Got some interesting response to the Danny Lyon photo feature, “Knoxville: Summer 1967.” Get out your copy of that issue—it’s the July 22 issue, with the boy with the puppy on the cover. We’ll go over it together.
On page 26 is one of Lyon’s better-known photographs, appearing in two of his books, including Memories of Myself, his recent autobiographical album. Called “Highland Avenue,” it shows a shy-looking adolescent boy lounging on a rustic porch railing. It looked plausibly enough like Highland to me. The hill looked right. But the deep background appears to be an open area with some derelict cars and a broad warehouse-like building. Most of Highland Avenue has always been pretty densely residential.
Danny Lyon admits he didn’t remember locations precisely, and was careful not to suggest he did. He was not familiar with the term “Fort Sanders” and admitted that to him it was all the vicinity of Highland Avenue, where he was staying, and which, being the former home of James Agee, was the reason he wanted to visit Knoxville.
I’ve heard from two especially interesting old-timers, including Monsignor Xavier Mankel and retired fireman and historian Jack Lewis. They’re both familiar with the old neighborhood and are both convinced the photograph titled “Highland Avenue” was taken on Grand Avenue. Parallel to Highland but two blocks farther down the hill, it’s closer to the railroad tracks, the northern edge of Fort Sanders. When I moved into the neighborhood in the late ’70s, most of Fort Sanders was dominated by university students, late hippies, early punks, and other post-collegiate or non-collegiate slackers, plus a few comfortable widows. But Grand was a northside fringe of the neighborhood that was still pretty real, home to some working-class families. I went over there, and most of old Grand Avenue is gone, including everything visible in that photograph, but I bet Mankel and Lewis’s memories are accurate.
Another reader told me I was mistaken about the caption of the photo on page 23. More famous than ever now because it’s the photo Lyon uses on the cover of his nationally popular book, it shows a young woman named Leslie shot through an old car’s window, smiling and looking to the side.
The setting looked to me like the southern end of the old Gay Street Viaduct. The dark brick building in the background resembles the railroad building that then stood at the northeast corner of Jackson and Gay.
Anyway, this reader spent some time with Lyon during that shoot, and told me the shot was taken on the old Asylum Avenue Viaduct. I was ready to run a correction. My assumptions were based on vague impressions of a gray skyline and a building that I barely remember.
I walked over to the Asylum Avenue site, what’s now the Summit Hill viaduct over World’s Fair Park. None of the big buildings you see in the photo’s deep background were visible among the elevated highways. There were lots of demolitions for interstate construction. Maybe everything in the photo had been torn down.
But then I got the book itself, with this striking cover photo bigger and crisper than we were able to print, and carried it to the Gay Street viaduct.
As I stood there on the west side of the south end, near Jackson, there were a few puzzlements at first, like a low white building that’s in the photo but not visible today. But this time, as I looked, several buildings in the deep background shifted into focus. A dark rectangle in the back looks more and more like the old White Lily factory, apparently before it was painted a light color. Over to the left is the distinctive pitched-roof brick cube that’s the AFL-CIO building. Right behind Leslie’s neck, a step-sloped wholesale-warehouse roof on Jackson stands out. Below that was the clincher. In Lyon’s photograph you can see the top sliver of the JFG advertisement, even a tiny bit of the cursive slogan, “The Best Part of the Meal.”
In the last 43 years, the main building in the background has vanished. The viaduct itself has been demolished and rebuilt. JFG has moved its factory a couple of miles west. But that ad, painted on brick, is still there.
I don’t doubt that Lyon, who said he took more rolls per day in Knoxville than he ever had before, also made some shots of the same lady on the Asylum Avenue viaduct. But he took this cover image on the Gay Street viaduct.
I met Patricia Neal only once and unexpectedly, on a downtown sidewalk maybe 10 years ago. I introduced myself probably just because I wanted to be able to say I’d met her. She got a lot of that, I’m sure. She was more gracious than she really needed to be to retain my awe. I scrambled for something specific to say. What was Gary Cooper really like? No, not that. Roald Dahl? No, no. How heavy was that Oscar? What do you say to Patricia Neal? Miss Neal, how come you act so good? The only reason I never requested an interview with her was that it might have marked my final lapse into idiocy.
Born in Kentucky, she moved with her folks to East Knoxville when she was a little girl—her dad was in the coal business—and she began her astonishing career at old Knoxville High in the 1930s, and was in some community theater here, like Tennessee Valley Players. Her career was amazing in several respects, not only for its breadth, but her own life was more complex, more dramatic, more tragic than many of her movies. She lived most of her 84 years after surviving a series of crippling strokes.
She spearheaded the founding of the rehabilitation center that bears her name, and came back frequently to visit it and old friends, usually staying at the St. Oliver Hotel downtown, often dining at the Orangery. She hasn’t lived in Knoxville full time since World War II, but she never really left us.