A Daughter of the South’s Old New York by Heath Hardage Lee
Just last week, I went to New York City to promote my new biography Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause. Winnie was the youngest daughter of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his second wife, Varina. This young woman unwittingly became a symbol of the Confederate Lost Cause. I was thrilled to be able to promote Winnie at a holiday book fair at the Union League Club in NYC alongside such authors as Lee Child, Dorothea Benton Frank, and Nelson DeMille.
This occasion made me think about Winnie’s time as a writer and novelist in New York in the 1890s. She and her mother Varina moved there after Jefferson’s death and Winnie’s infamous breakup with her Northern fiancé Alfred Wilkinson. New York was where Winnie became her best self-a novelist, a journalist, and an independent career woman. Who were the people she would have seen and known there? What places in the city would have held special meaning for her?
Theodore Roosevelt was in NYC in the 1890s, working as the City Police Commissioner, cracking down on corruption, drinking, and Tammany Hall. I do not have documentation of Winnie and Varina meeting him, but they would have certainly known who he was. They may have even encountered each other socially. In any case, Winnie’s biography has now been to the Union League Club-T.R.’s former club in the city!
Winnie’s great friend and employer at the New York World, newspaper baron Joseph Pulitzer, actively helped to raise funds for the Statue of Liberty. Pulitzer was a poor Hungarian immigrant when he first came to the U.S., so the Statue would have been a meaningful symbol for him. Winnie was also a kind of immigrant-one who came to New York from the economically devastated South to find work up North. Ironically, Lady Liberty was dedicated in 1886, the same year Winnie was crowned the “Daughter of the Confederacy.”
Here is one thing that Winnie would NOT have seen, but she would have appreciated as an artist herself. A series of Christmas windows at Bergdorf’s this December were themed around “The Arts.” This particular window displays “Literature.” Winnie and her mother spent a lot of time window-shopping in the city. If they were around today, I guarantee they would have stopped at this window to appreciate its creativity and glamour-as well as the theme.
In the Epilogue of my book, I imagine meeting with Winnie at the site of her New York City home, the Hotel Gerard in the Theater district. This site still stands and is now the AKA Hotel. Where Winnie’s hotel lobby used to be is now the well-known French restaurant Café Un Deux Trois. Winnie loved the energy and the culture of her chosen city. She was working as a writer, doing what she always wanted to do, far away from the defeated South. In the Epilogue I describe drinking a glass of Sancerre at Café Un Deux Trois and dreaming that “The Daughter of the Confederacy, now the Daughter of New York, smiles and waves to me as she disappears into the crisp November night.”
Heath comes from a museum education, historic preservation, and writing background. She holds a B.A. in History with Honors from Davidson College, and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Virginia.
She started her museum career at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, North Carolina, as the Director of Education and Programs. Heath has since worked as a consultant for Southern house museums such as Stratford Hall, Robert E. Lee’s birthplace, and Menokin Plantation, once home to Francis Lightfoot Lee. She most recently served as the Coordinator of the History Series for Salisbury House & Gardens, a 1920’s house museum in Des Moines, Iowa. Heath is also the current National Society of the Colonial Dames Historical Activities Chair for the state of Iowa, and President of the Des Moines Colonial Dames.
Heath has written for numerous magazines, newspapers and blogs, such as America’s Civil War, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Americanist Independent, Charlotte Magazine and Work Stew. Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause, her biography of Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis, is her first book. Winnie was published April 1, 2014, by Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press.
Heath moved to Des Moines from her hometown of Richmond, Virginia in 2008. She is married to Chris Lee and they have two children, Anne Alston Lee and James Hawkins Lee. While living in Midwest, Heath has found that she loves the Iowa State Fair, the Butter Cow, and corn. True to her Southern roots, she still loves North Carolina BBQ, (the vinegar kind,) Virginia ham (very salty), and Sally Belle’s cupcakes (caramel). The cupcakes are made in Richmond, right down the street from the White House of the Confederacy where Winnie was born in 1864.
Learn more and order your copy of Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause here.
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