- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2006

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. (AP) — The crown molding is hardly standard issue for the Cavalier trailer that the government provided after Hurricane Katrina. And, certainly, neither is the Rolls-Royce parked on the slab out front.

Then again, there’s nothing standard about Charles Harry Gray, who lives here and is rebuilding, even as a new hurricane season begins Thursday.

With his nose pointing dramatically toward the ceiling, the ruddy-faced septuagenarian said in lilting patrician tones, “I’m not going to live in a house without crown molding, even if it does only have 7-foot ceilings. So that makes me uppity trailer trash.”

Katrina may have wiped away most of the antebellum homes — including Mr. Gray’s mansion — that gave Mississippi’s Gulf Coast much of its charm. But as long as people like Mr. Gray remain, the place always will have character.

Mr. Gray traces his lineage back to the region’s beginnings. An ancestor was Tennessee’s first attorney general and signed Andrew Jackson’s law license. That man’s son, Clinch Marquis Gray, was surveyor-general for the Mississippi Territory and signed the state’s first constitution in 1817.

“[He] was a 40-year-old bachelor down here in south Mississippi surveying, and his father in Tennessee sent him word, ‘Come home, Son. I have a rich wife for you,’” Mr. Gray said. The wife, described in the family Bible as “a spinster lady of means,” arrived in Mississippi with 13 wagons of French furniture, 38 slaves “and a quantity of gold.”

“I don’t know how much a quantity of gold is, but it’s whatever we’ve lived on for the last 200 years,” the 72-year-old Mr. Gray said with a twinkle in his Gulf-blue eyes. “And most of it gone now, I can assure you.”

Mr. Gray was born 100 miles inland in Waynesboro and spent much of his life traveling the world.

For 33 years, Mr. Gray ran a restaurant in New Orleans — Corinne Dunbar’s — with partner Jimmy Plauche. After Mr. Plauche became ill with mouth cancer, the pair moved to Bay St. Louis and into an 1840 Greek revival mansion facing the Gulf, which Mr. Gray called Beachwood and where he hosted many gala events. The late historian Stephen Ambrose and his wife, Moira, would arrive on a bicycle built for two, dressed in full evening regalia.

But after Mr. Plauche’s death, Mr. Gray sold Beachwood and bought a former Model T Ford assembly plant around the corner, overlooking the bay. Its 16-foot ceilings, he reasoned, could accommodate the 7-foot Baccarat crystal chandelier that he had inherited. The 1911 building would have a library, a 1,300-square-foot grand ballroom and more.

The renovation was about 80 percent complete when Katrina struck.

Mr. Gray evacuated to Waynesboro at the request of his sister, Martha Love, who is the local prosecutor there. When he returned, he was astonished at the destruction.

The Rolls-Royce was in storage elsewhere and was not damaged. Every few minutes, it seems, someone pauses to snap a photo of the incongruous sight.

Mr. Gray’s sister bought a brown-and-white Nomad camper and parked it beside the Cavalier. Mr. Gray tells visitors that it’s the servants’ quarters.

Mr. Gray said he feels lucky, despite his losses.

“This is the first setback I’ve had,” he said. “And God knows if anyone deserved a setback, it was I. Things have always worked for me. I have great faith that they will again.”

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