It is no longer clear to me as to when I first read the words of Julia Reed. But it is quite vivid as to when I moved from being a reader of hers to being a fan.
For years, I had devoured her articles in New York fashion and Washington news magazines. It was, however, the several pages that Vogue dedicated to her wedding — she married late in life but did it grandly in her Mississippi hometown of Greenville — that captured my loyalty.
Until then, I had no idea that she was one of us. A Southerner as pure as the glimmering cotton bolls that dot the fields of her beloved Delta.
I could never get enough of Julia Reed’s stories. She became “my Southern writer” because Southern writers always have at least one to whom we look for entertained inspiration.
Julia’s South was vastly different from my South. She was the progeny of old Nashville money, wedded to Delta prominence, influence and wealth. My South is a gathering together of pole beans, moonshine and river baptisms.
Hers was composed of perfectly-aged whiskey, expensive crystal, silver and a decades-old family retreat on the Gulf Coast.
While my childhood was spent on a creek bank with a heartful of daydreams and an armful of books, Julia often visited her maternal grandmother in Nashville’s exclusive Belle Meade where she and her cousin, Frances, would play in a room reserved specifically for Louis Vuitton luggage.
I never knew anyone who traveled with a complete set of Vuitton luggage from Paris. I still don’t.
When Frances died too young and Julia poured her grief into a story for Garden and Gun magazine, I cried with her.
My favorite Julia book was “The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story.” In it, she detailed the stately old house that she set about to restore while running head-on into the thieves, liars and lazy folks we all encounter when taking on too much of a project.
My South I knew intimately. The simplicity. The purity. The tattered Bibles. The set of white Corning Ware dishes trimmed in blue that Mama proudly used for supper every night.
Julia’s South was one I knew not at all. And I loved learning everything about it. Once, I was on a Mississippi Riverboat cruise — the American Queen — which stopped in Greenville for a day of literary visits. It was thrilling, of course, to see the town that Hodding Carter, William Alexander Percy, his nephew Walker Percy and Shelby Foote had decorated with fame.
“Are we going to see where Julia Reed was raised?” I asked the tour guide, hopeful and excited. She replied that the family preferred privacy.
I was disappointed but I understood. Once, I wrote Julia a letter and included a copy of my first book about Southern women. She replied with several handwritten pages on engraved, heavy stock stationery. I still count that letter among my treasures.
Two years ago, Jon Alverson, the proud publisher of Greenville’s Delta Democrat-Times, texted me about 9 p.m. one Friday night.
The succinct message hit my heart. “Julia Reed died. On my way to the newspaper to work the story.”
She had publicly announced a diagnosis of cancer, but anyone who was familiar with her and the way she irreverently thumbed her nose at anything she did not like — such as death — believed she would live to write myriad books and hundreds more essays.
It was sorrowful in many ways — the thought of her parents’ grief, how her beloved beagle, Henry, would mourn and my own selfishness at my entertainment that had disappeared like a vapor.
I’m grateful to still have my South with its delicious characters, abundance of life stories and oddities.
But my oh my, how I miss hearing about Julia Reed’s storied South.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.