May His Memory Be a Blessing: Vincent Astor
The legacy of a local historian in Memphis, Tennessee
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In 2013, I signed my first book deal and lit out for a weeklong research trip in Tennessee. When I got to Memphis, I kept getting the same advice: Talk to “amateur historian” Vincent “Astor,” a retired organist at the Orpheum. He was a “character.”
The consistent use of scare quotes struck me as curious. They thought Vincent was an informed, trustworthy resource, but he was a volunteer who had no training. His family name was Astor, but they weren’t related to the rich Astors. And by character, they meant gay.
I had the perfect, low-stakes question to ask him: Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, the subjects of my book, were buried at Elmwood Cemetary. Alice had a gravestone, along with her family, but Freda did not, and I was having trouble locating her in a vague map of the church’s plot.
I sent Vincent an invitation, and he offered to meet me that day. Oh, no, I thought. I don’t want to meet him until the last day of my trip, after I’ve scoured the state, local, and municipal archives, spoken to experts, walked the stacks—professional historian stuff.
Four days later, I’d exhausted the paltry holdings on the 1892 same-sex love murder. No local historians knew anything about it. Few of the historic sites were still standing; everything I’d read about the city, grand and prosperous in Alice and Freda’s day, was long gone. And the worst part of all: The most significant source I hoped to work off, once cited by a well-regarded scholar, was nowhere to be found. One archivist suspected they’d never set foot in Memphis. There was a variety of tells, like referring to people in Memphis as “Memphisean.” They were Memphians.
I met Vincent at Elmwood Cemetery later that day. When I pulled into the parking lot, I saw a short, gray-haired man, his arms laden with manila folders. He was pacing. Before I’d had a chance to unbuckle my seatbelt, he issued various orders. Use the restroom; there was a lot of ground to cover and only a few hours before sundown. Bring a notebook; if I had a question, I should save it for later. Open the trunk; he wanted to put the research he’d copied for me in a “secure location” and get moving.
And just like that, he was in tour guide mode—friendly, funny, and factual. In three hours, Vincent taught me the city’s early history through its graves, from yellow fever outbreaks to the Civil War. He was as delighted by actresses as sanitation workers, the rogues and sociopaths, the saints and sinners— and the girls. He saved them for last. By the time he finished, I’d thought of a dozen leads. (I wrote a little about this in the preface to Alice+Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, which is, with the publisher’s permission, pasted below. If you’d like to hear me read it, I do so in the audiobook.)
I emailed Vincent often in the year that followed, but I only saw him one more time. He’d invited me to speak at OUTMemphis, a nonprofit devoted to gay youth. After that, his health never allowed a reunion when I visited.
I thought of Vincent a couple of weeks ago and searched my email for our last correspondence, only to discover that I’d missed a message with his name in the subject. I didn’t know the woman who sent it. She was a local, a fan, and wondered if I’d heard the news: In January, Vincent, 69, died from natural causes.
I didn’t know what to do, so I reread our correspondence from start to finish. My last email to him was rather tender—a relief, but no real credit to me. I was simply acknowledging Vincent’s extraordinary act: He’d bought Freda a proper grave, over a hundred years after her murder. Don’t offer to reimburse me, he’d warned me in a post script; if he’d wanted help, he would’ve asked.
When I read his obituary, I learned he’d also purchased a grave for himself, too. When visitors open the hinged panels on his obelisk, they’re met with two portraits. On one side, there’s the Vincent I knew: a proud, Southern gentleman. On the other, one I did not: a drag queen who went by “Lady A.”
Before I gave my talk at OUTMemphis in 2014, I was unusually nervous. Vincent had invited me to speak and asked that I read the entire introduction to the audience—not just the part where he appears. I wish I’d asked why, but I was too distracted by something else he’d left out…I sent Vincent an early bound copy of the manuscript, followed by the real thing, but he hadn’t sent more than a brief thanks in return. I was afraid, in the absence of praise, that I’d disappointed him. When he gave me a polite, brief greeting, I was sure of it—but then he led me to the front of a crowded room, took my hand in his, bowed dramatically, and kissed it.
“And now,” he said, turning to the audience, “honorary Memphian, Alexis Coe.” I am surely less deserving of that title than he is of this one: Vincent Astor, historian. And at his request, once again, the introduction to Alice+Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis.
UPCOMING PUBLIC EVENTS
April 19th: In conversation with Alex Mar. Oblong. Rhinebeck, NY.
May 17th: Interviewed by Christy S. Coleman. The Jamestown Settlement, Jamestown Yorktown Foundation. Williamsburg, Virginia.