On a Lark

19 June 2014 | 2:44 pm By:

Rosemary Powell JamesThis story has danger, espionage, success and fame. It’s got fashion, the arts, the mob, the finer things in life. It’s got conspiracy, courtroom antics, threats, literary greats, famous musicians, oil money, movie sets. And – while Rosemary Powell James ’59 may not have dreamed up the drama or read for the roles – this story belongs to her.

By Alicia Lutz ’98

Photography by Gately Williams

It doesn’t matter what role she’s playing, Rosemary Powell James ’59 has never followed a script. She’s never had a problem with improv, with trying out a part just to see where it takes her. It’s in her nature to take things as they come, to follow her whims.

Like the time she ended up on a cruise to Nassau after interviewing the captain of the Norwegian SS Bergensfjord for Charleston’s The News and Courier.

“The ship is so glamorous – big and dreamy white and beautifully lit, I am just head over heels in love with it,” she explained to her friend and colleague Barbara Williams, who’d come over to James’ Church Street apartment to help her pack. “I couldn’t resist booking passage, and I’m leaving tonight.”

“And you called the office?” Williams asked her, still unsure how you can be going about your workweek one minute and packing for a cruise to the Bahamas the next. Especially when she knew what a workaholic James really was.

“Yes, I’m all set!”

And, with that James pulled on her gloves, picked up her suitcase and hugged her friend goodbye.

“It was purely on a lark,” James recalls, some 53 years later. “Just like the rest of my life, as it turns out.”

It’s true: Much of James’ life has been dictated by impulse – taking whatever opportunities life offers her and running with them. That’s not to say she’s not a planner; she is. She’s just never been one to plot out a life plan for herself and plod along with it.

She understood from an early age that she loved design and writing. As a student at Myrtle Beach High School, she worked for the Myrtle Beach Sun every afternoon – making up ads, doing social notes, covering news stories. She loved the work, but it was her Pulitzer Prize–winning publisher, Mark Garner, who inspired her to go to journalism school at Syracuse University.Rosemary Powell James

“My original idea had been to take design and journalism and be a writer for shelter magazines, like House & Garden, so my college credits were heavy in that direction,” says James, who lost most of those credits when, in 1957, she transferred to the College to get away from the cold. “Except for a paltry few hours of French, English and biology, the only things that transferred were bridge, cha-cha-cha and knitting! And they all transferred very well!”

In Charleston, she majored in U.S. history and showed off her bridge skills at Freda’s on George Street and her cha-cha steps at the Bowery Ball, the Delta Delta Delta sorority fundraiser.

“She’s a fabulous dancer. I mean, that girl can shag!” says Margaret Jenkins Skinner ’60, a sorority sister and fast friend who remembers a twinkle in James’ green eyes, “her turned-up little nose and always that little smile. She was an exotic creature to me. It was beyond my imagination that any Southern girl would go to Syracuse.”

Another thing that made James stand out to Skinner: She worked through college. She had a variety of jobs – waiting tables; interning for a magazine; working in the King Street office of Edwards, a chain of department stores that her father managed. After college, she taught at Moultrie High School, and The News and Courier sent her to Duke University for a summer course in using newspapers as teaching tools. This led to a job in women’s news, which allowed James to write features about celebrities like Zazu Pitts and Rose Kennedy for both The News and Courier and The Evening Post.

She liked to work. Plus, it allowed her the bankroll necessary to keep up her penchant for nice things – whether it be a skirt from Elza’s or shoes from Ellison’s.

“She’s always had a flair for putting together clothes to make them look wonderful. I saw that spark in her early on. She’s got style and she’s been showing it forever!” says Williams, who joined The News and Courier as a political reporter after James had been made fashion editor, which had her traveling to fashion shows everywhere from New York to Paris, Rome to London. “I think you can just look at her and see the artistic part of her. It’s a whole presentation she is putting together.”

But it wasn’t just her clothes that made James stand out in those days. She was the only person Williams knew, for example, who would just go out and buy a piece of silver – especially at their age, and on their salaries.

“Even when we were young, she wanted beautiful things. She wanted silver, so she’d save up to buy it,” says Williams. “She’s always had refined taste, and she’s always had this visual thing.”

And, even then, nowhere was beauty more important than in James’ place. She needed beauty to surround her in her life. And – growing up in Panama and, later, in Myrtle Beach and Charleston – she was accustomed to finding colorful landscapes, people and architecture all around her.

“To me, place has always been more important than anything,” says James from her living room in New Orleans’ French Quarter, music from the street performers on Royal seeping through the guillotine windows.

Place, as it turns out, is more important than anything to her story, too. And, when she visited some friends in New Orleans in 1963, she decided – again, on a lark – to apply for a job at the States-Item. She got the job and moved to New Orleans in 1964.

•••

In many ways, this story belongs every bit as much to New Orleans – its people, its culture, its history – as it does to Rosemary James. New Orleans wrote the drama, the characters, the premise, the tone. And New Orleans set the stage – it is the stage – for nearly every act that she has had a role in, for every scene that she’s walked onto.

“I see this city as living theater,” says James. “It allows you to try on new ideas about yourself. People here are continually changing who they are.”Rosemary Powell James

Without this place as a backdrop, there wouldn’t have been a story for her to break about District Attorney Jim Garrison using public funds in his unofficial investigation into the JFK assassination. She wouldn’t have witnessed Garrison’s determined campaign to prove that New Orleans native Lee Harvey Oswald hadn’t done this alone. She wouldn’t have heard what she came to call, “his outlandish theories du jour.” And she wouldn’t have covered the trial of Garrison’s “unfortunate scapegoat,” Clay Shaw.

“If you told this story in any other city, people would not believe it ever happened. It was like falling down the proverbial rabbit hole, with Garrison’s string of surprise, certifiable lunatics on parade every day. It was paranoiac-schizophrenic–engineered fiction,” remembers James. “The long-range tragedy of the short-term tragedy is that, because Garrison was so full of that well-known waste material, he ruined the chances of a realistic inquiry by any serious investigator.”

Among reporters covering the case, the consensus was that out-of-town elements of the American Mafia were behind the assassination – and Garrison’s reaction to those who suggested as much raised suspicion that he was protecting local mob figures who might have had roles as facilitators.

“I mentioned this to Garrison,” James told both CNN, when she was interviewed for its documentary series, The Sixties, and Tom Brokaw when he came to her home in 2013 to interview her for a two-hour NBC News special and companion book, Where Were You? America Remembers the JFK Assassination, excerpts of which also appeared on Everything Changed: JFK’s Life and Death. “Garrison came at me hard, saying he was going to haul me before a grand jury. I shot back, ‘If I were you, I would not. I have uncovered a lot about you that I can’t wait to report.’ That was the last I heard of it.”

That wasn’t exactly true, though. Things had started happening. There was surveillance. Threatening phone calls. And then, one day, she came home to find two of the pups from her litter of Maltese on her front step. Someone had drowned them.

“I was certain Garrison’s goons did it,” she says. “He had these crazed groupies who freaked out over anything bad said about him. I never was scared of Garrison, but I was truly afraid of those out-of-control fanatics.”

During this time, James had established herself among local media as a serious, hard-nosed print journalist. She’d started out covering the maritime and oil industries, but was best known for her work in New Orleans courts and politics by 1968, when – on a lark – she moved over to WWL-TV.

She’d wanted a new scene, and that’s what she got in her new role as a TV personality, anchoring during elections and covering everything from New Orleans politicians to national political conventions to Mafia don trials to hurricanes. She had mixed emotions about the celebrity that came with the job, however.Rosemary Powell James, New Orleans

“Just by your presence on the air, people think they know you. And that’s both the best and the worst part about being on television,” she says. “You go into their homes at night when they’re having dinner or a drink, and, since you speak to them
in the intimacy of their homes, they expect you to recognize them, too.”

She preferred her more behind-the-scenes work as a writer, and – using her established byline even after separating from her ex-husband, Judson James – continued writing a weekly political column for Figaro and freelancing for New Orleans Magazine and other publications. Still, she wanted something different.

After eight years on TV, James took a job with the Port of New Orleans, reorganizing its public relations and marketing and coordinating the port’s legislative liaison program.

“I literally did myself out of a job there,” she quips. “We figured it would take five years to get everything the port needed from the legislature, and we got it all in the first year.”

Thus began one of her most lucrative roles to date: She created a communications firm, taking on Strachan Shipping Company as her first client, and, subsequently, oilman and financier Louis Roussel, who invented the jack-up rig for offshore drilling.

“I did very well when I had my PR company,” says James, who had gained a good reputation among shipping companies and independent oil people and counted a number of Fortune 500 companies among her clients. “But PR and advertising is fraught with feast-or-famine drawbacks. Plus, after I married again, the frantic midnight emergency phone calls – ‘the cat cracker has blown, get your ass out to the refinery’ – reached intolerable levels. But, yes, that has been a real moneymaker for me.”

Since her arrival in New Orleans, James had coauthored Plot or Politics? The Garrison Case and Its Cast (a book that “was almost like a playbill” about the Garrison investigation into the JFK assassination); was singled out four times for the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press’ Frank Allen Award for best story or series of the year; had won the national Sigma Delta Chi Award for Courage in Magazine Reporting for her New Orleans Magazine story on corruption in the Louisiana criminal justice system; had her own weekly political talk show, On the Line, on the local PBS station, WYES-TV; was named Public Relations Person of the Year; had earned many first-place plaques for advertising; and had established herself as an expert in Louisiana politics and oil and maritime affairs.

“I’ve had a mixed-bag experience, but it’s all been beneficial,” says James, who, in 1988, took a different direction altogether when she started Faulkner House Designs to renovate and decorate historic properties. “You get bogged down, dissatisfied, doing one thing, why not try on a new hat?”

In her role as designer, she has received three Vieux Carre Commission awards and has been showcased in such magazines as The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Departures, Southern Living, Creative Life, House Beautiful, Traditional Home, New Orleans Living and House & Garden. She has designed custom furniture, lamps, chandeliers and other accessories, as well as a group of limited-edition folding screens with antique Venetian lace patterns and a limited-edition fabric featuring famous Southern writers. She also supervised the creation of draperies for interior sets for the movie Interview with the Vampire.

“I adore textiles: feeling them, putting them together, using them to create a color direction,” says James. “I like change, too. And sometimes it’s just time to move on or redecorate.”

And New Orleans has given her that opportunity time and time again – to move on, to refresh, to improvise. It has given her the perfect place for reinvention.

•••

For someone living off script, Rosemary James sure made quite a prediction that first time she visited New Orleans in October 1963. Of course, there’s no way she could have known she was writing her own story, foreshadowing what was to come, when she and her friends were cutting through Pirate’s Alley to get beignets at Café Du Monde on Decatur Street and she pointed to a tall, narrow 1830s Greek revival townhouse and said, “I will live in that house one day.”The Faulkner House, New Orleans

She just liked the looks of it. She liked the balconies, the way it fit like a puzzle piece with the adjoining structures, the view of St. Anthony’s Garden behind St. Louis Cathedral.

“It was place perfect,” says James, who loved it, too, because William Faulkner – with whom she was a little obsessed at the time – had lived in the house. “I think it was a subconscious desire for Faulkner’s house that made me trot over to the newspaper and apply for a job.”

Twenty-five years later, she and her husband, oil and tax lawyer and bibliophile Joseph DeSalvo, bought the property and began renovating it to include a bookstore on the first floor and their living quarters on the upper three floors. James got her design license and established her design firm to oversee the renovation and take advantage of the wholesale prices.

For two years, they reconfigured the miniature-scaled rooms of the house, turning staircases around to make room for closets, closing off inefficient doorways, making fireplaces operable, adding storage space and powder rooms. And, finally, decorating the home for both elegance and livability.

The process paid off, as the final interior – with its Louis XVI and Directoire furnishings and the artwork of New Orleanians George Dunbar and George Dureau and Charlestonians Linda Fantuzzo and fellow CofC alum (and Barbara Williams’ late husband) Manning Williams ’63 – appeared in publications such as Southern Accents and Metropolitan Home, which helped James’ design career take off.

“I have a good spatial eye, but our house was a test. We have enough rooms, but they’re all doll size,” says James, who had to sell off the English and American antiques they’d collected over the years to buy smaller French provincial furnishings to fit. She also built in custom storage, including one that opens up to reveal a widescreen TV right above a silver service. “It’s an eccentric house full of charm. I like it well enough, but it’s very hard to live and entertain in such tiny rooms.”

Still, plenty of notable houseguests have made themselves comfortable in the home: Roy Blount Jr., Elizabeth Spencer, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, William Styron, Nobel Prize in Literature winner Derek Walcott and the College’s own Bret Lott – whose first book signing for his novel Jewel was held at Faulkner House Books – to name a few. The first guest to stay overnight in the house was Joan Williams, who had a longtime liaison with Faulkner.

“She loved being in the house, because she said she could feel his presence. We all feel it,” says James, climbing the steps (each with its own stack of books) to the cozy fourth-floor guest suite where so many writers have stayed. “The house has a good feeling about it. There is that feeling of a communion of souls here.”

Faulkner lived on the first floor of the house while establishing himself as a writer in New Orleans and completing his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay.

“New Orleans has a great track record for nurturing creativity. It’s a nonjudgmental city, encouraging one and all to try on new persona. And that was very obvious in Faulkner’s exploits here,” says James. “He loved the drama of showing up in some new guise. One of his favorite roles was as the World War I RCAF pilot with a silver plate in his head. You know, he tried it out. And then he would try out some other nonsensical thing.

“That’s what people do here,” continues James. “Everybody in New Orleans loves costuming, playing new roles, trying on new masks to see how they fit.”

Despite its small rooms, the Faulkner House has turned out to be the perfect fit – both as a home and as an occupation.

“We decided that we were trustees of part of the Faulkner heritage and part of the New Orleans literary heritage, and that we had an obligation to share the building with others,” says James, explaining that she and her husband opened up Faulkner House Books on Faulkner’s birthday, September 25, 1990. “On a lark – really a bit of a spoof – we called it the First Annual Meeting of the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society.”

The 500 attendees who showed up at the black-tie celebration – which included well-known writers giving readings and toasts at the nearby Le Petit Theatre and a block party with music, food and wine – urged the couple to make the party a tradition. From there, the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society was created to salute not just Faulkner, but all good writers “who provide the finest possible role models for encouraging young people to discover the rewards of reading and writing well.”

“The vision for the society has expanded every year. Some new project for readers and writers occurs, and we go for it. It’s as simple as that,” says James. “It’s just grown like topsy in terms of what we do.”

The William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, for example, was established in 1992 to help unknown writers get published. With categories for short story, novel, novella, novels-in-progress, narrative nonfiction books, essays, poetry and short stories by a high school student, the international competition seeks to find new, talented writers and assist them in finding publishers for their work. It counts among its winners the now widely published Stewart O’Nan and National Book Award winner Julia Glass. Winners receive cash prizes, are published in the society’s journal, The Double Dealer, and are invited to present at the society’s annual conference, Words and Music, a Literary Feast in New Orleans.

Bringing together readers, new and established writers, scholars, editors, literary agents, publishers and jazz and classical musicians in a celebration of literature and writing, this five-day conference is where James shines.

Rosemary Powell James and Joseph DeSalvo

Rosemary Powell James and her husband, Joseph DeSalvo

“She didn’t just do a literary conference – she brought music into it, because New Orleans loves its music. She knew to do that. Words, she knew were great, but it’s New Orleans, so she brought in the music: Words and Music,” says Williams. “Rosemary’s creativity spans many fields: design, words, entertaining – and I think she’s used that creativity perfectly in her making this conference something unique and something people in New Orleans want. She makes it fun. It’s like a great vacation that stimulates your mind. You’re learning, but you’re having fun. It’s the complete package.

“I think her PR experience has played a role in her success there, because she knows how to write to make people want to come be a part of this event. And her flair for entertaining is evident there, too. Nobody wants to miss one of Rosemary’s events – even book signings at the bookstore – of course they want to come: It’s at Rosemary’s!” laughs Williams. “There’s just this flair that she has. And she’s used it as a tool. She knows what to say, how to draw people in. She can just whip up enthusiasm.”

In addition to the conference, the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society began publishing its literary journal, The Double Dealer, in 1992. A revival of the 1920s journal that published the first work of Faulkner, the journal showcases established writers alongside debut writers and provides writing, editing and small-press publishing experience – as well as course credit – for interns from New Orleans¬–area universities.

“Working with these students is important to me. I like helping young people get focus in their work,” says James, who typically has three student interns every semester. “I like writing, reading, editing and page design, and working with developing writers to help them get their work published is also important to me.

“I think for me, everything comes into focus with the society,” she concludes.

“In all this is an opportunity to use everything she’s perfected throughout her life,” agrees Williams. “So, in that way, this is kind of the crowning achievement of her career – it’s like it’s all been leading to this. And how nice to find things along the way that have led to such a meaningful career.”

It is, perhaps, the role of her lifetime.

•••

From the beginning, Rosemary James knew she was interested in writing and design. And, for a character without a script, she managed to keep her story on point – even if it was just freelance writing and styling for lifestyle magazines along the way.

“There have been so many phases of her own talent: Serious reporter for print and TV, having her own TV show on public television, decorating, her own marketing company,” says Skinner. “But writing, always writing.”

“Each one of her careers folds into the next; she has incorporated each thing into the next thing,” says Williams. “I think literature is the most important part of her career. Her support for the literary world is amazing.”

And it has been recognized by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, which awarded James and her husband a Lifetime Achievement Award for the contributions they’ve made to the literary arts through the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society.

“The Faulkner Society has impacted the lives of so many people. I really think the mark she’s made in the literary world has made the biggest difference,” says Skinner. “There are so many models today of the successful career woman in a corporate setting, but Rosemary has had successful careers in the arts, in journalism, with big oil companies. She’s truly a modern-day Renaissance woman.”

James says it’s simpler than that – that the thread tying her work together is simply her passion for creation.

“I enjoy coming up with concepts and working with others to flesh them out,” she says. “I did that with the PR company, with design and now with the Faulkner Society.”

She did that, too, shortly after Hurricane Katrina, when her agent asked her to come up with a concept for a collection of essays about New Orleans, and she put together the book My New Orleans: Ballads to the Big Easy by Her Sons, Daughters, and Lovers, published by Simon & Schuster. She only had 30 days to do it, but she managed to track down 29 contributors (including Bret Lott), compile and edit their essays – all from her flat on the second floor of an early-19th-century Federal mansion in Charleston’s Ansonborough neighborhood.

“Rosemary has really come to represent not just the literary scene in New Orleans, but the city as a whole,” says Williams. “She’s got that great way of talking about it – with affection and fascination – she speaks with such love. She has really found her place there.”

But, as James warns in her book’s foreword: In New Orleans, “just when you think you’ve finally figured someone out, that person will disappear from the plot, only to reappear in a new scene, reborn.”

At this point, says Williams, she wouldn’t be surprised if James makes another shift.

“I don’t think anyone who knows Rosemary is surprised by anything she does or by the energy that she has to do things extraordinary. Her energy is really amazing,” she says, pointing to James’ latest role as the pro bono director of public relations and community relations for the Bishop Perry Center, a mission created by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, for which she has – among other things – produced full-house audiences for a series of six benefit concerts. “Nothing surprises us.”

And yet it’s all been a surprise to James.

“Everything I’ve done has been on a lark. There’s been no plan. So, my life seems haphazard to me,” says James, whose priest recently told her to look at it this way: “Whenever you have not known what you’re going to do next, you found the energy, or the willpower, the determination to move in a different direction. Maybe you don’t have a plan, but God has one for you.”

“And,” says James, “when I think about his words – when I look back over my life, all of the seemingly whimsical decisions, the quick role changes with their attending risk-taking, the opportunities and adventures may not have been just on a lark after all.”

That may be true, but, if anything, Rosemary James proves that sometimes it’s better not to read the script. Sometimes you just have to get on stage. Improvise. Put on different masks. See what fits. Because if you find the right role in the right place, your story will write itself.

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