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The essays of a beloved bon vivant

The essays of a beloved bon vivant
(Photo: Twitter)
Julia Reed, a journalist, and ambassador of Southern hospitality who died of cancer at 59 in 2020, was a great generator of maxims, especially about the little things. A sampler, from her posthumous collection of career-spanning essays, “Dispatches From the Gilded Age”:اضافة اعلان

“Packing should be an act of the imagination.”

“Knees get a bad rap in general.”

“If the occasion demands it, have a toast ready, but for God’s sake make it funny — and short.”

Edited with obvious affection by her longtime assistant, Everett Bexley, this book seems intended as a toast to Reed, a beloved bon vivant and contributor to many publications, most recently Garden & Gun, where her reputation as the Nora Ephron of the South was cemented with a column, blog posts and podcasts delivered in her Scotch-soaked voice.

But sadly, “Dispatches From the Gilded Age” is only funny in patches, and goes on quite a bit longer than necessary. It’s less like a toast and more like one of those beribboned, overstuffed goody bags that get handed out at the end of certain parties (not Reed’s, where the only thing you walked away with, judging by her advice on hostessing, was the promise of a major hangover). You are pleased to get the bag, and there might be a thing or two in there you want, but there is also plenty that you’re going to crumple up and throw away.



My favorite souvenir from Reedlandia might be the essay “Slow Train to China” (1995), which tells of getting on the trans-Siberian railway with 150 feminists to attend the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women. (This was a couple of decades before Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” juggernaut and #girlboss made such summits more frequent objects of parody.)

“I am sick of women, and I am sick of the UN, and I’ve never understood the purpose of conferences except that they make the people who attend them feel very important,” Reed wrote.

The first leg of the trip, she found out even before embarking, was “a nightmarish journey in which the things that always happen when a lot of women get together happened: hostile cliques, general b*tchiness, the rush to judgment, and the laying of blame along the way”. Reed’s irritability did not cloud her compassion and curiosity toward the individuals she went on to encounter and interview. And she managed to give a terminal exercise in earnestness the rollicking flavor of a number by Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators, the all-female band from “Some Like It Hot”.

The author’s travel writing, like much travel writing, is most enjoyable when she gets into scrapes and is forced to reckon with income inequality on the ground. One account of a visit to Cuba (“Our Girl in Havana,” 1994) goes from stream of consciousness to pure fever dream after Reed’s handbag, containing passport, plane ticket, and thousands of dollars in cash, is stolen.

A jaunt to Europe to get cosmetic treatments sampled by Noël Coward, Somerset Maugham, and other celebrities (“Fountain of Youth,” 1992) takes a dark turn in Romania, with spiders, howling dogs, and beggars, and Reed eventually concluding that Margaret Thatcher’s glow was owed not to injections, but to power: “The secret of youth lies in being elected prime minister — and staying there.” Reed’s “whirlwind safari” to Africa, in 1994, during which she chose the antelope as her spirit animal and thought of Ernest Hemingway, feels more cringey-colonialist.

The collection includes some excellent profiles. You will not find out where these pieces first appeared without Googling, and maybe there’s the rub, the barbecue rub, of these “dispatches.” Many of them were composed for glossy magazines and without the ads for lipstick and face creams and Ralph Lauren outfits around them, they lack a certain raison d’être.

Reed’s vaunted article for Newsweek about the murder of celebrity doctor Herman Tarnower — a scoop she got at 19 in 1980 because the killer, Jean Harris, was headmistress of her boarding school — is pasted in like a scrapbook entry, ending abruptly without subsequent context. Wry asides about fashion being safer than Prozac and fur sales going up simply have not dated well, now that an entire generation has come of age in N95s and leisure wear. A chapter on catfish, the food, written in 2019, uncharacteristically neglects to mention the modern meaning of the term.

As for Reed’s food writing: Dropping recipes into an anthology, when she has published some great books specifically on cooking and entertaining, feels like a category error. Are you really going to dig out this book when you are ready to make catfish bouillon?

Then again, Reed’s cheese straws do look fantastic, and I appreciated learning that “the kind sold at Sarabeth’s and countless other Manhattan emporiums” are pale imitations of the ones served at Southern cocktail hours.


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