The Magazine

Will Percy’s Secret

The inner life, and outer bounds, of a Southern aristocrat.

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By MARK TOOLEY
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William Alexander Percy (1885-1942), of Greenville, Mississippi, was the cousin and adoptive father of the Southern Catholic novelist Walker Percy. He was himself a lawyer and man of letters, a poet, literary mentor, scion of a great family, friend of William Faulkner, and author of a bestselling memoir. His Lanterns on the Levee (1941) recounted his role as chief relief administrator during the Mississippi Delta’s Great Flood of 1927; as an army officer on the front lines in France during World War I; and as aide to his father, Senator LeRoy Percy, during the notorious 1911 campaign against the race-baiting demagogue James Vardaman.  

Will Percy, 1938

Will Percy, 1938

Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Will Percy, as revealed unapologetically in Lanterns on the Levee, was an unabashed elitist who scorned the South’s poor whites and presided paternalistically over his hundreds of sharecroppers, believing them to be largely incapable of caring for themselves. He was also an active homosexual who trysted with countless men while on his global travels, according to this new biography. The evidence is somewhat speculative; Walker Percy and his brother—who were both enormously grateful for Will Percy’s rescue of them after the apparent suicides of both parents—always denied that their adoptive father was gay. And author Benjamin Wise admits that the direct documentation is slim.  

Still, the evidence is persuasive, if spotty. Percy, who never married, shared a summer house for many years with his Sewanee professor, mentor, and lifelong companion of sorts. That professor, and other influences from late-19th-century literature, romanticized classical homoeroticism. So Percy, while at Sewanee, abandoned his once-ardent Catholicism to become a “freethinker,” both sexually and religiously. (There is also a surviving diary from his young manhood recording an encounter with a male traveler in Greenville.) 

 Percy’s sexuality is this book’s most provocative angle, but not its most interesting. The best chapters cover his political, military, and humanitarian exploits—not significantly adding to what Percy himself recalled in Lanterns, but giving informative context. Preeminent within that context are his relations with his family, chiefly his parents, from whom he was emotionally detached and yet with whom he lived nearly all their lives in their Greenville mansion. His father was a formidable businessman and wealthy planter—a statesman, hunter, devoted family man, nominal Episcopalian, and friend of Theodore Roosevelt, whose sophisticated ruggedness he unselfconsciously replicated. The elder Percy was also a leading member of the Delta’s small but powerful white elite who lorded over the region’s considerable black majority, for whom they felt a paternalistic regard in contrast with the poor whites in the hills to the east, for whom there was mutual loathing. Percy’s mother was Roman Catholic and a descendant of New Orleans planter gentry.

Presumably, Percy inherited his literary refinements and emotive sensibility from his maternal, French-influenced ancestors; his stalwart noblesse oblige and commitment to the Delta’s white aristocracy was obviously inherited from his paternal side. Percy’s paternal grandfather had led the struggle in Greenville to suppress the postwar Reconstructionists and their newly freed black allies. They restored white rule through intimidation and ballot stuffing: Mississippi’s blacks were largely disenfranchised, and their carpetbagger patrons were sent northward home. But elite Delta whites like the Percys, whose livelihoods depended on cheap black labor, shunned the harsher racial rhetoric and policies heard elsewhere in Mississippi: The Percys and like-minded families fancied themselves the guardians of vulnerable black laborers, and they feared that blacks, if pushed too far, would leave for higher wages in Chicago.

The 1911 senatorial campaign between LeRoy Percy, the appointed incumbent, and former governor James Vardaman was a classic confrontation between elitists and populists. Upon his 1903 inauguration as governor, Vardaman had called for the repeal of the 14th and 15th Amendments, whose citizenship and franchisement for freed blacks exemplified “stupid ugliness.” In 1909, the Mississippi legislature had deadlocked for two months over filling an empty Senate seat, finally narrowly choosing Percy over the more popular but much-feared Vardaman.