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If there was a confederate establishment in the Deep South, Zelda Sayre came from the heart of it. Willis B. Machen, Zelda's maternal grandfather, was an energetic entrepreneur tough enough to endure several careers and robust enough to outlive two of his three wives. He came to Kentucky from South Carolina as a boy when the new state was still a frontier. Young Machen began his career refining iron with a partner in Lyon County; soon he was successful enough to open his own business. It failed, and he was nearly ruined; but he managed to repay his debts and begin again. He built turnpikes until a severe injury forced him to turn in a completely fresh direction, the law. He never failed again. Soon he had built up a large clientele in the southwestern part of the state, and he became a member of the convention that framed the constitution of Kentucky.
He served as a state senator until the outbreak of the Civil War, at which time Kentucky, a border state, was violently embroiled in choosing sides. Although the state formally declared its allegiance to the Union, the secessionists, Machen prominent among them, set up a provisional state government. He was elected to the Confederate Congress by residents of his district and by the soldiers in the field. At the close of the war, fearing reprisals, he fled to Canada. His third wife and their young daughter Minnie joined him shortly afterward.
Machen was pardoned and returned to Kentucky. He was urged to accept the nomination for governor of the state but declined because of some confusion about his eligibility. In 1872 he wasappointed to the United States Senate, in which he served for four months. At the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in July of the same year his name was presented by the delegationfrom Kentucky for the Vice-Presidential nomination. It was a distinction he did not achieve.
By 1880 Machen was a powerful member of the Kentucky railroad commission and his patronage was eagerly sought. He chose to retire to his fine red-brick manor house, Mineral Mount, near Eddyville, Kentucky; it stood on three thousand acres in the fertile valley of the Cumberland River, and there he raised tobacco. The pastoral elegance of Machen's splendid home must have been somewhat diminished by the running of the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad line past the foot of the hill upon which Mineral Mount was built. Still, Machen had achieved the pinnacle of Southern society, for as both planter and lawyer he belonged to the ruling class. And it was in that atmosphere of privilege that young Minnie grew up.
In a scrapbook which Zelda kept during her girlhood there is a photograph of her mother taken when Minnie Machen was nineteen. Her curling hair is caught up in a braided bun behind her pierced ears, from which fall small jeweled earrings in the shape of flowers. It is a pretty face, which with maturity would become handsome, for it is wellboned and definite. Her nose is straight, her square chin determined-looking, and only the thinness of her lips mars a face that would otherwise have been called beautiful. Beneath the photograph is the inscription "The Wild Lily of the Cumberland."
Minnie was the artistic member of her family and her poems and short sketches were frequently published in local Kentucky newspapers. She was an ardent reader of fiction and poetry, and when she ran out of books to read she turned to the encyclopedia.
But her dreams centered upon the stage. She had a small clear soprano voice and she played the piano nicely. Her father sent her for "finishing" to Miss Chilton's School in Montgomery, Alabama. His good friend Senator John Tyler Morgan lived in Montgomery, and it was at a New Year's Eve ball given by the Morgans that Minnie met a nephew of Senator Morgan's, the quiet and courtly young lawyer Anthony Dickinson Sayre, whom she would eventually marry.
She was not, however, so smitten by Mr. Sayre that she would relinquish a trip to Philadelphia which she had persuaded her father to allow her. She spent the winter season in Philadelphia with friends of her family, and while there she pursued her secret ambition by studying elocution. When Georgia Drew, the head of the famous Drew-Barrymore theatrical family, held a tryout for one of her plays, Minnie read for her and was offered a role in the company. Machen learned of his daughter's adventure and was outraged. He ordered her home at once, telling her that he would rather see her dead than on the stage. Minnie returned to Kentucky immediately, but she had suffered a disappointment she never forgot. Years later, with her family grown and out of her home, she shifted the story slightly, remarking to a neighbor that if she hadn't married judge Sayre she would have had a career in the opera or on the stage; she reconciled herself by singing in the choir of the Church of the Holy Comforter, which she attended without her husband.
Anthony Sayre's family took pride in having been among the early settlers of Long Island, and they eventually came to Alabama, via New Jersey and Ohio, after the territory achieved statehood in 1819. By the time of the Civil War, some forty years later, their sentiments were entirely Southern.
Anthony's father founded and edited a newspaper in the rural town of Tuskegee and later moved to Montgomery, where he was editor of the Post. Sayre Street, which ran through the most fashionable section of Montgomery, was named in honor of Anthony's uncle, who had built the White House of the Confederacy for Jefferson Davis and who was a founder of the First Presbyterian Church. Anthony's mother, Musidora Morgan, was the sister of Senator John Tyler Morgan, who served in the United States Senate for thirty-one years...Zelda. Copyright © by Nancy Milford. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.