How to…Cause a ScenePosted: October 22, 2011
I’m hanging out with my good friend Preston Brooks touring the Museum of Southern Honor. I’m getting an insider’s view on what it takes to cause a ruckus Southern style. We are an eccentric people, and even when we are angered, ornery, or downright rambunctious, we tend to do it with our own unique style.
For example, Mr. Brooks tells me that he originally only intended to hit Charles Sumner on the head one time, but that caning someone on the head three times was more spectacular. He used a “trick” guta percha cane which broke dramatically upon his opponent’s skull for effect. He also could have simply performed this act in private, but instead chose to confront poltroonery out on the Senate floor, in front of other elected officials and the visiting public. If you don’t recall, Senator Sumner of Massachusetts insulted Mr. Brooks’ relative and the entire State of South Carolina back in 1856. Mr. Brooks told me that “skullduggery can be ignored, but perfidy of the highest order, must be dealt with in high fashion.”South Carolinians are if nothing else, fashionable to the umpteenth degree.
This insider’s view is one of the perks of my job as your trusty Southern Blogger. Whenever I need to learn about Southern culture in the past, I simply draw up historical figures and ask them. You’d be surprised how adept many of them are at blogging and other social media. And this week, we will be discussing Southerners both of the distant and recent past, about that certain flair it takes down here to get you noticed and to create a good old-fashioned scandal. So without further ado, I bring you HOW TO…CAUSE A SCENE.
The Old South: Brawlers and Nose Pullers
Remember our old friend Andrew Jackson? He had some great advice a few months back about defending personal honor. You see my friends President Jackson was (and remains) one of the world’s greatest duelists. He could follow the code duello to a T, write threatening greetings with great aplomb, and also kill his enemies with the finest of manners. But there also comes a time and place where one must put aside the gentlemanly code and flat out brawl. He could do that too.
For example, sometimes a rascal is just plain asking for it. He might be a no good varmint of poltroon, not worthy of a gunfight or even a good caning. When someone absolutely, positively has to be put in their place publicly you go for the muzzle pull. That’s right, just reach out there and yank your enemy’ nose. It tells the public this scoundrel is a mean sunofgun worthy only of the time to drop him to the floor. It’s dramatic, short, and quite effective.
Of course, you tend to cane, nose pull, and duel folks a lot when you make enemies the way Jackson did. President Jackson grew up rough and tough, and learned to fight even tougher. He once was slashed by a British officer as a teenager for refusing to polish the Englishman’s boots. Rather than forgive and forget (two things Andy was bad at) he made a point of embarrassing the British army at New Orleans, and also pretty much stole the Florida territory from them. Like William Wallace in Braveheart he liked to go “pick a fight”. When Jackson picked fights he didn’t lose.
The key was not so much simply striking fear but doing so in a grandiose fashion, creating exponential fear. Think it didn’t work? Well, Andrew Jackson blamed John Quincy Adams’ “dirty tricks” for creating the stress which he claimed killed his wife Rachel. During Jackson’s inaugural, Adams, the former president and defeated candidate didn’t stick around to watch the ceremonies. Adams was a smart man, and was definitely smart enough to know that “Old Hickory” wasn’t the let bygones be bygones sort. If Jackson ever buried the hatchet it was most likely in someone.
President Jackson also caused a scene by his very presence. It was said the more educated Harvard types in Washington were quite appalled when Andy’s voters came to celebrate. They partied hard off of free bourbon and a giant communal block of cheese. Drapes and furniture were said to have been smashed or gone missing. Spittoons were missed and “Jackson juice” ended up on the White House floors. Such was Jacksonian democracy, and it was a hell of a party.
But, that was politics in the nineteenth century. In many parts of the South you couldn’t get elected to office without at least some brawling or dueling on your resume. Just think of all the early pioneers of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. They were hunters, bushwhackers, fist-fighters, and eye gougers long before they held office. In fact, it was great practice for politics.
Jim Bowie probably stands taller than most of them, both literally and figuratively. He holds the title for greatest brawler of all time. Once during a feud between his party and a rival party, he helped create a fantastic fracas along the Mississippi river. On an island off of Natchez, MS, Bowie was standing in as a second for an offended party. Seconds, if you remember, are there for support and rule-keeping, not fighting. In any event words were exchanged, glances were glared, and before you knew it a real full on melee ensued. Bowie survived several gunshots and took care of some poltroons with just his bare hands and the famous long knife invented by his brother. That kind of theatrical backwoods brawling is picture perfect for someone who ended up martyred at the Alamo.
The New South: Base Stealers, Man Stealers, and Show Stealers
I suppose we’ve calmed down a bunch as a people since the nineteenth century. Even so, we still have plenty of people who know how to create chaos, befuddle enemies, and do so with style. In the world of entertainment, we will discuss three twentieth century Southerners who knew how to be the center of attention, talk the talk, and walk the walk. In the process they became legendary (each in their own way) for their scene stealing excess.
Although the South is known for its love of football it has produced its share of great baseball talent. Among the earliest and greatest of Southern ballplayers was Ty Cobb. Cobb was the perfect storm of baseball ruckus creator. He was born to a wealthy Georgia family that had declined following the Civil War, had a grandfather (who was a general) killed at the battle of Fredericksburg, and hated pretty much all Yankees. So it made sense during the turn of the century, a time when Dixie ballplayers were heckled for their Southerness, and Washington and St. Louis were the two cities closest to home, to send young Mr. Cobb to Detroit. It should also be mentioned that Ty Cobb was probably clinically psychotic and was re-fighting the Civil War on the base paths. Even his own teammates hated him.
Cobb actually seemed to enjoy belittling his baseball opponents. He would announce bases he planned to steal and then would steal them. If an infielder or catcher got in his way they were kicked, clobbered, or spiked by Cobb’s shoes. Legend has it that he even field his metal cleats for effectiveness. If you heckled him he might climb in the stands and punch you. He was afforded police protection in Philadelphia due to the large volume of death threats, carried a loaded luger with him on the road, and was wanted for assault in several states. Yet through it all he snarled and smirked his way into the record books and into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His philosophy the “baseball is something like a war” found disciples in Ted Williams, and fans in Douglas MacArthur.
Although hardly a snarler, the Alabama born Tallulah Bankhead was no stranger to scandal. She came from a wealthy and politically connected Huntsville family yet chose the stage for her career path during an era when acting was looked down upon. While early Hollywood was no less a stranger to scandal in the early twentieth century as today, Miss Bankhead turned heads and raised eyebrows to great effect.
In an era when women (especially rich Southern women) were expected to be chaste until married, then devoted housewives and mothers afterwards, Bankhead flouted the “rules”. Her affairs and love interests were quite numerous and varied and she loudly advertised and proclaimed them. She filled up the gossip columns and created such scandal it more than likely hurt her box office appeal. She was turned down for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, due to her age, yet in many ways was of the same background, personality, and scandalous nature.
Despite it all, Tallulah Bankhead never flinched and never cared if people didn’t like her. She was quite “Jacksonian” in her loyalty to her friends and political allies. She once made a point of booing Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat Party motorcade, and loudly supported Harry Truman’s integrationist policies and presidency when it was quite unpopular to do so in the South.
Another Southerner who combined flair on and off-stage was the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown. Brown grew up in poverty in rural South Carolina and rose to be the “hardest working man in show business”. In Brown’s case that was hardly an exaggeration.
Brown not only had a tight band (which he fined for things like unshined shoes or missing notes), and a tighter look, but would sing, dance, and perform in such a manner that would kill the average man. Brown recorded and preformed in a chart topping career that spanned nearly five decades and practically wrote an entire genre of music.
While he was known for his flamboyant hair, clothing, and stage persona (down to being draped in a regal cape), he used his scene stealing persona and fame to speak out against segregation, and declare himself to be “black and proud” at a time when declaring both loudly was a dangerous thing to do in the South. Brown never held back his views, his style, or his effort. He had to be the best, because if he wasn’t he knew how quickly and how rough he could fall to crushing poverty. Even when Brown succumbed to legal troubles, he still had the sense of style and performance even in his arrests.
Scene stealing Southerners still put on a show even when they get in trouble.
Point is folks; we are no strangers to colorful characters down here. And while many of the folks mentioned in the piece did things that would get you shot, arrested, hospitalized, and ostracized today they do prove the genius of the genuine. Being quiet after all doesn’t get you in the history books.
After the results of our recent poll it looks like I’ll be posting a piece on Southern pageants. I will be trading blogs so to speak with my friend the Budget Blonde. She will co-blog from personal experience on pageants while I will satirize Southern style blogs on her site. These pieces may take a few days to sort out and schedule so stay tuned for further updates.