Beautiful Bard:
Last of the Memphis Belles

by David M. Story

" . . . bards have a share of honor and reverence, because the muse has taught them songs and loves the race of bards."
--Homer's The Odyssey

The South has a long tradition of losing its most beauteous belles to the North. Frances "Frank" Armstrong Crawford of Mobile became the second Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt; Zelda Sayre of Montgomery became the iconic Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald; and Adelaide Anderson, a Cotton Princess of 1934, left Memphis for good in 1939, later marrying inventor William Leverett Cummings.

Today Miss Adelaide, age 96, is an award-winning poet who lives in West Falmouth, Massachusetts. A recipient of the national Barnes & Noble prize for poetry, she has lived more than nine decades as a Radcliffe graduate, a freelance journalist, a world traveler, a wife, a mother, an editor, an avid sailor, a tennis pro, and now as bard.

Though Miss Adelaide began seriously writing poetry later in her life for her three children from her first marriage, her journalism career began in the 1930s with Life magazine and continued on with a position as editor of Child Life for 13 years between 1951 and 1964.  Her work is peppered with two juvenile-age books (including the still-in-print Mystery on Cape Cod), an adult biography, and regular columns in the National Observer, which included the well-received, weekly political satire  "Zoos Who."

In her nineties, after a decade as an octogenarian tennis player (she won four Senior Olympic gold medals in Women's Singles, Women's Doubles, Mixed Doubles and a U.S. T.A. National title), Miss Adelaide re-invented herself, yet once again, as a poet. Since then she has written a quintet of collected poems.

Today visitors to her Massachusetts home chat over beverages (iced tea only between Memorial Day and Labor Day!) and cookies in her garden, aptly named  "Palette" after one of her philosophically "botanical" poems. Though Miss Adelaide has gone far from her southern roots, she has a nephew, Alexander McGregor Anderson, who lives with his wife at Fairhope, Alabama.

Miss Adelaide draws from the deep-rooted southern heritage of her grandmother on her mother's side, Martha Cooper Cawthon Crook. Grandma Crook's brother, Christopher C. "Chick" Cawthon, was killed while serving as a sergeant in Company I of the 13th Tennessee Infantry of the CSA. Another brother, Miss Adelaide's uncle, William L. "Billy" Cawthon, was also killed at the of age 19 while serving as a private in Company C of the 21st Tennessee Cavalry.

Miss Adelaide's parents were Judge Harry B. Anderson, who died in 1935 (Mr. Anderson, was appointed federal judge for the Western District of Tennessee in 1925) and  Martha "Patty" Cawthon Crook. Patty Crook Anderson's father Dr. Crook graduated from Jefferson College in 1870 and began his long medical practice in Henderson, Tennessee, before moving to Jackson in the late 1880s, where he and his son, Dr. Jere Lawrence Crook, built and operated the Crook Sanitarium for many years.

Inspired by and named for her paternal grandmother, Miss Adelaide attributes her love of poetry to her  "Grandmere" Adelaide Bennett Anderson, a grande dame of Memphis society, adding that the resulting effect of that love for verse is the key to staying sharp and active.

"I wrote prose for years and a number of short stories for young adults," explains Miss Adelaide, "and as a child I was adept at short jingles for special occasions such as birthdays, etc. I always admired the poets Sara Teasdale, Matthew Arnold, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and I, not hesitating to tread on toes, rate New Yorker 'poetry' as I do the Emperor's clothes."

As for her work today, Miss Adelaide adds, "I vastly prefer Finale's poems. Pastiche being my first contains my thoughts on many subjects important to me. The poem 'Analysis' is one of my all-time favorites; my second favorite is the poem 'Finale'."

But going back to her southern roots, Miss Adelaide is in good company when it comes to Memphis belles, among whom are a socialite, a political activist, and a Hollywood entertainer: Ann Martin Jennings (the daughter of circuit judge John Donelson Martin IV), the late Ann Heiskell Rickey of the celebrated Lamar family, and actress/singer Cybill Shepherd.

Miss Adelaide's latest poetry offering is Curtain Call, with cover art by another nephew, Jeffrey Anderson of Brooklyn, New York, who does the covers of all her books. "Adelaide has always been a favorite aunt," says Jeffrey, "but until about fifteen years ago I only saw her infrequently at weddings and family get-togethers. I did not know her as well as I would have liked, since we did not see each other that often.

"In the mid-1990s, Adelaide called and asked me if I would be willing to design the cover for a poetry book that she was writing called Pastiche. I went to her home in West Falmouth to discuss the book cover design with her in person. Adelaide's many charms instantly won me over, and we became the great buddies that we are today!"

In his youth Anderson spent time with his aunt and her second husband William Leverett Cummings, the inventor who founded Wilevco. Mr. Cummings was an accomplished sailor, whose jaunts with his wife to their second home in the Bahamas may have been the impetus of one of her earlier juvenile works Adventures in Cloud 9, in which a young boy suffering from claustrophobia has a spring vacation on a sailboat in the Bahamas, fulfilling the dream of his life.

The illustrations for Adventures in Cloud 9 were by famed illustrator Walter Buehr. The Cummings' last voyage together to the Bahamas was aboard the Victor, named after the 75-footer Mr. Cummings' late father had owned and the brass of which he, as a young boy, had fond memories of polishing. 

Miss Adelaide and Buehr were contemporaries of Child Life contributor, the renowned American poet and children's author Ernestine Cobern Beyer. Miss Adelaide says (and not immodestly) that she is  the one who made Ernestine Cobern Beyer famous, because she used her so much.

Before her death Beyer wrote, "Once in a while, having sent out a story, my jealous conscious mind would change a few lines, and I would send a second version. Invariably the first version was the one that got published. In fact, Adelaide Field of Child Life once wrote me not to change things!"

"My Aunt Adelaide's positive attitude, intelligence, wisdom, open-mindedness, sense of humor, kindness, empathy, and warmth make her irresistible," adds nephew Jeffrey, summing up the essence of Miss Adelaide. "She is a remarkable woman. The more that I get to know her, the more that I love her. I've promised to visit her at the Cape every summer. It's an easy promise to keep, since my visits to my aunt are always the high point of my year!"

Miss Adelaide's children are as equally proud of her as is Jeffrey. Her offspring are therapist Deborah Field Washburn, former Series Editor for the Asia Society; Martha A "Marty" Field, Langdale Professor of Law at Harvard University; and, Dr. Hartry Field, professor of  philosophy at New York University.

"At Radcliffe my writing gained me attention," concludes Miss Adelaide. "I'd bring roommates down to Memphis and introduce them to southern hospitality. To them, in the 1930s the South was a foreign country. Later I would mock the stereotypes in my poems, and as I got older I discovered the joy of writing verse on any subject, some light, some serious. After that I never wanted to write anything else; it was fun versus labor. I'll continue to write light verse; prose is too much work!"

Zelda Fitzgerald said in the The Last of the Belles, "I reckon you think that if you write the story often enough maybe some time, some way, it will have a happy ending." And, for Adelaide Anderson Cummings, she lives happily ever after, still 96-years-young. Mr. Vanderbilt, Mr. Fitzgerald, and Mr. Lev Cummings each sought happiness: one through wealth, one through literature, and the last through invention; but, perhaps the greatest testament to the wisdom of these three lies in the fact that each gained true satisfaction from marrying a beautiful belle of the South.

Poems by Adelaide Anderson Cummings:

Southern Moan

 These great sins

     Can't be forgot.

Up North they do things

      We do not.

(Serve their bread

      cold,

And their ham

     hot.)

 

(p. 72, Grand Finale)

 

Rules of Yesterday

If you were brought up in the South,

     No rude word must leave your mouth.

To be polite was all-important.

     No word in the least discordant

Should be ever, ever uttered.

     Well buttered be every breath,

A rule to be obeyed,

     Least, oh fate far worse than death,

You end up an Old Maid!

 

(p. 81, Finale)

 

Recipe

"Boil in oil, then slather butter."

     That's when I'm apt to hear you mutter

"Calories will take some battening.

      Only southerners can make

Vegetables fattening!"

 

(p. 51, Curtain Call)

 

Southern Belle Goes North

"Honey, your Mama shoulda tole ya,

     Warned you about little Miss Magnolia!"

Her voice as slow as warm molasses,

     Seems to invite and then fend off passes.

 She steps close, leans on his arm,

     Turns on famed, high-wattage charm,

And in that voice as soft as butter

     "We haven't met. Don't get me wrong.

But I need help and you look strong!"

     But then his sturdy Yankee date

Throws in the towel, accepts her fate,

     And all those other rejects joins,

 Who stir his mind but, not his loins.

 

(p. 18, Pastiche)

 

Southern Belles

Way back then, our views were slanted.

     (Few radios and no T.V.s)

We stayed near where we were planted.

     And in the land that drops its g's,

We had one aim. To please.

 

(p. 19, Curtain Call)

 

Beyond Pearl or Price

Grandmother. That lovely name

            Such memories can evoke.

Not only had she time for me,

            She listened when I spoke.

She read great poems to me,

            Encouraged care for birds,

And still today I hear her say

            "Love flowers and trees and honeybees,

But most of all, love words."

These ideas shared so long ago

Still echo in my heart,

I dedicate my poems to her

Who more than did her part,

And paying heed, alert to need,

Encouraged me from start."

 

(unpublished)

Copyright Apr 2011 We Like Media.
You may email David M. Story.