Friday, February 21, 2014


You're probably reading this because Bettie Page is in the title, and they DO have a store devoted to her fashion in downtown Nashville, and yes, we visited and shopped there.  Read on!

It's been really, really cold this winter in Chicago, and we had to get away.  Dianne's bridge group scheduled a Caribbean cruise for a week in January, and we were eager to go.  We decided to drive to Miami and back, normally an uneventful 3000 mile round trip.  But not when we do it.

For one thing, it becomes a 4000 mile road trip when we drive because we like to sight see and visit attractions.  The other thing is when we got to the Deep South, it was just about as cold as it was in Chicago.  In Miami, the newscasters were going crazy because the temperature was headed for the low 30's.  In Chicago, we're happy when it gets that warm.  People just don't have warm clothes in Florida.

We headed South through Indiana on a cold, wet Friday afternoon with a hint of ice in the forecast.


On Highway 41, there are no major cities until we get to Terre Haute, the home of Indiana State University.  I have fond memories of Terre Haute.  In my student days, I spent 3 weekends there, during the 1968 presidential primaries as a campaign worker for Sen. Robert Kennedy.  I was privileged to briefly meet Bobby Kennedy there and tell him how hard we were working to elect him. 

Terre Haute, at that time, was known as a wide open town, a hotbed of gambling and prostitution, although I had no personal experience with either.  As the largest industry in town, more than even the university, these sins were tolerated by city officials.  The colorful mayor, Leland Larrison even went on record as favoring the legalization of prostitution.  Local businessmen were OK with it because the girls purchased big ticket items like cars and fancy clothes. 

Running for re-election, Mayor Larrison complained that his opponent had spread vicious lies about him--that he was planning to rid the city of gambling and prostitution.  "That's a lie," Larrison cried, "I will NOT close the brothels!"  When university president Alan Rankin requested that the mayor close them, Larrison replied, "If the university will get rid of the kooks, hippies and beatniks, I'll close the houses."

Eventually the town was cleaned up by Sheriff Clyde Lovellette, a local hero from his high school days.  He took action, shutting down brothels and making arrests.  People didn't mess with Sheriff Lovellette, a former basketball star who stood six foot ten and achieved hero status as a youth when he led the Terre Haute high school to the finals of the state basketball championship.  He went on to be an All American at Kansas, played many years in the NBA and was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.  In this town, he was untouchable.

Today, Terre Haute's bad old days are but a distant memory.


Farther South is Vincennes, whose claim to fame (other than the George Rogers Clark Museum) is the only bridge in the country named after a clown.  Most, of course, are named after politicians.   You can draw your own conclusions.  And, no, it's not the Ronald McDonald Bridge--it's the Red Skelton Bridge, which spans the Wabash River.  It was named after the TV comedian who was also a professional clown.  Skelton was a native of Vincennes.  At the bridge dedication, Skelton exclaimed, "OK now everyone get off my bridge!" 


We arrived in Nashville around noon on our second day out, and we checked into our hotel.  Nashville is the Tennessee state capitol and also the world's country music capitol. 

The biggest thing in Nashville today is the Grand Old Opry which began in 1925 as a radio show and expanded from there.   In 1943, it began broadcasting from the venerable Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. It is still a radio show.  Today the GOO has new digs in the suburbs, but for a month each year, they bring it back downtown.  We bought tickets several months in advance for the sold out house.  This cavernous hall was built by Tom Ryman, a steamboat captain who found religion and built the structure at the turn of the 20th century to accommodate evangelist Sam Jones.  When the Ryman brought in the Grand Old Opry, the auditorium became synonymous with country and western music. 

However, over the years it has hosted a diverse group of entertainers including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope and Artur Rubinstein.  It even hosted young Elvis Presley as part of the Opry, back in 1954.  The deal was the Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records begged the Opry to book his boy, Elvis Presley.   Management finally relented, on the condition that Elvis would only be allowed to sing Blue Moon of Kentucky, a Bill Monroe standard.   Elvis was a flop, and the Opry people were convinced that he would never amount to anything. 

Over the years, the Ryman fell into disrepair, and about 20 years ago, the community organized to renovate it to its past glory.  It now has some interesting exhibits.  We especially liked the exhibit and statue of Minnie Pearl whose real name was Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon.  In school, everyone called her Ophelia.  She was raised in genteel society, studying dance and classical music.  She graduated with a degree in theater studies from Belmont University, a prestigious women's college.  The Grand Old Opry discovered her performing at a banker's convention.  Her shtick was Southern (hillbilly) satire, and nobody did that better than she did.  How-dee-e-e!    She became a fixture at the Opry and performed there for over 50 years until she suffered a stroke in 1991 and died in 1996.

On the way to a performance, she realized she had forgotten her hat, so she stopped by Surasky Bros. Department Store and bought one.  She forgot to remove the price tag, $1.98, and it became apparent during her performance.  The audience loved it, and she kept it in her act.  She created characters based on the local folks back home in Centerville, Tennessee.

Ms. Pearl married World War II pilot Henry Cannon who ran a charter air service serving various country music performers, including Eddy Arnold and Elvis Presley.  In later life, Sarah Cannon, as she was known, was a prominent member of Nashville society, living next door to the Governor's Mansion. 

We signed up for the backstage tour where they immersed us in the legacy of Grand Old Opry.  We toured the private dressing rooms of Hank Williams, Minnie Pearl and Dolly Parton.   Hank Williams (Sr.) was a legend in his time.  He recorded 11 number one songs between 1948 and 1953.  Like many performers, he abused alcohol.  He had congenital spina bifida and suffered from constant back pain which caused him to become addicted to prescription drugs.  Alcohol and drugs are a dangerous combination, and Williams died at age 29 as his tall, thin body wore out from long abuse. 

One of the more interesting Opry pioneers is Little Jimmy Dickens who joined the Opry in 1948.  Today, at age 93, he still drops in to perform.  He really was (and is) "little" at 4'11", but he recently posed for a photo-op with even littler Brenda Lee at 4'9".  His biggest hit was May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose, which was Number 1 on the Country charts in 1965.  In a recent performance he did a parody dressed up as Justin Bieber.  These guys have fun!

The Opry performance was four 30 minute segments, complete with commercials for local businesses.  Every seat was filled.  The "big" name was Eric Church.  I never heard of him either, but all his fans were in the audience.  They were screeching and never sat down.  Church is a singer-songwriter whose edgy lyrics appeal to young people.


You can't visit downtown Nashville without visiting the storefront Johnny Cash Museum.  Nashville is, of course, synonymous with country music.  Walking down Broadway in downtown Nashville, we expected and found numerous country music bars, but we couldn't believe the number of boot stores they have.  I understand that everyone has to wear shoes, but boots???.  We stopped in the famous Ernest Tubb Record Store (they don't have record stores anymore!), but it was pricey and we didn't buy anything.  On the street, it was wall to wall people the night we visited, and the reason was the Nashville Predators hockey team was playing at the stadium a block away. 

The Johnny Cash Museum takes about a half hour to complete.  Everyone recognizes Johnny Cash who always dressed in black, even in the steamy Nashville summers.   You can buy a t-shirt with his likeness on it.  In the window was a big sign, "House of Cash".  At first, I thought it was a currency exchange.  Inside, the museum has all of Cash's record album covers, magazine covers and everything else Johnny Cash, even his report cards from school when he was known as J.R. Cash, his birth name.  His folks couldn't think of a name to call him.  When he joined the Air Force, they wouldn't let him use initials, so he took the name "John".

His music career started with the Tennessee Two--or was it Three.  He grew close to June Carter, performing with her, and wanted to marry her, but there was a problem.  Both were already married.  It took 4 years to resolve the problem, and the couple stayed together over 30 years until their deaths.  Interesting guy!

Although he never served time except for a day or two in local jails for misdemeanors, Cash took up the cause of prisoners and prison reform, and performed several concerts inside prisons.  Folsom Prison Blues was one of his most famous songs.      Cash also sympathized with the plight of American Indians although he had no Indian blood himself.  He abused alcohol and prescription drugs and recognized that many American Indians, in their despair, did the same. 

In 1965, Cash started a forest fire in California which burned over 500 acres and displaced most of the world's California condors.  It was caused when Cash's truck overheated.  No matter--the government sued him.  His comments that he didn't care about a few buzzards didn't endear him to the Feds.  It cost him--he settled with Uncle Sam for over $80,000.  Cash claimed he was the only person ever sued by the government for a forest fire. 


The callipygous Bettie Page, a native of Nashville, achieved some measure of fame in the 1950's as a free spirit who was willing to disrobe for the camera.  In fact, between 1949 and 1957, she posed for as many as 20,000 black and white photographs, usually in high heels and bikinis or sometimes wearing nothing at all.  She was already well known when she posed for Playboy Magazine in the mid 1950's as Playmate of the Month. 

I bring this up because there is a Bettie Page store in downtown Nashville.  I spotted it while driving by and made a U turn to visit it.  I learned there are 17 Bettie Page stores around the country although none are in the Chicago area.  The stores sell retro fashion clothing, basically 1950's styles, but nothing racy as far as I could tell.  The walls of the store are adorned with photos of Ms. Page.  The store manager explained that Bettie had attended high school about 3 blocks away, on Broadway.  I half expected that the school would be named after her as the most famous alum, but no-o-o. 

After Playboy, Ms. Page disappeared from public view, found religion and didn't surface for decades.  That included a 10 year stretch in a mental hospital, but that's too much information.  Her images inspired biographies, fan clubs, commercial products and even a 2005 movie, The Notorious Bettie Page.   She was bewildered by the attention and granted interviews provided that they didn't photograph her face (she was in her eighties!)    "I have no idea why I'm the only model who has had so much fame so long after quitting work," she told the interviewer in 2006.  Ms. Page died in 2008 at age 85. 

We drove out of Nashville on the David Crockett Highway.  Assuming it's the same guy,  I always knew of him as Davy Crockett, as in the 1955 song, the Ballad of Davy Crockett (by Bill Hayes)..  At that time, every kid walked around with a coonskin cap on his head.  Crockett was played on TV by Fess Parker who also played Daniel Boone.  As a kid, I wanted to be like him.  They named the highway to be true to history--during his lifetime, Crockett reportedly hated the name Davy


On the grounds of the state capitol is a statue of Sam Davis, a Tennessee hero.  Not to be confused with Sammy Davis, either senior or junior, Davis's house is a Nashville tourist attraction.  Sam, or Sammy, was a 21 year old soldier for the Confederacy who, in 1863, was captured by Union troops.  Davis was somehow in possession of Union battle plans which marked him as a spy.  There was no Geneva Convention to help him, and he was subjected to enhanced interrogation and pressed to disclose who gave him the maps.  The Feds tried every approach--good cop-bad cop, waterboarding, etc., but he refused to talk.  He said that he would die a thousand deaths before he would betray a friend or the confidence of an informer.  He was sentenced to death by hanging.    The Union officer was reluctant to carry out the sentence, and finally after a delay, Davis told him, "Officer, I did my duty, now you do yours."

Davis has been hailed as the Nathan Hale of the Confederacy, and even a Christ like figure, and many things are named after him in Tennessee and the Confederacy, even a major horse race. 


We were privileged to tour the historic Belle Meade Mansion near Nashville.  Originally it was a 5600 acre plantation in the 1800's.   The land was settled by John Harding who came from Virginia and built a log cabin around 1807 along the old Natchez road.  The Hardings, assisted by many slaves, grew cotton and raised cattle and horses.  Belle Meade's most significant contribution to history was the champion racehorses they bred there.  Harding's son William Giles Harding  had a passion for horses and set out to improve their bloodlines through selective breeding. 

The Harding family ran out of male heirs, and a Harding daughter, Selene, married Confederate General William Hicks "Billy" Jackson, a West Point grad.  After the death of his father-in-law, Jackson took over the operation in 1883 and carried on Belle Meade's proud reputation in the equestrian community. 

President Andrew Jackson's portrait hangs on the wall in the house, and I asked the docent if these folks were related to either President Jackson or President Harding.  The answer is they were not related to either president, or Michael Jackson either.  However the family remained prominent well into the 20th Century.  Gen. Jackson's grandson, William Harding Jackson became Deputy Director of the CIA under President Eisenhower.

Belle Meade was legendary in horse racing circles.  To say the family raised some notable thoroughbred horses is an understatement.  One horse, Bonnie Scotland is considered a foundation thoroughbred--virtually every horse in the last 10 Kentucky Derbies are descended from that horse.  In fact, ALL 20 horses racing in the 2012 Kentucky Derby were descendants of Bonnie Scotland, not to mention past champions like Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Northern Dancer.  You can look it up!  Another Belle Meade horse, Iroquois was the first American horse to win England's Epsom Derby. 

Bonnie Scotland  was bred in England in 1853 and brought to the U.S. as a 4 year old.  He had had a disappointing racing career in England because of injuries.  The decision was made to retire him to stud because of good bloodlines. 

After a distinguished career producing stakes winners in the Northeast, the horse came to the attention of William Giles Harding who had recently lost his two best stallions.  Harding purchased Bonnie Scotland in 1872.  The horse was 19 years old, but he still had the goods.  In his first season at Belle Meade, Bonnie Scotland produced 4 foals which developed into champion horses.  A forgotten horse in England, he produced one of the most important sire lines in America of the late 1800's and early 1900's.  The horse lived to age 27 and led a life at Belle Meade most would envy. 

In the latter years of the 19th Century, the Jackson heirs were drunks, gamblers and spendthrifts, and most of the original acreage was sold off to pay debts, especially gambling debts.  Racehorses and gambling--didja think?  The family lost the farm in 1906, and today the property is held by a historic trust.  1906 was the same year Tennessee passed an anti-betting law which effectively killed off the thoroughbred industry in the state--they all went to Kentucky. 

The house and grounds are beautiful with majestic trees, draped with Spanish moss.  In the mansion, a circular staircase graces the main level.  The carriage house hosts a collection of 19th Century horse drawn carriages. 


We detoured 100 miles to visit our old friend Jack--Jack Daniel.  The distillery is located in Lynchburg, Tennessee, a small town in Moore County, the smallest county in the state.  Moreover, it is a dry county.  They weren't allowed to serve us free samples although they are allowed to sell commemorative bottles which are full.  Those are not sold in liquor stores.  Also, they can sell you a personalized barrel  and will ship it to your house.  Many celebrities have purchased barrels with their names on them.   

The town claims a population of 361 although the distillery employs more people than that.  One would think that the largest employer in the county could have changed the law to allow liquor sales in such a small county.  The county actually went dry in 1909, before Prohibition was passed.  It was illegal to drink or manufacture liquor there until 1938, six years after Prohibition was repealed.  Lem Motlow, Jack's nephew got himself elected to the legislature and was able to obtain an exemption in the law to allow manufacturing in a dry county.  This was obviously a jobs program benefiting the county. 

Jack Daniel (not Daniels) was quite an interesting guy. He was born in 1850.  His mother died when he was young.  He didn't get along with his step mom, so he moved in with the neighbors when he was just 6.   He was raised by Reverend Call who also operated a still and taught young Jack the business.  During the Civil War, the pair made good money selling booze to soldiers on both sides.   Eventually the Reverend's parishioners forced him to choose between whiskey and church--you can't have both.  Rev. Call sold the still to 16 year old Jack.  At age 21, Jack Daniel decided he was a businessman and should dress the part.  He went to the city and bought fancy clothes which he wore thereafter.  He never married although he had many lady friends. 

To his dying day, he never explained the significance of Number 7 which appears on his bottles.  One explanation is that Jack wanted to honor his 7 girlfriends. 


Nowadays we don't call them "swamps"; we use the politically correct name "wetlands".  Okefenokee Wetlands?   That doesn't have the same pizazz.  It really is a swamp!  It is the size of Rhode Island which would be small for a state but not for a swamp.  It is teeming with alligators, bears, snakes and critters.  The stagnant waters are the headwaters of the Suwanee River which was made famous in a song written by Stephen Foster in 1851, although he spelled it Swanee River.  Actually, the title of the song is Old Folks at Home, and it is the Florida state song. 

Okefenokee Swamp is the home of Pogo, the Possum, a comic strip character created by Walt Kelly (1913-1973).  Kelly found he could use animals as a vehicle to create satire, often political.  If he had used people, there could be backlash--or even lawsuits.  As it was he did get backlash because he made fun of prominent Congressmen and Administration officials, so much so, that newspapers sometimes censored his comic strips.  In the 1950's fans of the strip even promoted Pogo for President.  I go Pogo. was a takeoff of "I like Ike. 

Pogo was the consummate "straight man", the everyday opossum, the foil for the numerous other characters, all animals native to the swamp.  His most famous quote was "We have met the enemy, and he is us."  The swamp park honors Kelly with a small exhibit devoted to him.  Pogo is, in a sense, the American version of Winnie the Pooh. 

We boarded a flat bottomed skiff for a slow ride through the channels in the swamp with our guide, Melvin, a good ol' boy, a river rat who pointed out the cypress and bay trees.  He showed us some of the carnivorous plants which you probably want to avoid.  He tried to convert them to vegetarians to no avail.  Maybe he can convert the alligators.

The stagnant water channels meander for 30-40 miles down to the Florida border.  This year, the water is high because of abundant rain.  When you disturb the water it bubbles up with methane gas.  In dry years, you can walk around on marked paths. 

In January, most of the trees and the Spanish moss are still brown, and the alligators are not extremely active in the cool weather.  One, a 12 1/2 foot alligator named Crazy was lolling in the sun on the river bank.  When we saw him, we weren't sure he was real.  We were going to walk closer, but our guide kept us away with his paddle, and made some noise that caused the gator to move a little.

Then he told us a story about a women tourist who actually walked up to the same gator who was sunning himself on the path and stepped on him for a photo-op.  The alligator got up and, lickety-split, she was out of there.


From the dawn of history, the place was called Cape Canaveral, but within a few days after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, the country went on a binge, naming everything in sight after President Kennedy.   They renamed the cape Cape Kennedy and the Kennedy Space Center, thus honoring the president who accelerated the space program.  Several years later, in 1973, cooler heads prevailed and the geographic feature (but not the NASA facility) was changed back to its historic name, Cape Canaveral.   The Kennedy family weighed in with no objections to the renaming.

We got off to an early start at the Kennedy Space Center on a cold morning with wind chills in the 20's.  We were bundled up in our winter coats with mufflers.  Many of the tourists we saw were turning blue in shorts and t-shirts. 

This place isn't cheap, but it makes you patriotic.  The tickets are 50 bucks apiece plus $10 for parking.  We clipped a couple $5 coupons which at least covered the parking.  The Kennedy Space Center is not part of the National Park Service, and no taxpayer money is involved. 

The exhibits are quite awe-inspiring.  We learned the history of rocketry, beginning with Goddard launching rockets from his backyard.  The displays showed life size photos of the astronauts.  Tourists can climb into their tiny compartments on the rockets.  Being an astronaut is dangerous.  Essentially, they would get strapped on top of a 300 foot rocket which careens through space at 25,000 mph without a steering wheel.    That takes a lot of trust (and teamwork) in the space program. 

The IMAX theater ran a movie about the development of the Hubble Telescope, after which we visited the building housing the Atlantis Space Shuttle.   They even have kiddie stuff like "Angry Birds" Space Encounter.   Angry Birds???  We didn't visit.  A couple hours later we braved the Arctic blasts as we walked back to the car for the trip to Palm Beach. 


The weather finally started to warm up into the 60's as we made our way South to Palm Beach, the playground of the rich and famous.  The East coast of Florida was essentially created by Henry M. Flagler who made a few bucks back in the 19th Century as John D. Rockefeller's partner in Standard Oil.  Flagler grew up poor as the son of a minister in upstate New York, but he made money the old fashioned way--he married it.  He wedded his boss's daughter and borrowed $100,000 from his father in law to start an oil company with his buddy Rockefeller.  They were probably good risks because they were both teetotalers--at a time when everybody drank hard whiskey. 

Flagler was considered the legal mind behind Standard Oil while Rockefeller was the deal maker.  Flagler was one of the first to set up a business trust, making it possible to conduct business in many states from a single corporate office. 

Mrs. Flagler suffered from asthma, and the doctor suggested they go to Florida to help her condition.  At the time, Florida was the poorest state in the Union--it consisted of the Northern tier, Jacksonville to Tallahassee.  .  Everything South of St. Augustine was a swamp--the Everglades.  Jacksonville and St. Augustine were hick towns with no suitable accommodations.  Flagler saw a need and he filled it.  He built the Florida East Coast Railroad down the coast and constructed classy hotels at the stops along the way--St. Augustine, Daytona, Palm Beach, etc.  .  Customers needed to get to the hotels, so they rode on the train, often in luxurious private rail cars..  . 

Florida was transformed, and today everything is named after him.  After Flagler extended the railroad to Palm Beach, he was approached by a wealthy widow he knew from back in Ohio, Julia Tuttle.  She owned some swampland about 60 miles to the South.  She wanted to encourage Flagler to extend the railroad there and build a city which would be called "Flagler City."  Flagler was a modest man, and he asked her, "what's the name of that river that runs by your place, the one with the Indian name."    She said "Miami".  "Why don't you just name it after the river."  So there you have it. 

Flagler's wife, Mary died after 28 years of marriage, and he married his second wife, an unemployed actress who had been Mary's caregiver.  That didn't last long--Flagler had her committed to a mental institution and divorced her although he did set up a trust fund for her.  As you can imagine, Flagler had some clout.  He convinced the Florida legislature to pass a special law so he could get divorced.  As it turned out, Flagler was the only person who ever got divorced under that law.

Flagler married his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan who was 34 year old.  Flagler was 71.  In 1902, he built a house for her--Whitehall--near the beach in Palm Beach.  Today it is called the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum.  We toured the manicured grounds and the inside of the 75 room house, built in the Beaux Arts style made popular at Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893.  Flagler and his wife would stay there for the Palm Beach "season" which was January and February each year.  Whitehall incorporated many of the technological advancements of the era which included telephones, electric lights and indoor plumbing. 

Flagler's neighbor down the street was cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post whose mansion was called Mar-a-Lago.  Recently that house, now owned by Donald Trump, was renovated into an exclusive resort hotel. 

During the Palm Beach "season" , the Flaglers and their neighbors were constantly entertaining, especially in the Louis XV style Grand Ballroom where hundreds of guests could dance the Virginia Reel and the Minuet.  Other rooms were decorated in the style of Louis XIV where they presumably served Louis XIII cognac from fine crystal.   I get the Louies mixed up, but you get the idea. 

Guests in the mansion would stay for a month at a time, not a few days.  Although the liquor was flowing at the nightly parties, Flagler, you'll recall, was a teetotaler and wouldn't drink anything stronger than iced tea.   The Grand Hall reception area of the house covered 5000 square feet, crowned by an elegant circular staircase.   Ironically, Flagler died when he fell down that staircase in 1913, at age 83. 

Then there was the other Palm Beach.  In the early 1900's, the servants, mostly Black people, who worked in the mansions lived in an area of Palm Beach called the Styx where they rented small houses.  After a while, the landowners agreed between themselves to evict them all, raze the houses and relocate them across the inland waterway to West Palm Beach.  They sold the land and the new owners built more mansions.


The Breakers today is an exclusive Palm Beach hotel by the ocean.   We drove up to the porte cochere by front door and gave the car to the valet.  Parking is $25.  The good news is you can get your ticket stamped if you stay in the hotel or purchase something.

This hotel was the culmination of a series of hotels built by Flagler down the Florida coast.  It was originally built in 1896 to accommodate tourist passengers on Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway.  The hotel burned down in 1903, rebuilt and burned down again in 1925.  The hotel in its present form dates back to 1926.  The room rates at the turn of the 20th Century were $4 per day which included 3 meals.  Today the nachos we ordered on the lunch menu were $48--well, they had lobster in them. 
The ambiance and the meal were elegant.  After lunch we walked down the beach.

An interesting historical fact regarding the Breakers was that in the winter of 1915-16, the hotel hosted baseball stars from the Negro League as it existed at the time.  The newspapers reported that the Astors, Vanderbilts and Morgans and hundreds of others who would not otherwise see a baseball game outside the Northeast were rooting for their favorite team.