Percy Family Photo Album
Soon afterwards she married her secret love. (I think she’d had all along, Uncle Hampton, who later made a huge fortune in London in World War 1 by importing American produce and ran it up in the twenties). So Aunt Wilma got even richer than “Big Mama,” and a big house in London, one up the Thames and three cars (one was a touring car, one a Bentley, one a sport’s car). So Aunt Wilma got richer than “Big Mama” by marrying G. Hampton-Lewis. His real name was George Lowe and he was from a very distinguished family from Savannah. In fact, one of his relatives had founded the Girl Scouts of America and had a mansion there that I’ve visited. But, in the South still impoverished from “The War”, Hampton had tried to get rich quick and had run afoul of the law and had served a year in the Atlanta federal penitentiary for stock fraud. When he got out, he went to Europe where he was making money importing American produce to Hamburg but, then World War 1 started, he moved to London and got frightfully rich. Aunt Wilma and “Big Mama” would always rival each other about who had crossed the Atlantic more but “Big Mama” – although she’d lost the rest of her money in ’33, and just had some land left. Hampton lost a lot in ’29 but he made some back in the 30’s. Anyhow they would argue who had crossed the Atlantic more in some fancy ocean ships.
So I have Aunt Wilma’s picture that was painted by Lady Maude-Hall Jones in London in 1920. They paid her $5,000 for the portrait, which was exhibited in the first row of the Royal Academy and later also in Paris and Brussels. And of course Lady Hall-Jones was married to an even more famous portrait painter, who’d been knighted for his portraits.
Aunt Wilma and Uncle Hampton came back to America in the last civilian liner out of England in 1939, having been there through the First World War and after having lured in the Pacific Palisados when Big Mama and Uncle Hampton in 44 and 45 eventually settled in Fort Myres, Florida, where I would frequently visit them. When she died, I think when I was teaching in St Louis in 1967. But she was also a great horsewoman and in World War 1 she had taught the Tommys how to do the Australian crawl and became a lifetime member of the Royal Life Saving Society. Uncle Hampton had been a founding member of the American Club in Grovenor Square and once he’d even run for parliament even – they called him a “denatured” or “denaturalized” America because he and Wilma had gotten British citizenship and he ran as a Conservative in some hopelessly Liberal or maybe Labour constituency.
“Big Mama”, as I called her – I think my mother wanted to put her down this way, because my mother hated her large, overweight mother-in-law – was the most important person for me during my infancy and boyhood. In fact, when I was born in the Baptist hospital in 1933, my parents were living in Memphis in the large house that she had rented when she returned to Memphis from LA after the crash of 1929. Also living there was my father’s younger brother, Walker. And they all imposed on my poor mother, who had to fire the furnace in the morning for this fairly large Victorian rented house.
I often spent weekends with “Big Mama” after we moved in with my mother’s mother (grandmother as I called her), before the birth of my younger brother Dent “minor” Percy, who died there in infancy. But then after my parents bought their own house when I was five, “Big Mama” would rescue me from the pandemonium of our house where my father was all too often either drunk and abusive or sleeping off a binge. My mother was driven to distraction, especially after the death of my younger brother at aged two while we were living with grandmother.
So “Big Mama” would rescue me and take me to her apartment on weekends, when school started, and many other times during the summer to take me down to the small plantation seven miles south on Highway 61 that she ran with the help of 12 to 15 black families. So I got to see what a plantation was like. I adored her and she adored me. So she also took me to Michael’s house, whose great grandfather had been Secretary of War, after having served as Ambassador to Japan and Governor-General of the Philippines.
“Big Mama” had me get to know Michael's mother and grandmother Katrina, who though then somewhat mad, like her own mother, Admiral Simm’s daughter, sat upright with perfect posture on all day and evening. When her own mother had gone insane, Katrina served as the hostess in the Embassy in Japan, and in the Governor-General’s Palace in Manila, and when her father became Secretary of War in Washington. She directed me to their rather larger outside world.
Now “Big Mama” was the oldest child of Grandmunnie, who I also have a picture of. “Big Mama’s” father had died when she was quite young and they were poor tobacco farmers in Kentucky. This branch of the family Yarborough clan is the only one, as far as I know, that hadn’t had any slaves. “Big Mama” was born Caroline Yarborough, with six younger siblings. So at aged 15 Grandmunnie sent ‘Big Mama” to Memphis to work in the Guarantee Title Trust Office at a time, when virtually no ladies worked in offices. “Big Mama” was as smart as hell. So there she met “Fafa,” as I called him. “Fafa” was 20 years older, a “happy-go-lucky” fast living, fast-drinking, lady-charmer and man about town, a widower from aged 30. I believe they began having an affair when “Big Mama” was 15 or 16 but before “fafa” married her, he sent her to a very fancy prep school in Tarrytown on the Hudson in New York, whose name will come to me, and for three years she was educated amongst the fanciest Yankee ladies.
Now already in Kentucky Big Mama had become a great horse woman and this helped her in society. “Fafa” bought her a great Stallion, John Darling, whom she worshipped as much as she did him. So they had three kids: my father William, a lesbian daughter Aunt Ladiy, and the youngest child, my Uncle Walker – who later got the rank of Ambassador, after having entered the Airforce in WW 2 as a private. He came to head the American team negotiating Air Traffic Controls in the world in Montreal. But she had tried to abort him when she had got mad at “Fafa” and rode recklessly on John Darling in a rage trying to destroy her fetus but he came out allright though blue at birth.
Now “Big Mama” taught me all about family history. When she married into the Percy family, she had been convinced that they were descended from the earls of Northumberland. “Fafa” was the family genealogist of his generation. So she completely dominated my life, getting me interested in foreign things, particularly through Michael’s family who’d lived abroad in Europe for so many years as well as in Japan and the Philippines. And then when I was 11 and 12, she drove me for two summers (I was navigating from) Memphis to Los Angeles to visit her lesbian daughter, my Aunt Lady.
When Big Mama died in 1946, that ended a big chapter in my life but by then, thank god, I’d gotten into Pentecost Garrison Academy. The old maid who ran it got me off to Middlesex School in Concord, Mass. two years later when I was 14. Now “Big Mama” was not only beautiful and brilliant, she got two of her poor sisters married to millionaires: red-headed Aunt Wilma, who had the portrait painted that I’ve put up, and Aunt Jessie, who was even more a platinum blonde. “Big Mama” was a regular blonde. Their two younger sisters didn’t marry so well: one Aunt Adelaide married a foreman, a sort of manager, of Tennessee Coal and Iron, whose son Anthony Jennett played football with Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama, and became a major in the army. My Great Uncle Walker Percy had married the heiress and sold it to Andrew Carnegie. The other, Aunt Daisy was quite charming, but liked small dark men and was married to a series of Italians, the last of whom I got to know and in L.A.
So Aunt Wilma had all these luxuries and had this photo beautifully painted but Grandmunnie was the real driving force, she’d sent “Big Mama” off to Memphis. Then “Big Mama” had succeeded Fafa and Wilma married to his brother’s law partner and married Jesse to a millionaire. Grandmunnie I met, when Aunt Wilma came through Memphis with Hampton on the way back to Europe in 1946. So after the war they went back to see what had happened to their houses and stuff. She tried to leave Grandmunnie with “Big Mama,” but “Big Mama” was too bust running the plantation and “daddy” had a fight with Aunt Wilma, I guess that’s the reason she disinherited him. She and Hampton had wanted to adopt him after he graduated from Stanford Law School and stayed with them in London… but he insisted on coming back to Memphis.
Below is by far the most important family portrait and it's never been published before
The last picture is of Nanna Armstrong with her two sisters. They were the grand-daughters of William Armstrong a very successful and I guess ruthless Indian agent who became very rich. He had his three daughters painted, I think in the early 1850s. At that time the major American portrait painter was Thomas Sully, who traveled quite a bit. He taught at Philadelphia and had many students over many years. Thomas Sully kept a meticulous account of all his commissions but I was very disappointed not to find a record of this portrait among them. But there was a recent exhibit and in it there was something very similar three young ladies, they slanted in the opposite direction of my great grandmother, Nanna Armstrong, who Uncle Will called Muir in his childhood as you see in Lanterns on the Levee. No one has yet published this portrait. (Will had the same relationship to Muir as I had to “Big Mama). I think it must have been painted by one of Sully’s many disciples around 1850. But in the catalogue of the recent exhibit as other one by Sully himself very similar and slanted the other way, painted in the 1820’s or 1830’s I think. This is the most important of all the family portraits. The others were all published in Wyatt-Brown’s magnificent book The House of Percy. But he didn’t know about this. William Armstrong Percy, my grandfather was her second child, the elder being the U.S. Senator LeRoy Percy. So William Armstrong Percy was named for General James Trooper Armstrong’s son, the Indian agent William Armstrong, this I’m sure is the most significant of all the family portraits and the first time it’s ever been mentioned in print. The Armstrong sisters were not as beautiful as the Yarboroughs but they were much richer – that is before “The War,” which wrecked 60 % of the South’s wealth. Nancy Armstrong Percy brought a lawsuit agains Sterling R. Cockrill to recover a one-fifth interst in certain realty and this is the copy from the Federal Reporter. (as pdf)