I wandered alone down a shady side lane at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, a staple tourist stop where some 70,000 of the city’s favorite sons and daughters have been buried for more than 150 years. Margaret Mitchell went there after giving the South some currency with Gone with the Wind. So did former mayor Maynard Jackson, who was permitted to be buried in the white section a a few scant years after desegregation.
Often at these cemeteries, you see lots of grand graves that belong to people who are of no permanent distinction, although their elaborate carved vaults try in vain to argue the opposite. Maybe a Southerner from 100 years ago would have known the names around me, but most of them meant nothing to me. The march of stones intended to memorialize actually absorbed the identities of the thousands of their occupants. Browsing the names registered nothing, like scanning a box of yellowed and pointless used books in the final desperate moments of a picked-over garage sale.
Just as the monotony of reading non-famous names was diminishing the intrigue of a visit, a plot caught my eye.
It was poorly tended, essentially a few patches of degraded grass struggling through worn-out sand.
It was also one of the only graves at Oakland that gave a biographical hint of its contents beyond names and dates.
ORELIA KEY BELL
APRIL 8, 1864
JUNE 2, 1959
Who? This must be another one of Oakland’s dead celebrities.
I whipped out my iPhone to see if the Internet had ever heard of her. There wasn’t much other than a Library of Congress download of Poems of Orelia Key Bell, published in 1895, when she wasn’t yet 30 years old.
I downloaded a PDF and began reading right there it at the foot of her grave. I was fully aware that being able to do this is a miracle of our age and it probably gratified her ghost.
I hope it’s not disrespectful to say there’s little wonder why her stuff isn’t published today. Her style of writing didn’t fall out of fashion so much as it was yanked down and clubbed to death by Thomas Edison. Orelia was given to soggy, overwrought classicism saddled with prep school invocations of Diana and Calliope and Lebanon.
One poem began “She held life’s dulcimer, and carelessly / Brushed ‘er its diapason.” A century and two lines on, and her poetry still had the power to bore. Isn’t technology something?
If the revelations had stopped there, it would have been a stirring moment: A forgotten poet was resurrected by AT&T, which normally can’t raise a signal much less the dead. But I kept reading. Near the front of the book’s PDF was a photograph of Orelia herself. Here she was, young and beautiful with light eyes, coquettishly glancing back at me across the years from her left shoulder. I could see the nape of her pretty neck. The antique copy the Library scanned for the e-book was inscribed: “Yours truly, Orelia Key Bell”, and that took my breath away. That actual neck, the hand that drew out that script, were lying here under my shoes. They would be within reach if it weren’t for the deterrents of fire ants and a half-century of decomposition.
I found a contemporary review of Orelia by a doughty Old South community activist who distributed a handbook to the South’s great literary talents, circa 1906. “[She] is the daughter of Marcus A. Bell, a man of sterling worth and integrity of character…When General Sherman was in Atlanta he used her father’s home on Wheat street for a stable and his horses ate corn from her cradle… She is truly practical and really enjoys ‘turning a sonnet into a bonnet’… Miss Bell’s poems will probably not reach the heart of the multitude, for they are too spiritual, too ideal.’” Even in her time, a dubious review.
Orelia’s book had acknowledgments that read a lot like the gravestones I was standing among. The first was “to the memory of my father, Marcus A. Bell, in loving reverence.” And there was Marcus, two spots to the left of her.
But the longest and the most effusive inscription went to someone else: “Ida Ash, whose affection and encouragement have been among the chief sources of my inspiration.”
Sure enough, there was Ida Jane Ash, lying exactly beside my justly ignored Orelia. Ida died in 1948, some 53 years after this book’s dedication. The longevity of the relationship was heartwarming.
Then it clicked. Orelia Key Bell and Ida Ash, her muse, must have been lesbians. The idea of a good old Boston marriage here in Rebel Atlanta was scandalous! Reading on, I found a poem titled “A Word for Sappho.” (Of course.) It went, “A word for Sappho. Not to paean / Her suicide for love of Phaon — . A slanderous myth! research will prove— / Not but sweet Sappho died of love, / But died as Hugo says to do it: / ‘To die of love is to live tho’ it.’” Translation: If you die from the difficulty of love, you have truly lived. Isn’t that just the sort of sly self-aggrandizing thing a closeted lesbian would say if she lived in Old Atlanta?
(And indeed, as I discovered when I got home and looked up census records, she and Ida had moved across the country, far from Georgia’s reach, and settled in Pasadena, California, where they lived out the rest of their days in the same home.)
With a little smartphone gumshoeing, I had deciphered an enduring lesbionic relationship hidden in plain sight in the middle of Atlanta’s staunchest Rebel cemetery. It was like a gay Da Vinci Code! I ran over to the steward in the gift shop to ask him if he knew. Even the people who ran Oakland had never heard of Orelia. He rifled through his guide to Oakland’s famous interments. “No. No. She’s not here. Where did you say her grave was again?” Her anonymity knew no bounds.
“And I’m pretty sure she was a lesbian!” I announced excitedly. A woman sampling the gift soaps seemed to perk up but then, being a Southern lady, politely pretended not to have heard while she probably silently raged with judgment. Perhaps Orelia and Ida’s subversive little arrangement had something to do with why the blue-blood citizenry of mid-century Oakland had so soon banished them from memory.
Orelia might have been forever forgotten, along with her six-decade love for Ida, but someone who cared about her long ago had thought to carve four little letters on her stone: POET.
It was the only clue I needed to give me the impulse to uncover a secret story in plain view. Sure, maybe I was misinterpreting the clues. Connecting the wrong dots is the classic mistake of the historian, but on the other hand, the classic solution for every scientist is Occam’s Razor, which says the simplest answer is probably true.
Or maybe not. How could I tell? Orelia herself had something to say about the danger of misreading clues. One of her poems (one of the least soporific, and one of the last ones I could finish without napping), was published in The Century Magazine in 1891:
IN THE PAUSES OF HER SONG
A singer who lived in a sunny land
Poured forth a song so full of cheer,
The murmurer, listening, forgot his plaint,
The mourner, to shed his tear.
Oh, what a happy lot is hers,
Said the toiling world as it heard,
To pour forth songs as carelessly
As joy from the throat of a bird.
Alas, I said (for Art is long:
I have trodden its weary way, and know)
Could you but dream of the struggle and woe
That come in the pauses of her song!
These twelve virtually impenetrable lines could very well have been a warning against my assumptions from beyond the grave: You can never assume the character of the singer just hearing her song.
Orelia’s gravestone was as deceptive as her singer’s song, but I could be certain of one thing: She would have remained mute if I hadn’t happened to iPhone her back to life for a moment.
Update, 6 June 2014: She’s still a secret lesbian. When asked where the famous lesbian poet is, the staff shrugged and asked for a name. In the visitor center log, her entry reads “Ophelia.”