Patsy: The Life and Times of Patsy Cline

by Margaret Jones

Book Excerpt

Copyright 1994, by Margaret Jones. Permission to quote from this excerpt granted only by permission of the author.

In May 1957, Patsy Cline rode through the streets of her hometown of Winchester, Virginia, in the biggest event of the year. Accompanied by the blaring horns and thundering drums of a hundred marching bands, she smiled until her face was sore and waved as thousands of craning spectators lined up ten deep along the parade route. Where Patsy grew up it was every little girl’s dream to sit on the top of the back seat of a convertible in a beautiful gown and ride down the streets of Winchester in the Grand Feature Parade of the annual Apple Blossom Festival.

For the last ten years, Patsy had paid her dues, working in virtually every juke joint, club, fire hall, Moose Lodge, park, drive-in theater and county fair in the tristate area, in towns like Brunswick, Barryville, Warrenton, Mount Jackson, Elkton, Front Royal, Martinsburg.

Everywhere she sang, people just loved her to pieces. She’d get up there and by the end of the evening she’d have them “mopping tears,” she’d say. But for some damn reason, they never accepted her in Winchester. “I don’t know what’s wrong with this town,” she once complained to a friend. “It’s like they don’t want a person to make anything of herself.” In a way, she was right.

Not that local recognition had eluded Patsy. Small towns are hotbeds of activity. Out of boredom, people get very creative with their spare time. And there was a whirlwind of speculation about Patsy, all of which led to the same conclusion: “She’ll never amount to a damn.”

At one point, Patsy, decked out in full western regalia, sang between two B movies on the roof of the cement block refreshment stand of Winchester’s Royal Drive-In. In the middle of pouring her heart out she was honked at and booed by certain folks in Winchester who sat behind their windshields sucking slushies, impatient for the next flick. Patsy fled into a trailer that was used as an office with the local musicians who backed her. “Why? Why do people in Winchester treat me like this?” she cried angrily. Then she uttered what had become her refrain: “One of these days I’m going to come to Winchester and draw one hell of a crowd. One hell of a crowd!”

Sure enough, through a stunning series of events, Patsy had recently cracked into the big time. It started a few months earlier, in January, when she won Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts,” the prime TV variety show with a top ten Nielsen rating and a combined radio-TV audience of 82 million. It was the biggest house Patsy had ever played, and they loved her. The song that launched her, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” was a hit, topping Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and the Platters. Godfrey, whose nasal baritone and folksy patter were as familiar as good ‘ole Lipton Tea—one of his favorite sponsors—invited her to be a regular on his show. That week she got more fan mail than Godfrey himself. Godfrey paid her $1,000 a week, a hell of a lot more than the $8-a-night gigs she used to work around Winchester.

A reporter from the Winchester Evening Star who interviewed her one month before the Apple Blossom fete noted she had just returned from a cross-country tour that took her as far west as Los Angeles. Ed Sullivan was begging for her services, as was Alan Freed, the self-styled “King of Rock and Roll.” She had a fan club that kept track of such trivia as her hobbies (“collecting salt and pepper shakers, earrings and pictures”) and her favorite foods (“spaghetti and fried chicken”). Best of all, she was finally able to say what she had always, ever since she was a little girl, dreamed of saying to her mama, and she inscribed the words she had mentally rehearsed all those years diagonally across the bottom of a glamorous new publicity photo of her in her large, flowing handwriting: “We finally made it!”

The dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty with softly rounded cheeks and creamy skin, whose picture took up a whole page in the Apple Blossom Festival program book, bore a striking resemblance to Patsy. But it was not Patsy. Not by a long shot. The caption read: “HER MAJESTY QUEEN SHENANDOAH XXX.”

“Miss Anne Denise Doughty-Tichborne, 1957 Queen of the Apple Blossoms, is an English ‘cousin’ from across the seas. The nineteen-year-old daughter of Sir Anthony and Lady Doughty-Tichborne was educated in England, Italy and Spain. … Queen Shenandoah XXX who, on her seventeenth birthday, was presented to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, is talented musically and numbers among her many accomplishments the domestic attributes of cooking and sewing.”

The credentials of the Apple Blossom queen were unimpeachable. She met the single most important criterion of the committee of Virginia patriarchs who had elected her. She had a pedigree; she was an aristocrat through and through.

In Virginia, nothing could be more important than certified blue blood. Virginia has always had one of the largest and busiest genealogical departments in the country. “There is a deliberate cult of the past rooted in the belief that somewhere in the back of every Virginian’s family history is a royal insignia,” wrote a correspondent for the New York Times.

“You can only understand Virginia in terms of its mythology, for what Virginians think they are has a great deal to do with what they are, although the two things are not always the same.”

And, “…to say ‘I am a Virginian,’ or ‘My family, of course, came from Virginia,’ is to impute a certain modest elegance to one’s genes and chromosomes, to suggest the superior quality of character, breeding, and gentility, as well as to fix the physical boundaries of a routine biological fact.”

Winchester was sensitive to its royal history. As late as 1957, the city, whose population numbered 15,000, boasted being “the oldest English Colonial settlement west of the Blue Ridge.” The names of the streets celebrated the original patriarchy. “English associates of famed personages, chiefly of British descent.” They were a virtual Who’s Who of generals, admirals, dukes and lords: Washington, Braddock, Boscowan, Loudouon, Cecil, Monmoth, Amherst, Fairfax, Germain, Cameron. If that weren’t enough, Winchester also laid claim to General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Harry Flood Byrd, former U.S. senator, state governor, aristocrat, apple grower, architect of one of the most potent political machines in the country and spearhead of the South’s resistance to the 1954 Court-ordered desegregation of public schools.

Not that the majority of Virginia natives were descended from the gentry. Most were of English, German, Scotch-Irish and Dutch working-class stock. Once the settlers checked the Native American population and drove the French out, they found the gentle Shenandoah, Tidewater and even the rocky Piedmont regions looked like heaven compared to where they’d come from. They modeled the economy of Virginia after the English manorial system. The lesser farmers from the upland regions—even if they were hillbillies—admired the patrician values of the elite, slave-holding planters from the lowlands. Chief among these were chivalry, gentility, independence, property and patrimony. Out of this mishmash came the notion of the Southern “gentleman,” embraced even by rednecks. Critical to the equation, however, was the Southern belle, the lady on the pedestal. She was the ideal: a woman of breeding, beautiful (but unattainable), talented (but not ambitious) and, above all, domestic.

The Apple Blossom Festival was meant to celebrate just such a woman. Which put Patsy on a collision course with Southern Womanhood.

Fruit was big business in the Shenandoah, and Winchester, the county seat, was the “apple Capital.” Jonathans, Pippins, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Grimes Golden, Stayman, Yorks and Rambos went through the National Fruit Company’s processing plant on the outskirts of town, where both Patsy’s mother and grandmother had worked, and ended up on grocery shelves as vinegar, juice, applesauce, cider, apple rings, apple butter.

In 1924, an Apple Blossom Festival that would bring thousands of tourists to town was conceived by a confederation of Virginia orchardists, the biggest of whom was Harry Flood Byrd. The official tag line of the fete, “The bounties of nature are the gifts of God,” was eventually supplanted by a less officious slogan: “We want the world to know, the best apples grow in the Shenandoah.”

Though hardly the bacchanalia that is New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Winchester’s Apple Blossom Festival was nevertheless touted as “The World’s Most Famous Springtime Extravaganza.” Visitors came from all over the country, and if, like Patsy, you grew up in this part of Virginia, the Apple Blossom Festival was encoded in your genetic structure. For days, before and after the three-day affair, the Winchester Evening Star (owned by Harry Flood Byrd) ran banner headlines: “RED CARPET IS OUT FOR QUEEN-ELECT’S ARRIVAL TOMORROW,” and “QUEEN SHENANDOAH XXX BEGINS RULE OF APPLE REALM,” and “QUEEN LEAVES CITY, ANNUAL RETURN TO NORMAL BEGINS.” The hoopla included parades, band concerts, air shows, receptions, fireworks, apple pancake breakfasts, a formal ball for the big shots and a square dance for the working-class folk. An elaborate coronation ritual was staged as an Elizabethan pageant on the steps of Handley High School. Local radio station WINC offered live coverage.

The main event was the Grand Feature Parade. People packed the historic streets to get a glimpse of the parade marshall. In years past, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Bert Parks led off. In 1957 it was James Cagney. Close behind Cagney, perched atop a wedding cake of a float, was Queen Shenandoah XXX, with her court of princesses. The Winchester Evening Star noted every nuance of the queen’s performance, beginning with her dress, “one of the most elegant gowns ever donned by a Festival Queen.” It was, of course, white, “made of white lace and tulle over white taffeta, embellished with teardrop pearls and embroidered heavy with pearls and beads around the close, round neckline.”

Before the weekend was over, the queen gave a necessarily ladylike statement to the Star: “I enjoyed every minute of it, particularly all the dances. Everyone was very sweet to me and it was lovely to ride around as if I really were a Queen. I loved all the children. I enjoyed the pageant so much and thought all the floats were beautiful. I appreciate very much all the work that went into the organization of the festival and I want to thank everyone so much for the good time I had.”

Many car lengths behind the Apple Blossom queen, on the heels of American Legion Post 108 Drum and Bugle Corps, Patsy draped across the top of the back seat of a red Oldsmobile convertible decorated with a banner that read, “A WINNER ALL THE WAY.” Red, she always said, was the color men liked. Her statement was not covered by the Star, and some people in Winchester would say it was not very ladylike.

This was not Patsy’s first Apple Blossom parade. Indeed, she had participated the two previous years, each time gussied up in her trademark cowgirl couture—tailored and sequined affairs with colorful appliqués and five-inch fringe shimmying from bosom and hem. She looked good—maybe too damn good, remembered Patsy’s girlfriend, Pat Smallwood. For some reason, her name was omitted from the program book. But Patsy never did kowtow to the veneer of the legendary Southern belle with its charades of etiquette and morality: her retort, “The hell with ‘em,” was Patsy’s equivalent of Scarlett O’Hara’s “fiddle-dee-dee.”

There were various explanations offered for Patsy’s ill treatment by her own hometown.

“She sang—but that’s all she did,” Smallwood said. “But it didn’t matter what she done. Back in the fifties, anything a woman did out of the ordinary was a big deal. She wore makeup and tight clothes and that was considered loose. See, the town was sort of jealous because she was a sexy-type lady. She had it. She was built. There weren’t any girls around doing what she was doing and none as good as her either. And she wore the cowgirl outfits. She could be very sexy. She was gorgeous. Fantastic figure. Built kind of like Jessica Lange.”

“Yeah, they laughed at her,” said local musician Johnny Anderson, who’d backed Patsy on numerous occasions and knew her well. “This town’s got a lot of funny people. They stay in a clique. If I’m from that side of the tracks, I’m from that side of the tracks, and you’re not going to let me forget it. It’s as simple as that. There are certain people who have always controlled this town. They control the banks, they control the council, and if you’re not one of them the hell with you. You’re just a peon, and you’ll always be a peon as long as you live. And they won’t let you forget it, either. It was always on her mind that she was from Kent Street, the other side of the tracks. She was proud of it, really. See, she was for the underdog.”

“It’s not what you are, it’s who you know and how well respected you are,” said another one of Patsy’s girlfriends. “She despised that. I would say to her, ‘Well, I don’t know why you let it bother you.’ She would say, ‘It doesn’t, really.’ But deep down, you knew it did.”

At this year’s parade, as a concession to her newfound status as a pop singing sensation, Patsy wore her makeover look: a strapless evening gown, rhinestone earrings and nosebleedingly high heels. It didn’t matter—Patsy would always be a cowgirl. Fiercely independent and proud, if provoked she would run off a string of epithets that could make a sailor blush. “Forthright,” the Winchester Evening Star primly noted.

“Women, in those days, kept their mouths shut,” offered Phil Whitney, who managed the local radio station where Patsy made her broadcast debut.

“Know who reminds me of Patsy? Asked musician Mary Klick. “Bette Middler. That same down-to-earthiness.”

As the parade rounded the home stretch, Patsy plainly heard the catcalls that came from the crowd. Some of her loyal friends did too. After the parade was over, John Reid searched her out. He found her sitting in her car on a side street all by herself. There wasn’t another soul nearby. Even her driver had deserted her, he recalled.

“She looked like someone’s stepchild,” Reid said. “I felt real sorry for her because cars would come off the parade route and park so that people could stop and talk or gather around, but Patsy was all left out.”

Reid had his Poloroid Land Camera, and as Patsy stood in front of her car like it was about to turn into a pumpkin, he snapped a picture. She was still fuming when the shutter clicked. “Sonsabitches,” she growled. “I’ll show them yet.”