Most summers I aspire to read a work of classic literature. A novel. This is easier said than done since my tastes pull toward memoirs, biographies and historical recounting.
Several years ago, I spent a summer enthralled with the Pulitzer Prize-winning All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. The 1946 book chronicles the rise of a backwoods Louisiana politician to a demigod who rules over all. Willie Stark, the protagonist, was based on legendary Huey Long, a man said to be reviled by other contemporary politicians such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Georgia’s Eugene Talmadge.
Reading All The King’s Men, I dog-eared pages, underlined and highlighted words and sentences. Mr. Warren had written in language so genuine of the deep, rural South that it echoed the words I heard as I grew up.
“I done come a-piece.”
“Are you sure you took it to the Lord in prayer?”
“That’s a fine how-de-do.”
“That’s what I hear tell.”
Even a character named Satterfield, one of my family’s storied names, appears. This all comes back to me now after the past season’s steamrolling antics of the LSU Tigers. I never think of Huey Long that I don’t think of LSU football. Gov. Long was an enthusiastic supporter of LSU and even penned fight songs that are still used today at football games. Legend (and Long’s biographer) say that he secured federal funding to build new dormitories. This he promptly did — then built the Tiger football stadium on top of the dormitories.
When Tink was shooting a television series in Baton Rouge several years ago, I said, “We have to go to Tiger stadium. You have to see this.”
On a quiet Sunday morning, my husband eased the car up to the stadium and I pointed toward to the dorm rooms that are positioned under the federally-funded stadium seating. These are the kinds of things that make the South unique and interesting — clever characters like Huey Long.
Our next stop was the state capitol. Long, former Governor and Senator, is buried in the front lawn. On that day, an enormous bouquet of fresh flowers had been laid at the grave which sits in the shadow of an 18-foot tall marble monument topped with a 12-foot-tall sculpture of Long, known as Kingfish. After a visit to his grave, I took Tink to the foyer of the Capitol where Long was assassinated by the son-in-law of a political enemy.
“Look, here’s where a bullet ricocheted,” I pointed to a place on the marble wall. Long had been shot in the torso but his bodyguards had riddled the assassin with 60 bullets. “Then,” I continued, “they carried Long down this back staircase, out that door on the bottom floor, to the car and hurried him to the hospital.” He died two days later on September 10, 1935. At the time, he was a member of the U.S. Senate.
I knew about the damaged marble and the back stairway because a friend, Leo Honeycutt, a longtime television news anchor in Baton Rouge, had done a documentary on the assassination so he once gave me a personal tour.
To me, nothing is more thrilling than to see and touch a place where history happened.
But Tink brought a piece of his own magic. A good friend of his, David Milch, assisted Robert Penn Warren for seven years on an anthology of American literature while at Yale.
“David has such respect for him as a mentor that he always refers to him as Mr. Warren.”
As evidenced in All The King’s Men, Mr. Warren was keen on keeping the fine points of history and language. Milch took that example and used it in his future television work, particularly on the HBO series, Deadwood, a historical recounting of the western town of Deadwood, S.D.
It’s amazing the trail that history leaves.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of Let Me Tell You Something. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.