Look at that. Michelle and Dewey Scandurro of New Orleans, the hippest couple at Walker Percy Weekend 2019.
I’m officially wo’ slap out. I started this post last night in my room at The Myrtles, which is an awesome place to stay; so many people have praised it to me, and have raved about the restaurant here. I’m telling you, my cousin Daniel Dreher is the chef here, and yes, he’s my cousin, but man, can this guy ever cook. Please come stay here at this plantation hotel, and eat at Restaurant 1796. I heard so many people this weekend raving about it, and they’re right.
People were so grateful for this year’s line-up of speakers. I like this shot, which shows David Brooks speaking, with J.D. Vance, in red t-shirt, listening. This year’s venue was Grace Episcopal Church, a real jewel in West Feliciana Parish’s architectural crown, for the use of which we cannot thank Father Roman Roldan and his congregation enough.
During David’s talk, I received a text from a pastor friend in the back, who told me he was in tears. Later, I heard from a number of others that they too had been moved to tears by David’s account of his spiritual journey. There has been some criticism of this spiritual journey, as detailed in part of his new bestseller The Second Mountain, because it’s … messy. As David, raised a secular Jew, has grown out of agnosticism into a greater awareness of God’s existence, and his own status as a child of God, he has become simultaneously more Jewish and Christian. It’s impossible to reconcile these two things, I think, but to hear David talk about this pilgrimage in deeply personal terms is to be drawn into the sheer humanness of the story … which is still a journey in progress. It takes a lot of courage for David to be so vulnerable about the most personal aspects of one’s life. It was one of the great Walker Percy Weekend talks of the festival’s history, because it was an account of the quintessential Percy character: in the doctor’s own words, “man the wayfarer, man the pilgrim, man in transit, on a journey.”
Later in the day, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards showed up, and announced that the state had appropriated $4 million for the rehabilitation of Julius Freyhan High School.
None of us were expecting this. The Julius Freyhan Foundation is a non-profit organization devoted to restoring Temple Sinai and Julius Freyhan High School. (Here’s a brief video describing the mission.) In the 19th and early 20th century, my hometown, St. Francisville, had a sizable Jewish merchant community. One of the leading merchants, Julius Freyhan, built the local high school, where both my grandfather and father studied. The Jewish community left after the 1927 flood wiped many businesses out, and the school outgrew the building in the 1950s. The Freyhan School fell into disrepair.
A couple of decades ago, local folks who had studied in that building started a foundation to restore it, and make it into a cultural center. The project also included restoring the neighboring Temple Sinai, built by the town’s once-vibrant Jewish community, which eventually moved away after the 1927 flood. Nancy Vinci became a leader of this effort. How could I possibly do justice to what this woman has done, and what she has meant to our town? Here’s a photo of Nancy and me from a few years back, with Anne Percy Moores, a daughter of Walker and Bunt Percy.
We all joke about how Nancy is the Dowager Countess of West Feliciana Parish. She is certainly not waspish like Violet, but she is absolutely a force of nature. She came to me and a few other people back in 2012, and told us the town needed a new festival. We came up with an idea to celebrate Walker Percy, but didn’t push it. Nancy pushed it. She was and has been the guiding force behind this festival, which was established to raise money to restore Freyhan and make it into a community arts and cultural center, and a museum of Southern Jewish history. (Temple Sinai’s restoration has already been accomplished; it is now a secular space, where we’ve had Walker Percy lectures in the past.)
We have been making progress with the festival, but because our town is so small — specifically, because we don’t have enough hotel space for crowds — we can’t scale the event up. We sell only a limited number of tickets. This works to keep the festival intimate, but that’s not great for fundraising. So the Freyhan folks use other means too, including talking to state legislators (like our former state rep Kenny Havard, now the parish president) and the governor, asking for historical preservation funds. Nancy has led this effort for years. I used to joke with my friend and WPW colleague James Fox-Smith about how hard it must be for the lawmakers to tell Miss Nancy no. Here is the WPW weekend promo video, cued to the point where Nancy speaks about the festival’s origins:
I imagine that God, the governor, and the Louisiana legislature finally realized that the cosmos cannot dwell in harmony if Nancy ain’t happy. And so, the Freyhan Foundation will finally have the money to complete the renovation, and the Walker Percy Weekend will have a permanent home in the heart of St. Francisville. Nancy’s hard and persistent work made this possible. This may well be her greatest legacy to our town, and to Walker Percy Weekends from here till kingdom come. We are all deeply in the debt of this great lady.
I missed Walter Isaacson’s morning talk, because I was running around trying to take care of some administrative issues, but people raved about it. In his at times moving interview with me at Grace about Hillbilly Elegy and community, J.D. Vance mentioned that he will be soon be received into the Catholic Church. He also said that filming on the Ron Howard movie version of Hillbilly Elegy begins this week. Glenn Close will play his pistol-packing Mamaw. Amy Adams will play J.D.’s mom. Gabriel Basso will portray J.D. I’ve gotten to know J.D. over the past three years, since the book hit big, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that he is genuinely as kind and as admirable in person as you think when you read the book.
Tom Key, a theatrical director, actor, and playwright from Atlanta, ended the day with a rousing talk and reading from his stage version of Percy’s Lost In The Cosmos. Someone told me afterward that we should try to stage Key’s play at the Freyhan Center when it’s finally ready. Wonderful idea! We need donors, though, to give us a budget.
Then, of course, came the bourbon stroll on Royal Street. Where I saw a lot of old friends, and made new ones. Party pics!
Look, it’s our Franklin Evans (third from left), with David McDonald, a tutor at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, and Rachel Alexander, a political theory Ph.D. student from Baylor (who agrees with me that Patrick Deneen needs to get down to Walker Percy Weekend).
Jessica Hooten Wilson with Area Nut.
After the crawfish boil, I ended up at the capacious bar at Restaurant 1796 with a good crowd. Here’s a selfie with writer Tara Isabella Burton and her fiancé Michael, who spelled his last name for me at the bar, but as is obvious from my bad aim, I was too deep into my vodka sodas to remember. Sorry, friend!
We broke up out on the red brick courtyard at some wee hour, and said our goodbyes. As far as I know, none of us were set upon by the ghosts at the Myrtles.
I did speak today with one festivalgoer who awoke at 6 a.m. in his room at a plantation house out in the country, in a lot of pain. A wasp had somehow found its way into his bed, and stung him smack on his Binx Bolling. I’m not making that up. He had to go to the West Feliciana hospital to be checked out (he’s fine). Audubon lived in West Feliciana for a bit when he was creating his Birds Of America series; I wonder if he ever had to deal with this problem? Well, I have reported this unfortunate contact with the natural world to the festival committee, and have suggested memorializing this event in a new cocktail for next year’s bourbon stroll: the Percy Pecker Popper. Needs habañero bitters, methinks.
I am so very grateful to all our speakers, all our guests, and the extremely hardworking local volunteers who made it all possible. If I told you the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating the festival, you’d never believe that people do this for free, because they love their community. But they do, every year. Nancy is training her brood well. This festival is the legacy of the younger generation who is taking up the mantle of community cultural leadership from the best there is.
UPDATE: Fifth-time attendee and festival favorite Jessica Hooten Wilson presented on Lost in the Cosmos to a small-crowd of 130 who lined the walls and sat on the floor, eager to participate in the discussion of Percy’s nonfiction cult classic. What started with quotes from Dante and reflections on what it means to be “lost” ended with Percy’s poignant litany of questions “Do you have a self? Do you know who you are? Do you know what you are doing? Do you love?” and the book’s concluding command, “Come back. Repeat. Come back.” Reminding us all that the road to progress begins by going back to where we turned off the straight way.