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BOOK REVIEW: Days of gracious living

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A SENATOR'S WIFE REMEMBERS: FROM THE GREAT DEPRESSION TO THE GREAT SOCIETY
By Henrietta McCormick Hill
NewSouth Books, $27.95, 240 pages

While the insider culture of Washington has always had about it a strong whiff of conniving, self-serving raffishness, there always has been a handful of political figures who have striven to do the right thing by the people who sent them into the arena. Their long-suffering spouses - the white-knuckled veterans of 1,001 rubber-chicken dinners, gracious smiles and dull, near-mandatory "at-home" teas - have brought much that makes life within the Beltway humane and livable.

In this memoir, compiled many years after her death from numerous letters and diary entries, author Henrietta Hill (1904-1986), wife of Alabama Democrat Sen. J. Lister Hill, recalls days of wine, roses and gentility.

Living in Washington from roughly the onset of the Great Depression until the days of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, Mrs. Hill describes a time when everyone seemed to believe there was no ill to which human flesh is heir that could not be eradicated by a new government program and a steady stream of cash directed at the problem by enlightened government servants.

Slowly, surely, every day and in every way, things were getting better and better - or so it seemed until cultural and political upheaval erupted in the mid-1960s. The effects of that sea change in American life have rumbled down to the present day.

But this is largely a memoir of a more civil time than our own. Many of the episodes and anecdotes Mrs. Hill records concern social get-togethers in Washington and who was wearing what, with passing references to the events of the day. Distinguished personages cross the stage of the author's memory, sometimes in passing glances, sometimes in telling detail.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gen. John J. Pershing and numerous others put in brief appearances and then vanish. Long stretches of Mrs. Hill's narrative have a dashed-off, letter-to-my-mother feel about them. (In fact, many of the sections of this work were originally letters from Mrs. Hill to her mother.) They are newsy but somewhat dry to the eyes of us outsiders.

However, there are several instances in this work in which the author records short, often funny stories of things that happened during the course of a given day that provide a window into an era when everything seemed possible, even when the nation's social and economic circumstances were uncertain. These passages add much to the value of "A Senator's Wife Remembers" as a snapshot in time as well as a view into the lives of good people.

One of the author's most entertaining anecdotes, harking from 1938, describes a day when the Hills were home in Alabama between sessions of Congress, and the senator created the sort of no-win situation with which many husbands can relate.

One evening, Mr. Hill came home and, over supper, informed his wife that first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was arriving in Alabama the next day to visit a half-dozen sites throughout the Montgomery region - and that on the spur of the moment, he had invited her to come by their house at midday for dinner. This little surprise was sprung on Mrs. Hill at a time when her house was partly furnished, she had two young children underfoot, and she was without a cook.

She sprang into action, got the house arranged and prettified, lined up a competent cook and was a gracious hostess to the first lady when she arrived the next day. The Hills accompanied the first lady to each tour stop for the rest of the day, finally taking leave of their guest and collapsing into bed at midnight. The next morning, Mrs. Hill awoke late, and her daughter handed her a clipping from that day's Montgomery Advertiser, saying, "Daddy said to give you this." The author records:

"The article was written by our guest of the day before, under the byline 'My Day.' Underscored in red ink were these lines, 'Yesterday was one of the most strenuous days of my life.' I picked up a pencil and wrote P.S. at the bottom of the clipping, then the words 'Amen! What a day!"

What with Mr. Hill being a supporter of big-government programs but a gradualist in matters of racial desegregation, little is said of the battles for civil rights in Alabama during the Hills' tenure in Washington. Nor do we get a glimpse into their thoughts on such matters, though Mrs. Hill records her impressions of several unnerving days when the couple's house was picketed by protesters incensed by the notorious Birmingham bombings.

The world had become a very different place when the Hills retired from public life in 1969. Mrs. Hill's memoir describes one perceptive woman's impressions of that long cultural transition.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of "Earl Hamner: From Walton's Mountain to Tomorrow" (Cumberland House Books, 2005).

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