ST. FRANCISVILLE, La.
I’ve met some brave people in my life: survivors of war, politics, natural disasters – and one heroic woman in the Mississippi Delta who lived most of her life in an iron lung.
I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone braver than the beautiful and elegant Anne Butler of this enchanting Louisiana river town. She’s run a family plantation and a bustling bed and breakfast for decades, written a dozen books, had four husbands, two children and eight surgeries and been shot six times at close range with a .38 – not necessarily in that order.
“If you’re gonna shoot somebody, don’t shoot a writer,” she now says matter-of-factly. Did I mention she’s managed to keep a wry sense of humor? Anne remembers organizing the book she knew she would write in her wild ambulance ride to the hospital.
When her estranged fourth husband, a former Angola prison warden, shot her in her own home and calmly sat by and waited for Anne to die, her good run seemed sure to end. He hadn’t counted on the spunk of this dainty but determined mother, tough as zoysia. “Playing possum,” as we Southerners are wont to say, can be an effective way of slowing down your metabolism and the bleeding, not to mention fooling the control freak of an estranged lover trying to murder you.
The year was 1997, husband No. four was Murray Henderson. Anne’s book about the crime, “Weep for the Living,” was published the next year. Riveting reading, it has remained in demand. Henderson died in prison in 2004. If you want the details, buy the book.
Life, with its uncertainties and sorrows and occasional good moments, goes on.
Anne’s B&B at her family’s Butler Greenwood Plantation is thriving. I’d wanted to see it ever since reading her book, which is a rare memoir, one with something important to say.
She put us in the Dovecote, one of eight unusual cabins on her property that keep guests out of the Big House but happy and comfortable. Anne had seen a “shingled, slope-sided windmill” in House Beautiful and kept the article for years. She gave the raggedy photograph to Burnett Carraway, her friend, restoration carpenter and business partner, handing him “the biggest challenge of his life.”
With a three-story staircase and sloped sides, it’s easy to see why the cabin might have been a builder’s nightmare. But it is the perfect place to spend a couple of peaceful nights. I keep thinking now about a winter visit to enjoy the fireplace in the second-story kitchen.
Anne Butler, a realist if ever there was one, soon is turning over the Big House and the B&B business to her son and his young family. She will move to one of the smaller dwellings and concentrate on her writing.
While she’s making major life changes, the historic contents of the formal Greenwood parlor will be given, Brussels carpet to calla-lily tiebacks, to the New Orleans Museum of Art. Because the family carefully kept the Civil War-era room and its furnishings original and intact, it’s one of the finest examples of formal Victorian parlors remaining in the South.
And so this real-life Steel Magnolia keeps on blooming copiously, despite or perhaps, in part, because of – a hate-driven act that almost took her life. The best revenge is living.
To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.