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Ghosts Of the Mississippi

I am not a bed-and-breakfast person, and I'm on the outs with inns. I don't like thumping my head against the eaves of quaint New England saltboxes, ripping Shaker quilts when I turn over in bed, or smiling politely as my innkeeper, who gave up Wall Street "to find out what really matters," describes in numbing detail the renovations he's made in his life and his brick-and-mortar money pit. But as I turned down a long gravel driveway in Napoleonville, Louisiana, toward a white-columned mansion so elegant that I wondered whether I'd strayed onto the set of a car commercial, I had an inkling that Madewood Plantation House was no ordinary inn. Indeed, my room seemed large enough to host a respectable game of half-court basketball. My half tester English Regency mahogany bed was the size of a small tugboat. And if heretofore I hadn't known a tester from a toaster, I felt an undeniable frisson as I hung my jeans in an antique oak armoire and stowed my T-shirts in a marble-topped dresser embellished with hand-painted cameo angels. History lay all around me: in the Mathew Brady photograph of Robert E. Lee in the hallway; in the 48-foot-long ballroom, where Southern belles once waltzed till dawn. As I looked out a floor-to-ceiling "guillotine" window to the lawn where Union soldiers once camped, I could feel 150 years begin to fall away.

From Baton Rouge to New Orleans, the great sugar plantations border both sides of the river all the way," wrote Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi, "...standing so close together, for long distances, that the broad river lying between the two rows, becomes a sort of spacious street." On the eve of the Civil War, this area was the richest in America, and its residents competed in building the most opulent mansions the country had ever seen. And even though the region became the nation's poorest after the war, many of Louisiana's plantations survived. During the Depression, however, most of what were known as "America's castles" fell prey to vandals or the wrecking ball. Of some 350 mansions that once lined the 100-mile stretch of the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as the River Road, only a few dozen survive—but even that number makes the area home to one of the largest concentrations of antebellum plantations left standing. In an effort to keep their gold-leaf mirrors gold and their live oaks live, many have opened their ornate doors to overnight guests who wish to sleep in beds where Confederate soldiers once slept, sip mint juleps on verandas pocked by Yankee bullets, and relive, as one owner puts it, "a time when Southern aristocrats knew the true art of living." On a recent five-day meander along the River Road, I enjoyed a lifestyle straight out of Gone with the Wind and pondered the often painful history that seems embedded in each chandelier crystal, each wisp of Spanish moss.

I had also been drawn to the River Road by another sort of history—mine. For nearly a century, five generations of my family had gathered at our own ancestral manse, a rambling, 11-bedroom summer house on Cape Cod, less grand, perhaps, than Tara, but no less dear to its occupants. (In our innocence, we had called it the Big House, not knowing the phrase was commonly used to describe prisons and plantations.) Several years ago, unable to afford the taxes and upkeep, my extended family weighed the options—we, too, briefly considered opening it as a B&B—and reluctantly put it on the market. At the last minute, when it was about to be sold to a developer and torn down, a cousin stepped in and bought it. The Big House has undergone extensive renovation and, though every time I visit I thank God (and my cousin) for its existence, its original details are preserved only in family memories. I had come to Louisiana because I sorely missed the sense of opening a front door and walking into the past.

Driving north from New Orleans along the River Road, however, I soon realized that the past might be more elusive than I'd thought. For one thing, ever since 1949, when the Army Corps of Engineers built a 40-foot levee to contain it, the Mississippi itself has been all but invisible from the River Road, although its presence can be inferred from the tops of tankers that glide eerily by. For another, what the Tourist Bureau calls Plantation Country might be more accurately called Petrochemical Country, cane fields having given way over the course of the 20th century to a nightmare landscape of cranes, coal piles, and smokestacks that only Hieronymus Bosch or a Lego-loving six-year-old boy could find beautiful. (The name changes alone suggest the drastic transformation: Providence Plantation became IMC Agrico Chemical; Godchaux-Reserve Plantation became Globalplex; New Hope Plantation became Copolymer.)It seems almost hallucinatory, therefore, to round a bend and come upon a vast, lime-green lawn, a canopy of ancient live oaks, and an antebellum mansion so white it appears to glow in the fading afternoon light. It is as if a Tiffany saleswoman had opened a crumpled brown paper bag to display a flawless pearl.

Like that of every River Road mansion, Madewood's past is filled with enough money, cruelty, loss, war, suffering, and rebirth to sustain several television miniseries. In 1846, Thomas Pugh, a wealthy sugar planter and father of 15, decided to build a house that would outdo his nephew's next door. It took four years to make 600,000 bricks from local clay and another four to fashion them into the regal manse dubbed Queen of the Bayou. Although Union troops torched the surrounding land, Madewood was spared by a Yankee general who took pity on the Confederate widow living there. Over the following century, the plantation saw six different owners, all of whom wanted the land but not the house. By 1964, when a New Orleans businesswoman (whose family had lost its own plantation during the Depression) bought the house and 20 acres for $70,000, the Queen of the Bayou—on the market for 15 years and unoccupied for nearly 20—was 11,000 square feet of handyman's special. The roof leaked, the windows were broken, the lace curtains had rotted to powder, and the ballroom was piled to its 16-foot ceiling with hay. It took two years to clean out the place, and two decades before—in a response to an unusually high electric bill—Madewood was opened to paying guests.

Madewood bills itself as a "house party in the cane fields." During my visit, the party began with wine and cheese under the Waterford crystal chandelier in the library. There were nine of us: a farmer and his wife from Georgia, a paper distributor and his wife from Florida, a prison guard and his wife from Illinois, a dot-com couple from California, and me. At first we were as awkward as contestants on the initial episode of a reality TV show (Survivor: Plantation Country). But by the time we sat down at a long oak table in the candlelit dining room, the conversation wafted easily from Mardi Gras to teenage fashion to politics. The meal, prepared and served by longtime family retainers (summoned when one of us sheepishly rang a bell shaped like a belle), constituted a sort of Greatest Hits of Louisiana cuisine: chicken and andouille gumbo; crawfish étouffée; corn bread. An exquisitely civilized 2 1/2 hours later (10 times the duration of an average meal at my house), we adjourned to the parlor for brandy and coffee.

After the other guests retired to their rooms upstairs, I had the run of the first floor: curling up in an English wing chair in the library with a back issue of theSouthern Review; studying the Hogarth prints over the 18th-century Hiller organ in the music room. Ever since first visiting the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where period rooms lie irresistible but untouchable behind red velvet ropes, I've fantasized about slipping under those ropes and living in history—at least until the guards kicked me out. At Madewood, I lived out that fantasy. Yet it is hardly a museum, but rather a mix of the grand and the homey that brought to mind my own Big House. The doorknobs rattle comfortably; the guest rooms are equipped with boom boxes; the antique paintings are interspersed with family snapshots; my bedroom door was embellished with initials carved by a former owner's children. The next morning, after bracing myself with a cup of chicory-laced coffee (delivered to my room on a silver tray), I felt sufficiently at home to do my Pilates exercise routine on the bedroom rug without worrying that I would offend the Southern belle who stared at me from her 19th-century portrait on the wall.

A leisurely 40-minute drive north of Napoleonville, past sugar-cane fields, columned ranch houses, and an occasional oak-shaded antebellum cottage, brought me to Nottoway Plantation. If Madewood is sweet, selfless Melanie, Nottoway is vain, gorgeous, over-the-top Scarlett. The father of 11 who built Nottoway in 1859 insisted that he would have preferred more modest digs, but wealth and position demanded he keep up with the Joneses, not to mention the Pughs. So John Hampden Randolph built a 64-room, 53,000-square-foot, Italianate mansion resembling a three-tier wedding cake—the kind that might have been served had Liza Minnelli married Liberace.Its in-your-face grandeur was nearly destroyed a few years later, however, when a Union gunboat opened fire on "the white castle."The story goes that a Northern officer, a former guest, recognized Nottoway and came ashore, eventually promising Mrs. Randolph he would spare the house if she'd invite him back after the war. Thanks to a wealthy Australian who spent a night here in 1985 and loved it so much that he bought it, the largest surviving antebellum mansion in the South remains largely intact, from the lightning rod on its slate roof to the green velvet curtains that, rumor has it, so impressed David O. Selznick, he copied them for Gone with the Wind.

At Madewood, the moment I'd parked my car, a hostess greeted me with such warmth that I wondered whether we'd met before. At Nottoway, a bellman accompanied me in silence as I wrestled my suitcase up two flights of stairs, where we found 23 Texans touring my bedroom. It was a bedroom worth touring: a half tester 1860 rosewood bed so tall I had to use the embroidered footstool to climb aboard, and floor-to-ceiling windows that looked over the levee to the broad, mud-brown Mississippi—Nottoway's size makes it one of the few River Road mansions able to offer river views. But the antebellum vibe was undercut by the plastic drinking cups sheathed in hygienic wrap and the morning coffee, accompanied by vials of Coffee Rich, that was nearly as watery as the river outside my window. Nottoway seemed to be a cross between Chenonceau and Motel 6. It's not that I wanted the historical fidelity of Colonial Williamsburg (I was grateful that the mattresses were no longer stuffed with Spanish moss), but Madewood had spoiled me. Nottoway was a house—a magnificent house, to be sure—not a home, a distinction underscored when, returning from dinner in a nearby town, I found I'd been accidentally locked out and had to track down the security guard to let me in. The following morning, as I sat in the dining hall over my "full plantation breakfast" (if the seven Randolph daughters had eaten a full plantation breakfast every day, they would have had to wear their hoop skirts upside down), the sound system began to play a symphonic piece that seemed strangely familiar. The other guests looked up from their grits with dreamy expressions. Then it struck me: it was "Tara's Theme" from Gone with the Wind.

I shouldn't have been surprised. Never mind that Margaret Mitchell set her epic in the hills of northern Georgia. Never mind that the movie was filmed on a back lot in Hollywood. Tourists still flock to the River Road in search of Tara or a reasonable facsimile thereof. They come closest to finding it at Oak Alley, whose quarter-mile allée of 300-year-old live oaks has appeared in Interview with the Vampire, Primary Colors, and many other films. Not wanting to miss what one visitor called "Tara with nicer grounds," I backtracked 50 miles downriver—past colorful Creole cottages, trailer parks, derelict plantations, and Freetown, a 150-acre settlement founded by emancipated slaves in 1872—and pulled into a parking lot crowded with tour buses.

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