“Month of Letters” is the perfect time to check out “Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence”

Do you ever write letters to your friends and family anymore? Me neither.

Maybe it’s time to change that. If you miss connecting through the written word, here’s a challenge for you: Author Mary Robinette Kowal will launch The Month of Letters Challenge in February.

Here’s how Kowal explains the challenge:  “In the month of February, mail at least one item through the post every day it runs.  Write a postcard, a letter, send a picture, or a cutting from a newspaper, or a fabric swatch. Write back to everyone who writes to you. This can count as one of your mailed items. All you are committing to is to mail 24 items.  Why 24? There are four Sundays and one U.S. holiday. In fact, you might send more than 24 items. You might develop a correspondence that extends beyond the month. You might enjoy going to the mail box again.”

The Month of Letters Challenge reminds me of a simpler time, when friends and family told their stories in beautifully calligraphed letters on stiff paper and eagerly awaited visits from the postman. If you prefer this to 140-character Twitter soundbites, or if you’re considering taking the challenge, you might want to check out Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence, edited by Emily Herring Wilson, a book that features the letters written by famed gardener Elizabeth Lawrence to her friend and mentor Ann Preston Bridgers during the 1930s and 40s. The letters reveal a kinder, less hurried time when the strong bond of friendship was nurtured through the art of letter writing.

Ann Preston Bridgers, who first studied drama at Smith College and later lived in New York City to be close to Broadway, was the pride of Raleigh, North Carolina, where she founded the Little Theatre, a New Deal Federal Theatre project. In 1927, she coauthored with George Abbott Coquette, starring Helen Hayes. In 1929, Coquette became Mary Pickford’s first talking movie. The role won her an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1930. Ann, like George Abbott, was a great encourager of the young. Her talent for friendship and for identifying the talent of others led to her correspondence with Elizabeth Lawrence, who would become one of America’s best garden writers.

Elizabeth, a graduate of Barnard College and the first female to graduate from the landscape design program at what is now North Carolina State University, was struggling to make a career for herself in Raleigh at a time when there was little work for landscape designers, especially women and especially in the South.

When Ann moved back to Raleigh in the early 1930s, she and Elizabeth struck up a friendship that continued after Elizabeth moved to Charlotte in 1948 and endured until Ann’s death in 1967. They were two women of different generations (Ann was the older) who valued their opinions and their privacy and did not conform to images of the so-called Southern lady. Ann encouraged Elizabeth to find a way to live as she wished and guided her to write articles for some of the new women’s magazines. Elizabeth was already making a splendid garden, and with Ann’s help she began to write about her passion. By 1942, she was so successful that her book, A Southern Garden, was published. It is still considered a classic.

Although only a small number of Ann’s letters were preserved, editor Emily Herring Wilson discovered a treasure trove of Elizabeth’s letters to her mentor. Through those letters, readers can glimpse what life in a Southern town was like for women, especially during the 1930s and 1940s. Elizabeth discusses family, friends, books, plays, travels, ideas, and, of course, writing. In 2004, on what would have been her 100th birthday, Elizabeth (who died in 1984) was featured as one of the 25 greatest gardeners in the world by Horticulture magazine. That acclaim would never have come her way without her friendship with Ann Preston Bridgers.

If you participate in the Month of Letters–or if you read Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence— please share your experiences with us in the comments section below or on our Facebook page. Or heck, write us a letter to tell us about it. We’ll keep an eye out for the postman.

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Sign up for World Book Night

World Book Night 2012

Love a book so much you want the world to read it? World Book Night needs book-loving volunteers to fan out across America on April 23, 2012, to help share their passion for reading. Sign up here to join the movement by Feb. 1.

So what happens on World Book Night? Volunteers simply take 20 copies of a book to a location in their community and give them to the people they see there. For free. The goal is to give books to new readers, to encourage reading, to share the passion for a great book. Full details can be found here.

Reading changes lives and at the heart of World Book Night lies the simplest of ideas and acts — that of putting a book into another person’s hand and saying “this one’s amazing, you have to read it.” That’s something we at Blair can stand up for.

Guest post from Julie Hedgepeth Williams: The unsinkable story of the Titanic

Of the families that boarded the “unsinkable” Titanic in 1912, only one fourth stayed together during the sinking and arrived safely in New York. Albert and Sylvia Caldwell and their 10-month-old son, Alden, were one of those rare Titanic families.

 In A Rare Titanic Family (NewSouth Books), author Julie Williams draws on first-person accounts from her great-Uncle Albert and extensive research to tell the fascinating story of the young family who were saved by a combination of luck, pluck, Albert’s outgoing nature, Sylvia’s illness, and Alden’s helplessness. As the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic approaches this April, Julie joins us today to share a little bit about why she had to tell the Caldwells’ story.  

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The “unsinkable” Titanic sank on her maiden voyage 100 years ago April 15, 2012.  For me, the story of the Titanic was unsinkable.  My great-uncle, Albert Caldwell, survived the disaster at age 26, along with his wife, Sylvia, and his 10-month-old son, Alden.  I grew up hearing the story of the Titanic firsthand from Albert, who lived to be 91.

I thought I knew the Caldwells’ Titanic story as well as my own name, and in many respects I did.  The story Albert told me was accurate.  I heard about Albert’s secret personal tour of the ship that took him down to the ship’s furnaces, where he talked the stokers into letting him pose for a photo with a shovelful of coal while one of the stokers snapped his picture.  I heard about a sailor’s nonchalant comment that the ship had only hit a piece of ice on the fateful night of April 14, 1912, and that Albert should get back in bed, which he did.  I heard of Albert’s determination not to put his wife and baby off on a flimsy lifeboat, and of how his mind was changed by one of the stokers from the photo, who told him, “If you value your life, get off this ship.”  I heard firsthand the harrowing tale of Lifeboat 13’s perilous attempt to set itself free from the Titanic.

And yet, when Albert died, I discovered I had hardly known the story at all.  Among his effects I discovered a photo of the Caldwells on the deck of the Titanic.  I found a booklet by Sylvia, Women of the Titanic Disaster, such a rare pamphlet that as far as I know, only three copies survive.  I found a pair of soft little baby shoes smashed flat beside the book that might have been Alden’s as he wore them off the Titanic.

As I began to do research for my own book on the Caldwells, A Rare Titanic Family, I discovered other surprises in Albert and Sylvia’s Titanic story.  The couple had been missionaries in Siam (now called Thailand) and Alden had been born there.  The family wound up on the Titanic on their way home from that missionary posting.  Rumors in our family held that Sylvia had feigned an illness in order to leave, and as I discovered among the mission’s papers, many in the mission believed the same thing.  Although I uncovered evidence that Sylvia truly was ill, the mission only reluctantly voted to allow the couple to break their contracts to go home.  And yet, the head of the mission wasn’t satisfied.  He wrote to headquarters in New York, urging officials to have Sylvia examined by a doctor when she got home.  If she were given a clean bill of health, the couple would be required to pay back their expensive journey home.

I gasped as I read this, because for years I had known that church officials had an ambulance waiting for Sylvia when the rescue ship docked.  For years I had thought of this as a mission of mercy.  Now I realized it was far more sinister.

The twists and turns of the Caldwells’ story turned out to be remarkable — it was a cat-and-mouse chase around the globe, and it took the Titanic to resolve the struggle between the Caldwells and the mission.

Though the Titanic’s story is often told in terms of April 10-15, 1912, the fuller story in the Caldwells’ case was so much spicier.  The secrets my great-uncle kept from me were rich indeed. 

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Julie Hedgepeth Williams is a journalism professor at Samford University. She received a B.A. in English and history from Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, and a Master’s in journalism and a Ph.D. in mass communications from the University of Alabama. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

Robert R. Taylor, the first professionally educated African-American architect in the 1900s, still in the news today

Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington (NewSouth Books), by Ellen Weiss, was featured in The New York Times Friday, January 13, 2012. The book interweaves the life of the first academically trained African-American architect with his life’s work—the campus of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute.

Here’s a look at what The New York Times had to say about the book. Enjoy!

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Robert R. Taylor, the first professionally educated African-American architect, ran a kind of design-build program. From 1892 to 1932, he drafted plans for expanding the Tuskegee Institute campus and then supervised students who fabricated and installed bricks, millwork, roofing, wiring and plumbing.

The trainees learned “unobtrusivebuildings survive at Tuskegee confidence and self-reliance,” Taylor’s boss, Booker T. Washington, wrote in 1904.

Dozens of Taylor’s buildings survive at Tuskegee, in Alabama, and the architectural historian Ellen Weiss has written the first monograph about him, Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington (NewSouth Books).

“I feel I know him,” she said in a recent telephone interview. She pored through hundreds of pages of his correspondence, drawings and photos, mostly at Tuskegee and the Library of Congress.

Robert R. Taylor in 1906. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Taylor was descended from slaves and plantation owners in North Carolina. White friends who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology apparently suggested that he apply there. He became the architecture school’s first black graduate.

At Tuskegee, girls from the cooking classes fed construction crews for Taylor’s projects, ranging from grain silos to a chapel with a 105-foot steeple. The works appeared in magazines alongside designs by firms like McKim, Mead & White. Construction financing often came from white New Yorkers, including the railroad heiress Arabella Huntington and the politician Seth Low.

Taylor favored Doric and Ionic porches on the facades, perhaps consciously adapting plantation architectural traditions into symbols of black independence. “Columns — they’re emblems of power and authority,” Ms. Weiss said.

He endured racism without mentioning it much in his letters, and he remained calm when the Ku Klux Klan paraded at Tuskegee. Family members described him as “courtly and elegant, always formally dressed,” Ms. Weiss writes. (Among his descendants are the corporate executive Ann Dibble Jordan and the presidential adviser Valerie Bowman Jarrett.)

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Read the full article at The New York Times.

Tuskegee Airmen go to the movies

Leslie Odom Jr, Michael B. Jordan, Nate Parker, Kevin Phillips, David Oyelowo and Elijah Kelley in Red Tails. Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

Red Tails, the movie about the Tuskegee Airmen that was written by George Lucas and directed by Anthony Hemingway (Treme), will be out in theatres January 20, 2012. It stars Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., and a slew of young up-and-comers including David Oyelowo (The Help) and Michael B. Jordan (Parenthood).

George Lucas, the executive producer of “Red Tails,” said in a statement: “I’ve wanted to do this film for a great many years. So it is especially gratifying to see it all come together.” He added: “The Tuskegee Airmen were such superb pilots that it was essential for us to create visual effects that would live up to their heroism and put audiences in the cockpit with them. They were only in their early 20s when they performed these amazing feats. They became the best of the best — the top guns.”

If you want to learn more America’s first black fighter pilots, check out The Tuskegee Airmen: An Illustrated History: 1939-1949 by Joseph Caver, Jerome Ennels, and Daniel Haulman (NewSouth Books). This book uses captioned photographs to trace the airmen through the stages of training, deployment, and combat actions in North Africa, Italy, and Germany. Included for the first time are depictions of the critical support roles of doctors, nurses, mechanics, navigators, weathermen, parachute riggers, and other personnel, all of whom contributed to the airmen’s success, and many of whom went on to help complete the establishment of the 477th Composite Group.

View the movie trailer here, or catch an interview with George Lucas on the Daily Show (air date: January 9, 2012).

Music for your new year: “Murder on Music Row” soundtrack

Happy new year, blog readers! If you dove into 2012 headfirst–like we did–you might already need a break! So here’s a playlist to keep you entertained while you’re back at the grind.

Thanks to the folks at ParcBench and inspired by Murder on Music Row: A Music Industry Thriller, by Stuart Dill, this mix includes classic country tunes that are perfect for a murder-mystery-readin’ kind of day. And while there isn’t a Ripley Graham single in the mix, this playlist might just make you want to dance on your desk and slap your grandmaw.

“Pretty Polly” by the Patty Loveless & Ralph Stanley

“Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash

“L.A. County” by Lyle Lovett

“Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone To Kill” by Johnny Paycheck

“The Cold Hard Facts of Life” by Porter Wagoner

“I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye” by Willie Nelson

“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” by Kenny Rogers

“The Thunder Rolls” by Tanya Tucker

“Delia’s Gone” by Johnny Cash

“Psycho” by Jack Kittel