Nancy Astor was born into a family with no money and no certain future, in a country vanquished in war and destitute in its aftermath. Her parents were Chiswell Dabney Langhorne and Nannie Witcher Keen, and she too was christened Nannie, the name she used until, in 1904, in her early twenties, she travelled to England, when she began calling herself Nancy.
Her father, known as Chillie or Dab to his parents and wife, was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, on 4 November 1843, the eldest of five children, two others having died in infancy. A heavy, stocky, rumbustious extrovert, he was good-looking, genial and jovial, but impulsive, his charm interspersed with fits of ungoverned temper. His ancestors on his father's side were Welsh, but in the seventeenth century one of them, Captain John Langhorne, had emigrated to Virginia. Langhorne proved himself a man of substance, and in time he acquired lucrative contracts, became a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and patented a valuable tract of land. His great-grandson, William Langhorne, was to be revered by future generations of the family for his service during the American Revolution. William's son, Major John Scarisbrooke Langhorne, married his first cousin, Elizabeth, daughter of his father's elder brother, Maurice. In 1828, their son, also Maurice, rented from its owner, a judge, a fine colonial house which had been built in 1815 next to what had once been a duelling ground, and which was consequently known as Point of Honor. It overlooked the James River, on whose banks, near Lynchburg, Virginia, Maurice and his younger brother Henry, Chillie's grandfather, established a flour milling business in 1831.
Chillie's father, John, Henry Langhorne's eldest son, married the daughter of Chiswell Dabney, a lawyer and the owner of a fine plantation near Lynchburg. Named Sarah Elizabeth, she was described by her grandchildren as 'one of those strong-willed Dabneys, conceited and bumptious'; even so, Chillie had an enjoyable and comfortable childhood, spending much of it on the Dabney plantation, riding, shooting and fishing, with a little workon the farm, plenty of food, and, to 'ease the scheme of living', slaves, one of whom, a 'Negro boy named Henry', was given to Chillie when he was six, a present from his grandfather.
By 1860, the Langhorne family milling business was prospering and had become one of Lynchburg's largest. From the bay windows of Point of Honor, Chillie's father could gaze out at the flowing water that turned the wheels of the mills, while his younger brother, James, managed land that he had bought in nearby Patrick County; there, as the family described it, 'crops were good, the slaves hard workers, and the Langhornes prospered'. After Henry retired, management of the mills devolved upon John, who in 1859 had formed a partnership with one Charles Scott. At first the two men had considerable success. Nurturing hopes for developing the business, they formed an ambitious plan to dam the James River and provide a new and reliable water supply for the mills and factories that were springing up along its banks.
On her mother's side, Nancy's family was Irish, originally from Donegal, from where some of her ancestors had sailed to America, eventually settling and prospering in Virginia. Nancy's mother, christened Nannie but always known as Nanaire, was born on 30 August 1848, the elder of two daughters of Mary Anne Witcher and her husband Elisha Ford Keen, a land- and slave-owner who was also a lawyer and a member of Virginia's state legislature.
Both the Keen and Witcher families were prominent in local politics. The proceeds of the sawmills and tobacco on the Keen estate at Cottage Hill, near Danville, provided a good living and sustained Elisha Keen's position as lawyer and senator. Nanaire attended a boarding school in North Carolina - Greensborough Female Institute - and gradually became an accomplished pianist, needlewoman and painter of watercolours. She was also a good gardener, rather more than just an issuer of orders for the planting and arranging of shrubs and flowers, as was then the practice for such ladies.
Living in quiet prosperity and in harmony with their surroundings, the Keens, perhaps slightly more than the Langhornes, had come to reflect the accepted image of Virginian life - gracious, affluent, slave-owning, and content in the tranquillity of the Old South. If not among the grandest Virginian families, they were not far off the top echelon of a society whose leaders, even in the mid-nineteenth century, cherished their links with an aristocratic past and still lived in almost feudal state: fox hunting, shooting and pursuing other pleasures drawn from English traditions. On their land they created and enjoyed an atmosphere of ease and cordiality: 'The colonel with his mint juleps, the white-columned verandas peopled with belles inflouncing, ruffled gowns; the slim, aristocratic young swains proposing marriage on bended knee; the mammy, the faithful black retainer.'1
And so life might reasonably have been expected to continue, into a placid if not golden future. But the times were about to alter, shaking Southern society to its roots. In the Northern states, pressure for radical change was building. The tidal wave created by the release of that pressure was to surge over the happy Southern families, the society in which they lived, and Virginia itself, engulfing them in total ruin. As Winston Churchill put it: 'They had long dwelt comfortably upon the fertile slopes of a volcano. Now began the rumblings, tremors and exhalations which portended a frightful eruption.'2
It was during the 1850s that a volatile mix of political and economic issues began to polarise the Northern and Southern states, and to lead them towards a confrontation that would be resolved only by war. The crucible of conflict was the vast, undeveloped area of the Midwest, at first particularly in the regions that became known as Kansas and Nebraska - new territories with huge economic potential. Both North and South wanted their share of what they believed would be an economic treasure house, and, not least in order to maintain their political weight in the development of the Union, were equally anxious to harness the support of the people moving west, to settle and develop new lands.
The temperature rose sharply as Northern opinion coalesced in opposition to slavery - endemic in the political and economic life of much of the South. The voice of opposition grew all the more shrill with the astonishing success of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852, and was refined and magnified by a lawyer from Springfield, Illinois: Abraham Lincoln.
In parallel with the political gulf that the slavery issue opened up between the two sides, there developed a stand-off over the sovereign right of states to secede from the Union. In December 1860, South Carolina broke its link with the Union, its example being soon followed by six other states, leading in February 1861 to the formation of a Confederacy of Southern states. For them, the question was one of jurisprudence: that their sovereignty was inalienable, a matter for themselves and not for the Federal Union; any state freely joining a union retained the right to leave it.
The leaders of the Northern states believed that a crisis was upon them: they would not countenance the right of secession, with its consequent weakening of the Union. They stiffened their resolve with moral indignation at the thought of the entrenchment of slave states, and even of an increase in their numbers.
At length the verbal confrontation between North and South led tophysical violence. In April 1861, forces of the newly formed Confederacy bombarded Union troops occupying Fort Sumter, a coastal fortification at Charleston, South Carolina. It was the attack that effectively started the Civil War.
In the four-year conflict that followed, the Confederate forces began with a number of military successes. The first, in July 1861, was an action by the Bull Run stream at Manassas, which was close enough to Washington for many Union politicians to ride out from the capital, accompanied by food, drink and their ladies, to observe the promised excitement of a battle. On the day, however, their expectations of an enjoyable programme turned to consternation, for, standing 'like a stone wall' on a hillside in their path, the Confederate General Jackson halted the Federal advance in its tracks, turning the blue-coated Northerners to flight. In a short time the well-dressed spectators and their carriages found themselves dragged among a tangled rout of soldiers fleeing headlong back to the outskirts of their capital.
The following year the tables turned, and for the so-called rebels the bright start faded into the dark hardship of withdrawal. Thereafter, the Army of Northern Virginia fought seven great battles, but for the troops, despite the inspiring leadership of their great general, Robert E. Lee, each was a bleak station on the road to defeat.
For the families of Virginia, memories of the conflict were hallowed by the initial victories of the Confederate armies and their gentlemanly leaders, especially General Lee. A glorious and gallant image of the Civil War became fixed in the soul of the South and was long to dominate its folklore. For many years, before new roots took hold and a fresh start was fostered, Virginian society drew its comfort from dreams of the antebellum age, looking back rather than ahead, living on 'peanuts and past memories'. It was easier to recall a lost world with an image built on an illusion, 'a fabled country, a feudal order of gallantry, chivalry and slaves'.
'Oh, the lazy days, the warm, still, country twilight; the high, soft Negro laughter from the quarters, the golden warmth and security.'
'Don't look back, Ashley, don't look back.'3
The Langhornes and the Keens, like all such families, were drawn deep into the general ruin of the South. When war broke out, John Langhorne's plans for the James River had already taken shape: the deal was made, the contracts were signed, and the great project was ready to be launched, opening the gates to a strong and steady flow of riches. But the approach of Union troops put paid to it all. Defeat and economic ruin snuffed out the millers' dreams before a stone was laid.
John Langhorne lost almost everything. He was rather a weak man, and, like his son, his temper was often uncontrolled. He was apt to speak without thinking - a trait inherited abundantly by his granddaughter Nancy - in consequence of which, when war came, he did not have a successful time in uniform, and had to resign from the army after an argument with a superior officer. Later he lost a great sum in a wheat speculation, and after disastrous floods in 1877, by which time he had been declared bankrupt, the family mills ceased to grind.
Personal records of the Confederate army are scant, and little firm evidence remains of the actual war service of the Keen or Langhorne families. On the other hand, there is plenty of family lore suggesting that Chillie 'saw the elephant', as front-line action was called, trudging with the Army of Northern Virginia around the Shenandoah Valley, surviving Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign and - which still ranks as the bloodiest day in American history - the battle of Sharpsburg.
Chillie himself never embroidered the facts of his career, and he deprecated being addressed as 'Colonel', as were many Civil War veterans of a certain standing, whether they had held the rank or not. What is clear is that he joined Captain Otey's company of the 11th Regiment, Virginia Volunteers, a light artillery unit detailed for local defence, part of the Home Guard that had been formed in Virginia after John Brown's famous raid.
In April 1861, described as a student, five foot ten, of rosy complexion, with grey eyes and light hair, he enrolled for active service with a twelvemonth contract. He mustered as a private in Richmond, but before seeing action he developed problems with his feet, and in October 1861 he was discharged for medical reasons. Although he later rejoined the Home Guard and became a second lieutenant, he did not see major action, and the recollections of his older grandchildren, whom he liked to take to the Gettysburg battlefield, suggest that missing the great fight, in which the 11th Virginia Regiment took part, left him with a lasting regret bordering on fixation.
However, near the end of the war he was able to compensate for his enforced exclusion from his regiment's heroic battles, as proudly described by Nancy in a memoir she wrote many years later:
Father took part in Wilson's defeat at Staunton River bridge in 1863, in the battle that saved Lee's army. In my mother's old scrap book there is a carefully pasted-up cutting about it. Two hundred and fifty hastily organised Confederates whipped twenty-five hundred Federals. 'A valuable contribution', says the headline, in masterly understatement. In her pretty, old-fashioned writing my mother has noted on top of the page, with pride, 'Your father, Mr C.D. Langhorne, was in this battle.'4
The 'valuable contribution', actually on 25 June 1864, took place as General Lee's soldiers were fighting their last defensive battles in Virginia and resisting the siege of Petersburg. At first fewer than 300 Confederates were caught up in the action at Staunton River Bridge, but they were hurriedly reinforced by 500 'old men and young boys', prison-camp guards and convalescent soldiers from Danville: 'With the river at their backs and a strong enemy crowding their front, failure meant capture or certain death and the loss of the bridge that General Lee had entrusted to their keeping.'5 But hopes of wider deliverance were forlorn. Danville, swept by arson and looting before being occupied by Federal troops, was placed under martial law. Yet Chillie had briefly been in the thick of it, and for Nancy, the picture of her father as a gallant soldier formed part of the fiercely loyal and sentimental image of the South that she would sustain throughout her life.
Meanwhile, amid the chaos, Chillie had met Nanaire Keen, a ministering angel in a Danville hospital. It was love at first sight - he was the handsomest young man she ever had seen, his hair chestnut and curly - and not long after the return of the defiant band from Staunton River, she accepted the proposal of her soldier boy. The two were married on 20 December 1864, giving their ages to the parson as seventeen and twenty, although, considering the relevant dates, it would seem that Nanaire was not much over sixteen. Wedding parties lasting several days were held for them at Cottage Hill. Friends packed into a small brick house in the yard, and the day before the ceremony some of them went out shooting, after which a long line of dead partridges was laid out on the grass between the trees.
A few months later the war was over, its end sealed when the Confederate army, outnumbered by twelve to one, was finally vanquished at the battle of Appomattox Court House, the grass between the trees on this occasion being lined with dead soldiers. The grey-clad troops of the South abandoned the fight, and, on the afternoon of 9 April, bowed to the victorious Yankees. At General Lee's request they were allowed to retain their rifles, and to keep their mules and horses, to take them home and there eke out a living. 'Let them have their horses to plow with,' Lincoln had said, 'and, if you like, their guns to shoot crows with ...'
The deep and lasting effect that the war had on the circumstances and attitudes of her family and friends was among the earliest significant influences on the formation of Nancy's character and opinions. The consequences of the conflict for her parents, and for the way that they raised their children, pervaded her soul as she grew from child to woman. 'My whole background,' she would often later say, 'was concerned with the Civil War', which for her was 'The War of Northern Aggression'. Throughout her life she wasto retain the deep conviction that the Southern cause was right, a notion that fed into her own independent and sometimes rebellious spirit.
Besides the war's unhappy legacy, another significant influence on her character and upbringing was the great and repeated variations in her parents' standard of living throughout her childhood and youth. Although in those years she was too young to appreciate the seriousness of the family's plight, or to suffer the dreadful belief that it might not improve, her parents' confidence and security were from time to time undermined by uncertainty and anxiety, and it deeply affected their relations both with each other and with their children.
The cost of the war to the South was certainly devastating. Eighteen per cent of young Southern white males lost their lives; several cities were reduced to rubble; 9,000 miles of railroad was destroyed; a third of all hogs were killed, and land values collapsed to half their pre-war levels. Alongside the emotional upheaval it brought, the abolition of slavery had a sudden and stark financial cost, with between two and three billion dollars of capital invested in slaves disappearing at the moment of emancipation. The war had swallowed all the gold and silver in circulation, and the Confederate paper money that replaced it depreciated rapidly, so that before long, what had been a planter's income for a year scarcely bought a suit of clothes.
Large numbers of Virginians were unable to cope with the wreckage and the prospect of impoverishment, or of seeing their former slaves and workers freed from their duties - a rankling reminder both of the failure of the old order and of the experience of losing in battle. Some abandoned their homeland and set off for a new life in South America. Many more fell into degeneration and slipped forever from the record.
Others, however, had enough of the Virginian character to hold fast at all costs, and defy whatever might follow the near annihilation of the South and the collapse of its economy. Chillie Langhorne was in that mould. He took his wife to the Keens' house at Cottage Hill, where, as Nancy later related, had once come word of the Yankees' approach, when the young Nanaire had helped her mother hurriedly bury silver and valuables in the garden. There she was now to remain, while her husband cast around for means to support her, a need that increased with the arrival of children.
In 1867, two years after the war's end, their first child, a daughter, was born, and named Lizzie. Two years later came a son. He was christened Keen - although somewhere along the line the Keen family seems to have acquired an extra 'e', which was subsequently added to the name of the Langhornes' eldest son. Nanaire later claimed not to have wanted any children at all - which was rather hard for a woman who eventually had eleven - but she then gave birth to three more in close succession, a girl and twoboys. Sadly, however, the hardship, the lack of food and basic comforts, took the ultimate toll, and the three infants were buried near the family home. In June 1873, again overcoming apparent reluctance, Nanaire had another child, a daughter, christened Irene - meaning 'peace'; in time, her nature and looks reflected just that, and she would become so beautiful and widely admired that her fame spread throughout North America as the legendary Gibson Girl.
With his wife and three children based at Cottage Hill, Chillie went out in search of work - any work; or, as he put it, to 'root, hog or die'. He had been born to established forebears - son of a well-known businessman; grandson of a leading lawyer and landowner - but now he had to set his face to the future. First, however, he had to overcome his pride, and, acquiescing in the occupying army's requirement that anyone undertaking business, or even marriage, swear an oath of allegiance to the United States.
While the family lived frugally at Cottage Hill, Chillie took what work he could in Danville, ten miles distant: a small pocket of resilience in a country stunned and for the most part barely stirring, as the carpetbaggers arrived and the Yankee victors imposed their reconstruction upon the Confederacy. It was a hated political cleansing, in which the emancipation of slaves was followed by their gradual enfranchisement, amid the comprehensive usurping of Southern power. 'Homes and estates ruined,' Nancy later wrote, 'property split up, slaves all gone. An old order had passed. The new one had not begun. The smashers-up and pullers-down were busy, and the builders-up had not yet come on the scene.' 6
Chillie was initially offered work auctioning horses; then - rather different, but he had to accept whatever was on offer - he became a clerk in a clothing store, staunchly holding his own until offered a commission peddling pianos. Doggedly he dragged them around on a mule cart, but, unable to play a note, he derived pleasure from neither the task nor the instruments. For a time he sold paintings, loading his cart with so-called masterpieces in colourful oils: still lifes of fruit and fish; Romeo and Juliet, Stonewall Jackson Dying in his Tent and other scenes of drama, love and war, at seven dollars each; and, a bargain at nine dollars, a portrait of Robert E. Lee.
He also looked for quicker ways to turn a dollar, and began to take part in long sessions of poker. He soon evidenced a natural skill at the game, sometimes winning large amounts, returning home tired and stained with tobacco spit, but ebullient and with cash in hand. Yet there were many other occasions when all his stakes vanished into smoke. For his young wife it must have been deeply unnerving. In the meantime, she sold her solitaire engagement ring to buy a sewing machine with which to apply much-neededpatches to her husband's trousers. But wit and charm, as well as skill at cards, were part of Chillie's strength and vibrancy, and he soon turned them to more durable effect.
Danville was the centre of what had been the finest tobacco region in America, and not long after the end of the fighting, a market began to thrive once more. The 'Danville System' of selling tobacco in open piles on a warehouse floor gave Chillie a chance to make a name. Having previously tried his hand at selling horses, he was now given a trial as a tobacco auctioneer, and almost at once he disclosed exceptional natural ability. He began to perfect a peculiar rapid chant of his own, to stimulate sales; crowds, so it is said, began to gather, many admittedly keeping their hands in their pockets, but delighted to listen to Chillie in action. It did not earn him much money, but it kept alive the hopes of a family still seared by the pain of lost certainty, and gnawed by the fear of penury.
In 1873, Chillie decided that he should chance some of his small and hard-won savings in establishing a proper home for his family, so he bought a plot on Danville's Main Street. The plan for the house he built on it the following year was a faithful reflection of Cottage Hill, expressing Nanaire's affection for her family home. The total outlay was $2,000, but, perhaps because her husband's career was so volatile in those uncertain times, the deeds were drawn up in Nanaire's name 'free and clear from all liability' for her husband's debts. Completed in 1874, the new house would be the birthplace of three more children: a boy and then two girls.
With his new-found skills as salesman and auctioneer, Chillie found a partner who put up $1,600 for the two of them to go into business as 'C.D. Langhorne, Auctioneer'. They also, it seems, planned to speculate in property, in both Danville and its surroundings, and Chillie published a booklet about the town and 'its rapid growth, business and population', spicing it with what he termed 'amusing and suggestive dialogues', and using it in July 1875 to advertise the sale of lots 'in the best part of the city for family residences'.
Before long there was another development: a young man called Liggett, later to found a famous tobacco company, noticed Chillie's extrovert success as a salesman and invited him to join forces in a new venture. Raising their sights even beyond the reviving tobacco market, the two men turned to something that seemed to hold altogether more adventurous potential: railways.
The collapse of the South had left it wide open to agricultural and industrial development by rich entrepreneurs from New York, Boston and other northern cities. Eager to expand their fortunes, they had spottedopportunities in a defeated and occupied land. Their paths to the South were smoothed by Federal control of the political levers, abetted by local politicians who, while still bridling at the curtailment of their former prestige and purchasing power, now sniffed the aroma of a gravy train. As Yankee money began to pour into the cotton and tobacco markets, and also into iron and coal extraction, railway construction was perceived to be a paramount requirement. It was the key to linking plantations and mineheads to the ports from which the South's commodities could be shipped to buyers both in other parts of America and in the wider world.
Before the war, Richmond had been the meeting point of four railroads, all of which had been largely destroyed in the fighting. Ideas had begun to form, and plans to be made, even as the dust of war began to settle, and by the late 1870s the building of a new network had started; by the 1880s its construction was in full swing, and Virginia was in the midst of a boom.
Managers of the new projects, with Northern shareholders behind them, needed to involve people with local knowledge and expertise. Many men who had been engineers in the Confederate armies were now among those offered lucrative subcontracts. For their part, and to deliver on their engagements in a labour-intensive business, the subcontractors had to find efficient workforces which they could harness to their technical skill. Here was Chillie Langhorne's chance: he had no experience of railway construction or any form of civil engineering, but, perhaps even more than he initially realised, he was a born manager of men.
He now came up with an exceptionally good idea. He reckoned he might know people in this new and already thriving business, or at least where to find them. If he could win their support, he could bid for railway contracts himself. With charm and self-confidence, and particularly because he had been a loyal Confederate soldier, he was able to put out feelers to former army engineers with the right knowledge. At the same time, he and Liggett laid plans to bid for railway construction projects to subcontract to these experts.
It was a long shot for a man with no capital, but Chillie was, at least at that stage of his life, a ready gambler. There was also a factor which seemed not to have been of financial use to him before, but which, with a credible business plan, he was now able to capitalise on: his father-in-law was a state senator. Consequently, 'through the efforts of Col. E.F. Keen', a company was incorporated to build a railroad from Lynchburg to Danville. For a time all went well: Chillie managed to win a contract, and within a short time had turned a net profit of $8,000, at that time a huge sum of money. He bid for other contracts, sometimes with some success, sometimes with none whatsoever; there was no certainty in the process. It soon becameapparent that the competition was strong and that success in such a business was both elusive and liable to be short-lived.
His expenditure was growing along with his family. Nevertheless, he had taken a small step forward, and he used some of the money he was able to put aside to invest in equipment to improve his chances of winning further work.
It was at street level in the newly built house at Danville, in a room with dull green walls and a bare wooden floor, that Nancy was born on 30 January 1879 - although subsequently, and throughout her adult life, her birthday was, for no clearly stated reason, given as 19 May.
Sharing the family's small pleasures, affections, fears and anxieties was Chillie's old black mammy, Harriet, 'a wonderful old lady, with lovely silver hair, no kinks', who was squeezed into a small room in the basement. Space had also to be found for Chillie and Nanaire, Keene, Lizzie, Irene, and Harry, who had been born in 1874, almost as soon as the family moved into the Danville house; now there was Nancy too, after whom was to come Phyllis, born eighteen months later, William, in 1882, and finally, in 1889, Nora. Irene later remembered her two youngest sisters always 'tied up in mosquito netting, kicking, laughing, crying'. The house was not large, and in an unkempt town reeking of distress and exposed to cholera, typhoid and other lethal diseases, eight people had to make do with two small bedrooms, a largely unused parlour, and two closet-like rooms under the sloping roof, for the youngest children. There was also a kitchen and dining room in the basement. The family lived cheek by jowl in crowded, noisy and stuffy conditions, with the children playing in the street or the backyard, which sloped down to a privy.
Yet within that close confinement, and despite the harsh life outside, it was fundamentally a happy household. The parents, although restricted to 'make-do-and-mend', cared for their offspring and did their best to provide them with childish delights. Irene remembered Nanaire, still in her twenties, with four lively children and three others dead, distributing at Christmas all kinds of dolls and toys that she had secretly made.
The impressions Nancy received as a small child were never to leave her, and gradually nurtured within her the determination that women, not excluding herself, should not unwillingly accept the imposition of a subordinate role to men. Her earliest days were spent with a strong but loving mother, and a charismatic father full of sound and fury, whose presence could not be missed, enlivening the atmosphere and begetting in equal parts argument, tears and laughter. Fortunately, at heart he was thoroughly good-natured. As Nancy later wrote, 'Mercifully Mother had a great sense of humour; she must have needed it ...'7
Behind Nanaire's gentle demeanour, however, lay a strong resolve, and it would ultimately be she, rather than her loud and lively husband, who most influenced their children and quietly directed the ways of the family:
In his prime Chillie was a short, muscular man who held himself sharply erect. He was loud and demanding, stubborn and overbearing. He was a martinet who bullied his way through life, all smiles when he was getting his way, but raising hell when he didn't. Nanaire knew how to handle him. Soft-spoken and gentle, she was a petite, fair-haired woman with huge blue-sky eyes and a trim figure which amazingly regained its shape after each pregnancy. She stood by unruffled while his temper flashed and his moods turned rapidly from utter charm to blustering rage and back again.8
Even when very young, Nancy could perceive where power ultimately lay:
I cannot remember the time when I did not realise that my mother was stronger and more important from the family point of view than my father. Although he was a good father and splendid in many ways, it was my mother who had the spiritual vision, unselfish love and complete selflessness which made the family a unit.9
Tellingly, in view of her later career, Nancy added that it was those memories of her mother that made her feel that the qualities of women should be freed to give better service to society. Her older sister Irene put her parents' relationship more succinctly, saying that her mother had Chillie wrapped around her little finger. Nevertheless, Nanaire in general accepted her position in household affairs as ultimately subordinate to her husband.
By the end of the 1870s, Chillie was involved variously in railroad plans, property dealing, tobacco sales and sharecropping, but the family's circumstances remained precarious, if slightly less straitened than a year or two earlier. So it was not long before Chillie, and no doubt also Nanaire, began to feel that their uncertain way of life, with little security and no sure source of income, was not only disagreeable but also unfair to their growing family. Although Danville's tobacco sales more than doubled during the 1870s, the trade began to suffer from the inevitable overproduction and commensurate fall in prices. Chillie had salted away some money - not much, but enough to risk a new departure - and he now turned his gaze to the state capital, Richmond, to see what fortune might hold for him there.
During the last stages of the war, much of Richmond had been blasted into rubble by a retreating Confederate army determined that their former jewel should not fall intact into enemy hands. Fifteen years on from the end of the fighting, Virginia's social and political capital was emerging from its post-war desolation. Life there was beginning to re-establish itself, even within the parameters of the political reconstruction imposed by the winning side. Opportunities were greatly enhanced by cheap assets and plentiful labour, as the redevelopment of the former Confederate states attracted rich men from the North.
At first Chillie's luck seemed to hold. He was invited into business by William Henry, a successful tobacco entrepreneur with a thriving trade in Richmond. The family moved to the city in 1881, settling first into quarters in Main Street. Yet their insecurity remained: they still lacked a house that actually belonged to them, and it was not long before the going became tough. The Richmond tobacco market was keenly competitive, and since the competition related almost entirely to price, there was little that Chillie could add by charm or personality. The market was seasonal too, forcing him to look for other work to supplement his tobacco earnings. In their new surroundings the family's expenses soon outstripped their income, and they had to uproot themselves once more and move to a poor part of Third Street.
Now 'just a few dollars of income separated the Langhornes from the rude existence of the hordes of immigrants - Irish, Germans and Italians - who had recently swarmed into Richmond, settling in crowded tenements in the hollows and on the edges of ravines below the city's hills'. The burden of holding the household together fell mostly on Nanaire, who had to cope with barely enough money for subsistence. 'She was always the anchor, the homemaker, the seamstress, the housekeeper with the key chain hanging from her tiny waist, more than likely sometimes shedding a silent tear of utter exhaustion of an evening when "Dab" was away on a trip and the children in their beds.'10
Nevertheless, a year later, in November 1882, yet another child was born: a son whose life for a few days hung by a thread before he began to gather strength, so avoiding the imminent death confidently predicted for him by the onlookers around his cot. He was christened William Henry, in honour of his father's business associate, but he soon became known as Buck.
The city in which the infant Nancy was to spend her next few years was a hazardous place: with only primitive medical help, typhoid, diphtheria, smallpox and scarlet fever were real fears; exposed sewers, frequently containing supine drunkards, ran along many of the streets, while mosquitoes, flies and rats swarmed around carcasses in open abattoirs. Yet sociallife had begun to return: children played, at least in the cleaner streets, parties were held once more, and previously prosperous citizens were edging towards building a framework within which to replicate their former lives.
For the next few years life continued to be uncertain and difficult for Nancy's parents: weary but determined, they weathered fresh starts, and moves between rented houses of uneven appeal according to the degree of success or failure that attended Chillie's endeavours. His cavalier demeanour and carefree salesmanship cut less ice in the new Richmond than in war-torn Danville, but as long as he worked as a dealer in William Henry's tobacco business, he could at least retain hopes of regaining some of the stability that he had known before the Civil War. Optimism prevailed in the family - on the whole.
Indeed, by the time Nancy was five, Chillie's business schemes were steadily proving profitable, and apparent success enabled the family to move to a more attractive house. The younger children were given a pair of billy goats to take them around in a cart; they made friends with neighbouring children, played in their houses and along tree-lined paths, enjoyed each other's treats - spun candy in pyramids of nougat was a favourite - and shared simple parties. Ann and Ben Johnson, a Negro cook and butler, ministered to their needs, especially to Chillie's pleasure in food, though not always with success: only Nanaire's firm command 'Don't kill him, Dab' saved Ben from violence at his master's hands when he tripped and fell while carrying a keenly awaited tureen of oyster stew.
Their father's volatility must have disconcerted the children: Nancy recalled him solemnly looking his children over before each meal to make sure that they were properly dressed, then formally intoning grace, but apt immediately thereafter to yell, 'Dammit, shut that door!' or some similar command. 'Father was very strict. His word was law. He would have complete obedience. There was no talking back to your elders in those days. Though we were fond of Father we were always delighted when he went away and we had Mother to ourselves.'11
There was another factor that had affected Nancy's life: at about the age of four or five she was laid low by typhoid. Although she recovered from the disease, she was for some time left in delicate health, and thereafter was to remain small and slight for her years. She also began to suffer from bouts of what could only be described generally as neuralgia. Their cure, or even explanation, appeared to be beyond the wit of any available doctors, and they were to recur intermittently throughout her youth and young adulthood, black intervals that contrasted with the predominant bright vitality of her character.
Meanwhile, the family's hopes and pleasures were enhanced by the easewith which Chillie and Nanaire made friends. As Irene recalled, 'parties were in the air. How young and gay mother and father were!' Nanaire would sing and play the piano - and the organ in church - while her husband would press uplifting refreshment on all who called.
Yet overall, for their first five years in Richmond the family's livelihood remained in doubt. Although, with brief exceptions, Nancy's childhood was not spent in the poverty and hardship that she would sometimes later claim, the atmosphere around her was often charged with tension. Her parents could not entirely shed the fear that the destitution that had extinguished their forebears' prosperity might return. They were determined at all costs to avoid that, and even during the bright periods when Chillie seemed to have found his feet and was bringing home money, anxiety haunted the background.
Nancy was of course too young to comprehend the meaning or implications of such matters, but their outward effects played their part in forming her character. In her early years there was no comforting atmosphere of permanence in her surroundings, although she seemed to meet that lack with a light heart coupled with resilience. Having four older siblings at close quarters also forced her to learn to stand her ground; she was enabled to do so partly by a keen sense of humour and an exceptional capacity for wit - probably innate, but sharpened by the frequent flashes of humour displayed by her parents.
At the same time, the surroundings and influences in her early years in Danville and Richmond, particularly the relationship between an outwardly loud and dominant father and a strong and loving mother, nourished the seed of a dogged self-will. Her incipient determination may have played a part in her recovery from typhoid. Thereafter it helped her through early attacks of neuralgia, and led to her gaining the carefree self-confidence that was to desert her only during the periods of apparent depression she was to continue to suffer throughout the first part of her life.
When Nancy was six years old, her father's business affairs took a sharp and sudden turn for the worse. In 1885, several of his transactions crumbled simultaneously to dust, and it became clear that the family had not attained any fundamental security after all. This time they were faced not with moving once again to a smaller, cheaper house, but with having insufficient money to remain in Richmond at all.
Yet another uprooting seemed imminent. It was quickly arranged that Nanaire and the children would go and live with a country cousin, while Chillie stayed behind in lodgings, in the anxious hope that things might again improve. While the young Nancy would have understood simply that the daily pattern of her life was again to change, and that she would haveto abandon her familiar surroundings, she must also have realised more unhappily that her parents were in dismay.
However, instead of an upheaval and dispersal of the family, something very different was about to happen. Although time might have coloured their memories, Nancy and her sisters were always to retain a clear image: on the fateful and gloomy day of departure, they had everything packed and ready - even the goats were crated on a cart - and were standing outside their house consoling each other in their distress, when suddenly Chillie rushed back to the house in a state of high excitement, roaring, 'Hold everything, dammit, I've got a job.'
Once again he had met with opportunity, but this time it was one far greater and more hopeful than before. Chillie was about to make a breakthrough that would change the fortunes of them all.
NANCY. Copyright © 2012 by Adrian Fort. All rights reserved.