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When southern journalist and raconteur Julia Reed (New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Garden & Gun) lost her battle with cancer in 2020 at the age of 59, scores of people mourned her death. Not only because she was an engaging and witty writer, but because Reed was a selfless friend. Her essays in Dispatches from the Gilded Age: A Few More Thoughts on Interesting People, Far-Flung Places and the Joys of Southern Comforts give readers a sense of Reed’s selfless devotion to her cohorts. But it also showcases her strengths as a writer, including her ability to mesh her southern roots with superb reportage skills, while her knack for fashioning fluid sentences make her subjects come alive.
It all started in 1980 during Reed’s sophomore year at Georgetown University. She received a phone call from her editor at Newsweek, where she was working part time, informing her that Jean Harris, the headmistress of the Madeira School, located just outside D.C., had shot her lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower, aka the “Scarsdale Diet” doctor, in his home in Purchase, New York. Reed immediately bolted to the school (her alma mater) to cover the story, and at 19, the Mississippi native secured her first byline. That story and many more are compiled in Dispatches from the Gilded Age.
In a lengthy story for Vogue, “Witness at the Execution,” Reed shadows 54-year-old nun Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, made famous by the film starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. Reed writes honestly about Prejean, a “hilarious powerhouse of a woman with a heavy Louisiana accent and no habit who laughs all the time unless she is talking serious business.” Reed takes us inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary to experience the despair that death row prisoner Robert Wayne Sawyer felt the night of his execution. We learn about his crime (murder), his final meal (“two bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches, french fries, a strawberry milkshake, and chocolate pie), and we are with Reed when the lights flicker outside Angola. Prejean was impressed with Reed because she visited the murder victims’ families, was not afraid to discuss the politics of capital punishment, and showed interest in every aspect of the death penalty abolitionist’s compelling book.
In another piece for Vogue, Reed introduces the Bush twins Jenna and Barbara to the world in a piece titled “Sister Act.” Reed first encounters the twins at a hotel on Central Park South where they try on designer clothes for a photo shoot. Barbara goes for a Zac Posen dress while Jenna opts for a pair of Joe’s Jeans. The article showcases Reed’s natural talent to put her subjects at ease—whether it is a nun fighting for a man’s life or the First Daughters making their media debut. We learn that Barbara, then at Yale, is quieter than Jenna, who graduated from the University of Texas. We learn that the sisters use adjectives like “awesome” and “hilarious,” and that they love Mexican food. At the time, Jenna had a dream of starting her own charter school while Barbara was inspired to help children in Africa afflicted with AIDS. And Reed ensures that readers understand the main point of her feature: “[The] First Daughters will serve to humanize and soften the image of a controversial wartime president.”
We continue to experience Reed’s talents in features about Madeleine Albright, her trip to Africa, and “Cooking Through Covid” (Garden & Gun), in which we learn that she enjoys cooking for her friends most—not just simple dishes, but spatchcock chicken and homemade corned beef. In another piece for Garden & Gun, she displays here keen ear for country music with a first-person account of Willie Nelson’s 86th birthday tribute concert. Reed and her mother were treated to Nelson’s sons belting out “A Song for You,” Jamey Johnson singing “Georgia on My Mind,” and Nelson and Kris Kristofferson performing “Me and Bobby McGee.” “Kris’s voice was maybe not what I would term its tip-top best,” she writes.
For her collection of essays, published posthumously, Reed’s friend Roy Blount Jr. wrote the forward. Along with his insights, Blount also includes his wife Joan’s remembrance of Reed.
“[When Julia arrived at our New England home] she came in the door carrying bags and bags of presents and sat herself down as if she’d been here thirty times—so comfortable being in a new place, she made you feel comfortable,” Blount writes. “Not in some take-charge way, but in a subtle way, an elegant way.”
Her ability to put people at ease is one of Reed’s greatest legacies. That she could make her subjects feel “so comfortable,” allowed readers to share in the joys of her articles and in the joys of her life.
Now available: Dispatches from the Gilded Age: A Few More Thoughts on Interesting People, Far-Flung Places and the Joys of Southern Comforts by Julia Reed, published by St. Martin’s Press in August 2022.