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Mississippi Writers: Julia Reed marker unveiled

As a product of the Delta, Reed was a world-class storyteller. Her long history of writing, sometimes irreverently, included politics, fashion, food, and her favorite – human predicaments.

The Mississippi Arts Commission has announced the unveiling of its newest marker for The Mississippi Writers Trail, honoring the work of Julia Evans Reed.

A journalist, a speaker, and sometimes, an activist, Reed was a Greenville native with a long history of writing, sometimes irreverently, about politics, fashion, food, and her favorite – human predicaments, which are so prevalent in the South. As a product of the Delta, Reed was a world-class storyteller.

She had a posh upbringing, learning how to converse with politicians and celebrities from her father, and how to entertain from her mother. Clarke Reed is a businessman and a former Republican party leader. Judy Brooks Reed hails from a prominent Nashville family. It was common for the Reeds to host parties with such notables as William F. Buckley Jr. and George and Barbara Bush in attendance.

In an article published in Vogue magazine following Reed’s death at 59 in August 2020, Hamish Bowles referred to her as “Mississippi’s answer to Dorothy Parker.” Reed joined Vogue as a features editor in 1988, a job she most likely got because of her stint at the Washington D.C. bureau of Newsweek while in college at Georgetown University, a place where she first interned at only 16 years old.

Julia attended high school at the Madeira School for Girls, a boarding school in McLean, Virginia. When the former headmistress of the school, Jean Harris, shot her lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower (the Scarsdale Diet doctor), Mel Elfin, the Newsweek editor at the time, assigned Julia to cover the story due to her connection to the school. She raced to the scene of the crime. It was 1980, and Reed was just 19 years old. That story was her first national news story headline.

While at Vogue, Reed wrote about politics, profiling the Clintons and the Bushes. She also wrote culture pieces, including interviewing Oprah Winfrey for The Wall Street Journal. Reed’s wit and unique style for finding humor in any situation landed her contributor gigs at The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, U.S. News and World Report, and Elle Décor.

Reed had a knack for authoring succinct essays. She could tell a tale in such a way that when the ending landed, the reader almost didn’t see what was coming. There was an element of surprise in her essays, sometimes taking an event in one essay and seamlessly weaving it into another one. Such was the case in her 2004 collection of essays, Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena (Random House, 2004). Many of those essays had been previously published in The Oxford American, The New York Times, The Independent on Sunday, and even in The Book, a Neiman-Marcus publication. The opening quote in the book comes from Susan Akin, Miss Mississippi and Miss America, 1986. “I hate to read. I don’t get anything out of it. I never could stand to read. It bores me.” A regular reader of Reed’s work has to believe she saved that quote for just the right time and place. And there it is, inside the first few pages of her book, following the dedication page to her editor and publisher, Jason Epstein. You can’t make this stuff up.

Other Reed books include South Toward Home, Hot Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties; But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria!; Julia Reed’s South: Spirited Entertaining and High-Style Fun All Year Long; and Julia Reed’s New Orleans. She also wrote a regular column for Garden and Gun magazine.

Reed made her home in New Orleans, first living in a French Quarter rental where she entertained frequently in the historic apartment’s lush courtyard. She then bought a stately home on First Avenue almost one year to the day of Hurricane Katrina. In her book The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story, she chronicled the restoration of the home both before and after the famous hurricane. She eventually sold that home.

She was married to John Pearce, and the couple divorced in 2016. Reed then purchased the property next to her childhood home in Greenville and built a home. She also maintained a residence in New Orleans, located next to Commander’s Palace.

Wanting to see more tourism in the Delta, Reed worked with event organizers of the Delta Hot Tamale Festival to expand it from a one-day event to an event-filled three-day extravaganza. That in turn created a huge economic benefit for Greenville. As a lover of words, it was only natural for her to open a bookstore, Brown Water Books, in the historic Wetherbee House in Greenville. She and her best friend, Keith Smythe Mitcham founded Reed Smythe & Company, a collection of beautiful, unexpected pieces for house and garden inspired by their travels, their Mississippi Delta childhoods, and their personal collections, all “imbued with stories and a generous shot of soul.”

Reed was named a Cultural Ambassador of the Mississippi Arts Commission in 2019. She served on the boards of the Ogden Museum in New Orleans, the Eudora Welty Foundation, and the Link Stryjewski Foundation.

The Writers Trail marker was unveiled on Friday, October 20 at the Weathersby House in conjunction with the 2023 Delta Hot Tamale Festival. 

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