Gone with the Flood: A Hidden Family Narrative by William A. Percy III
9/18/13 5:07 PM
Gone with the Flood: A Hidden Family Narrative
By William A. Percy III AA
Gone with the Flood: A Hidden Family Narrative By William A. Percy III AA
Natural disasters create humanitarian crises in which class and race come into stark focus while community leaders grapple with crunch decisions. One such crisis was the Great Flood of 1927, which covered the Mississippi Delta over a space as large as all New England minus Maine.
My family of planters had long dominated Washington County, the heart of that area. Leadership fell largely to them when the levee broke through to submerge the fields and inundate our town of Greenville. Unbeknownst to nearly all of those involved, a sex scandal threatened to erupt into the open in an extraordinary psychodrama between father and son with huge ramifications for the developing crisis.
I here consider the episode and the extent of its lasting consequences in the light of several historians’ contributions, including Benjamin Wise’s recent biography, William Alexander Percy: A Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker (2012). My Uncle Will’s classic Lanterns on the Levee: Memoirs of a Planter’s Son (1941) told the story as only a noted poet could, eulogizing his father LeRoy Percy, U.S. senator from 1910 to 1913, the hero who stopped the Ku Klux Klan cold in 1922.
LeRoy, it must be said, would have been amazed to learn that his queer son attracted a biographer’s attention before being so honored himself: a prominent, powerful, wealthy member of the Southern aristocracy (often dubbed Bourbons or Magnolias) in the paternalistic noblesse oblige tradition. Regarded in his own day as by far the more significant figure, LeRoy would struggle for years to see the effeminate Will as not an unworthy heir. Eventually though, there would be mutual respect and admiration between these two very different gentlemen.
Secrets Dark and Deep
A secret as dark and murky as the great flood lurks in the hidden shadows of my family’s notorious history as “cotton kings” of the Deep South, a secret about which honor and scandal swirled in a furtively rumored drama that, because of Will’s homosexual preferences, which forced him and his father to back down from their plan to evacuate the blacks to safety, sealed the fate of thousands, a secret shocking even today in what it tells us—and asks us—about race and sex, politics and power in Dixie. The flood is no mere metaphor in this story. The human drama played out during the greatest natural disaster this country had ever seen, and one that only Hurricane Katrina in 2005 can rival in intensity, tragedy, and death. This was the Mississippi flood of 1927. When the levee broke at Mounds Landing on April 21 , a dozen or so miles away from our ancestral home in Greenville, Mississippi, the roar of water could be heard miles away as more than twice the volume of Niagara Falls thundered through.
The Percys watched and waited from their veranda as the pending deluge, fueled by record rainfall, brought the threat of calamity ever closer. The unfolding tragedy is well described in Lanterns, whose subtitle recalls nightlong vigils kept atop the levees. Sentinels would stroll them in search of saboteurs from the opposite bank hoping to divert the flood from their side as well as for danger spots, bubbling brown spurts or “boils” of water on the land side of the levee that suggested a pending breach in an embankment in urgent need of repair. Lanterns is an elegy for those men, black and white, as well as for the antebellum world that had begun slipping away from them fourscore years before. Published in the wake of another great classic of Southern apocalypse, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), Will’s memoir could just as easily have been called “Gone with the Flood.” It encoded, for those in the know, his homosexual liasons— even with black teenagers.
The Great Flood
And what a storm! What a flood! The press called it the greatest inundation since Noah, and that was hardly exaggeration. Heavy rains had pounded the Mississippi basin all through the summer of 1926, from the Dakotas on down. By September, the river’s tributaries in Kansas and Iowa swelled to capacity. On Christmas Day, the Cumberland River topped levies at Nashville by a record level of 56 feet, far exceeding even the recent devastating floods there in 2010. One by one, the titanic Mississippi broke free of its bonds in 145 places, flooding an area 50 miles wide and 100 long, soaking 10 states in water up to 30 feet deep. More than a thousand perished then (Katrina killed 1,800), and nearly a million were left without homes.
The Mississippi port Greenville is located in the precarious lowlands of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta on a fertile alluvial plain between two mighty rivers. In the middle of the flat terrain halfway between the bluff ports of Memphis and Vicksburg, it was accustomed to annual overflows leaving rich loamy soil behind, higher and richer the nearer it was to the banks. By the time of the flood, the great Mississippi had been bound and tethered through a vast series of dams and berms, breakwaters and levees. Once the river breaks out of its chains, it becomes a raging titan. It’s no wonder the Delta folk shook in their boots at the impending deluge: they were destined to suffer hell and high water, literally. But they stayed true to their posts atop the levee, which trembled underfoot long before the thunderous surge could be heard.
Having breached Mounds Landing, the river quickly ripped through Greenville’s rear auxiliary levee. One planter described standing on his porch and watching the flood approach along the rim of the horizon, a dun-colored wall seven feet high “and with a roar as of a mighty wind.” Few of the townsfolk even tried to escape by car—that would have been to court death by drowning on low land. More made their getaway by train before the tracks were torn asunder by the raging waters, leaving the rails standing askew like pickets in a dilapidated fence. As for an exit by water—well, no one in those days would question that the privileged whites would be first aboard the steamboats and barges.
The fate of the five thousand Negroes remaining was of secondary concern to most. Theirs was to be a grim struggle for survival. Black corpses joined the flotsam when the water overcame the roofs of their single-story bungalows. Those who could made for the high ground atop the Mississippi levee where they stood, sat and slept in mud, utterly exposed to the cold night air with burlap scraps they had tied around their heads. Like the sons and daughters of Noah, they had to share that crowded space with cattle, horses, mules, pigs, dogs, and chickens.
The water rose rapidly. And where would it stop? Three feet? Five feet? Eight? Uncle Will and his ilk could only watch as Percy Street went under and the water continued to rise. Their gardens and their tennis courts flooded under. Water began lapping at the steps of the porch and then, miraculously, it stopped. The house suffered no greater indignity than the flooded yard; the stately mansion remained standing like an island of safety in a dark and festering sea.
My family knew they had duties to perform. Thanks to their aristocratic privilege, it was no accident that theirs was the highest ground in the town, that nearest to the river where the most sediment had been deposited. All of Greenville would be dependent on their leadership and relief efforts. As a prominent citizen and paterfamilias, LeRoy Percy was accustomed to giving orders. His habit of command and clout in the commandeering of resources from far and wide marked the Percy clan as the obvious decision makers.
So, who were these Percys? “Cotton kings” hardly begins to convey the standing of my family in those days, not just in Greenville but far beyond. Long famed in war and politics, literature and law, finance and industry, as well as planting, they stood apart from all the others in the Delta. Lewis Baker’s The Percys of Mississippi: Politics and Literature in the New South (1983), and Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s magnificent and comprehensive The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family (1994) and its offshoot The Literary Percys: Family, History, Gender, and the Southern Imagination (1994)emboss our background, while Albert D. Kirwan’s Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics: 1876–1925 (1951) and John M. Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (1997) are more critical.
Our roots reach back to 1774, when Charles Percy landed in West Florida. He had been born in Ireland, enlisted in the army at twelve, and somehow rose to the rank of captain in the Royal Navy. Mysteriously, he arrived with a land grant in hand from the Spanish king and a shipload of African slaves in tow that he had procured in the West Indies. Together, they cleared fields from out of the forest and swamps, converting wilderness to plantation on a grand scale. Charles claimed descent from the English Percys, earls of Northumberland. William Shakespeare had immortalized a fourteenth-century knight of that clan, making the name Harry Hotspur synonymous with impetuosity in the pursuit of honor. At once, Charles named his place, fifteen miles south of Natchez, Northumberland House. Because command came naturally to him, the Spanish soon made him a magistrate-commander (called alcade) in the area that included Natchez, earning him the sobriquet “Don Carlos.”
Although, in spite of fervid attempts by genealogists over centuries, this Northumberland connection cannot be demonstrated, Don Carlos sent his youngest son, Thomas G., to Princeton, class of 1806, to assure his place in the Southern aristocracy. In 1813, in order to be next door to his best friend and lover from Princeton, John Walker, he moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where they married sisters, the daughters of Leroy Pope, the richest man in Tuscaloosa, who claimed descent from Alexander Pope. They named their children for each other. Incidentally, Walker became one of Alabama’s first two senators in 1819. The other was William Rufus Devane King, who was also homosexual and rumored to be the lover of President James Buchanan, with whom he had roomed with in Washington while he was a senator. Thomas G. died in 1841, but his widow Maria executed his plan to move to the Delta, where his younger son (Princeton 1853) flourished.
Our family’s martial distinction came to the fore again when that son, my great-grandfather, Colonel William Alexander Percy, was dubbed “Gray Eagle of the Valley” for his valiant cavalry exploits in the Shenandoah. Most of the planters, even those who survived the Civil War intact, lost everything. Without capital, the freed slaves had been worth more than all other enterprises in the land put together. With Confederate bonds, currency, and even state bonds declared worthless, there was no way to pay the freed people. In any case, they were all too familiar with working in gangs under overseers who were often brutal. Even if pay had been available, they might have resisted working in ways that resembled slavery. In this ravaged land, the Percys fared better than most. With a law degree from the University of Virginia, the colonel well understood both the capital shortage and the importance of a contented workforce. He had the smart idea of letting blacks work his land with a measure of independence. Instead of a wage, they would get half of the profits from the the cotton they grew, a system that could theoretically allow blacks to save up capital of their own and become landowners themselves. They would be neither bondage slaves nor “wage slaves” (that Yankee factory owners exploited) but partners with the planters.
This scheme proved popular with some black folks. It came to be known as sharecropping, and Colonel Percy is credited with its invention. Later abuses, however, would make sharecropping a byword for downtrodden poverty. In the early desperate days, however, the system worked fairly well and the Percys would continue to maintain relatively good relations with their sharecroppers in the following generations. Thus the colonel thrived as well as one could during Reconstruction. He stood up against the injustices that had come with carpetbaggers, scalawags, and black rule inspired by Radical Republicans. A fabled “redeemer,” he chaired the committee of the Mississippi House of Representatives that drew up the articles of impeachment to remove the last carpetbag governor, Adelbert Ames. His success in the legal, political, and social affairs of the Delta after Reconstruction derived in part from his prewar connections, which gave him unique opportunities to engage with Northern bankers, industrialists, and railroad magnates. In fact, with legal training from the University of Virginia, he helped clear the way for Illinois Central Railroad.
Decades later, the colonel’s eldest son, LeRoy, University of Viginia lawyer and former U.S. senator (who got his law degree in just one year), and LeRoy’s son William Alexander, wrestled with the flood. In the spring of 1926, as will be seen, their strikingly different qualities and temperaments and the dark psychodrama of their complex relationship would prove fateful, with near-epic ramifications.
A Family of Stoics and Romantics
After graduating from the University of the South at Sewannee, LeRoy completed a three-year program at the University of Virginia Law School in just one year. Admitted to the bar on his twenty-first birthday, he prospered as a planter and railroad lawyer in succession to the aging colonel, who had died in 1888, and helped to expand the levee system that, in good years, kept the Mississippi at bay. A hunting partner of President Theodore Roosevelt and poker buddy of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, he also had friends on the Supreme Court and in the cabinet. As a Federal Reserve Bank governor and a trustee of both the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, LeRoy was well known to most of the major capitalists of his day. William Alexander, LeRoy’s only son to survive to adulthood, had seemed unpromising as a child. Neglected by his busy parents, he grew up on the lap of Colonel Percy’s widow, Nanna Armstrong. Proud of her own grandfather, General James “Trooper” Armstrong, who had helped Andrew Jackson defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans, she nourished Will on tales of Ivanhoe and heroes of other Waverly Novels. She hoped to inspire him to become a warrior, but it didn’t work.
LeRoy was a man’s man, a hunter, gambler, womanizer, and hard drinker. William’s younger brother, also named LeRoy, seemed poised to follow in his father’s virile footsteps until he was killed in a hunting accident at age eleven. Will had been a frail, prudish, introverted child—a self-described sissy, or “the queerest chick that this brood has ever hatched,” as his father put it. First taught by nuns, he developed a devotion to Catholicism and intended, as the best little boy in the world, to become a priest. Shocked, his family withdrew him from school to have him privately tutored by a judge who instilled in him a love of learning and a poetess who taught him to love verse.
Standing only five feet tall and weighing barely a hundred pounds, he was threatened with being sent to Sewanee Military Academy. After begging, he was allowed to take the entrance exams to the University of the South. To everyone’s except his tutors’ surprise, he passed. When he arrived at that bucolic High Episcopal University, his father’s alma mater, he continued slipping off to Catholic chapel down the hill. “Surrounded,” he wrote, “by fauns and satyrs,” and learning of his younger brother’s fate, he lost his faith and began having sex with his older classmates, and perhaps with professor Huger Jervey on that isolated monastic mountaintop.
After a relaxing and studious postgraduate year in Paris, where he mentioned that he often frequented the Luxembourg Gardens, a famous cruising locale then as now, he entered Harvard Law School. There, during three more years of study, he fell desperately in love with a large blond, a very rich and very brilliant Yankee from Manhattan. That great love of his life, Harold Bruff, stricken with tuberculosis, committed suicide in October 1911, having mailed his two-volume typescripted autobiography (now lost) to Will.
After graduating in 1908, Will reluctantly practiced law from his father’s firm in Greenville. Each morning, father and son would walk amicably from home to their firm, Percy & Percy. Although they appeared to share little in common, a bond began to form between this odd couple—a partnership that would soon take on a political dimension. It would be forged in the heat of one of the most bitter political battles in Southern history, now known as the “Revolt of the Rednecks.”
Escaping from Greenville whenever he could with any excuse, Will fled to New Orleans, as well as to New York and Boston, where he and Bruff had many elegant gay friends. Huger Jervey, who had moved from Sewanee to introduce international law to Columbia, eventually bought Brinkwood with Will, a secluded retreat at Mount Eagle near Sewanee. The architect Gerstle Mack, who served in both world wars as well as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), authored a history of the Panama Canal and the best book at that time about Paul Cézanne. Our Yankee cousin Janet Percy Dana had tried to marry Will but, on his refusal, married the eminent physician Warfield Longcope who taught at Johns Hopkins. The Danas shared an island off Maine with J. P. Morgan and had sold their mansion at One Fifth Avenue to him. The Longcopes had owned the U.S. mail monopoly on their stagecoaches from New York to Boston. They knew the eminent psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, who cured so-called schizophrenics by replacing rude female nurses with benevolent homosexual male ones, and who spent the rest of his life with a teenage runaway. It was also in New York that Will met and befriended Langston Hughes, the handsome gay black poet, a precursor of Negritude whom Will invited to stay with him in Greenville after LeRoy’s death.
When the U.S. Senate seat became vacant in December 1909, it was expected that the legislature would elect former Mississippi governor James K. Vardaman to fill it. The sitting governor connived to have enough candidates apply to prevent Vardaman from gaining a majority. Like many others, including President Theodore Roosevelt, LeRoy resolved to stop that Populist “rabble-rouser.” Although he lacked the common touch needed for electioneering, LeRoy had friends in high places. According to the constitution in Mississippi at that time, the open seat would be filled not by popular vote but by the state legislature.
The process took six grueling weeks. After an epic sequence of voting by the controversial secret caucus of legislators, on February 23, LeRoy won on the fifty-eighth ballot after more than a dozen other candidates dropped out along the way. As some thought, this had been LeRoy’s plan all along. This was, incidentally, the last senatorial election ever held by any legislature before the Seventeenth Amendment required a popular vote, which in the “Solid South” meant the Democratic primary. Unsurprisingly, given Vardamans’s large early plurality and a restless electorate, he was emboldened. Soon, allegations of shenanigans abounded. It smacked of a political fix, with influence peddling and bribery going on behind the scenes—with prostitutes and liquor supplied on request. Two months after the election, another prominent demagogue and Vardaman stalwart, Theodore G. Bilbo, appeared before the grand jury to proclaim that William A. Percy, my grandfather, had attempted to bribe him during the balloting with a package containing five thousand dollars in bills and promise of a federal judgeship. Bilbo claimed to have set a trap for the would-be senator in order to expose campaign corruption. Of course, he asserted, he had never intended to keep the money that he had “accepted.”
All hell broke loose. Bilbo was soon discredited when it was noticed that some of the bills in question were brand new, printed after the alleged bribe. In the popular imagining, though, Bilbo’s claim had resonance. Bilbo was an expert rabble-rouser, having called another opponent “a cross between a hyena and a mongrel . . . begotten in a nigger graveyard at midnight.” His vitriolic rants resonated among the “rednecks” who dragged Mississippi politics into a vituperative abyss where the poor whites railed against LeRoy’s elite supporters. Young Will remained at his father’s side throughout this bare-knuckle saga, fighting for his cause—at times almost literally. At the climax of the campaign, Walker Percy, LeRoy’s youngest brother, even plotted to shoot Bilbo in the dining room of the main hotel in Jackson, with Will sitting at his side. He shouted an insult that would normally have led to a duel, but Bilbo serenly continued eating his oatmeal. LeRoy headed gleefully for Washington, well aware that he would be underdog in the Democratic primary that would be held in 1911. Vardaman, editor of the Jackson newspaper The Issue, which he started in 1908 after he lost the governorship, charged that LeRoy had won through corruption. All of this is vividly described in Kirwan’s Revolt of the Rednecks (1951) with an anti-Percy bias. The scandal, however, had not stopped Will from presenting a largely romantic view of our family in Lanterns.
During the First World War, Will volunteered for service, first in the Belgian relief headed by Herbert Hoover. His experience reinforced his antipathy against the “Huns,” from whom the Anglo-Saxons, of course, had descended. [Explain this reference?]He alluded to his Walloon “close friends” there, implying sexual liaisons with those French-speaking officers interned by the Krauts. As soon as the United States entered the war, he volunteered. He struggled to gain enough weight to qualify for OCS (Officer Candidate School) by stuffing himself relentlessly. Will could have used family influence to secure a safe assignment. He had, in fact, been assigned, as was the custom in those days for Southerners to do, to command a black battalion, none of whom ever saw action. Despite that, he worked his way to the front. Under General John J. Pershing, he fought in the Argonne Forest, a significant point in the turning of the war on the Western Front. His heroic role in rallying the troops for a counterattack after heavy fire had broken them into disarray won him the Croix de Guerre. Thereafter, LeRoy had another reason to be proud of his son, but he came to realize that the war hero had no intention of marrying any of the belles who threw themselves at him. Instead, he took up with Miss Charlotte Gailor, daughter of the prominent Episcopal bishop of Mississippi, whose older sister had married Grover Cleveland. Charlotte saved Sewanee during both world wars, when it nearly collapsed, as it had indeed during the Civil War. That lesbian also raised her youngest brother Frank, the Rhodes scholar who became chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. LeRoy achieved his greatest fame as the nation’s boldest denouncer of the new Ku Klux Klan. After World War I, it revived in far more odious form than the original Klan of Reconstruction times, now not only being anti-Koon, but also anti-Katholic and anti-Kike as well. On March 1, 1922, LeRoy delivered extemporaneously a scathing anti-Klan speech to a mob in the Greenville courthouse that the Klan had recruited but that he had packed with some of his own allies:
One of the strangest aberrations in American life since the War is the growth of the Ku Klux Klan . . . a colossal buffoonery . . . .in the South and Southwest . . . evil and seriously dangerous . . . among the Negroes a nighttime terror . . . [revived] for profit . . . [excluding] Jews, Catholics and Foreigners, even citizens . . . secret viscious . . . enrolling officials and even members of the judiciary . . . replacing good officials with Klansmen . . . masked like clowns sheeted like servants of the inquisition[capitalize?] . . . Jewry and Rome need no defense in this writer’s opinion . . . the struggle in these sections is to maintain the negro [capitalize?]population . . . .to all genii, grand dragons, and Hydras of Realms, Grand Goblins and Kleagles of Domains, Grand Titans and Furies of Provinces, Giants, Exalted Cyclops . . . I have heard of no criminal in the garb of the klan [capitalize?]who has been brought to justice by the Klan, who alone can know whether he is a member of the Klan or not . . . devised it to conceal their identity when doing the lawless deeds that they felt justified in doing . . . .goes about after nightfall . . . tries a man on hearsay evidence, without giving him an opportununity of being confronted by his accusers…the chief appeal has been to religious intolerants …pastors of churches have enrolled themselves as members . . . [claiming that] the morals of the country are in a parlous condition; sexual vice, bootlegging, gambling flourish, the Klan loveth righteousness; if you are on the side of the angels, join the Klan . . . the first part of the programme is effected by moulding public sentiment, by watching wayward politicians, by combating the sinister propaganda of the press, which is under the control of Jews or Catholics or negroes [capitalize?]or foreigners. The second part of the programme is the real work of the Klan of the separate local Klans. It is accomplished in this wise: each Klansman is a “detective”; he goes about his community “with eyes and ears open,” spying on the morals of his fellow citizens . . . were they have gone has been a trail of lawless deeds.
Subsequently, the Klan tried to assassinate LeRoy by luring him out on a cold winter’s night to help repair a car that had supposedly broken down. Will was there to help stop his father from falling into the trap and to guard him against future attempts. Henceforth, LeRoy virtually trusted Will completely. My father, who went to a different school every year, was compelled to attend Greenville High School as a senior the year after the incident. There he earned the Latin prize for the state of Mississippi. At that time, LeRoy also told him that his own father the colonel had told him how many slaves were imported from Africa via Cuba to the Gulf Coast before the war.
Then he learned that Uncle Will had helped LeRoy to devise the speech and later polish it before it was disseminated throughout the state, reprinted in revised form in the Atlantic Monthly and even appeared in foreign journals. But Daddy, as I called him, who went to Stanford the next year, also learned that Will, so confident had he become in his own invulnerability, had dared to start an affair with Ernest. Especially dark-hued, Ernest was the first of three black teenagers he successively took up with in Greenville itself. The second and most important affair was with Fode, as will be seen, and to whom he devoted a chapter in Lanterns. The last, “Honey,” was admired not for his skin color but for his charm. He had
jet black skin, flashing teeth, and wore a mink tie. [He went] into the poolroom on Nelson Street, parking Percy’s enormous black car by the door, and shooting pool…Outside, it was said, Will lay on the floor in the backseat to avoid being seen. Then Honey said, “I got to take my ho (Barry, Rising Tide, 421)
In 1926, father and son, confident about each other, marched forward to take control of the impending crisis. As mentioned earlier, everything went well, including the evacuation of the whites who wanted to go, until the time came to transport the vulnerable blacks downstream to safety on the bluffs of Vicksburg. For months, the Red Cross Committee, nominally headed by Will but really manipulated by LeRoy, had over and over again unanimously agreed to evacuate the blacks. Both justice and exepediency commanded it.
As Will was trying to oversee their evacuation amid many threats, and much confusion and disarray, LeRoy approached him. During a long, solitary stroll among the suffering victims on the levee, father convinced son to call yet one more meeting of the committee. When it convened, Will feigned shock when every last member voted against the evacuation. As he claimed in Lanterns, it was only years later that he learned that his father had persuaded every one of them to change their votes. I believe that Will lied to protect his reputation.
My next-door neighbor when I lived at 587 Tremont Street in Boston, Millie Commodore, clued me in. Almost able to pass as white, gracious, well-spoken, and skilled in sewing and other ladylike arts, she descended from the “high yellows” who ran a very high-class house for the white elite of Greenville, best described in The Literary Percys. Her father, who was proud of his white ancestry, had led the strike that the blacks called when one of them was shot for resisting by whites forcing them to work overtime during the flood. Afterwards, they quit their patrols on horseback with shotguns of black workers on the levee. Millie had married Fode’s best friend and they had moved to Boston after the flood. She also knew about Ernest and Honey. She had long been especially friendly to me, but I didn’t pay enough attention to her, although she said that in Greenville, the Percys were talked about as fondly as the Kennedys were in Boston.
It was Arthur Warner who got her to spill the beans when he was up here visiting me. A Princeton graduate with a Harvard law degree, Arthur was disbarred while an officer in the navy for soliciting blacks in Lafayette Park. He then earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard and, after a brief teaching career, became a leading gay activist. He was only sexually attracted to black males. He led Mattachine East after that pioneering gay organization split in the early 1950s, until it was taken over by the Jewish Frank Kameny, another Ph.D. from Harvard, who introduced the slogan “Gay Is Good” in 1967. Neither Wyatt-Brown nor Ben Wise investigated Millie’s leads, and claimed in footnotes that they were unsubstantiated. For Rising Tide (1997), John Barry went to Greenville and carefully interrogated all of her leads and other people in order to document Will’s liaisons with the African American teenagers. I conclude that Will, more confident than before, became involved with Ernest in 1923, shortly after Leroy’s spectacular victory over the Klan. Then, when Ernest was promoted to chauffeur, as was then the custom, he loved Fode, who was born the same year as Walker Percy (1916). After Will came back from a year in Japan, where he had fled for rest and recuperation after the flood, he definitely took up with Fode, for whom he’d long had eyes. I’m not sure whether he dared carry on with Fode when his father was alive. Barry carefully documented the three teenagers whom Will loved seriatim. But, Wise, whom Wyatt-Brown had advised, ignored all this evidence, apparently in an old-fashioned attempt to keep Will’s reputation clean. I remember meeting Ernest twice. My parents often visited Greenville when I was young, but I remember one impressionable encounter there. Will never locked the front door. The butler would count the closed bedroom doors to approximate how many he might expect for breakfast or lunch. Will always rose early and dressed in his Japanese kimono. My mother was also an early riser, and one day she brought me down, sat at Will’s left hand, and held me in her lap, having carefully told me to address him as Uncle Will, as his three adopted orphaned first cousins, the same relation I was to him, regularly did. Having a weak stomach and eating only milk toast, Will quickly put me on the floor and summoned Ernest, then acting not only as his chauffer but also as his butler, who took me for a walk in the garden holding me by his hand. I immediately went straight for a yellow pansy like any good fairy. But Ernest tactfully explained to me that that was the only flower that Will didn’t allow anyone to pick.
Eventually, Will fired Ernest for stealing too many valuables. Ernest then went to work for the leading lumber baron in Memphis, Mr. Gooch. After the publication of Lanterns, Ernest came to our backdoor and asked to see my father. The maid, Azalea, ushered him into the dining room where Daddy, after listening carefully, gently advised him not to sue Will for libel. He had come because he knew that my father had disrespected Will ever since he had spent his senior year at Greenville High School knowing that Will was having sex with Ernest. I realized that Will had lied in Lanterns and that his father had warned him about the impending committee’s change of heart because some would have lynched Will as a “nigger lover” and thereby destroyed LeRoy. [Unclear. Explain in more detail.]The worst possible thing a white person could do in the Bible-thumping homophobic South was to have sex with a black male of any age. Rich enough not to be bothered by the loss of black labor, as most of the other planters would have been, LeRoy, always a realist, gave in to the inevitable. If Will had tried to rescue the stranded blacks, LeRoy warned him during the walk down the levee that enough people knew of his dalliances with Ernest, detailed in Rising Tide, and would lynch him if he had resisted. Always a gambler, LeRoy expected the weather to improve shortly, so the stranded blacks wouldn’t suffer too much for too long, but prolonged bad weather made him lose his wager.
Charming and with self-deprecating humor, Will looked back with fondness on the ways and values of the past, including the aristocrats’ doomed attachment to ideas of their genetic superiority not only to blacks but also to “white trash”: poor, pure Anglo-Saxons. Will went even farther because his mother Camille, a French Creole from New Orleans, most of her life married to a serial philanderer and neglectful husband, wept for her son who died young and for the other who was obviously homosexual. He also firmly believed that the Percys, being Normans, had, incredibly, not mixed much during their centuries in England with the Anglo-Saxons—this in spite of the fact that Henry Adams (on whose autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, Will based his best-selling imitation Lanterns), had quipped that everyone in England in 1900 would have been descended from everyone there in 1066 if there had been no intermarriage. Following the tragedies that befell the family in 1929, Will underwent a remarkable renaissance. [Explain the “tragedies” of 1929? Unclear.]His first sign of recovery was when he adopted the three first cousins once removed. Their grandfather Walker had committed suicide in 1916, followed by their father in early 1929, who was AB [? spell out or explain]Princeton and on the Law Review at Harvard and had the three charming sons by his beautiful Mattie Sue Phinezy, who appeared at his wake ominously wearing a red dress. She had brought the sons to Greenville from Augusta, where her strict Presbyterian mother had alienated them all, but after she herself committed suicide in 1932, Will adopted the three boys. The oldest, Walker, became the lifelong best friend of Shelby Foote, grandson of a Confederate general and Jewish hardware store owner and whom Will picked out for Walker. In addition to becoming a paterfamilias, Will’s second achievement was to become the editor of the Yale Younger Poets Series, the oldest and best in the country. He was succeeded, after two intermediaries, by W. H. Auden, whom he met. His final triumph was as a memoirist with Lanterns, which he completed just before his death with the help of Ben Cohen, the famous presidential speechwriter from Greenville whom Will had educated as a boy.
After the death of his best friend, Walker wroteto me: “I lived at Will’s for three years and during that time I never once heard or saw anything that made me believe he was homosexual.” I phoned Shelby Foote, a novelist, most famous for his commentary in Ken Burns’s epic television documentary The Civil War. Foote had moved next door to my father’s place in Memphis. He told me that of, course, everyone in Greenville who was in the know knew about Will’s taste for blacks, but added: “Mr. Will was twice the man his father was.” Stuck for far too long with outmoded attitudes, all genteel Southerners, even those proud of their Anglo-Saxon background, were losing out. They were dominated by redneck demagogues—as Will put it, “the bottom rail was on top and would stay that way”—and were losing their labor force. It declined especially sharply in Mississippi as a result of the mishandling of the 1927 flood, which was savagely denounced by black newspapers in Chicago and Detroit. The flood did finally recede, but the Negroes sped up their exodus from the Delta. The Great Migration had begun by 1916, when, after the war’s outbreak, demand for American factory goods increased but foreign immigrants no longer came. Blacks began moving north to work in factories, often replacing whites who had gone to war. The migration did not end until the 1980s, when blacks secured equal rights in the South.
Mississippi, however, remains a backwater and a byword for poverty, ignorance, corruption, and violence. Ironically, these conditions have now also become characteristic of many Northern cities. After busing, many whites fled to the suburbs, while the transfer of manufacturing abroad exacerbated financial crises that began in 2000. Northern cities suffered and their urban schools suffered, having lost support from many whites. Unions declined and the well-paid urban blacks who bought houses they couldn’t afford, urged on by the government and ruthless financiers, faced foreclosures following the economic crisis that began in 2008.