When Ethel Mae Garrett wanted to impress people, she would tell them she was descended from the Garrett tobacco family of Virginia. The boast was only partly true. She was born in Pamplin, North Carolina, in 1921 while her father, Kendrick Garrett, worked for the Tar Heel State, building dams and bringing electricity to thousands. His family had once been the Garretts of Garrett Snuff, a branded brown dust manufactured in Lynchburg, the beginning of the Bible Belt in Virginia. One could choose to either tuck a pinch of the powder below the lower lip, hold it inside the cheek, or inhale the mixture into and through the nostrils before spitting the residue into the dirt. All three methods forced the nicotine to seep into wet exposed tissue, providing an addictive jolt of cheap pleasure.
Ethel was one of ten. Her mother, Araminta, specialized in popping out babies as if they were sugar peas fresh from the pod. She produced one child each year throughout the 1920s. Most were girls. By that time she truly could claim to be a Garrett of Virginia. Kendrick had moved the family to Burkeville in Nottoway County after the Great Depression began. This time he built dams and bridges for one of Franklin Roosevelt's creations-the Civilian Conservation Corps-out of a nearby army base called Camp Pickett.
Araminta and Kendrick's home was on South Agnew Street. It was a big, white, five-bedroom house with four columns in front, one of the largest homes in town. Black potbellied stoves heated it in the winter. In the summer, there were ceiling fans to move the hot, humid air.
Burkeville, population five hundred, was fifty-five miles southwest of Richmond. Outside the town, the land was justly famed for a loamy soil, which produced the highest grades of flue-cured, premium tobacco. Curing sheds, where temperatures shot up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer as workers stacked the harvested leaves inside them, dotted the rolling green fields of Nottoway County.
Araminta was an exotic moniker, but her son and daughters had plain, traditional names. The siblings were Mary, Edith, Faye, Lucie, Willard, Bbby, and Harriet. One girl, Virginia, was a victim of Down syndrome. Araminta lost another son giving birth.
Most of the Garrett brood had reached its teens by the time the world's financial markets crashed. Living in a farming village such as Burkeville cushioned the blow. The Garretts felt the effect of the Depression far less than the unfortunates of the big cities.
By the end of the thirties, Kendrick was dead from a heart ailment and all of the younger Garretts were adults. With the exception of Virginia, they began streaming out of Burkeville. Most heeded the siren call from Washington. In the pages of "National Geographic," they had lingered over the photos of the buildings and monuments in the great capital. Now it came to life before their eyes. On the banks of the great Potomac River, each of them sought a prize--the stability of a government job. Paychecks with a federal seal never bounced. When you reached sixty-five, you got a pension. What more could one want? Ethel Garrett, a five foot seven, handsome, round-faced woman who friends thought resembled Shelley Winters, had one of these coveted positions when she was eighteen. She was soon wed, and life seemed perfect.
But her modest fairy-tale beginning would have an unhappy ending. In later life, Ethel would claim that her first husband was "impotent" and that the wedding had been a sham from the start. After a decade in this near-sexless marriage that produced no children, the union was annulled.
Her closest confidante in Washington became Iris Young, who worked with Ethel at the Department of Agriculture. Iris had made her way to the nation's capital from West Virginia. The two women became so intertwined in each other's lives that when Ethel became engaged to Howard Eldred Wilson III and Iris to Carl Farley, the pair planned their weddings fourteen days apart so each could attend the other's nuptials.
Eldred--he never used his first name or the fancy Roman numerals--was considered handsome, a comer. His great-grandparents had arrived in Washington more than a century earlier from Scotland. Whether fact or fantasy, it was part of Wilson family lore that somewhere near Edinburgh was a castle in which their ancestors had once resided.
A native of the federal city, he had been a star tennis player in his youth and voted "Most Likely to Succeed" in 1926 by his class at Eastern High School. For a while he seemed to be headed for broadcast stardom. In the 1930s he was chosen to read the Sunday comics with Arthur Godfrey on a local radio station, long before the broadcaster began his CBS career.
When Eldred was a young man, his widowed mother acquired a stately home on McArthur Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in the far western corner of Washington. Eldred's sister, Eleanor, and her husband, Donald Ward, joined her in the large house. Eldred's mother would live to be ninety-eight. If genes were a factor, her son had every right texpect a long and healthy life.
Eldred had gone to a local business college named for Benjamin Franklin, which specialized in accounting and financial courses. He had parlayed this business education into a career at Lincoln National Bank, which later merged into the city's largest financial institution, Riggs Bank. In 1947, he learned that the U.S. House of Representatives wanted a professional banker to supervise its payroll inside the Sergeant at Arms office. Eldred, who was about to celebrate his fortieth birthday, jumped at the chance. He was immediately hired to the post, considered a plum position.
"I never understood why they want government desk jobs," remembered Carl Farley. The husband of Ethel's best friend managed a series of wholesale food warehouses. Farley's job allowed him to go from the inside of the building to the outside several times a day.
Ethel wed Eldred on August 11, 1951. Iris and Carl's ceremony was held on the twenty-fifth. None of their friends thought it peculiar that Eldred was forty-three, thirteen years older than his wife. Instead, they were happy that Ethel had found happiness after the disastrous first marriage. Eldred also carried personal history into the marriage. He had once fathered a child with a girlfriend and named the boy after himself. The two married for a short time, but when he divorced the woman, he failed to support her or his son. He had also married a second time, with that alliance quickly going sour. Ethel whispered these secrets to Iris, and the stories became common knowledge.
Courtesy of St. Martin's Press