Ghosts of Mississippi
In this story
A spray of gravel flies off the police car as it mounts the pavement between me and the juke joint I’m standing outside. I’m almost bowled over. The door flies open and when the driver speaks it is not a question. “So you taking a photo of my ugly building.”
My camera now feels like a weapon and I consider dropping it. “No, no, I love it. Really. It’s what I love…” I babble like a guilty fool and in my mind I am trying to put together the spare facts of this situation: the cop owns the bar. He steps out of the car and I attempt composure. “…this kinda interesting looking thing. Makes a great photo.”
And so it does, an otherwise unprepossessing brick building adorned with old wheels, faded Coke and NuGrape signs, busted couches, a rusted-out icebox and petrol bowser. A makeshift square board sign with real pool balls stuck in it, cues crossing each other, but with no words or business name, stands sentry by the roadway. It is high on a pole, like an abstract totem. In the south a lot of the unpretentious homemade advertising and folk art is a beautiful style unto itself. Why wouldn’t I be interested? I think. Doesn’t this town get tourists?
By the way the policeman’s now standing there sizing me up, maybe not.
“Well,” he says, walking past me to unlock a series of iron security doors, “come on then.” I try to remember where my car is parked three blocks away. There’s not a single soul here on the main street, even though it’s high noon.
I step inside. My eyes can’t adjust fast enough and I rub them to speed it up. I only know where the cop is by the jangle of the keys as he’s moving about, opening and setting things. The glow of the white “Police” stencil on his polo shirt shines dimly. I had noticed he was dressed casually: jeans and sneakers. It kind of says, It’s my day off but I’m always on duty.
Some fluoro lights strobe on to reveal a room just as cluttered with antiques, signs and relics, so much so it’s hard to focus on any one thing. He goes behind a narrow counter and comes back with an open beer, which he hands to me without a word. He goes through another door. More jangling and illumination. I follow, thanking him.
In this next room there’s a chequered dance floor surrounded by ruby-coloured tables. I can’t see him but suddenly I’m blinded by spinning, flashing disco lights. “This is for the weekends,” he shouts, then shuts it all off again.
I find him through another door labelled “Backroom”. He calls to me, “Check this out.” More junk, densely packed. There are piles and boxes of LPs, record players, retro arcade games in various states of repair.
“Pinball machine,” I say, having spotted it in the corner under a shroud of dust. “Was that always here?”
“Everything that’s in here, I put in here,” he says proudly. “It was an empty building.”
The tour over, we sit in the bar sipping our beers, him leaning on the pool table bouncing a ball off the cushion back to his hand. “So I been watching you these past coupla hours, drivin’ round, checkin’ things out,” he says, “Nothing that interesting around here. What brings you to our little town?”
I tell him the truth: “Baby Doll.”
Benoit, Mississippi, is a tiny blip along Highway 1 that follows roughly the contours of the river with which the state shares its name. Just a crisscross of a dozen or so streets. I’d been staying in Clarksdale for a blues festival and in random conversation someone mentioned the town name and it dislodged a loose stone in my brain that fell straight into my mouth: “Isn’t that where they filmed Baby Doll?” I remembered the movie’s screenplay was by Tennessee Williams, a Mississippi native, who spent much of his childhood in Clarksdale. Some long lost threads were coming together.
I’d seen the film many times and its legend had grown in me. Starring Karl Malden and my hero, Eli Wallach, it was the performance of a young Carroll Baker, too smouldering and provocative for the sensibilities of the mid-1950s, that got the film condemned by prominent New York Catholics. This, of course, was followed by healthy ticket sales.
The main filming location was a huge old antebellum plantation home, Greek revival, columns and all, chosen by the director, Elia Kazan, for its state of dilapidation, so much so that some interior scenes had to be filmed back in New York on a studio re-creation due to fears for the actors’ safety.
Years back I’d researched as much as I could find of the structure, known locally as the Burrus House. A survivor of the Civil War, when all other similar houses around were sacked by the marauding Yankee army, it was mysteriously spared, some say due to its owner and builder, Judge J. C. Burrus, having studied at the University of Virginia with the commanding Union general. But even with such luck, it was paintless and neglected when filming started in 1956, and it must be a rotting pile of loose boards by now.
With the festival wrapped up I take the hire car on a detour to see if any remnants of the film exist. I pass through a string of distressingly poor communities: glistening mounds of broken bottles, crumbling bricks, a recently burnt building still smouldering.
I roll into Benoit and have a poke around. At the one general store I buy an Eskimo Pie and ask the old lady at the register if she knows anything about Baby Doll. She knows what I’m talking about and tells me to wait a moment. She makes a phone call while the line at the register grows, but everyone waiting seems interested in my search.
“Good morning, Miss Clara,” she says down the line. “Do you know anything about Baby Doll movie?”
I love the way she pronounces the title in her broad southern sing-song, and I’m happy Miss Clara is a bit deaf so she has to repeat it a few times.
She puts her hand over the receiver. “What would you like to know, sir?”
“Does she know if there are any locals still around who were in the film?”
I’d read that all the extras were uncredited Benoit residents. She asks my question, is listening and nodding, “Ah-huh, ah-huh,” but then she just hangs up. She says yes, Miss Clara in fact knew people who were in the film, although she herself was not. I ask who. She says she didn’t say, and that’s that. I want to ask about the house but she has other customers to attend to.
In the bar with the taciturn policeman, we’ve both drained our beers and I have to start thinking about getting my hire car back to the Jackson airport on time.
“I had no luck finding the house from the movie,” I explain to my new friend. “Do you know if it still exists in any form?”
“You mean Eustace’s place?” he lights up.
“I’m not sure…”
“Oh, I know Eustace. He’s a real nice guy.”
He whips out a mobile phone from his back pocket and clicks through his contact list. He’s smiling at me with it up to his ear.
“Eustace,” he says, “There’s a guy here from Austria. He wants to see your house. Should I send him round?”
He signs off and says Eustace will be waiting. I thank him, go find my car, and follow his directions, precariously memorised in my excitement. I cross the railway tracks and head east of the highway. The scene changes dramatically. Houses are much bigger, expansive yards of neatly coiffured lawns, patriot flags flapping. It’s a stark contrast to the streets I’d crept through this morning on the west side, potholed and dishevelled, shotgun shacks, sad old cars with bonnets up and grass growing round the wheels.
I come to the Burrus Road marker and turn onto a dirt street, follow that around some bends. My heart quickens as it knows a mystery that’s grown bigger with time is about to be unravelled. I steel myself for disappointment.
There are some stately iron gates lying open and once I’m through my eyes are drawn over my right shoulder. I skid to a halt, astonished. It’s unmistakable. There in front of me, across a small cotton patch, the Baby Doll house rises from the plains like some princely leviathan, restored, resurrected, and not looking a day older than when it was built in 1858.
The grinning bright-eyed figure that is Eustace Winn IV, direct descendant of J. C. Burrus, greets me with a solid vigorous handshake. “Welcome to the old girl,” he says, bringing the southern accent to new levels of mellifluous lilt. He’s been appointed custodian and caretaker by the family but you can tell by his enthusiastic history lesson that it’s a gratifying task, and I imagine easily encouraged whenever anyone takes interest in his charge. He’s trying to get the word out so people can use it as an event location, for weddings and official dinners. I tell him I’m just overjoyed to find it intact.
“Yeah, man, these old houses, they’re so hard to keep up,” he says as we drift around the perimeter and I gape in wonder. “We’ve just had to redo the porch. It’s only been five years.”
The damp heat of the delta is not kind to wood. But we’re bonding more over the movie than carpentry.
“This is where it all went down, here in the yard. The tree they climb when they’re running from Karl Malden, when he’s got the shotgun,” he says and points behind me. “It’s that one right there.”
Inside and up the faithfully reconstructed staircase, he leads me to a room where he hopes to soon house a Baby Doll museum.
A huge French four-sheet framed movie playbill leans against the fireplace. A black-and-white Carroll Baker lies in a cot, clad in a sheer negligee, sucking her thumb. I wonder if the photo was taken in the same place where the poster now sits.
When I tell Eustace I’ll attempt to get an old Eli Wallach autograph to add to the collection, his face lights up even further. “Aw, man, and if you ever want to stay here and soak it all up,” he offers, “you’d be more than welcome to.”
He steps out to make a phone call and I’m left alone to drift through the empty, echoing rooms. Time doesn’t seem to have moved very far; only the odd modern light fitting is there to suggest it has. Just then, transfixed by my surroundings, I realise I’ve missed my Jackson flight.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 13, 2014 as "Ghosts of Mississippi". Subscribe here.