secret_history (2007-01)

Tall Women

Before it’s too late, a couple of tardy obituaries of two remarkable travelers

by Jack Neely

Downtown dogwalkers have become a common sight in the last few years, as more people have been living downtown, but in the days when everybody knew downtown was nothing but an office park, they were a rarity. There was, in fact, only one I ever noticed. Everyone who spent any time downtown in the ’80s and ’90s knew her by sight: an elderly lady with dark-framed glasses, walking a razor-thin, long-nosed creature that looked otherworldly and dangerously sharp, like a hairy javelin.

Mary Ewing lived up in the Pembroke, at the forefront of the current wave of downtown condo owners, and when she came down she looked like a cover of the New Yorker . I rarely spoke to her—she wore a don’t-mess-with-me expression that was, in my case, effective. I never attended her famous penthouse parties. I knew her mostly by reputation.

She died just after Thanksgiving, at 93. A Pittsburgh native, she was the widow of another Pennsylvanian, Kermit “Buck” Ewing, the big, brash, bearded fullback/painter who more or less started UT’s art department in 1947 and, in his early days, discovered the potential of Market Square’s exotic characters as subjects. He was later the main force behind the drive to build the Art and Architecture Building, and is credited with bringing the study of art at UT and, to some extent, to Knoxville itself. UT’s Ewing Gallery is named for him.

Meanwhile, his wife Mary worked as a buyer for department stores like Rich’s and Miller’s, specializing in arts and crafts supplies, home furnishing, and fashion, with a particular fascination for fabric that motivated many of her famous trips.

Before the ’60s and ’70s, Knox-villians at large didn’t have many opportunities to see real art in either public or private settings. The Ewings played a role in changing that.

Buck Ewing died suddenly in 1976, when he and Mary were on vacation in Bali. Soon after her return, she came down with what she feared was a fatal cancer. Assuming she had perhaps five years to live, she decided to make the most of it. She gave up her interior-design business and their lakefront house in Louisville. She moved downtown, filling her Pembroke condo with exotic art, and commenced a life of travel, taking sometimes lengthy trips overseas. She was particularly drawn to Asia; she sailed down the Yangtze, and was one of the first Americans of her era allowed to visit Tibet. She had tea with Madame Sun Yat-sen. She loved hiking, as many do hereabouts—but she preferred hiking the mountains of Afghanistan.

Then, as unlikely as it may seem, she would return. “I’m rewatering my Knoxville roots,” she would say. She was an early board member of City People, and worked with committees to consider the fate of World’s Fair Park, where she liked to walk her Borzoi, Stassie.

Somehow she also spent time at a second home amongst artists in Arizona; she was there when she died suddenly, about a month ago.

I’m always impressed when people who’ve seen and done so much can still care about a place like Knoxville, and I’m glad she did.

I saw Wilma Dykeman less often. She died just before Christmas, at 86. In her histories and her novels, she brought a sometimes defiant dignity and humanity to her Southern Appalachians. When she described her home region, it didn’t seem so much quaint or backward as mysterious, paradoxical, beautiful in its complexity. Some found it remarkable that she traveled the world, even China when few Americans were doing so, but remained fascinated with her native valley. To her, the yen to travel and to learn about home were the same thing. She once admitted that she was afflicted with “an intense sense of place.”

With her husband, James Stokely, Jr., she wrote Neither Black Nor White , an incisive and honest look at race relations in 1957, a bold and critical time for Southerners to write a book on the subject. She later wrote novels, like The Tall Woman and The Far Family , and a couple of biographies, one of birth-control pioneer Edna Rankin McKinnon.

I grew up knowing her better by her News-Sentinel bylines. From my earliest youth, she was a local icon, a picture in the paper next to a smart local column which I sometimes read even as a kid. They were usually short, cheerful meditations on Time or Motherhood or Friendship, but she’d occasionally surprise you with a fierce polemic about Appalachian stereotypes or simpleminded blowhards, and nothing made her angrier than the people who fouled her rivers. She regarded industrial waste as the equivalent of making war on a place and its people. Too often, she said, the cost of economic gain is some variety of death. We expect people to mellow with age; Wilma Dykeman did not.

She wrote so much about Knoxville, affectionately and critically, that I was surprised, visiting Malaprops bookstore in Asheville a couple of decades ago, to learn that she was a very big deal there, too. I came to learn that Asheville was her home, more than Knoxville; it was her birthplace and where she chose to retire. In between she lived mostly in Newport, for decades with her husband/collaborator James Stokely.

Splitting her domestic hours between Asheville and Newport, she always maintained a lively interest in things Knoxville. Her first major book was the impressionistic river collage, The French Broad which, like the river itself, links Asheville, Newport, and Knoxville. She was Tennessee’s state historian, and she also wrote the most readable history of Tennessee. In her heart, though, I suspect she lived in no state, but a long, fascinating valley.

We corresponded and talked on the phone some over the years, but I’d hardly ever met her in person before, maybe six years ago, when I went to the Falafel Hut to attend a meeting about the proposed Agee Park on Laurel Avenue. I had heard that certain well-known authors had expressed interest in the project, but didn’t expect to actually see any at the Falafel Hut that morning. But then I turned around, and there on the Clinch Avenue sidewalk just like any regular person, was tall, slim, Wilma Dykeman herself, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and coming to the meeting.

With the other committee members, we had iced tea and lentil soup and talked about Agee, Agee Park, and lots of other things. I wish I could remember them all. I don’t expect ever to meet anyone else who knew Thomas Wolfe, the novelist who died in 1938.

We also talked about the now-rare silent movie Stark Love , a silent movie about mountaineers controversial for more than its nude scenes. She’d actually seen it when it was new—at the Riviera Theater on Gay Street. She would have been about eight years old. She spoke as if that strange movie made quite an impression on her.

She spoke with a sort of measured, emphatic grace that I wish I could imitate. And I wish I’d taken notes.