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  • Storied Nashville
  • Sam Pickering (bio)
Ridley Wills II , Heritage, Highballs, and Hijinks: Colorful Characters I Have Known. Self-Published, 2010. xii + 226 pages. Illustrated. $28.95.

Ridley Wills ii has long been Nashville's faithful servant—among many other things serving on Vanderbilt's board of trustees, as chairman of the board of directors of Montgomery Bell Academy, and as chairman of the board of the YMCA Foundation of Middle Tennessee. For my part, however, I know him as the city's best writer of nonfiction. No writer has served the city so well. Ridley has written a shelf of books about Nashville and Middle Tennessee. A few of these are Yours to Count On, a biography of Sam Fleming the banker; The History of Belle Meade: Mansion, Plantation, & Stud; A Walking Tour of Mt. Olivet Cemetery; Belle Meade Country Club: The First 100 Years; Gentleman, Scholar, Athlete, a history of Montgomery Bell Academy; The Hermitage at One Hundred: Nashville's First Million-Dollar Hotel; and now Heritage, Highballs, and Hijinks: Colorful Characters I Have Known. All of Ridley's books are elegant and informative, filled with sweetness, the piercing light of intelligence, comfortable good humor, and a warm love and affection for place and for people. Not only do books furnish a room, as Anthony Powell puts it, but they also furnish the mind in the case of Ridley's books, which awakens my dozing memory, enabling me to recall and appreciate the town in which I grew up and which I, too, love.

A goodly crew of fiction writers have described or placed stories in Nashville. The dizzying dealings of Caldwell and Company, of Rogers C. Caldwell, Luke Lea, and of the Tennessee Bank in the 1920s provide the foundation for Robert Penn Warren's At Heaven's Gate. Peter Taylor set many of his stories in Nashville and Memphis. In fact, when I started writing and scribbled a paragraph or two about Nashville, Father advised me to stop and to leave him and his friends unembarrassed, saying, "You will never be able to write as well as Peter Taylor." O. Henry began "A Municipal Report" by describing a rainy day in Nashville: "Take a London fog 30 parts; malaria 10 parts; gas leaks 20 parts; dewdrops gathered in a brick yard at sunrise 25 parts; odor of honeysuckle 15 parts. Mix. The mixture will give you an approximate conception of a Nashville drizzle." Fifty years later, when I was a boy living on West End Avenue, the mixture was slightly different but just as unpleasant, clotting sinuses and causing the glottis to blow back and forth [End Page 499] like a curtain in front of an open window. A cloud of smoke caused by burning bituminous coal hung over the city, and soot crept through screens and spread across breakfast tables like dark granola. When I was young, Alfred Leland Crabb was probably Nashville's best-known novelist, at least best known in Nashville itself. In the early 1940s he wrote a trilogy of historical novels set in the city, all with culinary titles: Dinner at Belmont, Supper at the Maxwell House, and Breakfast at the Hermitage. The gustatory novel that begs to be written is Sunday Lunch at the Belle Meade Country Club—its dramatis personae not drawn from the late nineteenth century but from Ridley's colorful characters. In this unwritten novel before diners finish their fauçon salads, Neil Cargile would stop by the table showing off his newest dress. Neil was wondrously alive. He built and flew airplanes and designed and built mammoth dredges. Neil wasn't kinky; he simply delighted in frocks. He was a fashionista ahead of his time. In fact he was so conventional he was addicted to gallantry, as were others among Ridley's characters—one of Uncle Dudley Fort's sizzling "friends" was known as "Lamb Chop." After Neil sashays off and just as diners are spooning into caramel fudge balls, the most famous southern dancing man of my generation, Hugh Hunter Byrd, would be sure to appear, barefoot and holding his shoes in his hands. Hugh Hunter would have spent the previous evening dancing until dawn after...


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