The Fractured Legacy of a Kingston Pike Novelist

My first free morning after hearing about the angel's broken arm, I strolled to the northern end of Gay Street, and Old Gray Cemetery. It's a gorgeous place in the morning sun, its many oaks in full color.

I might have been by earlier if not for my own broken arm, which has crowded my fall calendar with medical appointments and my hours with the extra effort that comes with sudden clumsiness.

When I saw her, I could sympathize. Her break's exactly where mine was, just above her right wrist, near the styloid process. Hers was obviously much worse than mine. They found her hand was on the ground, scorched, blackened with smoke. Some ritualistic candles were burned out nearby.

When people say a graveyard should be a reverent and purely mournful place, I just think I wouldn't want to be buried in a place like that, where people speak only in hushed tones, and upbraid children for running across plots. A century ago or more, Old Gray was a place for Sunday afternoon picnics. In a city too stingy for public parks, it filled a need.

That fun, open-minded sensibility has returned to Old Gray, with lively public events. Weekend before last, Old Gray served as a venue for a part of a Tennessee Williams play festival—the playwright knew the place well, because several family members, including his grandparents, his aunts, and his father, are buried there. Old Gray's a privately owned cemetery, and I'm grateful for the management's liberality about allowing a variety of pursuits on the grounds.

But spooky stuff is a poor match for an elegant old graveyard. I'm not sure what faith suggests ritual candlelit arm-breakings, but it's one of the dumber ones.

We think of statues when we think of Old Gray, but in fact there are only about a dozen of them, all from the late 19th century or the earliest years of the 20th. It was just during that short spell that we put statues in our graveyards. Before that, Protestants shunned funereal statuary as "graven images." After that, in the 20th century, putting up statues for dead folks began to seem too expensive to mess with. And by the automobile era, people got busy, and maybe squeamish, and stopped visiting graveyards like they used to.

That statue-building spell was also the marble industry's heyday; the era when Knoxville called itself "the Marble City" was the same era we put up statues in Old Gray. In those days there was a busy monument-carving company downtown, right on Market Square, like a saloon or a haberdashery.

With the exception of one diminutive Confederate soldier, all of Old Gray's statues depict girls and young women. One statue has been missing her head as long as I can remember. It's for a girl who died in the New Market train wreck in 1904, three weeks before her second birthday.

The newly broken statue memorializes Virginia Rosalie Coxe, who died at age 41 in 1906. It may be the newest one in there.

Some, like Virginia's, are angels. Others may be images of the deceased themselves. I often find flowers or sometimes toys at the gorgeous statue of Lillien Gaines, who died in 1876 at age 7. This time, on her pedestal, I found four bottles of soap bubbles. Some might fuss about it as disrespectful litter, but if I had a daughter who died at 7, I wouldn't mind if, in some future century, strangers blew bubbles over her grave.

At least five of them, including most of Virginia's neighbors, are married women who died young, by the standards of any era. Young wives are mourned most.

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The fact that it's her right hand, and that the woman memorialized was a writer, makes it all the more annoying. She and I could compare notes.

Virginia Rosalie Coxe was a sometime journalist, sometime songwriter, but best known for a couple of novels, Princess Beelzebub, which she published under a pseudonym, and The Embassy Ball, which was reviewed in the national press—both praised and reviled by those who were offended that its characters so often drank. Opening with a vivid first-person account of a hangover, it's a globe-trotting comic romance, somewhere between Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde, a novel of character and manners and the paradoxes of life, with irreverent asides about marriage, astronomy, dogs, and football.

Danette Welch, at the McClung Collection, has been looking into her story. Born in Richmond in the middle of the Civil War, Jennie, as she was known, grew up in Atlanta and later lived in Philadelphia and New Jersey. After sojourning in Europe, she moved to Knoxville with her extremely wealthy husband, who had interests in the coal industry, in 1897. She had connections here. Her brother, a University of Tennessee student when he died in 1885, was buried at Old Gray.

The Coxes could have lived anywhere. It may seem a little odd that they moved into a former sanitarium on Kingston Pike called Crescent Bluff, a wood-frame building big enough to share with another wealthy couple, Louis and Eleanor Audigier, well-known art collectors. Accounts describe the house as an architecturally unappealing place, boasting mainly its view of the river. But it was there Virginia finished The Embassy Ball.

Apparently in poor health beginning in her 30s, she died at 41, reportedly of a kidney condition. Not five years later, the Coxes' house burned down. It's now the site of the Dulin house, which was for 30 years Knoxville's art museum.

Her pedestal includes an intriguing bit of poetry:

'Twas the dreamer who saw the marvel

'Twas the dreamer who knew God's face.

It didn't ring a bell. But online I found it was from a poem by Edward S. Van Zile, published in 1897. Van Zile (1863-1931) was a journalist who lived in New York, but I'm guessing he and Coxe knew each other. They were exactly the same age, both wrote urbane novels of manners, and both shared the same erratic publisher, one F. Tennyson Neely.