New book tells sad, fascinating story of madam Belle Brezing

October 7, 2014

140929BelleBrezing0002Belle Brezing’s last and most famous house of ill repute, at 59 Megowan Street (now Eastern Avenue at Wilson Street).  The third story was added after an 1895 fire. She died there in 1940. Below, two undated portraits of Brezing. Photos courtesy UK Special Collections.

 

Belle Brezing closed her house of prostitution nearly a century ago. She died in 1940. So why is she still famous, the subject of endless fascination?

That question helped prompt Maryjean Wall to finish a biography of the notorious Lexington madam that she started as a University of Kentucky history student in the early 1970s.

“The more I heard about her, the more I wanted to do a book,” said Wall, who returned to UK and finished her doctorate in history after a long career as the Herald-Leader’s award-winning horse racing writer.

140929BelleBrezing0003“Here’s a person who lived in the shadows, but was so integral to this community that there is a big collection about her life in UK special collections,” Wall said in an interview. “The first thing you have to ask is why? Well, it’s because she was at the center of power in this community.”

Wall’s new book is Madam Belle: Sex, Money and Influence in a Southern Brothel (University Press of Kentucky, $24.95).

Brezing has long been a popular subject. The late E.I. “Buddy” Thompson, an auctioneer and local historian, wrote a biography of her in 1983 that went well beyond an earlier sketch by another local historian, lawyer William Townsend.

Brezing was clearly the model for Belle Watling, the generous madam in Margaret Mitchell’s classic Civil War novel, Gone With The Wind. Mitchell never confirmed her inspiration, but her husband, John Marsh, ate breakfast many mornings in Brezing’s kitchen while he was police reporter for the Lexington Leader.

Wall’s book adds new details about Brezing’s sad but financially successful life, most notably that she attempted suicide at least twice. Even as a 19-year-old prostitute, she was well-known enough in Lexington that her botched effort to swallow too much morphine in a suicide pact with another woman made the newspapers.

But the main contribution of Wall’s book, aside from a well-told tale, is that it adds context and perspective about the red-haired madam’s place in the power structures of both Lexington and the horse industry.

When Brezing died at age 80, copies of the Lexington Herald with the news quickly sold out. Time magazine even published an obituary.

She is buried beside her mother at Calvary Cemetery on West Main Street. Even now, her grave looks especially well-tended and is often decorated with flowers. The Catholic Diocese refused to let Wall see records related to Brezing’s grave, she said.

Looking back on Brezing’s early life, it is a wonder she succeeded at anything.

She was born Mary Belle Cocks in 1860 to a single, heavy-drinking prostitute in a rented house on Rose Street. When Belle was 18 months old, Sarah Cocks married George Brezing. He ran a saloon and grocery when he wasn’t beating his wife.

Belle was shunned at school, lost her virginity at 12 and had a child at 14. Sarah Cocks died when Belle was 15, leaving her alone with a mentally handicapped infant daughter, who would spend most of her life in institutions under an assumed name. After a brief marriage and divorce in her teens, Belle started working the streets.

Brezing then went to work for Jenny Hill, who operated Lexington’s most high-class house of ill-repute. It is now the Mary Todd Lincoln House museum, because Abraham Lincoln’s wife spent her childhood there a few decades before Hill arrived.

140929BelleBrezing0001“I’m very intrigued why she went from being a street prostitute on North Upper, which was then a bad neighborhood, trying to commit suicide with another woman — what was that about? — and then the same year she gets into Jenny Hill’s house,” Wall said. “She must have had to clean herself up.”

Brezing left Hill’s house in 1881 and opened her own on North Upper Street — a building now part of a Transylvania University athletic complex.

“I think in Jenny Hill’s she probably learned good language, good style, became sort of educated,” Wall said. “And she had a client list when she left, because she went back to North Upper under very different circumstances.”

Brezing moved to another North Upper house, then in 1890 to 59 Megowan St. — now Eastern Avenue — at the corner of Wilson Street. It was a mansion outfitted in elegant style that became the talk of the town and racing circuit.

Trotters were the popular sport then, and Brezing’s clients included many influential horsemen who passed through town. She had several wealthy patrons, most notably one — or perhaps both — of the Singerly brothers.

William and George Singerly of Philadelphia had inherited an industrial fortune. They fancied race horses and Belle Brezing. Singerly money not only bought and outfitted the Megowan Street house, but it allowed her to buy rental property around town. Brezing didn’t get rich on prostitution, Wall said, but with real estate investments.

Lexington had a large red-light district during this era of Victorian morality. Wall cites one grand jury report that said the city had 158 brothels. Brezing’s was fanciest, from its antique furnishings to the lavish parties she gave for wealthy customers.

When anti-vice crusaders periodically tried to close the red-light district, Brezing’s house would be shuttered briefly. But when Lexington filled with soldiers training for World War I, the Army did what city politicians would never do — put her out of business.

She lived her last two decades as a drug-addicted recluse in a crumbling mansion.

Brezing’s previous biographers were men of an earlier generation, who Wall says tended to portray her as a victim and social outcast.

“She was shunned by the women in this town for sure, but I don’t see her as ‘poor little Belle’ at all,” Wall said. “I see her as a person who could take circumstances and work them to her advantage. She did that all her life.”

The book tells how Brezing clawed her way to the top by using men, investing wisely and playing politics. It also explains how so many others made money from her illicit business: the liquor merchants, grocers, clothing retailers, furniture dealers and horse traders.

Wall said she tried to avoid glamorizing either prostitution or Brezing’s life choices.

“Never would I do that,” she said. “Belle fit a lot of the stereotypes we have of prostitutes. She was a drug addict. She had worked the streets. Because she was smart, she managed to succeed in spite of the gender prejudices of her time.”

Book signings

Oct. 11 — Cincinnati Books by the Banks Festival

Oct. 14 — Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington

Oct. 15 — Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort

Oct. 16 — Filson Historical Society, Louisville (Oxmoor Farm)

Oct. 23 — Paul Sawyer Public Library, Frankfort

Nov. 15 — Kentucky Book Fair, Frankfort


Book chronicles Lexington’s early ‘contemporary’ homebuilder

July 13, 2014

140709Isenhour0001This house,built on Breckenwood Drive in 1958, shows characteristics of Richard Isenhour’s contemporary homes: native Kentucky stone, lots of glass, cathedral ceilings, exposed post-and-beam construction and an effort to integrate indoor and outdoor spaces.

 

Richard Isenhour was a chemical engineer at Dupont in the late 1940s when he questioned his career choice in a letter to the Lexington woman who he would marry.

“The kind of job I’d like would be one that’s creative and always changing, where I can see what I’m accomplishing,” he wrote Lenora Henry. “I’d like to work on things I can improve.”

The Isenhours moved to Lexington in 1952, and he took up the occupation of his father-in-law, homebuilder A.R. Henry. Before long, Isenhour began looking for ways to improve his houses with modern styles and materials, as well as new ideas about how a house should function.

Richard Isenhour

Richard Isenhour

Isenhour went on to earn an architecture degree at the University of Kentucky and design and build nearly 100 unique homes in Lexington between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s. Now locally famous, these “Isenhour houses” were some of the first contemporary-style homes built in Lexington.

Larry Isenhour, a retired architect and one of the Isenhours’ four children, has just written a handsome, well-illustrated book documenting his father’s work: The Houses of Richard B. Isenhour: Mid-Century Modern in Kentucky(Butler Books, $45) He will sign copies at 2 p.m., July 19, at The Morris Book Shop. Information about other book events: Greenschemedesign.com.

Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and later Modernist architects, as well as by contemporary homes he saw in magazines and on family vacations, Isenhour experimented. This was at a time when people from all over the country were moving to Lexington to work at IBM and UK’s new College of Medicine.

His first bold design was for his own family’s 1956 home on Blueberry Lane. It helped Isenhour find clients who wanted something different than a traditional brick box with shutters.

140709Isenhour0008Isenhour’s designs featured post-and-beam construction and open floor plans. They had exposed wooden beams, cathedral ceilings and walls of glass and local limestone. On building lots, he preserved as many trees as possible. His houses seem more spacious than their modest sizes, and they are as much about utility as style.

“Isenhour’s best work is full of light, creating an inspirational sense of the blending of outdoors and indoors,” Lexington architect Graham Pohl writes in the book’s forward.

Jan and Phyllis Hasbrouck, a physician and nurse, came to Lexington in 1962 for his internship. They had grown up in Ithaca, N.Y., admiring contemporary architecture, so when they were ready to build a home, they asked Isenhour to design it.

“I’ve loved every bit of it — the glass, the stone, the openness,” said Phyllis Hasbrouck, who has lived there since 1967. “I feel closed in when I’m in a regular home now where the ceilings are low.”

Larry Isenhour

Larry Isenhour

But Isenhour houses were not for everyone. The book reproduces a 1968 letter a Lexington bank officer sent to one Isenhour client, declining his loan application. “We have difficulty in making the maximum loan on contemporary style homes because they are usually custom designed for a limited market,” the letter said.

Larry Isenhour, who lives in a contemporary home of his own design, began working on the book soon after his father’s death in 2006, collecting old drawings, photos and documents. His goal was to create a chronological catalog of his father’s best work to show how it evolved.

“I worked in almost all of them, either as a kid picking up wood or drawing the plans,” he said. But he never interviewed his father about the thought processes behind his designs — and wishes now that he had. Isenhour also had never written a book. Fortunately, his got help from his wife, Jan, a writer and retired director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

Only one of the 98 Isenhour houses has been demolished. Most have been well cared for, expanded and updated as tastes and technologies changed. They have been especially sought-after in recent years with the renewed popularity of Mid-Century Modern style.

At least four of the houses are now owned by architects. One is Tom Fielder, who got to know Isenhour and his work when he was an architecture student at UK.

When Fielder moved back to Lexington in 1990, he wanted his three children to attend Glendover Elementary School. So he drove around that neighborhood, which has the largest concentration of Isenhour houses, until he found one for sale. Then he called his real estate agent and asked her to put in a contract on it.

“She said, ‘I can’t do a contract on a house when you haven’t even seen the inside,'” he recalled. “I knew that Dick had designed the house and it was next to Glendover school. That’s all the information I needed to know.”

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Calumet book author to speak at Carnegie Center about writing

June 3, 2014

When Ann Hagedorn was growing up in Dayton, Ohio, her father would bring her to Lexington each spring break and they would visit horse farms. The most memorable one was Calumet.

“Calumet was always what he told us was the example of excellence,” she recalled, from the farm’s freshly painted white fences to its spotlessly clean barns.

So in 1991, when she was a Wall Street Journal reporter covering major corporate bankruptcies, she was both heartbroken and curious when she read that Calumet had filed for bankruptcy.

Hagedorn came to Lexington to read through the court file, figuring there was a good front-page story to be written. She soon realized this story of greed would also make a good book. Wild Ride: The Rise and Fall of Calumet Farm Inc. was published in 1994.

HagedornHagedorn will return to Lexington on Friday to be the keynote speaker at the third annual Books in Progress Conference at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. Other speakers include Frank X. Walker, Kentucky’s current poet laureate, and beekeeping mystery writer Abigail Keam.

The conference is designed to help people through the challenging process of writing a book and getting it published. For more information, and to register to attend, go to: Carnegiecenterlex.org.

“What we’re trying to do is create a sense of community among writers,” said Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center’s director. “While writing is a solitary endeavor, writers need a lot of help and support.”

Hagedorn, who has known Chethik since they were both reporters at the San Jose Mercury News in California, said she never planned to leave daily journalism for book writing; it was a natural evolution.

After Wild Ride was published, she returned to the Wall Street Journal and soon became fascinated with the subject of her second book, Ransom: The Untold Story of International Kidnapping, published in 1998.

“As much as I missed the newsroom, I decided this is what I was meant to do,” she said. “I started believing in the importance of narrative non-fiction books and kept finding topics.”

Her next three books were on diverse topics, but they shared a theme: periods of American history, from the 1830s to the present, when democracy has been under severe stress.

Hagedorn’s third book, published in 2003, was Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad. It told about men and women in southern Ohio who risked their lives for years to end slavery. The American Library Association named it one of the 25 most notable books of the year.

Next, she wrote Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919. Through narratives of key individuals, it told the story of the tumultuous year after World War I ended that gave birth to modern civil liberties. The 2007 book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

On Sept. 2, Simon & Shuster will publish Hagedorn’s fifth book, The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security. She said the book explores the recent rise of the private military and security industry, how these companies operate and why Americans should be concerned.

“I try to find stories or topics that I feel are important and need to be told through the narrative, non-fiction genre to make them more accessible,” she said.

Hagedorn said her talk Friday will focus on the lives of writers: “Who we are, what we do and how we can do it the very best we can. The larger theme is that we’re all in this together in terms of our quest, and in terms of the learning process.”

She also will lead a session on story structure, which she finds both the most challenging and rewarding part of writing.

Hagedorn said many people want to write, but success requires practice, hard work and a desire to keep learning. Even successful writers struggle, she said, recalling an interview she once had with the late Norman Mailer.

“He said he could not believe that every single time he did a book he felt challenged and scared and he learned a lot of new things about writing,” she said. “That’s the wonderful part. That’s the scary part. That’s what discourages people and makes them stop sometimes. It’s really what should drive you. Always around the corner there’s something new to learn. It shouldn’t defeat you, it should empower you.”


NY photographer explores historic Bluegrass homes in new book

May 24, 2014

140525KyBook0009The walled garden and orchard at Gainesway Farm was added by owner Antony Beck, a longtime friend of photographer Pieter Estersohn.  Beck suggested that Estersohn do the book, Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country, which has just been published.  Photo by Pieter Estersohn / Courtesy of Monacelli Press

 

Central Kentucky’s grand mansions and horse farms have been fodder for pretty picture books for more than a century, at least since Thomas A. Knight’s Country Estates of the Bluegrass came out in 1904.

Of the many books I have seen, the best has just been published: Pieter Estersohn’s Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country (Monacelli Press, $60).

The photographs are stunning, as they should be. Estersohn, 53, is one of America’s top “shelter” magazine photographers. He has shot covers for Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Southern Accents, Metropolitan Home and many other big magazines. This is his 23rd book.

140525KyBook0008What makes this book especially interesting and authentic are the places Estersohn chose to photograph. There are only a few of the usual suspects, too important to omit: Waveland, Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate.

Many of the other 15 properties are not well-known, even to many Kentuckians, but they are some of the most precious architectural gems of the Bluegrass. That didn’t happen by accident. Estersohn had inside help.

In a telephone interview, Estersohn said he and Antony Beck, owner of Gainesway Farm, have been best friends since they were 19. The New York-based photographer said he and his son, Elio, 10, have been visiting the farm regularly for years.

“It’s sort of like our home away from home,” he said. “It’s just such a magical environment to be on that farm. Antony’s landscaping is amazing.”

Beck suggested the book, and Estersohn quickly agreed. For more than a year, the photographer made quick trips to Kentucky between other jobs, scouting locations and making pictures. The initial focus was on equine culture, but the emphasis soon shifted to the much-loved examples of historic preservation Estersohn found.

“I wanted to find a balance,” Estersohn said, “between some things that were more humble and some things that were more extravagant and some things that were really over the top.”

Beck opened doors for Estersohn, and his key local contact was antiques dealer Gay Reading, owner of The Greentree Tea Room. Reading, who wrote the book’s well-informed introduction, has a curator’s eye and extensive local connections.

“He wanted a variety of styles and periods, and I chose places I thought were special and different,” Reading said. “Unless you’re a friend, you don’t get to see many of these gems. They are places where people are really living.”

140525KyBook0006Estersohn said he was charmed by the houses he photographed, their owners and the houses’ varied stages of restoration. He was especially impressed by Ward Hall in Georgetown, one of the nation’s largest and finest Greek Revival mansions.

Other highlights were Walnut Hall, where Margaret Jewett has preserved the ornate Victorian decorations her grandfather put there in the 1890s, and Elley Villa, an elegant Gothic Revival mansion near the University of Kentucky campus that was condemned before being lovingly restored by James and Martha Birchfield.

“I loved Mary Lou’s place,” Estersohn said of the 1792 farmhouse restored in the 1960s by horsewoman and socialite Mary Lou Whitney. “It’s sort of like a time piece. It’s a very specific expression of decoration, which I think is amazing.”

Other featured properties include Gainesway Farm; the Simpson Farm in Bourbon County, built in 1785 as a pioneer station; Welcome Hall near Versailles; Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate in Mercer County; Overbrook Farm; the Alexander Moore and Thomas January houses downtown; and Liberty Hall in Frankfort.

Estersohn photographed Botherum as its new owners, garden designer Jon Carloftis and Dale Fisher, were beginning their restoration. And he was moved by the much- damaged Pope Villa, the most significant house designed by America’s first great architect, Benjamin Latrobe.

“For Pope Villa, I hope we can elicit some financial attention so that it can be further renovated,” Estersohn said. “It is a very, very, very important piece of American architecture.”

Estersohn said he photographed the houses with a large-format digital camera. He used mirrors to even out natural light and illuminate dark corners and cavernous rooms.

Each chapter is accompanied by text that is well-researched and tightly written. Inexplicably, though, there is no text with the final chapter to explain the Iroquois Hunt Club.

“I thought the biggest challenge was going to be enrolling people to have their private residence shot, which is oftentimes the issue shooting for magazines in New York,” Estersohn said. “But I think there was such a regional pride and appreciation. Every single person was enthusiastic and wanted to contribute to the book.”

The photographer said what he enjoyed most about this project was “developing a very intimate experience” with the Bluegrass.

“I really feel like I know the area,” he said. “I can get around there very easily now. I know all the pikes. I know how to say Versailles.”

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Book combines cross-country unicycle ride, off-the-grid living

February 25, 2014

140219Schimmoeller0010AAMark Schimmoeller, author of Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America,  in the small cabin he and his wife, Jennifer Lindberg, built themselves on a wooded hillside in northern Franklin County. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

PEAKS MILL — Mark Schimmoeller has spent much of his adult life trying to slow down, think things through and contemplate his place in a hectic world.

These days, he does it with his wife, Jennifer Lindberg, in the wooded hills of northern Franklin County. For more than a dozen years, they have lived “off the grid” in a cabin they built themselves, growing much of their food and making time to read, write and reflect.

But as a young man in 1992, Schimmoeller took an even more unusual route. He filled a backpack with camping gear and rode a unicycle from North Carolina to Arizona. Nothing focuses your mind, he says, like traveling very slowly for six months on one carefully balanced wheel.

He has written about both adventures and his unusual life in a touching new memoir, Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America (Synandra Press, $26.95 hardcover, $14.95 paperback).

140219Slowspoke001With a glowing cover blurb from environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, the book is getting good reviews around the country. Schimmoeller will discuss and sign his book at 2 p.m. March 2 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington Green.

I met Schimmoeller, 46, in November at the Kentucky Book Fair after a friend insisted that I had to meet him and buy his book. After reading it, and looking at his website (Slowspokethebook.com), I couldn’t wait for the snow and ice to melt enough to visit the author at his cabin in the middle of a 250-acre woods.

“When we first moved here, we knew it was beautiful, but there were a lot of things we didn’t know about it,” Schimmoeller said as we walked across melting snow.

He showed me their garden and apple trees, the brick oven where they bake bread and the tool shed where his unicycle rests on a hook, gathering cobwebs. And he talked about their seasons of discovery: where the prettiest wildflowers bloom, and where the wild mushrooms flourish.

Schimmoeller grew up in Central Kentucky in a family that valued independence and intellectual pursuits more than money. He graduated from Transylvania University in 1989 with an English degree, and he has published poems and essays. He is working on a novel. Lindberg is a health-related educator.

Slowspoke alternates among three stories: Schimmoeller’s unicycle trip across America and the people he encounters; his personal journey of self-discovery, marriage and homesteading; and the couple’s efforts to buy a neighboring old-growth woods from a neighbor, who plans to log and develop it. His sweet, vivid prose weave an engaging tale, told in bite-size chapters.

Schimmoeller and Lindberg began building their cabin, which they call the Snuggery, in 2000. The home is neat, cozy, efficient and quite pretty, filled with natural wood, sunlight and books. South-facing windows keep it warm on sunny winter days, with help from a small wood stove.

Solar panels on the roof provide electricity. Rainwater is channeled into a stone cistern that Schimmoeller built. Pumps bring the water up to their kitchen and to an old claw-foot bathtub. There is a composting toilet in an outbuilding. Food from their garden is stored in the cellar, along with homemade wine.

“We enjoy being here and working here and having that reciprocal relationship with the land,” he said. “You grow to love the land as you are active on it. We like to be as self-sufficient as we can be, but we’re not purists.”

Schimmoeller and Lindberg’s lifestyle recalls Harlan and Anna Hubbard, a Kentucky couple from a half-century ago. Hubbard, a painter, wrote books about their adventures living on a shanty boat as it floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and their decades of homesteading along the Ohio River in Trimble County.

Like his adventure on a unicycle, Schimmoeller’s lifestyle is something many people find intriguing, because they know they could never do it themselves.

Schimmoeller, a shy and private person, said one of the hardest things about publishing his book has been going out to promote it. But he has been rewarded with about 30 letters so far from readers who found it inspiring.

“Generally, people like it that, at a time when we all seem to be rushed, I’m attempting to ease away from that a little bit,” he said. “I have never liked to rush, and I don’t like being rushed.”  

140219Schimmoeller0023The cabin, which Schimmoeller and his wife call the Snuggery, is “off the grid.” Water comes from a rain-collecting cistern, power from solar panels on the roof, and heat from a wood stove and South-facing windows.

 


Museum publishes new illustrated Lexington history book

November 13, 2013

Historic Lexington: Heart of the Bluegrass is a new illustrated history book published by the Lexington History Museum.

The book includes a 64-page history narrative written by Lexington lawyer Foster Ockerman Jr., followed by articles about 20 local companies and institutions bookcoverwhose sponsorship paid for the publication. All proceeds from the book, which sells for $50, will benefit the museum.

“What I wanted to write was a popular history,” Ockerman said of the one-chapter, chronological overview illustrated with historic and modern images. About 100 books were sold by pre-order, and 400 more are available.

Ockerman will be signing the book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Central Library, 140 E. Main St., and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

The Lexington History Museum has been reinventing itself since its home, the old Fayette County Courthouse, was closed in July 2012 because of lead paint hazards. The organization has opened several small “pocket museums” around downtown and plans more there and in Chevy Chase. Also, the museum is rebuilding its website to be more of a local history database.  


Writers celebrate 40 years of Kentucky’s unique Larkspur Press

June 4, 2013

130531GrayZeitz-TE0010

The University of Kentucky honored Gray Zeitz, center, last Friday on the 40th anniversary of his Larkspur Press in Monterey, which publishes hand-crafted books by  Kentucky writers. Before the ceremony at Margaret I. King Library, Zeitz, center, talked with Gay Reading, left, whose aunt, Carolyn Reading Hammer, taught Zeitz the art of printing at the King Library Press at UK. At right is Zeitz’s wife, Jean.  Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Richard Taylor recalled that when Gray Zeitz was establishing his Larkspur Press in the mid-1970s, he received a printing commission from the Kentucky Arts Council. Anxious state officials asked for a deadline, but Zeitz would not be rushed.

He replied to them with a metaphor drawn from his love for Kentucky’s native plants: “Who knows when the phlox will flower?”

Taylor, a former Kentucky poet laureate, told that story last Friday evening as more than 130 writers, artists, friends and fans gathered at the University of Kentucky’s Margaret I. King Library to honor Zeitz for four decades of continuous flowering.

Zeitz was lauded by Taylor and eight other writers and artists whose work the small press in rural Owen County has published over the years: Wesley Bates, Gabrielle Fox, Nana Lampton, Ed McClanahan, Maurice Manning, Maureen Morehead, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall and Jeff Worley.

The ceremony opened an exhibit of pieces produced by Larkspur Press, which has published more than 100 handmade books and countless broadsides since 1974. The free exhibit will be up through August. The library at 179 Funkhouser Dr. is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Larkspur Press, on Sawdridge Creek Road near Monterey, has a public open house each November, on the Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Last Saturday, Zeitz led a letterpress printing workshop at the King Library Press on UK’s campus. That was where he learned his art and trade, first as a student and then as an apprentice to director Carolyn Reading Hammer.

In the 1950s, Hammer and her husband, Austrian artist Victor Hammer, began a Kentucky tradition of fine letterpress printing using hand-operated presses, hand-set type and woodblock engravings.

130531GrayZeitz-TE0043Zeitz, 63, is one of their most successful protégés. Using century-old presses and thick, creamy paper, he prints elegant books that are hand-stitched and bound, in both fancy collector’s editions and affordable paperbacks.

“Gray is stubbornly and endearingly independent,” Taylor explained in his remarks. “He has steadfastly refused to become ensnared by the Internet. One of his friends designed a web page (larkspurpress.com) that Gray has no means or desire to see.”

But, as the writers and artists explained, Zeitz is much more than a printer. A poet himself, he carefully selects the writers, artists and works he wants to publish. Most are from Kentucky.

In addition to those who spoke Friday, they have included Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, Erik Reece, Gurney Norman, Frederick Smock and the late Guy Davenport and James Baker Hall.

Bates, a Canadian wood engraver, said he first encountered Larkspur Press nearly two decades ago and was impressed by the quality of the printing, the large volume of books produced and Zeitz’s curatorial skill in choosing work to publish.

“It was above and beyond the idea of book as art,” Bates said. “It was book as communication, as preservation of culture.”

As for Zeitz, a burly man with a long beard who always wears blue jeans and suspenders, Bates said, “I thought he looked like he was part of the band ZZ Top.”

Taylor-Hall talked about how Zeitz consults with writers about how their books should look, down to such things as the color of ink. Worley joked that even if readers hate his poetry, they won’t throw away his Larkspur Press editions because the books themselves are too beautiful.

Several others remarked on Zeitz’s craftsmanship, exacting standards and placid demeanor. “Every time I see him, he seems filled with joy,” Manning said.

When it finally came time for Zeitz to speak Friday, he was, as always, a man of few words. He introduced two longtime collaborators, Carolyn Whitesel and Leslie Shane, and thanked audience members for writing and illustrating his books, buying and reading his books and even helping him on occasion move heavy, iron presses.

Then, Zeitz read a poem he had written, which the King Library Press printed as a broadside to give those in attendance:

Printer’s Note

Sweet rain yesterday.

We have put your book on the press.

My hands do not tremble

because I’m unsure,

but shake in the finalizing of page

as a foal, newborn,

begins to stand.

It should be said

there will be absolutely no deadline.

Who knows when the phlox will flower? 


One entrepreneur hopes to educate, another to be educated

April 1, 2013

130327Quisenberry-TE0081

Rosetta Lucas Quisenberry just published her fifth black history book. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Not all entrepreneurs are in it for the money. As two very different entrepreneurs from Lexington show, business can be a good way to achieve personal and social goals as well as financial ones.

Rosetta Lucas Quisenberry, a retired Fayette County Public Schools teacher, just published the fifth book in her Black Saga series: Things, People and Places We Must Always Remember.

Like her first four books, this one has a fascinating collection of images of racist postcards, advertisements, coin banks and other ephemera from the 1890s to the 1940s, followed by images from that period that show a more positive reality of black Americans.

Quisenberry was a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Kentucky in 1975 when she went to Turfland Mall to look at a visiting antique show. She noticed a couple of white women giggling at old postcards.

After they moved on, she walked over to see what was so funny. What she found shocked her: depictions of black people eating watermelon, picking cotton, posing as “alligator bait” and otherwise being made objects of ridicule.

“Nobody had ever told me this material even existed,” she said, adding that she bought every one of the postcards “to take them off the market. I was ashamed of it.”

Collecting such artifacts became an obsession with Quisenberry, who went to antique shows all over the country and accumulated more than 1,000 of them.

After a few years, though, she realized that rather than being hidden and forgotten, these racist relics should be seen and remembered. Only then, she thought, would black and white people understand the depth of past racism and how it continues to affect society in subtle ways.

130401Eblen-Book001Quisenberry photographed a sampling of her collection of negative and positive images and published her first book, A Saga of the Black Man, in 2003. Over the years, she came out with three more similar books, focusing on black women, children and families. The new book ties them all together.

The former teacher would like to see her books used in public school history classes, but she doubts it will happen.

Modern parents might be offended by what were once commonplace examples of racist humor, she said, and school systems themselves were once complicit. For example, the new book’s images include the program from a black-face “minstrel show” put on by students of Lexington’s all-white Picadome Elementary in 1947.

Quisenberry’s books cost $15 each and are available in many Central Kentucky bookstores or directly from her: (859) 299-7258.

Kids for Kids

Logan Gardner, a senior at Henry Clay High School’s Liberal Arts Academy, has known since he was little that he wanted to go into business. He figured one good way to learn about business would be to start one.

130401Eblen-LoganGardner realized that few adults might be willing to do business with a kid. But he saw an opportunity in the charity projects many of his friends were involved with. He created Kids for Kids Youth Social Ventures, a nonprofit organization that would teach him business skills and help his friends jump-start their fundraising efforts.

“Running a charity is similar to running a business,” he said. “It’s a lot of the same skills.”

Gardner, 18, wrote a business plan, filled out the voluminous paperwork to seek nonprofit tax status, created a website (Kidsforkidsysv.org) and set up a presence on social media. Then he partnered with the crowd-funding site Rockethub.com.

Gardner got mentoring along the way from his father, John Gardner, a financial advisor for Wells Fargo Advisors, and Erin Budde, who leads Wells Fargo’s national charity efforts and will soon become executive director of stl250, the group planning St. Louis’ 250th anniversary celebration in 2014.

Kids for Kids’ first project raised $2,000 to help Ellen Hardcastle, 17, a family friend in Nashville, produce a CD of her piano solos. The CDs will be sold to raise almost $5,800 to build a new well for Ulongwe Model School in Malawi.

Kids for Kids’ current project on Rockethub.com is halfway toward its goal of raising $900 by April 17 for Lusi Lukova, a Henry Clay junior, to help the Lexington-based International Book Project ship textbooks to schools in Uganda.

Gardner soon will be turning over Kids for Kids to his brother, Austin, 17, as he heads this fall to the University of Pennsylvania, where he has been accepted into the prestigious Wharton School of Business. Did starting Kids for Kids give him an edge?

“Absolutely,” Gardner said. “I think that’s what got me into Penn.”


Two Kentuckians turn their passions into business opportunities

February 18, 2013

Alex Brooks left Lexington for two years of graduate school in England, where he studied book conservation. He has returned and started what may be Kentucky’s only company that conserves old books for individuals and libraries. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Work is more rewarding when you find a way to turn your passion into a business opportunity. Kentuckians Alex Brooks and Debra Koerner are doing just that, at different points in their lives and with technology from different centuries.

Brooks, 31, grew up in Louisville and discovered creative writing in high school. He made his first book for poems he wrote. As a Gaines Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky, he earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing.

While at UK, Brooks discovered the King Library Press and learned letterpress printing, which led to him creating block-print art. He also worked in UK Special Collections, which interested him in book conservation.

After college, Brooks acquired some antique printing equipment and operated Press 817, a one-man company that produced everything from wedding invitations to his own block prints. His career took another turn when he won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in England. While there, he earned a master’s degree in book conservation at West Dean College.

Brooks returned to Lexington in October and started Alex Brooks Conservation to restore and conserve old books, from rare library specimens to family Bibles.

“The idea in my work is to keep as much of the original as possible,” Brooks said as he showed me a leather-bound volume from the 1830s about horse care that he is repairing for the Keeneland Library.

What he doesn’t try to do is make old books look new, by bleaching pages or replacing old bindings that still have a lot of original fabric. That might make them look good for a few years, but their historical value would be diminished.

“I’m not trying to make a book look like it was never damaged in the first place,” he said, “but to prevent it from further damage and make it usable.”

There is a lot of need for book conservation in Kentucky, yet there are few conservators.

“That’s one of the reasons I chose to move back to Lexington,” Brooks said. “I know the need is out there, but I’m not sure that the finances for that need will be out there.”

Brooks charges about $300 to refurbish a family Bible. Other work is $30 an hour, plus materials. (For more information, email Brooks at alexbrooks@gmail.com.)

In addition to doing work for institutions and collectors, Brooks hopes to build a client base from industries such as Thoroughbred horses and bourbon that realize heritage is important to their brands.

Brooks will be sharing his skills at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, where he will teach bookbinding classes March 2 and 16. Learn more at Carnegiecenterlex.org.

Debra Koerner has started a mid-career television production company to make a health and wellness series for Public Broadcasting called “Journey Into Wellbeing.” Photo provided

Koerner, 45, had written a book about success, been executive director of a spa organization and started a wellness education company. But she had always dreamed of a television career.

“That got me to thinking: if I was going to have a TV show, what am I most passionate about?” she said. “Where can I make a difference?”

Koerner describes herself as a “pudgy insomniac” and former stressed-out working mother. So she decided to borrow from her own experiences to show viewers how they could use local resources to make themselves healthier and happier.

She started a production company and created a self-funded pilot episode of Journey into Wellbeing. The show is planned as a state-by-state series, focusing on creative local wellness initiatives and resources. She gives viewers tips for healthy eating, exercise, natural health care and sustainable living.

The pilot episode focused on Kentucky and will air Tuesday on KET2 and 10 more times through March 21 on Kentucky Educational Television.

In the pilot episode, shot in October, Koerner interviews several Kentucky health experts and travels around the state. She visits an organic farm in Oldham County and Frontier Nursing University in Leslie County. She consults with a doctor and a fitness expert from Lexington and gets advice from a Louisville chef about how to prepare healthier versions of two Kentucky favorites, the hot Brown and corn pudding.

“Every state has great health initiatives, but they are not getting the focus they deserve,” Koerner said. “I also hope my story impresses (viewers) to attempt something they’ve been thinking about and wanting to do. It can happen.”

 

 


Is Lexington the Literary Capital of Mid-America?

February 11, 2012

Tens of thousands of Kentuckians were focused last Tuesday night on cheering for the Wildcats as they thrashed the Florida Gators.

Still, a few blocks away from a packed Rupp Arena, the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning also was filled to capacity. The standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 was there to cheer for local writers. Basketball isn’t the only pursuit where Kentuckians play at the top of the game.

Ed McClanahan read a hilarious tale of adolescent angst from his new retrospective collection, I Just Hitched in from the Coast. Bobbie Ann Mason read from her new novel,The Girl in the Blue Beret. Nikky Finney read from her new poetry collection, Head Off & Split, which recently won the National Book Award. Before the all-stars took the microphone, several aspiring writers read from their work.

Finney’s National Book Award — and the viral Internet video of her amazing acceptance speech — could not have come at a better time for a new Carnegie Center initiative. Neil Chethik, the center’s new director, has proclaimed Lexington as the Literary Capital of Mid-America and the Carnegie Center as its statehouse.

“It’s not as if we’re trying to be something we’re not,” Chethik said. “We are the literary capital and have been for many years. Half the job is marketing what we already have, and the other half is using that energy to create more.”

Many states have rich literary traditions. But few can top what writers who were born in or moved to Kentucky have produced — and are producing.

Robert Penn Warren was the nation’s first poet laureate, as well as the first writer to win Pulitzer Prizes in more than one literary genre. William Wells Brown was the first published black novelist. Hunter S. Thompson helped create a new genre of first-person narrative, “gonzo journalism.”

Wendell Berry, whose environmental writing has attracted an international following, was selected last week to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture on April 23 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. It is the federal government’s most prestigious honor for intellectual achievement in the humanities.

Eastern Kentucky’s mountains have produced, nurtured and inspired many outstanding writers, including James Still, Jesse Stuart, Harriette Simpson Arnow, Harry M. Caudill, Gurney Norman, Janice Holt Giles, Verna Mae Slone, Elizabeth Madox Roberts and Silas House. Western Kentucky’s great voices have included Mason and Irvin S. Cobb.

Central Kentuckians James Lane Allen and John Fox Jr. were national best-sellers a century ago, just as Kim Edwards, Sue Grafton and Barbara Kingsolver are today.

Elizabeth Hardwick and Cleanth Brooks were two of the 20th century’s most influential literary critics. Other notable Kentucky writers from the recent past include Thomas Merton, Allen Tate, Gayle Jones and Guy Davenport.

Among today’s heavy hitters: Sena Jeter Naslund, Frank X Walker, Maurice Manning, Richard Taylor, Chris Offutt, C.E. Morgan, Crystal Wilkinson, Jane Gentry Vance and Erik Reece.

Despite a deep streak of anti-intellectualism, Kentucky has always nurtured great writing. But why? Some say it is the state’s location. Kentucky was the first Western frontier, a Civil War border state and a place always in the midst of transition, migration, clashing values and regional tensions.

“Conflict makes for great stories,” Chethik noted.

“I think it’s because we like to talk so much and tell stories on one another,” McClanahan said. “It’s so much a part of life. Maybe it’s in the water.”

It is not the water, but the land, said Finney, a South Carolina native who has lived in Kentucky for two decades. “Our greatness as writers has to do with the land. Our connection to it,” she said. “We don’t really own the land. The land owns us.”

More than anything, Finney said, it is Kentucky’s mountains: “We never credit the mountains enough for helping shape who we are, for giving us a specific lens through which to see the world, a lens to nurture what we have to say about our human presence in it.”

Writing is a solitary endeavor. But writers need a supportive community, and Kentucky has it. You see it in the attendance at huge annual book fairs in Frankfort and Bowling Green, at bookstores across the state and at events such as the monthly Holler Poets reading, which packs Al’s Bar on North Limestone Street.

You also see it in the attendance at classes and events at the non-profit Carnegie Center, housed in a beautiful old building in Gratz Park that used to be the Lexington Public Library.

“This is a sacred space; a nurturing space for writers,” said Finney, who wrote much of her book,Rice, in one of the center’s study carrels. Mason has taken French classes at the center since 2006, and they helped inspire her to turn her father-in-law’s experiences as a World War II bomber pilot into her latest novel.

The Carnegie Center will have a public forum Thursday at 6 p.m. to gather ideas for this initiative. But Chethik already has some: a marketing campaign, literary conferences and more events that combine literature, music and visual art. Kingsolver is the keynote speaker for the center’s first Books in Progress Conference for authors and aspiring authors, June 8-9.

“There is something going on here,” Finney said. “There is a community hungry for good books and good words. And it has been for a long, long time.”

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Bobbie Ann Mason’s new novel returns to WWII France

June 30, 2011

The year is 1944, and Marshall Stone is flying a B-17 back to England after a bombing run over Germany. Suddenly, everything goes wrong.

The “flying fortress” is separated from its unit. A German fighter attacks. Marshall must crash-land in a Belgian field. He and other surviving crew members are rescued and sheltered by a series of families in La Résistance Francaise, smuggled through France and across the Pyrenees mountains to Spain and safety.

It is a dangerous and memorable adventure. But once World War II ends, Marshall never looks back. He marries his sweetheart, they have two children and he becomes absorbed in his career as an airline pilot.

Then, it’s 1980. Marshall is 60, and federal regulations say he must retire. His wife has died, his children are grown and he can no longer fly airliners. Marshall realizes that the only way he can go forward is to look back.

Marshall returns to Europe, determined to find the people who saved his life, especially Annette, the young girl in a blue beret who bravely guided him through the streets of Nazi-occupied Paris. Marshall finds her, and in the process, he discovers more than he bargained for about his saviors and himself.

That is the story that Kentucky author Bobbie Ann Mason tells in her intimate and haunting new novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret (Random House, $26).

Most of Mason’s acclaimed novels and short stories have drawn on her Western Kentucky heritage. This book takes place in a landscape very different, but almost as personal. The story was inspired by the wartime experiences of her father-in-law, Barney Rawlings, and her own travels through Europe after his death to get to know the aging survivors of La Résistance who risked their lives to save his.

“I’m very proud of it, I must say,” Mason, 70, said when we met for lunch last week after her French class at Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. “I knew I was jumping in over my head.”

Rawlings, who before his death in 2004 was a Trans World Airlines captain, had talked about his World War II adventures and had written a memoir. Mason started thinking about that in 2006, when she resumed the French studies she had given up after college. “I thought there was a good premise (for a novel) in what would happen if he went back,” she said.

Rawlings had gone back in 1993; he visited his crash site and some of the people who had helped him. That included a young girl he remembered as having worn a blue beret or scarf so disguised GIs could follow her through Paris at a discreet distance. Rawlings left his reunion at that, but it provided Mason a launching point for her novel.

Mason eventually made five trips to Paris. She became friends with the girl, now a lively woman of 81, and she learned harrowing details of the woman’s own wartime experiences. “She was my model for Annette,” Mason said, “but I made up so much stuff.”

Mason traveled to Belgium and found people who had witnessed her father-in-law’s crash-landing. She met a man near Paris who, at age 15, had photographed Rawlings disguised as a Frenchman so the photo could be used for a fake ID card.

“They really helped open up the period for me in a way that books couldn’t. They made it real,” she said.

“The people welcomed me like family because I was the daughter-in-law of this bomber co-pilot and they were so grateful to the American bombers,” she said. “I was astonished by their hospitality. I didn’t know French that well, and some people didn’t speak English, but we carried on.”

The novel required intense historical research. Mason’s husband, Roger Rawlings, is an aviation buff like his father, so he helped teach her about airplanes. Mason read everything she could about World War II. She patterned characters after the Europeans she met and others they told her about.

Mason’s stories are famous for their authentic voices, steeped in the cadences of small-town Western Kentucky. Creating authentic dialog for French characters was a challenge. “In my head I could hear the voices of the people I met, and I was trying to get that sound,” she said.

Another thing about this novel was different for Mason.

“Usually when I finish a project, I just box up all the research and turn my back and it’s done; I’m through,” she said. “This subject is going to stay with me for the rest of my life, and I will keep on reading about it. The war was the biggest story of the 20th century.”

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Night of Literary Feasts is an appetizing fund-raiser

March 15, 2011

Good food. Good conversation. Good cause. That sums up A Night of Literary Feasts, the fourth annual fund-raiser for the Lexington Public Library Foundation on April 1 and 2.

The event features intimate group dinners with top authors from Kentucky and beyond, hosted in Lexington homes.

This year’s lineup includes three best-selling writers from elsewhere: Rita Mae Brown, Andre Dubus III and Jerome Tuccille. Two of them have local ties: Brown is a fox-hunting equestrian who has ridden in Central Kentucky, and Dubus has relatives here.

Kentucky authors include Ed McClanahan; Neil Chethik; Ron Pen, biographer of the famous balladeer John Jacob Niles; and Maryjean Wall, the retired Herald-Leader racing writer whose book, How Kentucky Became Southern, explains why the Thoroughbred industry flourished here after the Civil War.

Then there is former University of Kentucky basketball player Mark Krebs. His new book, Beyond a Dream, chronicles his time as a Wildcat as his mother battled deadly cancer. His dinner includes a tour of UK’s Joe Craft Center.

Jon Carloftis, a Kentuckian famous for his New York City rooftop gardens, will be at a dinner, as will Fran Taylor, who wrote Keeneland Entertains, and Margaret Lane, author of Beyond the Fence: A Culinary View of Historic Lexington.

“The dinners are small, and you really get to know the author, which is a treat,” said Meg Jewett, owner of Walnut Hall Farm and the L.V. Harkness & Co. gift shop. She has chaired the event all four years. “It’s a perfect fund-raiser for the library.”

The main event, April 1, begins with a cocktail reception, a silent auction and book signings at Central Library. Then everyone breaks into groups of about 20 for dinner with an author in the home of a library donor.

Those who buy $250 tickets get guaranteed seats at the dinner of their choice. Those who buy $150 tickets are placed as space is available, based on their author choices. For those who can’t attend the dinners, there will be free coffee and book signings the next morning at The Morris Book Shop.

This year, the foundation hopes to raise $65,000, up from $45,000 last year, foundation director William Watts said. The first two years, the event raised $14,000 and $25,000, respectively.

Authors donate their time; the foundation pays any travel costs. Dinner hosts provide the meals. Corporate sponsors include Community Trust Bank, L. V. Harkness, Evangelos S. Levas, and the law firms Stoll Keenon Ogden and Stites & Harbison.

Lexington has an excellent public library system. A big reason for that is steady funding for basic services from a small cut of local property taxes, and additional money raised by the foundation and an active “friends” organization.

Much of the money from this year’s event will go toward a new Story Time Bus. The library bought was given a school bus by from Fayette County Public Schools, and it plans to renovate it and send it to children’s day-care centers. Tens of thousands of kids now attend literacy programs at the library’s six locations, and the bus will take that work much further.

With so much information available on television and the Internet, some people might think that libraries are an anachronism. As the son, nephew, husband and father of former librarians, I know better. So do other patrons of the Lexington Public Library.

The library’s 178,233 active cardholders checked out more than 2.9 million items last year. The libraries’ 250 public-access computers were used 535,753 times. More than 5,100 people attended 748 computer classes taught by the library system.

“We have seen our visitors increase every year,” said Ann Hammond, a former naval officer, forensic scientist and California library manager who took over as executive director of the library system last September.

Hammond said fund-raising events such as A Night of Literary Feasts are essential for the future.

“We have an imaginative staff,” she said, “and they are always looking for ways to serve the community.”

If you go

A Night of Literary Feasts
When: Reception at 6 p.m. April 1 reception, dinner at 8 p.m.
Where: Central Library, 140 E. Main St., then private homes.
Tickets: $250 and $150; reservations required.
Coffee with the Authors
When: 10 a.m. April 2
Where: The Morris Book Shop, 408 Southland Dr.
Admission: Free
Reservations and more information: LexPubLib.org/feasts or (859) 231-5557.


Coming to Lex Farmers Market: Fresh, local books

June 7, 2010

In addition to local food, you will soon be able to buy local books at the Lexington Farmers Market. And, in true market fashion, you will be buying them from the authors.

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning and The Morris Book Shop are partnering with the market to create a Homegrown Authors booth, to be staffed by local authors from 9 a.m. to noon each Saturday at Cheapside.

The booth will begin June 12 with the Carnegie Center’s writer in residence, Neil Chethik, author of FatherLoss and VoiceMale; and market vendor Abigail Keam of Abigail’s Honey. She has written a murder mystery, Death by a Honeybee.

Other Homegrown Authors booths are planned for June 19, July 10 and July 24.

“We’re hoping people will support their local writers just as they support their local farmers,” Chethik said.


Kentuckians love a good story – and storyteller

November 6, 2009

Kentucky doesn’t just produce writers; it celebrates them.

The biggest annual celebration is Saturday, when about 200 writers — 150 of whom are Kentuckians — will gather at the Frankfort Convention Center for the 28th annual Kentucky Book Fair.

Authors will sit behind long rows of tables so thousands of readers can stop by, meet them, buy their books and get their autographs.

This year’s lineup includes pop ular Kentucky writers Silas House, Erik Reece, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Thomas Parrish, Richard Taylor and David Dick.

Also there will be retired Courier-Journal columnist Byron Crawford, who has put together a 30-year collection of his work in Kentucky Footnotes, and journalist Leslie Guttman of Lexington, who writes about a year in the life of a race horse hospital in Equine ER.

Coach Rich Brooks and co-author Tom Leach will sign their book, Rich Tradition: How Rich Brooks Revived the Football Fortunes of the Kentucky Wildcats.

And retired Keeneland chairman Ted Bassett will autograph his memoir.

National authors at the fair will include George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, who has written a book about Abraham Lincoln.

“I’m always so proud to live in a state that supports literature the way Kentucky does, and the Kentucky Book Fair is real proof of that,” said House, who will sign his new novel, Eli the Good.

“Everywhere I go, all over the country, people assume that Kentuckians are illiterate,” House said. “And I always take that as an opportunity to correct them and tell them about our long literary history and how great the support for writers is in our state.”

When you think about that tradition and support, it makes perfect sense. Writing is about telling stories, and there are few things Kentuckians love more than a good story — and storyteller.

Jesse Stuart and me at his home, summer 1963. Photo by Marion Eblen

I’m the son of a school librarian and a bookstore manager. Writers, especially Kentucky writers, enjoyed celebrity status in our home. My first memorable encounter with that celebrity came the summer I turned 5, when my mother’s parents came up from far Western Kentucky for a visit.

My grandparents were Jesse Stuart fans and wanted to see the Greenup County he wrote about. While my father was at work one day, my mother took us to Greenup, thinking we could drive past Stuart’s home. What she didn’t know was that the narrow gravel road ended at his home.

It didn’t look as if anyone was home, so before she turned the car around, my grandparents urged her to look in the window beside the front door. When she did, Stuart looked back. Then he opened the door and invited us in to visit.

I had just learned to do somersaults, and, much to my mother’s horror, Stuart encouraged me to practice on the braided rug in his living room. I was barefoot, so when he took us to see the cabin where he wrote, he carried me out there, giving my mother a Kodak moment.

Writers such as Stuart and James Still found rich material in the people and places of Eastern Kentucky, just as Mason has explored the land and psyche of her native Jackson Purchase region, in far Western Kentucky.

I asked Mason last week about the importance of Kentucky writers, past and future. As you might expect, her response was well worth reading:

“Kentuckians have been confused about our identity, who we are and how others see us, what we have here and what there is in the larger world. Sometimes we feel smugly superior, sometimes inferior. Kentucky writers have always walked a tightrope between Kentucky and the Outside.

“Now even though the boundary lines are easing, and Kentucky is part of the wider mainstream, our writers can continue to lead the way on the most critical issues of our time, because we can write firsthand with passion and with historical perspective about what is happening to the land and its people. Our land of contrasts is an example and a warning to the rest of the world.”

IF YOU GO

Kentucky Book Fair

When: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Nov. 7.

Where: Frankfort Convention Center, 405 Mero St., Frankfort.

Admission: Free.

Learn more: (502) 564-8300, Ext. 297. www.kybookfair.com (there is list of all participating authors).