Missing, so much, the brash and brassy Braseltons of Rome

This ran in Atlanta magazine in 2003. I still miss these dear, irreverent friends every day.
 
While rummaging through a box of old letters, I recently stumbled across a postcard from Jeanne Braselton. It features a black-and-white photograph of a woman on the gallows, with a priest administering last rites while she stares into the camera with a look of baleful resignation. It is from the movie “Riders of the Night,” made in 1918, and the caption reads: “The unfortunate heroine is said to have stated, ‘I can’t remember what I did to deserve this.’”
 
Jeanne’s personal inscription in red ink says, “Bet you didn’t know I have a moonlighting career as a silent film star! Actually, this is a pictorial representation of my mental state as of late. I feel sure the trapdoor of the gallows will drop at any moment, and I’ll be a goner.”
This postcard perfectly expresses Jeanne’s outsize, tragicomic personality, always winking and flirting with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A gifted writer and lovable drama queen, she spoke fluent hyperbole as her first language, and, in her work, explored the theme of death in a way that combined high camp with high art. I know I must have shaken my head and chuckled when I received that card.

Six months after the postmark, Jeanne killed herself on March 23, 2003, with an overdose of prescription pills in her farmhouse in Rome, Georgia. She had been planning to attend a party I was throwing in Atlanta on that Saturday night, but instead sent an e-mail saying: “raise a few goblets for me honey, as i’m in a bad way re the book & depression … just hanging in there to finish if i can.”

But she did not finish her much-anticipated second novel.

Her first book, A False Sense of Well Being, had earned a six-figure deal from Ballantine and the “Georgia Author of the Year” award in 2002. A mordant tale of marital disillusionment in the South, it racked up impressive sales (more than 100,000 copies in hardback and trade paperback) and appreciative reviews: “small-town charm with major-league angst,” noted the Los Angeles Times. With her shocking red hair and rafter-rattling whoop of a laugh, she reigned as the belle of the writers conferences. After years of furious, late-night scribbling, Jeanne, at 41, finally seemed poised to take her rightful, rollicking place among the authors she loved.

The laurels were not enough, though. In the middle of promoting her first book and starting her second, she lost the man who literally was credited on her business cards as “Resident Muse.” Al Braselton, her husband of 15 years, died of an alocholism-induced aortic aneurysm in 2002. Other crises, too, had metastasized. Debts were mounting; she struggled with an addiction to the painkiller OxyContin; she suffered an agonizing bout of writer’s block. And, of course, her bipolar disorder was pulling her up and down. (“Take it easy, baby,” Al used to say gently when her voice started to rise in pitch.) In fact, she had plucked her book’s title from the warning label on a bottle in her extensive pharmacopoeia. These pills, it said, “may create a false sense of well-being.”

“When I saw that line, honey, I thought, ‘What’s wrong with that?’” Jeanne would always say, before bursting into her trademark cackle.

Jeanne, born to an unmarried teen-age mother, was adopted by Charles and Rosalee Ingram and brought up in the Pentecostal church near Chattanooga. Her dad, a part-Cherokee machinist who loved the Southern Highlands, wrote stories that she typed for him on a Remington. Later on, after she had embraced la vie boheme, Southern-style with her “big hair,” Jeanne would become known for the jackhammer-like noise that her long, lacquered fingernails made on a keyboard, often all night long, while she churned out stories, with a cigarette dangling from her mouth and one of her rescued cats perched on her shoulder like a parrot.

She graduated from Berry College and immediately took a reporting job at the Rome News-Tribune, where she worked for about a decade. During this time, when she was 25, she struck up a conversation at the local library with an intriguing man who was about twice her age.

“Somehow we started talking about Wallace Stevens,” she recalled, referring to the cryptic businessman-poet, “and we were both surprised to run into somebody else who even knew who he was.”

In fact, Al Braselton knew all about businessmen-poets — and the office of “Resident Muse.” While writing for high-end Atlanta advertising firms in the ’60s, he befriended fellow copywriter James Dickey, and they took canoeing trips in north Georgia that inspired the novel-turned-movie Deliverance. In this infamous story about city slickers menaced by hillbillies, Dickey modeled a key character on his buddy; “Drew,” the sensitive, ill-fated guitar player who riffs back and forth with the disfigured boy on “Dueling Banjos,” was based on Al.

It could have been worse, Al would joke. He might have been the luckless character forced to “squeal like a pig.”

So here was a man with serious Southern Gothic bona fides and an antic sense of the absurd. A graduate of the Darlington School, he had joined the Piedmont Driving Club, Atlanta’s most venerable country club, for the sole purpose of becoming the first member to resign from it. He had languished in rehab for alcoholism and spent some time in contemplation at the monastery made famous by Thomas Merton. And Al, fittingly enough, had double-dated with Rod Serling of “The Twilight Zone.” Now he had returned home to Rome, where he wrote and spouted poetry like a puckish oracle and rallied the town’s first real writers group, called “Postscript.”

“Is it any wonder I loved that man?” Jeanne often said after quoting one of his brilliant, squirrelly pronouncements. “He was like William Blake on acid.”

They married in 1987 and set about becoming a cracker-barrel version of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. “Being around them was a little like standing too close to an electrical storm,” observes Jon Hershey, a writer and professor at Floyd College.

Al was skinny and what they call “rawboned”; Jeanne had the plump, soft silhouette of an old-fashioned cameo brooch and that teased, red hair. Her voluptuous look was part Reubens, part Titian. She reminded me of some lines by poet Fred Chappell: “Oh when she’s there she’s so immensely there…Large in every sense, rich, overblown, Rose that droops from surfeit of itself.”

“Al, marrying this much younger woman, would always marvel at what he called her ‘emollients’ that had suddenly filled up his bathroom,” recalls Paula Blalock, Hershey’s wife.

The Braseltons’ crumbling farmhouse, part of Al’s inheritance, was a legend in itself. Fashioning it into a spectacularly messy salon they called “the compound,” or sometimes, owing to their many dogs, just “the pound,” the Braseltons drank straight gin by candlelight and talked nonstop, at high volume and odd hours, about writing, sex, philosophy, and all aspects of creative anxiety. They crammed every inch of space with photos, artwork (one of Al’s bluestocking foremothers had studied in Paris), kitschy bric-a-brac, and canyons of books. Enough pill bottles to have stocked Graceland, too, were scattered here and there.

“They had as many of those little orange bottles as they did books,” says George de Man, a Rome writer.

During her manic periods, Jeanne shopped compulsively. So the house did not present the sort of minimalist, beige-dominated aesthetic associated with Architectural Digest; it was Southern Tacky-and-Genteel run gloriously amok, like an all-consuming hybrid of kudzu and wisteria. Dirty dishes, and lipstick-rimmed martini glasses, piled up.

“Jeanne would go on e-bay and spend a fortune on crap,” de Man says. “Weird ashtrays, funny gewgaws, some rare, antique book somebody had recommended. It was madness! But it was a generous madness. I still have the LBJ campaign button she gave me.”

And there were the pets.

“Jeanne was always picking up strays,” Hershey says. “I guess you could count Al among those. But we’d be talking, and I’d hear this thundering stampede sound off in the distance, and then all of a sudden there would be this herd of dogs in the room. They would briefly acknowledge our presence, and then pass on through. And the place was crawling with cats, too.”

Friends always rolled their eyes at the Braseltons’ free-range kennel.

“I think in his later years Al had concluded that his ‘animal spirit’ was canine,” de Man says. “Whenever an ambulance would pass by, it would irritate the dogs’ ears, and they would howl for as long as the siren lasted. Al always, always howled right along with them, right up until they finished. Every single time. A loud, full-throated howl.”

The Braseltons’ flair for irreverent whimsy could be seen in their customized Christmas cards, one of which showcased Al decked out as the pope and Jeanne dressed as a nun — dirty-dancing.

“Al had a Beatnik’s love for spontaneity and surprise,” de Man says. “He always said a good poem is like a good joke: it catches you by surprise. He was tired of liberal cliches so he like to be the devil’s advocate around left-leaning people, talking blarney about the triumph of big business and the importance of ‘nut-cutting.’”

After his death, Jeanne was invited to read from A False Sense of Well Being to the Inquiry Club, the intellectual wing of the Piedmont Driving Club. Before closing, she told this august gathering, “I believe my husband would have wanted you all to hear this,” and then read Al’s poem titled “I Have Fired My Seed,” a randy celebration of fornication with melons and other unconventional partners, employing the F-word. It took the stunned crowd several minutes to commence its timorous, confused applause.

When I first met the Braseltons, I was supposed to grab a brief lunch with Jeanne in Rome and then return to my office. She was wearing a brooch that looked like a tiny typewriter. Her first words to me, cascading forth in her husky smoker’s voice, were: “You’ll have to excuse me, honey, I had a migraine, and I’m buzzing on OxyContin and 12 other medications and trying out this new antidepressant because I’m bipolar, you know? AL, COME AND MEET OUR NEW FRIEND!”

Her husband entered the room magisterially, gave me a gimlet-eyed once-over and barked, out of the blue, “Aha! A true country girl — I’ll bet you’re even more depraved than you look and that you wear frayed, cut-off denim short-shorts like Daisy Mae. Wear ’em next time you visit! You will come back, I assume?!”

“That’s just Al being Al,” Jeanne continued, by way of explanation, “I’m having these weird hot flashes on top of everything else because of the hysterectomy, and running behind on everything. Look at this — have you read Brad Watson’s latest book? We love it! Take this with you and tell me what you think. Want something to drink, honey?”

Enchanted, I stayed with them until 1 a.m. The conversation, about some bizarre, unprintable subject, still was raging when I staggered out the door.

“Who could ever keep up with them?” asks Susan Harvey, a charter member of Postscript. “They burned their candles brightly, at both ends.”

It was George de Man who found Jeanne. He says a note on her front door instructed: “…do not come in. Call 911. I’m very, very sorry.”

“I feel guilty because she had talked about suicide not long before that, and the experts say that any time anyone talks about it, always take it seriously,” he says. “But Jeanne was always in and out of the abyss, always talking about life and death in such dramatic terms. So it was difficult to distinguish a real warning from any other day with her.”

She had become reclusive in those final months, and she usually wrote all night and consequently lost any sense of diurnal rhythm.

“We’d get phone calls from her at very odd hours,” says Paula Hershey. “When we’d tell her it was midnight, she’d be very apologetic. She seemed to have no idea what time it was at any given moment.”

Jeanne was working on a novel titled The Other Side of Air, narrated by a dead woman watching from the afterlife as her husband recovers from heart surgery. Despite her feverish assault on the keyboard, Jeanne had missed several deadlines. She sent me this e-mail to cancel our weekend plans:

“i just got my ass kicked by my agent because she’s worried i won’t finish the new book, and fuck right cause i’m worried possibly even more than she is … so i’ve been banned from anything and everything — friends, all entertainment … she told me this wowser: ‘you’ve been set up to be one of the most talented writers of the new century and you CANNOT FUCK THIS UP.’”

Told by others in publishing that there would be “no discussion of future deals” until this book was finished, Jeanne feared that her literary career might be over. Medical bills and shopping sprees had consumed her advance, and she was screening her calls to avoid creditors.

“When she worked at the newspaper, Jeanne was the deadline goddess, a self-starter,” de Man says. “She never lost that journalistic ethic, and she felt that she was missing the most important deadline of her life.”

After her death, her editor Maureen O’Neal said, “We were going to offer her another two-book deal, but I hadn’t told her because I didn’t want to distract her. She had an amazing future ahead of her.”

But writing proved difficult without her “Resident Muse.”

“Writing is a solitary calling, and Al was her guaranteed reader and champion,” de Man says.

To make matters worse, Jeanne was quitting the painkiller OxyContin cold turkey, thickening the pall of depression and physical discomfort. Jeanne had become so withdrawn in her last days that her friends do not know if she suffered a relapse.

On her laptop, she left an apologetic suicide note stating that she did not wish to be saved, that she had lost faith in herself and that part of her had died with Al. Jeanne also expressed a desire for her friends to finish her book. Kaye Gibbons, the North Carolina novelist whose wise-cracking, larger-than-life persona made her Jeanne’s kindred spirit, was the natural choice. Relying on early outlines and e-mail correspondence, Gibbons revised and finished The Other Side of Air, which is scheduled for publication this autumn.

“You know, I still miss her every few minutes of the day,” says Gibbons. “I thought rewriting the book would make it real,” she says. “Just made it more horrible, but I think readers will really like what came through.”

Meanwhile, the once-lively Braselton compound sits empty.

“It’s very sad for me to drive by there now,” de Man says. “There were so many nights we sat there, deep in this intense, meaty conversation, laughing and drinking gin with a candle burning, and I would look at those two and think, ‘This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.’”

Adds Harvey, “They had all of the makings of a tragic, mythic love affair, of finding and then losing your soulmate amid the angst of the writing life,” she says. “After their deaths, I noticed a wishing well on the property, full of plants that had died. It seemed like a metaphor for their dreams.”