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Flattering Flannery 

O'Connor House marks renovations with a party and a movie

WHEN MARY FLANNERY O'CONNOR entertained guests at her childhood home in Savannah, things were done her way.

The guests, who were carefully screened by Mary Flannery’s mother, Regina, were instructed to bring fresh-cut flowers with them. When they arrived, the budding author would take her friends to the second-floor bathroom.

There, Mary Flannery would carefully place the flowers in the toilet, putting down the seat in a way that the flowers formed a horseshoe-shaped wreath. She then instructed her friends to climb into the claw-footed bathtub, and, perching on the flower-draped toilet, she would read her latest story to them.

Years later, as Flannery O’Connor, she would take the literary world by storm. And it all started in Savannah.

O’Connor was born in Savannah on March 25, 1925, and lived here until 1938. The O’Connor family then moved to Atlanta where Edward O’Connor was employed as a Housing Authority real estate appraiser.

In 1940, the O’Connors moved to Milledgeville, where in 1941, Edward died of lupus. Regina O’Connor and her daughter continued to live in the Milledgeville family home with Flannery’s aunts.

In 1950, Flannery began to exhibit symptoms of lupus. She was forced to return to Milledgeville, where she lived at Andalusia, the family farm, until her death in 1964 at age 39.

Today, the house on Lafayette Square where she lived is a museum. The Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home recently has been closely restored to the time that the O’Connor family lived there.

Rena Patton is president of the museum’s board of directors. “The focal point of Mary Flannery’s life was visible from this window,” she says, pulling open a lace curtain at the front of the house. “This was called the Lace Curtain District.”

A grand reopening gala has been set for Oct. 13. A special screening of a film based on one of her books, Wise Blood, is set for Oct. 14.

At that time, the Bruckheimer Library. a collection of books that were once owned by the O’Connor family, will be dedicated. The library was made possible because of the generosity of Linda Bruckheimer, film producer, author and actress. She and her husband, Jerry Bruckheimer, one of Hollywood’s leading producers, are expected to attend the gala.

When Flannery lived in the house, her cousin lived in the house next door. “She had the last electric automobile in Savannah,” Patton says. “She loved to drive Flannery to school.”

At one point, the house was divided up into apartments. A group of professors from Armstrong Atlantic State University -- current board member Robert Strozier and the late Hugh Brown and Robert Burnett -- bought the house in 1989 and formed a foundation.

Today, the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home offers a free series of readings and lectures each spring and fall. It’s staffed and operated entirely by volunteers.

The house is handsome but modest. The first floor contains a large living room, dining room, kitchen and sun room. The second floor consists of the aforementioned bathroom and the bedrooms of young Mary Flannery and her parents. The top floor and basement are used as apartments that are rented out to pay the mortgage on the house.

Visitors can peek into the back yard where Mary Flannery, as a precocious 5-year-old, taught a chicken to walk backwards. Pathe News was informed of this feat, and came to film the story, which ended up as a short shown on movie screens across the country.

The story followed O’Connor for the rest of her life. When asked about the incident, she replied, “Yes, I trained a chicken to walk backwards and my life has been downhill ever since.”

The interior has been enhanced by 16 pieces of original furniture. “The paint colors were researched by SCAD graduate student Amy Galivie,” Patton says. “She did a wonderful job.”

Patton has spoken with many people in Savannah who knew Flannery O’Connor as a child. “They all have tales about how she would hold a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her mouth until she got back to class,” Patton says.

Some pieces of original furniture, including twin beds and a miniature baby carriage that looks just like the one used to transport Flannery, can be seen in the bedrooms. Patton says the board is extremely grateful to Linda Bruckheimer for funding the restoration of Flannery’s bedroom.

“She gave us money to renovate the bedroom,” Patton says. “Unfortunately, we had to use the money for a roof, but she’s a historic preservationist and understands that if you can’t keep a roof on a historic house, you won’t have a historic house.”

Currently, the board is battling an even larger structural problem -- a beam separation that is causing big cracks on the outside of the house. “We’re going to lose the house if we don’t fix the beam,” Patton says.

Built in 1856, the house is a very narrow 22 feet wide. Modest or not, today the house plays three important functions. “It’s a house dedicated to Flannery O’Connor’s legacy,” Patton says. “It’s a museum of the Depression era. Third, it’s a literary center.”

In addition to the Bruckheimer Collection, the library also features a library donated by Lois and Ken Mammel of Pennsylvania. “There are several first editions of her books that were given to us,” Patton says.

The house contains several items from the 1930s, including a 1934 Magic Chef stove and other appliances from that era. Even a hair dryer from the 1930s can be found in the bathroom. In her parents’ bedroom is an object that looks like a cage on wheels. It’s actually an enclosed crib that was called a Kiddy Koop.

The foundation has copies of O’Connor’s report cards. “She was an A student in most things,” Patton says. “But we know she wasn’t very good in penmanship, and she wasn’t an accurate speller.”

But O’Connor had an extensive imagination, and she was her own person to the very end. “She was Mary Flannery when she was here,” Patton says. “When she left the South, she became Flannery.”

Film producer Stratton Leopold remembers the filming of Wise Blood fondly. Shot in Macon, it included one scene with Leopold and his mother, who was seen wearing a green coat with a fur collar.

“I haven’t seen it in a long time,” Leopold says. “I’m really looking forward to seeing it again.”

A store in Macon was used for some scenes. “When the owner of the store died, the family closed the store,” Leopold says.

“It was still the 1930s in there,” he says. “The family literally just closed the door. There were bins for grains in there and all kinds of boxes that still looked new.”

Wise Blood was filmed early in Leopold’s career. “I’d just started in the film business,” he says. “All of us had just started.”

Later, Leopold did The Displaced Person, also written by O’Connor, which was filmed in Milledgeville. At that time, Regina O’Connor still lived there, and Leopold remembers her fondly.

A Displaced Person is notable for one other reason. “It was one of Samuel L. Jackson’s first films,” Leopold says.

While Flannery O’Connor’s name is known worldwide, Patton sometimes wonders if Savannahians truly understand how influential she still is. “In the world, she is much more a force and power than she has been recognized being here,” she says. “There is going to be a huge conference about her in Rome next year, and she has a big following in Japan. For such a small body of work, she does get lots of love.”

The grand reopening party for the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home will be held Saturday, Oct. 13 from 6-8:30 p.m. at 204 E. Jones St. The O’Connor home, at 207 E. Charlton St., is just through the lane and will be open for viewing. The event will feature cocktails, hors-d’oeuvres, and a silent auction. Tickets are $125. For information, email info@flanneryoconnorhome.org or call 233-6014.

A special screening by Reel Savannah of Wise Blood, based on O’Connor’s novel of the same name, will be presented Sunday, Oct. 14 at 2:30 p.m. at the Jepson Center for the Arts. Film producer Stratton Leopold, who worked on the film, will provide an introduction.

Stratton Leopold and Rena Patton reenact a scene from O’Connor’s youth, when she would force people to listen to her stories -- even in the bathroomTop, a variety of vintage artifacts are featured at the Flannery O’Connor home, including a hair dryer from the 1930s; bottom, a view of Flannery’s old bedroom, complete with ‘Kiddy Coop’; note the dress displayed on the bed
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Speaking of Flannery O'Connor, Stratton Leopold

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Linda Sickler

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