Armstrong Sisters

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Never before published:
Far and away the most beautiful and important portrait of any of my American ancestors


From his perch in Philadelphia, then still considered by many the art and cultural capital of our country, Thomas Sully (1783-1872) reigned as the most famous portrait painter in America from about 1820 to 1850. Sully kept a meticulous diary, which we still possess, of every painting that he ever did, what was paid for it, and other details about the commission.

Sully's own index indicates that he produced 2631 paintings from 1801, most of which are currently in the United States. His style resembles that of Thomas Lawrence. Though best known as a portrait painter, Sully also made historical pieces and landscapes. An example of the former is the 1819 Passage of the Delaware, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Wikipedia, “Thomas Sully,” Retrieved 30 July, 2010.)

Less than a decade ago, a big exhibit in Philadelphia of Sully's works tried to bring him back from an undeserved relative obscurity. The Boston Athenaeum has the well-informed catalog of that exhibit that includes a portrait and detailed description of three nubile young ladies that Sully painted in 18_:. [SHOW PICTURE AND CITATION (catalog description from Athenaeum)]

Sully had innumerable students who worked all over the country, some being itinerant as many painters of that era were. One of them must have painted the three Armstrong sisters, daughters of the very wealthy and doubtless unscrupulous Indian agent William Armstrong. Like my father and grandfather, I was named for him. Bertram Wyatt Brown, who had hoped for a Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant and very thorough The House of Percy (1996), was aware that Fanny, the one of three sisters, called Muir by Uncle Will, married Col. William Alexander Percy (Princeton, 1853) around 1855.

The wealthy planter and lawyer, LeRoy Pope (1765-1844) dominated Huntsville, Alabama, whose restored mansion recently sold for $16 million. The father of William Alexander Percy I, that is Col. Percy, Thomas G. Percy, and his bosom buddy from Princeton, John Walker, who I believe were lovers, married sisters, the daughters of Pope and built their own mansions (no longer standing) side by side. Claiming that his wife, like her father, was descended from Alexander Pope, Thomas George named the youngest of his sons William Alexander Percy, another LeRoy Pope Percy, and the eldest, John Walker Percy.

At William Alexander Percy's death in 1888, his estate was probated, valued at $75,000 (I saw that will when it was thrown away after my grandmother's death in 1948.) Col. Percy's only daughter, Lady Percy, inherited that portrait. Senator LeRoy Percy got a portrait of his brother Walker, who after marrying the heiress in Birmingham sold the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company to Andrew Carnegie, got another portrait of a male. But my own grandfather, William Armstrong Percy I, who served as the family historian of his generation, got portraits of three males. During the Great Depression, my widowed grandmother Caroline, in extreme financial exigency, sold her husband's three portraits to Sen. LeRoy Percy's only surviving issue, Uncle Will, for $1000 apiece. Lady Percy married a gentleman, McKinney, with little money but their daughter married the very rich merchant.

Walker Percy committed suicide in 1916. His son and heir, LeRoy Pratt Percy (Harvard Law Review), committed suicide in 1929, and LeRoy Pratt's wife, Mattie Sue Phinizee, committed suicide in 1932. Uncle Will adopted their three children, Walker, LeRoy, and Phinizee, and got the portrait that had belonged to their grandfather, along with them. Consequently, Will ended up with all of the family portraits, except the most important and beautiful, that of the three ladies. And when Will died, his adopted sons got all of his portraits, which they showed to Wyatt Brown, but he never saw or even heard of the one in Knoxville.

During his frequent interviews by Wyatt Brown, Walker and his brothers had the balls to deny that there were any more Percys extant, but Bert, industrious as ever, found my name in the Princeton records, (undergraduate '55 AM and Ph.D. '64) and phoned me. I was incensed that Walker and his brothers had denied the existence of my entire branch of the family. When he came to visit me twice, I told him about Millie Commodore, a neighbor who lived two blocks from me on Tremont Street in Boston, a “high yellow” as they used to say in the South, who knew all about Uncle Will's black boyfriends because her husband was the best friend of his favorite, Fode Atkins. Millie, who I think was related to black ladies who kept the fancy establishment in Greenville that catered to rich white gentlemen, was mostly white herself and knew her white ancestors. I introduced Millie to Wyatt Brown and he interviewed her. But in The House of Percy, he dismissed her testimony in a footnote as unverified. A more enterprising writer, John M. Barry, a football coach at Tulane and a most successful author, interviewed not only Millie, but her mulatto contacts in Greenville, who verified and expanded all of her testimony.

One of Barry's other books, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Greatest Pandemic in History (Penguin Books, 2005), happily coincided with the Asian Flu, just as Rising Tide fortuitously appeared in time for Katrina. Incidentally, the unexpected runaway sales for Lanterns on the Levy appeared in the wake of Gone with the Wind (1936) and its even more spectacular 1939 movie adaptation, starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. Rising Tide, though echoing some of the brilliant prose describing the Delta and folk from Lanterns, far outsold the more scholarly House of Percy, and was in fact turned into a documentary movie in which Millie and Wyatt Brown both spoke, though I wasn't even mentioned.

While I was a student for my senior year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, I saw the portrait of the three nubile ladies hanging in the living room of one of Aunt Lady's children, Mrs. James Lloyd Goodson. From time to time, she had visited my father in Memphis, as I well remember, because he sort of deferred to her. My great aunt, Lady Percy, to whom my grandfather had sometimes sent sizable periodic gifts, had married a poor but elegant gentleman called McKinney. Their daughter, however, married James Floyd Goodson. The Goodsons became the richest family in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Lady and McKinney had lived. Lady's daughter had died by the time I went to the University of Tennessee. Consequently, I saw the portrait in one of her children's drawing rooms, and of course remembered it because it was so striking. It turned out that a son of that daughter who had inherited it wasn't very prosperous. I learned through my niece Caroline Baker, who is living in Knoxville and managed to photograph it, that it was sitting unattended and neglected in his ramshackle garage. I tried to buy it, but his rich brother, a lawyer, had it shipped to New York to have it restored. That branch of the family has refused to sell it to me, even though I offered $10,000 for it. They apparently have decided to keep and to cherish it. But I am the first ever to publish it anywhere.

Incidentally, my father also said that we were cousins of Walter P. Armstrong, in whose firm he had briefly worked, when he first came back to Memphis after graduating from Stanford Law School. Walter P. Armstrong was president of the Bar Association. Daddy took me on a train to the appellate court at Jackson, Tennessee to try a case in which Walter was representing the opposite side so I met him at the age of 12. Daddy also said that besides Armstrong, we were cousins to Luke Lea, an elegant senator who had to serve in the Federal Penitentiary.

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