Ferriday Frappé

Ferriday, Louisiana by Elaine Dundy

"After the highly entertaining biographical sections comes the author's account of the characters and curiosities of present day Ferriday - the finale to perhaps the most riveting volume ever published on a Louisiana community." - Paul F. Stahl, Louisiana Living

Writing biographies of the actor Peter Finch who grew up in Sydney, Australia and Elvis who grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, I saw time and again that they would have been very different people had they been born elsewhere. I saw that we are all creatures of our environment: our background is our foreground. So I began looking for a town itself that merited a biography. To my surprise it was an infinitesimal dot on the banks of the Mississippi in Louisiana. Through its population has never exceeded 5,000, it claims to have produced in its short history more famous people per square mile than any other town in the country.
There was Howard K. Smith, a Rhodes scholar and newscaster during the Golden Age of television, which includes Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, who was born in Ferriday, and spent his childhood there. He would take a leading role in reporting the earth shattering events of World War II and moderate the first televised Kennedy/Nixon debate in the 1960s and later, the first of the Reagan/Carter debates.
There was General Claire Chennault, World War II hero who lived before the war on Ferriday's Lake St. John, over which he perfected his pilots in the famous Flying Tiger formation which was used in China to defeat the Japanese air force in the 1936 war with China.
And then there were The Three Cousins, born six months apart, all with great musical and histrionic talent: Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley, each a groundbreaker of his time. One thing extraordinary about them is how they perfectly embody the mythic figures coming to mind when we conjure up Crazy Rock Star (Jerry Lee Lewis), Fallen Preacher (Jimmy Swaggart) and Easy Going Country Singer (Mickey Gilley), as they live out their symbolic lives.
Fast forward - later on a deeper level I saw that all these men seemingly secure in their achievements found that fate had dealt them a blow which knocked them off their pedestals. It was as if they were chosen by the gods only to be abandoned by them. Howard K. Smith in a choice spot in prime time on CBS came to a parting of ways with the powerful head of the network and left. He was in limbo for a while until ABC signed him up. In 1936, Chennault, 43, at the lowest point in his life - half deaf and a chain smoker, landed in the hospital with a severe case of bronchitis. Over age for the Army he quit and considered becoming a farmer. Out of the blue he was invited by Madam Chiang Kai scek who heard of his spectacular barnstorming performances with his Flying Tiger formation and commissioned him, to fly to China and reorganize her air force to fight in Japan's war against. it.

Jimmy Swaggart, arguably the most popular, world renowned televangelist in the '80s, was caught in a shattering scandal with the discovery of his alliance with a prostitute. He struggled back up via a TV, tearful, apology, "I have sinned" to his church who kicked him out anyway.

Back in '58, Jerry Lee, was second only to Elvis in popularity. When Elvis was drafted it was thought Jerry Lee would become the new King. England welcomed him as such with a red carpet on his arrival in the spring of that year. When it came out that he had married his thirteen year old cousin Myra, there was an outcry. Members of Parliament freely gave their opinions, the Home Office joined in, concerts were cancelled and Jerry Lee and Myra left England. For Jerry Lee, the bottom of his career fell out. He said it was to remain so for ten years before he once again won over a public.

Mickey Gilley who owned the famous Gilley's, a nightclub outside Houston where the film Urban Cowboy was set, woke up one day to find that his partner was mishandling the funds and Mickey closed it down. For good measure his record company CBS/Epic told him they were no longer interested in him. The wheel turned. In '88, with a new record company he went to Branson, Missouri, in Ozark Mountain country It's theme park there calls itself "the live country music capital of the world." Of the 22 theatres there one of them is Mickey Gilley's Family Theater.


                                                                      ***


As Alexis de Toqueville 19th century French observer famously said, "The strength of the (American) people was mainly to be attributed to the superiority of their women." It is as true now as then, and I welcomed the opportunity of writing herstory as well as histories. With this in mind, I was beginning to see more and more shining examples of what he meant. In this book I at least had the opportunity to write herstory as well as history. The more I delved into this town the richer, sturdier and more variety of Steel Magnolias I turned up. One figure of its past stood out.

She was a 17 year old evangelist of great courage traveling around the South and nightly asking God's guidance for where to build a church. One night he spoke to her and in words that ring with legendary force, said: 'I have some jewels in Ferriday, valuable treasures unnoticed by the world. But if you have patience, they will come forth.'

And though she knew it was a wicked town renowned for its regular stabbings and shootings, she obeyed.

She did it the hard way, pounding the pavement, calling on people to come to her meetings, so that at the end of the day her feet were bloodied. She wore a trailing white dress in her peregrinations and succeeded in establishing the Assembly of God Church and set not a few sinners on the righteous path. Why was she not initially detained for disturbing the peace? Her respectable mother (in the same white costume) came too! Was she a modern Joan of Arc, voices and all? One wonders how St. Joan's trial would have turned if she'd brought her mother along too.


                                                                      ***
In contemporary times the women I got to know opened up the everyday world to me that I hadn't seen for many years. In the past, married to a high profile, much sought-after drama critic, Kenneth Tynan, it seemed to me I knew only celebrities and no people. It was dazzling, it was delightful, but it was limiting. the public figures were always on show; even their private lives were lived with applause. In being with Ferridians, and seeing them cope with their everyday chores and pleasures, I picked up, truth to say, tips on living. Like draughts of fresh spring water, it slacked my thirst.

To chose at random, Blanche Chauvin, in her nineties, mother of eight, "joined everything in sight" including the Auxiliary American Legion, charter member of the Methodist Church, Eastern Star and the Garden Club. And - this is what I like - whenever the brood became unmanageable, she simply popped all of them in the car and drove around until they quitted down. Blanche was chosen Louisiana Mother of the Year in 1979. The prize was a week in Hollywood. She loved it.
So did Ann Boyar, whose rise from a pretty little schoolgirl with a father who owned the first storefront movie house in town to the beautiful wife of Hollywood mogul Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, to international society hostess and art and interior design expert was breathtaking. Salvador Dali painted her portrait. And couturier, Pierre Valman named his perfume Jolie madam in her honor.
Frankie Terrell, Jerry Lee's sister, did not leave town. Married with five children she says, "I am glued to this town. I can't imagine leaving this place. I can't help it. Yeah, I mean it's too much to say you're glued to this place, but I am." She does her household chores by candlelight in bright daytime. When ironing, she will eye the candle; when it has burned down to a certain level, she will blow it out and take a break. When rested, she will light the candle and go back to work again. It is her way of freeing herself the despotism of the clock.

I met the late Mrs. U. B. Evans when she was 95 and , in her last years, blind. She was the most respected person in Ferriday and ruled it from her telephone. (It's wonderful how much elderly citizens are cherished.) A horticulturist and archaeologist, she had lived on her plantation Haphazard, for some fifty years. Daily involved with things useful as well as beautiful, like planting pear trees. I see I cannot do her justice in this short introduction, but to me she was a beacon of light.

Hiram Gregory, a Professor of Anthropology, a protege of Mrs. Evans, who wrote the definitive book on the historic Indian tribes of Louisiana, gave me the best answer as to why Ferridians are so colorful and larger than life. "Both Ferridians and the rest of Southerners are colorful because their parents and grandparents were. It's their way of defending themselves in the family situation."

I learned about barbers in the community and why they became mayors, sheriffs and preachers.

Austin Wilson, conversationalist supreme provides what may be the town's credo: "We was raised an independent people. We didn't have to follow any leadership, if you had the anxiety or the desire to do anything, well it was up to you to do it. Nobody seemed to block you way."

Finally it should be said, from earliest days, Ferriday has been a culturally complex community of Jews, Italians, Chinese, Afro-Americans and white Protestants. It is a town where back-country Fundamentalism continually clashes with free-and-easy Mississippi morality.

Ferriday today: Campbell Brown, born and raised in Ferriday, now co-anchor of the nation's top rated weekend new program: NBC's "Today", Weekend Edition. She is a good example of a Ferridian Going Forth. A personable, smart and attractive figure, unlike many anchors she never seems to stay on long enough for us to admire her.

After my book cam out the Ferriday Music Museum was started by its Chief Librarian, Amanda Taylor featuring the three cousins. It is now expanded to the Delta State Museum with it's hall of Fame including all outstanding musicians in Louisiana. The opening in 2002 was attended by thousands.
***