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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Howard's Revenge

While cleaning out some bookcases in the library at home the other day, I found an old photo, which I had mentioned in a post called Howard's Revenge.  I wish I'd known I had it before I published the first time because it really adds to the story.  So I'm reposting this article with the photo of my great aunt Katherine and Douglas MacArthur, along with my father's caption written on the back.

Pictured from left, back row:   Howard Pritchartt, Jr.; Devereux Marshall; Elizabeth Patterson; Bubba Patterson; Sophie Junkin; Mimi Brown; Neville Marshall
Seated, from left, front row: Alma Kellogg, Andree Benoist, Sally Junkin 
The identity of the woman in the photo is unknown.  I do wish I knew who she was.  She's got the sweetest expression on her face, and should be recognized for playing the role so well.  She's a good sport, to boot.

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 how the Old South used to live. Because of the success of her campaign and the cooperation and efforts of the other ladies in town, people who were barely eking by during the Great Depression were able to hang onto their homes in Natchez.

For over sixty 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, hunted wild game, 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 World War II, a photographer captured a photo of him being told to look at the camera by The Mighty Katherine Miller. She was a'scared 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, Howard Pritchartt, spent his childhood. His mother, Bessie Rose, was Katherine's sister, and boy, was she disappointed when her only child wasn’t the girl she’d always wanted. She'd had visions of playing dress-up with a beautiful little girl. Not to worry. 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 young Master Howard off to school in a sailor suit or Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, where he'd get beaten up for wearing sissy clothes. When he got home, she would rage at him 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 as he backed away, awed and terror stricken.

Like my great aunt Katherine, Bessie Rose worshiped at the altar of high society, and for her, every night was a party. Nearly every evening, they’d leave Howard at home with his elderly grandmother. He and the old lady took care of each other. He would bring her milk toast and they would keep each other company in the silent house. It was a lonely time.

One night, he begged, "Please don't go, Mubba. Stay home, please?"

"You ought to be ashamed,” his mother replied. “You ought to be happy so many people want us to join them.”

So he grew to hate social events and all that they entailed. As he grew older, my grandmother and her sister tried teaching my father the importance of the social graces. The harder they tried, the more he rebelled. He wanted nothing more than to be a man’s man, happiest when he was 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 though he did his part by participating in the springtime madness that is the Natchez pilgrimage, he never tired of thumbing his  nose at it all.

He still laughs when he remembers that when he was still in the army, his aunt Katherine sent a letter to his commander asking him in all earnestness if they could let him come home for the month of March so that he could be king in the pageant.  I mean, sure, World War II was important and all, but this was Pilgrimage!

“They’d never heard of Natchez,” Daddy laughs. “Those women thought Natchez was the center of the universe and that, of course, I should be excused to be king. God, I was embarrassed.”

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 tableau for The Hunt, the beagles and hounds used for the scene broke their leads and climbed across horrified tourists' laps, baying loudly, drooling, trembling and peeing with excitement, as they tracked the scent of the long-departed fox.

And now at eighty-five years old he, like Katherine, is one of Natchez’s most colorful characters. And although he lives in the country in a house with ancestral portraits on the wall, more often than not you’ll find him wearing a wife-beater t-shirt with a do-rag on his head, driving his tractor all over the property, happily pushing things around, stopping to eat a can of sardines, an onion, and a slice of bread. He spends his days feeding the deer, dogs, cats, birds, squirrels and other assorted animals that call his place home.

From left:  Howard Pritchartt and Joe Remondet, circa 1979

And like his aunt Katherine, he's loved (and loathed) in fairly equal measure, but no one laughs louder or longer at Howard Pritchartt than Howard, himself.

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.

If you doubts your social fame, 

git an old house and give it a name. 

If you still lacks social position,
git it put in the Pink Edition. 

If your position is still not clear,
git it decorated by a Natchez queer.

But, really, the mostest important of all
Is finagle your brat into the Pilgrimage Ball.
But really the mostest, most ultimate thing
Is finagle the brat into Queen or King.

We're all aware of the social mystique
that sticks to the gal with the finest antique.
So, 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’s 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.

What makes it all so goddamned funny
Is all it takes is a little money.
And when it’s all over, we’ll have to admit
The whole damned thing is a big pile of…
old furniture.

~~ Howard Pritchartt, Jr.
circa 1985

Story by Elodie Pritchartt

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Lost Clifton

Windsor Ruins near Port Gibson, MS  Photo by Elodie Pritchart
The following is an excerpt from the book In Old Natchez by Catherine Van Court, published in 1937 by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.

One hundred years ago, a distinguished New Englander made the entire trip to Natchez by boat, and the beauty of the country seemed to strike him with particular force.  He wrote a fascinating record of his impressions and among other things said:

The town, Natchez, is mantled with a rich, green foliage, like a garment.  A noble esplanade runs parallel with the river; at the northern extremity of this esplanade, upon an eminence, gradually yet roundly swelling away, stands Clifton.  Its lofty colonnades glance in the sun, and a magnificent garden spreads out around it.  This garden is diversified with avenues and terraces, and adorned with grottoes and summer-houses.

Clifton was old when the the Civil War began.  It was built for Samuel Postlethwaite, about 1820.  Later, Mr. Frank Surget owned it.  His wife was Mrs. Charlotte Linton, who was wealthy in her own right.  Clifton was her ancestral home, built by her parents.

The grounds were landscaped by European artists, and exotic plants rioted in a cloud of fragrant bloom.  A commanding view of the Mississippi River and the fertile plains of Louisiana lent peculiar picturesqueness to the entire setting.

Such was the fairylike Clifton when, at the close of that historic siege, Vicksburg fell.  Natchez was then placed under military rule with six hundred Union soldiers garrisoned there.  Mr. Surget invited a number of these officers to dine at Clifton but, by some oversight, failed to ask the chief engineer.  In speaking of the matter later, Mr. Surget said:

"It was not an intentional slight on my part."

The next day, a peremptory order came to the Surgets to vacate their house.  The order said that it was necessary to erect fortifications where Clifton stood.

It seemed strange to Mr. Surget that no other site could be found.  "Natchez is a fallen city!" he expostulated.  "There is no reason to fortify the place!"  But the chief engineer was obdurate.

In their astonishment and excitement, the Surgets only found time to gather up the family silver and a few personal belongings before Clifton was blown to atoms.  The detonation of the explosion was heard for miles; not one brick was left upon another.  Even the gardens were demolished; the greenhouses, grottoes and pavilions were leveled to a mass of debris.

The loss of their beloved house, treasures and keepsakes weighed heavily upon the hearts of these gentlefolk, and as soon as peace was declared they prepared to depart for France to make their home.  But Mr. Surget did not live long; he died in America before they could sail, though his wife continued living in Bordeaux to a ripe old age.

War is always hideous, and Natchez fared better than most Southern Cities.  The memory of Clifton has faded, though a section of Natchez perpetuates the name of the beautiful house that was wantonly sacrificed to one man's petty animosity.

The inhabitants of Natchez today, these descendants of that gallant band who enjoyed the spacious life of the feudal days of Southern civilization, have little inclination to indulge in unhappy retrospection.  They love beauty, and it is around them in abundance.  The pink, white and cerise azalea, the japonica, the sweet olive and the cape jasmine are ever before them, tiny monuments to the beauty of a civilization that has died.

Needless to say, times have changed and the "feudal days of Southern civilization" are no longer referred to in such glowing terms.  One cannot dismiss, however, the beauty of the architecture that those "feudal days" made possible.  I love my little town unabashedly and am proud to call it home as it struggles (at times more successfully and at times less so) to acknowledge the realities of the past and embrace a future where one and all live in harmony.  

An interesting footnote:  

In 1900, my great grandfather built a house on the bluff where Clifton had once stood.  Back around 1982, I was at the house visiting my great aunt, Annet Pritchartt.  We were standing in the driveway when my husband looked down at the ground and suddenly exclaimed, "Wow.  Is that a Civil War bullet?"  He leaned down and plucked it up.  It was, indeed, a Civil War bullet.  Perhaps a relic of that fateful day at Clifton.