Madam X

When I announced my retirement last summer, I was bemused when so many people refused to believe me. It turned out some of you knew me better than I know myself. Lately I’ve felt like Mark Twain whose obituary was prematurely published in America after he fell ill in London. His response was a cable fired off to the offending newspaper stating, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”  I hereby declare, rather sheepishly, that the same is true of my retirement. So why another book when, after working over half a century, I was free to focus on gardening, travel, films, volunteer work and reading?  My undoing came in a book on the Randolphs of Virginia and a woman who spawned what was arguably the biggest scandal in 18th Century...

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The Siren Call

Natchez’s celebrated treasure trove of antebellum architecture, unlike that of most historic Southern cities, was largely built by a society seeking to be, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “rich together.” Imitating the English gentry who maintained townhouses as well as country homes, the region’s phenomenally wealthy cotton barons escaped the ennui of rural plantation life via city homes where they could socialize with their peers. Sometimes modest, usually grandiose, these houses bloomed in the heart of Natchez and in park-like settings, some as large as eighty acres, on the outskirts of town. Arguably the oldest surviving “suburban villa,” as the style came to be known, is Gloucester. Its most famous occupant–and a highly unlikely candidate for the...

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The Last Hurrah

Glimpsed through trees draped with spectral moss, Longwood looms like an exotic mirage. As audacious as it is unexpected, this is the doomed fantasy of scientist/planter Dr. Haller Nutt who dared ignore the gathering clouds of civil war and began construction of this extraordinary house in that fateful year, 1860. (Little wonder that his neighbors nicknamed the mansion “Nutt’s Folly.”) Wildly wealthy from Mississippi and Louisiana plantations, Dr. Nutt decided to build a new home near Natchez for his wife Julia and their eight children. With Greek Revival architecture fallen from fashion, he found inspiration in a design book by celebrated Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan. What captured Nutt’s fancy was a pattern called “Oriental Villa,” a three-story...

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