Friday, April 25, 2014

A Tour of the Beauregard-Keyes House

My first introduction to New Orleans occurred nearly forty years ago when I picked up a novel from my parents' library--Dinner at Antoine's by Frances Parkinson Keyes.  Like anyone who has ever read this mystery with its Mardi Gras setting, it created a desire to go to this fascinating city and of course, have dinner at Antoine's.  I finally made it to New Orleans, but not to this famous restaurant.  There were just too many other choices!  (And besides, our concierge kind of dissed it!)

But touring the house that the author lovingly restored and where she wrote her novels one after the other, well . . . that was worth it!  Frances Parkinson Keyes was incredibly prolific, writing close to 50 books during her lifetime.  Among her best were The River Road, Madame Castel's Lodger, The Chess Players and Joy Street.    I confess, by today's standards, they are cumbersome and old-fashioned.  Even offensive in their racist depiction.  I read The Explorer recently and had a hard time with it.  Even so, for the historian in me, it gave me an accurate picture of life in the South during the first part of the 20th century (at least from a privileged white woman's point of view.)
This old classic revival home has a story all its own.  It was built in 1826 and was immediately considered one of the most architecturally beautiful houses in the city.  The consul of Switzerland moved here in 1833 and added lovely formal gardens in the back and sides of the home.  Thereafter, it changed hands many times and slowly deteriorated.  It was scheduled for demolition in 1925.  However, a group of patriotic ladies in New Orleans, having learned that Confederate General Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard (What a name!) actually rented out the home for 18 months after the Civil War was over, bought the house in the 1930's and rented it to Keyes.  They sold it to her only if she agreed to restore it to its formal glory.  She kept her word.  She created a foundation and moved into the cottage behind the house to write her books.
Our tour guide walked us through the home, entertaining us with history and gossip from that brief period of time when the Beauregards lived here.  If you like antiques, especially Jacobean furniture, the examples here are stellar.  It is the little cottage in the back, though, that I found even more interesting.  Keyes wrote all her manuscripts out by hand and there is one on display in her studio.  She was also an avid collector of dolls and porcelain veilleuses, teapots that sit on top of votive candle holders.  All of these are scattered throughout the big house and the cottage.
Frances Parkinson Keyes was born in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1885 and died here in New Orleans in 1970.  She was married to a Republican U.S. Senator and had three sons.  Although many of her books are set in the South, many of them also take place among Washington D.C. society.  Her studio is filled with photographs of herself standing next to celebrities.  She certainly had a charming and wonderful life.  That her books are no longer read . . . well, that's a sign of the times.  Our guide had set out several of her books on a table and told us all to take one.  I did, but many in the group didn't bother.  He couldn't even give them away!

She seems to be known and admired for the restoration of this beautiful home, rather than for her books.  The guide, who also lives behind the big house, told us he remained even during Katrina.  Although friends and family urged him to leave, he refused.  He told us that neither the house nor the French Quarter was flooded,  but the water, nevertheless, came in "from above."  He stayed behind to make sure all the carpets and antiques remained safe and dry.

"Have you ever eaten at Antoine's" I asked him.

 I swear he turned a little pink with embarrassment.  "No, I never have," he said.

I nodded.  Only tourists go to Antoine's.


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