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.  

The New York Times celebrated the election of a proper gentleman like Percy, but Vardaman’s own newspaper, the Issue, promised that “the fight between the classes and the masses, between the corporate influences and the people is on, and it will be a fight to the finish.” A young legislator named Theodore Bilbo, who, in later decades, would himself become one of the Senate’s most infamous race-baiters, claimed he had been bribed to support Percy. The state senate denounced him, but this only energized Vardaman and Bilbo supporters against the “secret caucus” of big business and Delta “Bourbons” who had “stolen” a Senate seat for LeRoy Percy.  

Young Will Percy campaigned enthusiastically for his father. Having attended Harvard Law School, he was practicing in Greenville, while reserving his interest for travel and literature. Late at night, alone, he routinely walked the levee that held back the waters of the Mississippi River from the rich Delta lowlands, pondering life’s ironies. Neither of his parents understood their surviving son, whose brother had died in a hunting accident. His father thought him “queer,” and his mother wept over his differentness. Yet Percy not only continued to live with his parents, but served in his father’s law office, walking with him every day to work.

 Senator Percy was a proud, rather pompous, man who was not especially interested in ordinary people, whom he once publicly described as “cattle.” His son hailed his “appealing to the mind not the emotions.” Once, while orating on cotton futures, he was heckled: The younger Percy was contemptuous of the “ill-dressed, surly audience, unintelligent, and slinking. .  .  . They were the sort of people that lynch Negroes, that mistake hoodlumism for wit, and cunning for intelligence, that attend revivals and fornicate in the bushes afterwards.” They were “undiluted Anglo-Saxons,” the “sovereign voter”; and “it was so horrible it seemed unreal.” Some in the crowds carried signs boasting of their status as “cattle.” 

Percy lost to Vardaman in a landslide, a historic statewide shift away from the Delta elite of planters and businessmen in politics. Bilbo was elected lieutenant governor. Percy’s father never sought elective office again, but 10 years later, in the early 1920s, the younger Percy stood by his father when he led the fight against Ku Klux Klan influence in Greenville. Responding to a Klan speaker in the courthouse square, Senator Percy gained an ovation by defending a more benign vision of white supremacy that didn’t need masks, secrecy, or violence. As the husband of a French Catholic who employed Italian immigrants, he defended the “religion of our community,” which included Catholics and Jews. When Klan candidates were decisively defeated in local elections, the Percys hosted a massive celebration at their home featuring four kegs of bootleg whiskey: “The little town had come through, righteousness had prevailed, and we had fought the good fight and for once had won,” Will Percy recalled.

Although his parents thought him odd, the Percys deeply admired their son’s service in World War I. Percy had been a relief worker serving under Herbert Hoover in German-occupied Belgium when, in 1917, the United States entered the war and he joined the Army. His letters from France to his parents magisterially describe the horrors of the battlefield, and, at the war’s conclusion, the elder Percys traveled to New York to welcome their son safely home. 

But father and son would clash in 1927, when Mississippi floodwaters broke the Greenville levee, deluging the Delta and forcing 100,000 to flee. Known for his work in Belgium, Will Percy was tasked with presiding over flood relief. He quickly evacuated white women, children, and elderly, and planned to evacuate the blacks, many of whom were encamped on the levee. (“They had no capacity to plan for their own welfare,” he wrote. “Planning for them was another of our burdens.”) Steamers were standing by to relocate them, but the elder Percy, distressed at the possibility of the Delta losing its black laborers forever, quietly persuaded the relief oversight committee to countermand his son. Will recalled that his father was the “strong rock on which we leaned and in whose shade we renewed our strength”; but he must have been humiliated as Greenville’s blacks seethed for months amid the flood-waters, often forced into labor.  

When his parents died in 1929, Will Percy was left alone in his family’s large house—but not for long. His cousin committed suicide that same year, leaving a widow and three young sons, including Walker Percy, who would later remember Will as a “personage, a presence .  .  . [who] radiated that mysterious quality we call charm.” The widow and children were invited to live with their older cousin in Greenville, where they discovered a home full of artistic treasures, books, servants, and constant visitors, white and black—including the poet Langston Hughes, who recalled Percy treating him equally as a “fellow poet.”  William Faulkner came to play tennis.   

Walker Percy described his cousin as “shadowed by sadness,” often secluded in the library or overheard late at night vomiting into the toilet. The children’s mother died in a 1932 automobile accident, possibly a suicide, with one son barely escaping the car. Will consoled the orphaned Percys, one of whom remembered being read Greek myths when unable to sleep. He adopted all three boys and would eventually leave his considerable estate to them.  

Will Percy’s health throughout the 1930s was not good; but as a patron to writers and artists, he introduced his adopted sons to a young Shelby Foote and invited Hodding Carter to start a progressive newspaper in Greenville. 

When not bedridden, he continued his global travels, which took months by transoceanic steamers. In 1936, he visited Samoa, and, having thoroughly absorbed Margaret Mead’s claims that Samoans were sexually uninhibited, echoed her assertion that the island people saw sex as only “corporeal.” Their laissez-faire stance on sex, he believed, in contrast to repressed Westerners, left Samoans “superbly healthy, handsome and happy.”

The publisher of Lanterns on the Levee removed most of these wanderings from the manuscript, preferring to focus on Percy as archaic Southern aristocrat, including his paternalistic racial views. Lanterns sold tens of thousands of copies, got admiring reviews, and generated hundreds of fan letters, although black publications saw it as racially condescending. 

Prematurely aged and bedridden, Percy relished its success and was also gladdened by America’s entry into World War II. He died a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, aged 56. No Greenville clergyman would conduct his funeral except, eventually, a Catholic priest, who delivered a 45-second homily without removing his overcoat. Wise blames this on Percy’s lack of Christian belief, including, perhaps, his sexual “freethinking.” Will Percy thought that the church, and especially St. Paul, about whom he wrote a chastising sonnet, had corrupted the real message of Jesus. Christians didn’t love their bodies as the ancient Greeks did, he complained. One adopted son recalled that he was “more like Christ than anybody I’ve ever known,” and Walker Percy called him the “most extraordinary man I have ever known.”

As a very young man, Percy had dabbled in the occult, writing off Christianity as “outworn rubbish.” But he also wrote a hymn that was later included in the Episcopal hymnal. A book of his irreverent poetry provoked a Kentucky reader to complain to the editor that the “men’s Bible class of the Methodist church here wish to enter a protest against this.” William Alexander Percy responded with amusement: “To the Orthodox I can only say, if this be treason, make the most of it.” 

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, is the author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century.