Friday, August 28, 2009


Alexis Grace is sitting on the sofa on the set of Channel 3’s Live at 9 show, in the notably empty Peabody Place shopping mall in downtown Memphis. She is applying yet more makeup, getting ready for her close-up, though there will be no close-ups. It’s a habit, I guess. She’d be beautiful without adornment, but simple, natural beauty is not what gets you on American Idol. She sports a modish salon-do, a tight little leather jacket and even tighter black jeans with very, very high, black patent-leather heels.

I am waiting for my moment on the show, waiting on Alexis, then on the barbershop quartet (which really is quite amazing – harmony to the max) and finally on the guy who put together some sort of video exhibit -- I don’t really understand, though he tries to tell me about it while the cameras roll on Alexis. I don’t understand because his talking during the filming makes me nervous and causes the cameramen to cast warning glances his way, which the guy does not notice. It turns out the guy used to live across the street from Alexis, knew her when she was a little girl (“She was a handful,” he says), though the connection will fail to connect for Alexis when he tells her about it after the filming.

To put things into perspective, WREG afterward posted the video of Alexis on their website, but did not include video of me nor the quartet nor the guy who used to live across from her; you can see her at,0,2559947.story. I fully understand this. She’s hot in an updated “Dallas” sort of way, and is definitely more easy on the eyes than the rest of us. Plus: American Idol. She lost on American Idol, a show I’ve studiously avoided, and one of the hosts of Live at 9 slaps her hand on the table and says Alexis was ROBBED.

I’m up after the barbershop quartet, who’s up after the guy who used to live across from the woman who lost on American Idol. I’m here to talk about people dying on a boat seven miles upriver 144 years ago, which the hosts do seem to find interesting, perhaps because finding their guests interesting is their job, though no one pretends it’s as compelling as Alexis. Neither of them slaps their hand on the table when I say that no one was held accountable for the deaths of 1,700 people, for example. There is a slightly awkward moment when one of the hosts introduces me as the guy who wrote a fabulous NOVEL about the worst maritime disaster in American history. I hate to start off the interview saying DID NOT but I have no choice. I say actually I should point out that it’s nonfiction, but she digs in her heels and says, “Well, you had to fictionalize some of it, right?” And I have to say: “In fact, no.”

Then, we put it behind us.

I talk about the cobblestones at the waterfront, which are still there, where the exhausted swimmers crawled out of the river and where the bodies were dragged ashore. I say it’s a forgotten story, that it received little press in its day, except in Memphis, where no one could ignore it. The hosts find this remarkable, of course. All in all it’s a nice softball interview and they promo the night’s reading/signing at Davis-Kidd bookstore. It helped, too. I think some people went to the signing because I was on with the local girl from American Idol, though personally I like to think she was a warm-up act. I was last, right?

After the show I saunter over to my friend Reid Phillips’ office (he’s the husband of Owen, one of my oldest and best friends; I’m staying with them in Midtown). Reid’s office has a vista of the river, and there I run into Jerry Potter, who practices with the same law firm and who is the one who originally told me about the Sultana story. Potter also wrote a fine book focusing on the disaster itself. From Reid’s window Jerry points to where the river ran in 1865, which is a little to the west of where it is now, and to the spot where he believes the remains of the Sultana lie, beneath an Arkansas farm field. He says the wreckage was partially salvaged after the water receded, which is one reason he doesn’t think it would be worth the money to excavate it. Plus, it’s a grave.

Afterward I go for a run in Overton Park, which includes trails through a virgin forest right in Midtown Memphis. Memphis is absolutely beautiful this time of year. You don’t think of how pretty it must have been when the Sultana survivors were wandering the streets in their red long johns, which was all most of them had until they were outfitted with clothes, in some cases days later. The affluent old neighborhoods are a veritable riot of blooming dogwoods and azaleas, though of course those neighborhoods are just half the story. There are a lot of poor people in Memphis, too. There are beggars outside the struggling Peabody Place mall, and everyone who has anything lives behind gates. Still, the city has its moments. Memphis is where my father is from, it’s where the Sultana went down, it’s where Elvis lived. Once, when I was little, my parents saw that the gates to Graceland were open and drove up to the house. My sisters and I were excited and terrified. Elvis still lived there then.

Later in the afternoon Owen, Reid and I head off to Davis-Kidd, and there’s a great crowd. In addition to the Live at 9 promo there was a nice story in the Commercial Appeal that I didn’t see, and the turnout is larger than Davis-Kidd was prepared for. Among them is the sister-in-law of the great granddaughter of Romulus Tolbert, a librarian who has questions. Many of the attendees do, and the nice thing is – and here’s how you know you’re in the South – everyone introduces themselves and shakes hands. There is one guy from the Sons of Confederate Veterans who seems to be looking to disagree, wants to know WHO captured Romulus, by name, but who afterward wants his picture taken with me and seems to be a nice guy. Or maybe I just like him because he wants his picture taken with me. That is one of the strange things about the Davis-Kidd signing: A lot of people want their picture taken with me. I have to credit Alexis for this, to some extent. It hasn’t happened at other signings. Among the other highlights of the signing is seeing my cousins Saverio Cianciolo and his wife Ruby, son Andy and daughter Leigha.

Davis-Kidd has a huge Sultana banner which is quite beautiful, and after the signing Owen asks them what they're going to do with it when they're finished with it, and convinces them to send it to me. There is also a banner for Ace Atkins’ new book, and he’s already been there, so they’ll leave the Sultana banner up for a while. I notice that Ace Atkins has been a lot of places I go, and the guy who wrote a book called Tunneling to the Center of the Earth is invariably signing at the same place soon. It seems we are on tandem tours.

This crowd asks very specific questions such as: When, precisely, was J. Walter Elliott promoted to captain? That question comes from a retired veteran. A guy who grew up on the river wants to talk about where the boat went down, specifically. A history teacher wants to talk about a skit her students did on the Sultana. One guy buys the book and says he's taking it with him on a CRUISE. I'm impressed by the relative daring of that -- to take a book about a shipwreck on a ship. And, inevitably, someone asks whether Sultana will be made into a movie. My answer: I hope so. And I do. I think we could find a part for Alexis Grace, if she’s interested, though there won’t be much singing. Maybe she could do the opening ballad.



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