It seems like all eyes are on Jessica Leigh Lebos right now as she tirelessly promotes her recently-published "The Camellia Thief and Other Tales," a second volume of "Savannah Sideways" stories.
There have been book signings and readings at the Lattimore House and the DeSoto Hotel, articles in the Savannah Morning News and Savannah Business Journal, an WRUU radio show, a “Bunny in the City” column replete with numerous photographs in this publication, and even a TV appearance or two.
Lebos may be best summed up by best-selling author and founder of The Moth, George Dawes-Green, who writes, “She’s always bubbling, sharp, loquacious; she drinks Savannah to the dregs, and we drink with her, and find every molecule perfectly delicious.”
Her second book is indeed “perfectly delicious” – a little salty, as is her way – but also, this time, perhaps a tad sour. That’s because it deals not only with the characters and charms of the city she’s called home since the mid-90’s, but also with the changes wrought since the pandemic. She calls it an issue of “Savannah the Community versus Savannah the Commodity.” But more of that later….
We meet in the happily cluttered kitchen of her Ardsley Park Home, where she and husband Mark have raised two children: Liberty, finishing her freshman year at the University of Georgia, and Abraham, on a year-long adventure in South America before he enters a postgraduate course of study.
The endearing thing about Lebos is that we, subscribers to Savannah Sideways on the Substack platform, feel like we’ve been with her and her family every step of the way…
She is refreshingly open and honest about both the joys and the challenges of her life: the visit to Athens to drop off her second child and the subsequent bittersweet emotions and occasional unravelling evoked by her new “empty nest”; the post-surgical relief following the removal of her husband’s benign tumor; the adherence to weekly Shabbat, an aspect of Judaism that prevails despite “Mark’s shrimp addiction and the constant temptation of Waffle House bacon;” and fond memories of the joyous bike rides over Savannah’s deserted streets and riverfront during the pandemic, and of how oddly wonderful, but also scary, it felt to be around people again after our confinement.
In "The Camellia Thief and Other Stories" Lebos explores a plethora of local characters and experiences that make Savannah both unique and wonderful: afternoon tea with HRH the Duchess of State; celebrating the birthday of 96 year-young Miriam Center; the Juneteenth wade-in at Tybee with Julia Pearce and Pat Gunn; exploring roadside ditches to discover native plants with landscape architect, activist, and artist Lisa D. Watson; and many more.
Throughout her tales, Lebos’ razor-sharp wit, her intellect, her progressive views, her humor, and her enviable use of metaphors is evident. As a former editor of Savannah’s now defunct "Skirt Magazine", and a longtime columnist for Connect Savannah, she has received numerous awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and is a long-running favorite of this publication’s Best of Savannah poll.
Lebos’s strikingly beautiful mother Marcia Fine, with whom she shares the same radiant smile and high cheekbones, is a scholar of the Sephardic Diaspora who became an award-winning author of eight novels.
Fine’s children grew up in Arizona and Lebos attended the State University. Lebos always wanted to be a writer, although she says the decision had nothing to do with her mother’s later-in-life success as an author.
After graduating with a degree in creative writing Lebos says, “I shaved my head and moved into my Volkswagen van” with plans to go to Alaska.
But the van broke down in northern California, and cousins in the area persuaded her to stay. In 1996 (shortly after reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil!) she met husband Mark, a native of Savannah, who was taking his Masters of Exercise Physiology at San Francisco State.
They married in Savannah’s Temple Mickve Israel a year later. The couple’s children were born in California and bi-annual trips to Tybee and Savannah to visit Mark’s parents followed.
After Mark’s mom (interestingly, also a Jewish history buff) started to decline from dementia, the young parents decided to move here permanently to help his dad, local oncologist Dr. Harvey Lebos.
“It was just this revelation that it was what we were supposed to do. We sold the Volkswagen, bought the Absurdivan and drove across the country a year later.” [Interested readers can read Lebos’ 2015 Connect Savannah column “Death of the #Absurdivan” where she fondly recalls her 2000 Mazda minivan with its “figurine-festooned dashboard that provided endless entertainment for its driver, passengers and anyone who bothered to stop texting at stoplights.”]
While raising her family, Lebos continued the writing career she had begun in California, saying it gave her access to meet interesting people, to attend interesting events, and hopefully to serve the community where she lived.
“I’ve always written. About who I am, where I am, who I’m meeting. The first law of journalism is ‘don’t make yourself part of the story’ but I started my career in alt. journalism – the weekly papers that don’t really follow those laws.”
Her first job was with The Pacific Sun, “the longest running alternative newsweekly on the planet,” conceived as a West Coast version of The Village Voice in 1963.
“I’m interested in stories that are about helping people, about equity and equality and justice and environmental justice. One of the first stories I wrote for Connect was about the Ogeechee fish kill,“ she continues. “I grew up with this understanding that we are Jewish, and we support the civil rights movement. My parents believed in equality and justice for everyone.”
Lebos has certainly continued that legacy of acceptance, openly talking about how her son Abraham came out when he was 14, espousing feminism and all manner of social justice causes, while supplementing her Substack income by writing for various nonprofits such as the microlending company Kiva.
The self-described “garrulous guide to Savannah’s nitpicky nuances and eccentric enigmas,” published her first book "Savannah Sideways" in 2018. A compilation of published columns, it tells the story of her coming to Savannah and learning how to belong as an outsider.
Lebos says the new book, published this January, is about the new Savannah she woke up to after her months of COVID quarantine – the cranes, the development, the huge condo buildings, all the many, many new people who disregard the social codes and mores that Savannah had previously operated under.
“How do we reconcile Savannah, the community, and Savannah, the commodity?” she asks. “We do feel quite powerless to stop all this development. All I can do is offer my commentary…and advocate for the causes that are important to me…Our local Planned Parenthood community, our Ogeechee and Savannah Riverkeepers, Chatham-Savannah Citizen Advocacy, Girl Scouts, the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home, Savannah Widows’ Society, Loop it Up Savannah….Organizations that support the bedrock of what it means to be a community.”
She declares, “If you’ve just moved here, I really encourage you to seek out one or more of them. If you want to create community and experience community, it is already here. And there is no need to reinvent it. But it’s all been a little obscured by Savannah, the commodity.”
This undercurrent of commodification echoes in my favorite entry in the book - the witty exchange between the oft-confused Jane Fishman, 30-year-long columnist for the Savannah Morning News and Jane Fishel, owner of restaurant/bars Savoy Society and Colleagues & Lovers. Their memories of living in the “old” Savannah of the 90’s – prostitutes on sketchy street corners, low rents in unrestored downtown buildings, drinks at Café Metropole situated in the spot now occupied by The Grey – make me positively nostalgic.
Fishman sadly passed away in October of last year, and Lebos dedicates "The Camellia Thief" to “Jane the Elder” who first inspired her to collate her writings.
Be sure to pick up your copy at Savannah’s E. Shaver Booksellers, The Book Lady, or ARTS Southeast’s Sulfur Shop. Lebos’ next book signing will be at ARTS Southeast’s Sulfur Street Fair at 39th and Bull on the evening of Friday, June 2 and, of course, be sure to visit SavannahSideways.com to subscribe to her regular musings.
As she prepares to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary this fall, Lebos is working on a coffee table book about an old Savannah family, and is writing a TV pilot about her experiences here...because, without question, “There are just endless Savannah stories!”