Sitting in Orlando airport along with half of America’s school children (it is their ‘spring break’) I’m reminded of William Boyd’s observation that if you can’t see a six hour delay at an airport as an opportunity, don’t call yourself a writer.
I am in Florida, grandly billed as the English Speaking Union (ESU) 2012 Evelyn Wrench speaker, talking to a handful of American branches of the ESU. It’s all too easy to think of Florida simply as the sunshine state where elderly Britons go for winter warmth. Woken by mocking birds, fed breakfast of freshly picked and squeezed grapefruit and oranges while looking out on the tranquil St Johns River, I can see the charm of such a life. But, finding myself billeted at the House on Cherry Street, once the home of the lawyer advising Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the author who achieved worldwide fame with her Pulitzer Prize-Winning novel, The Yearling, I realise there is also a lively literary and artistic tradition. I had loved The Yearling, a powerful right-of-passage book about Jody, a boy who grows up with a pet fawn in the harsh North Florida backwoods, fighting off bears and alligators in order to survive. The book was translated into thirteen languages and turned into a 1946 film starring Gregory Peck. But Rawlings faced a devastating lawsuit over her subsequent book, the autobiographical Cross Creek, so she was often in this house.
Cross Creek, published in 1942, was also an enormous success and chosen for Book of the Month club. But Rawlings had taken a real character, Zelma Cason, a close friend, and written of her as having ‘violent characteristics of both man and mother,’ a woman not afraid to curse when angry. Zelma, furious at her portrayal, sued for invasion of her “right of privacy,” even though the work was autobiography. The State of Florida had not recognised the existence of such a right so this was test case in a variety of ways, not the least important of which was that the attorney for Zelma was Kate Walton, one of the first women to practise law in Florida at a time when women could not even serve on a jury. Rawlins felt deeply that she had to fight for the right of all writers to write truthfully about their own lives. Although she won the local court case, she lost on appeal at the state supreme court – with damages of one dollar. After five and a half years of tortuous legal proceedings, Rawlings was destroyed, never wrote another successful book and died in 1953.
At lunch I hear about Jacksonville’s links to the musician Frederick Delius, who in 1887 wrote the Florida Suite, a highly impressionistic piece of music which drew upon the sights and sounds he had experienced during the almost two years he spent living in the shadow of the St Johns river, listening to negro spirituals sung by the dockhands as they worked, a sound not used in European music previously. It was his first major work and heavily influenced by Afro-American music. Delius, born in Bradford in 1862, had been sent to Florida by his prosperous wool merchant father hoping to turn his son into a businessman rather than a musician. The family owned orange groves and Delius lived on a plantation at Solano Grove where he fell in love with a black plantation worker and allegedly fathered a child with her. Delius returned to Britain, confirmed in his desire to be a musician, and soon married the artist, Jelka, an unconventional and largely unhappy marriage. His final composition in 1931 was Songs of Farewell, a magnificent choral and orchestral work based on the poetry of Walt Whitman. Delius died in 1934 but Jacksonville holds an annual Delius Festival dedicated to his memory.
The ESU is also involved in perpetuating memories, not just of Sir Evelyn Wrench, a man who devoted his life to furthering international understanding, but by sponsoring a Shakespeare competition among schoolchildren and by honouring Winston Churchill. After Jacksonville I go to Naples, one of 72 American branches of the ESU, a beautiful town that has grown up from a fishing village on the west coast of the Gulf where I am speaking at the annual Churchill Dinner. My final stop is Miami. “Oh my dear, that’s the west coast. You won’t like that nearly as much,” the folk from Naples tell me. These nuances are important here. But in fact I love Coral Gables, a Miami suburb which grew in the 1920’s around the magnificent Biltmore Hotel. The hotel has finally been refurbished after a spell as a hospital during World War Two and various owners and is now a favourite destination for Bill Clinton among others. In the late 1930’s Wallis and Edward loved to stay at the Biltmore with its championship golf course and legendary dinner dances teeming with celebrities. And I love Palm Beach, where everyone has a “Dook and Duchess” story they are desperate to tell me – what she ate (or didn’t), what she said and what she wore. At one of the many Palm Beach beauty salons I meet the man who often styled Wallis’s hair when she dropped in to the eight-storey Elizabeth Arden salon on New York’s 5th Avenue. He tells me how staff there were instructed to address her always as ‘Your Highness’ and how the salon had a special robe for her with HRH – initials she did not own – embroidered on the pocket. After her treatments she would walk out without paying, dressed to the nines in an elegant Chanel suit, to continue shopping.
Anne Sebba is the author of THAT WOMAN A Life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor (Phoenix £7.99)