper tantrum because he'd ruined his outfit. He remembers one incident, in particular, when she ripped off his jacket and started jumping up and down on it in a fit of fury. It scared the bejeebus out of him.

Like my great aunt Katherine, Bessie Rose worshipped at the altar of high society. Starting when he was as young as two years old, she and my grandfather left him at home in the evening with his elderly grandmother so they could attend parties with their friends. He and the old lady took care of each other -- she would tuck him in at night and he would feed her milquetoast. It was a lonely time.

Once he begged his parents not to go out.

"Please don't go. Stay home, please?"

"You should be happy people want to see your mother," she replied. You should be ashamed of yourself."

So he grew to hate social events and all that they entailed.

Needless to say, the harder my grandmother and her aunt tried to teach my father the social graces, the more he rebelled. He never missed an opportunity to go out on the river with his friends, hunting and exploring the muddy banks and back bayous of the Mississippi.

Handsome though he was, he always felt at odds when dressed for a party, and never missed an opportunity to thumb his nose at convention. And now, he is a successful, self-made man who can't abide pretense and won't hesitate to point it out in ridicule, no matter whom it might offend.

One of his fondest memories is of his best friend, Johnny Ogden, sneaking into the City Auditorium the afternoon before the pageant with a dead fox he'd found beside the road. Dragging the fox by the tail, Johnny made his way up and down the aisles, over and under the seats of the room, laying down a scent and then slipping back outside. They roared with laughter that evening when during the tableaux for The Hunt, the beagles and hounds used for the scene broke their leads and climbed across horrified tourists' laps, baying loudly, drooling and peeing with excitement, as they tracked the scent of the long departed fox.

And now he's one of Natchez most original characters, 83 years old and living on 400 acres in a beautiful house with ancestral portraits on the wall, wearing a wife-beater t-shirt and driving his tractor all over the property, happily pushing things around, stopping to eat a can of sardines and a slice of bread, and feeding the deer, dogs, cats, birds, squirrels and other assorted animals that call his place home. He even fills dry mud puddles with water so the frogs living therein will be happy and wet.

And so, at last, with all that being said, I now offer you his original poem about Natchez, making no excuses for the portions of it that are politically and socially incorrect. Like his aunt Katherine, he's loved (and loathed) in fairly equal portions, but no one laughs louder or longer at Howard than Howard, himself.


If you doubt your social fame,

get an old house and give it a name.

If you still lack social position,

have it put in the Pink Edition.

If your position is still not clear,

get it decorated by a Natchez queer.
But, really, the most important of all

Is finagle your brat into the Pilgrimage Ball.

But really the mostest, most ultimate thing
Is finagle the brat into King or Queen.
We're all aware of the social mystique
that sticks to the gal with the finest antique.

Ladies, ladies, let’s hold a quorum,

to see who’ll rule the Antiques Forum.
To us this is now our holiest cause,

since we’re all well into menopause.

So you give a luncheon and I’ll give a tea.
And I’ll snub you and you snub me.

And when it’s all over, we’ll make our amends,
pretending to be the closest of friends.

But when it’s all over, we’ll have to admit

The whole damned thing is a big pile of….
old furniture.

By Howard Pritchartt, Jr.
Circa 1985

*photograph of Howard Pritchartt, Jr. on the left with Joe Remondet on the right, circa 1975.

(Please check back soon for a story about Joe Remondet.)

*Posted by Elodie

Monday, February 16, 2009

This Does Not Compute

For any of you who wrote to ask about rates, availability, etc., and were wondering why we never answered your email, please accept our sincere apologies. It seems that Tommy is gizmo challenged, and didn't realize that wasn't forwarding all emails to his Hotmail account.

He is working feverishly to write to everyone who's written and will probably get to you by the end of the day....or the week...or maybe the month, depending on exactly how gizmo challenged he really is. Nah, he'll get to you right away.

Sincere apologies for the mixup.