Making Their Mark

Memphians on the move – and on the printed page.



Lady Beerbohm, Barron Gift Collier, and Leo (also known as Slats) — who were they?

The lady was Florence Kahn, a stage and film actress who went on to marry English writer and caricaturist Max Beerbohm. Collier was, at one point, the largest private landowner in Florida. And Leo was an MGM lion.

What do these three have in common? They were all Memphians: Two were born here and one ended up here (in the zoo). And they’re all featured in Memphians (The Nautilus Publishing Company), a coffee-table book that spotlights close to 200 individuals who made or who are making their mark in Memphis and beyond: entertainers, sports figures, entrepreneurs, writers, politicians, and Miss Americas. 

You no doubt know who most of them are. And if you don’t, the book comes with thumbnail profiles — by Richard Alley, Dan Conaway, Kate Hooper, Dennis Phillippi, and David Tankersley — to accompany the photographs. It’s those photographs that make Memphians something extra special. That’s by design.

“At its core, this is a photography book,” Neil White, creative director and head of the Nautilus Publishing Company of Taylor (near Oxford), Mississippi, says. “We did our best to make the book all-inclusive, but that meant finding good photos or permission to use a good photo. So, no, this is not the entire universe of people we wanted to include.”

But it’s a good start.

It was an uncertain start, however, for the book’s editor, Richard Murff, who worked with his team of contributors to arrive at an initial list of noteworthy figures.

“My first thought,” according to Murff, “was that there wouldn’t be enough really great profiles to make the project work. But at our first writers’ meeting, we realized that the list was so long we were looking at a 35-pound book. The original list of musicians, for example, was cut almost in half. That hurt. But we thought the wide angle was important.

“Memphians have been innovators in so many fields,” Murff adds. “Yes, we make good music and barbecue. But that isn’t the whole story.”

“Memphians have affected so many people that we wanted to focus on the big picture — from the arts to athletics, business, science, and social reform. It’s been a great eye-opener for me to see these talents listed together.”

It’s been a kind of mission for publisher Neil White, the former magazine publisher who founded Nautilus after serving time in prison in Carville, Louisiana, an experience he powerfully described in a memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

“After Carville, I was determined to only publish things that put good energy out into the world,” White says. “Not tie my ego into it. Apply my talent to individuals, groups, nonprofits that have a great story to tell.”

Memphians has a wealth of great stories to tell.

“I was stunned at the impact Memphians have had in the world,” White says. “In the category of entrepreneurs alone, Memphians have changed the way we think about auto parts, about security, about hotels and the cotton industry.”

It doesn’t change the fact, however, that you may think Memphians overlooks an individual you hoped to see. That’s why the cover of Memphians includes the words “Limited Edition.”

“We have every intention of publishing a second edition,” White says. “I knew going into this that people would call, wanting to know why someone has not been featured. Don’t be angry. Let us know. We live in a world of dialogue. Let’s embrace it.”

And so, for the record, there will be no second printing of Memphians. But plans for a second edition are in the works. (It’s a plan that Nautilus followed in the case of its successful title Mississippians.) Go to Memphians.com to nominate a deserving individual for a subsequent edition. (I nominate writer Peter Taylor.) Go to Memphians.com too for the local bookstores carrying Memphians and for a list of local retailers that will also have it for sale. Don’t go to Amazon, however, looking for a steep discount. At $45 per copy of Memphians, White wants not only to maintain the book’s price integrity, he wants to help the city’s retailers. As he says:

“Oxford is my town; Memphis is my city.”

Look for two launches of Memphians this month: at Burke’s Book Store on November 10th at 5:30 p.m. and at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on November 28th at 6 p.m.

Speaking of Memphians who are making a mark, Michael Connors may be a native son, but on the day I talked to him by phone, he was not at home in the state of Maine or on the island of St. Croix, where he divides his time. He was in Paris meeting with a French publisher. The day before, he was at a London auction bidding on furniture from a St. Lucia property that belonged to Lord Glenconner (the late Colin Tennant) — furniture that Connors himself had been the one to sell to the lord.

St. Croix, London, Paris: Nice work if you can get it, and Connors has — as an authority on and dealer in Caribbean antiques and architecture and as the author of a series of beautifully produced books on Caribbean history and design.

Connors’ latest book, published in October by Rizzoli, outdoes them all. It’s called The Splendor of Cuba: 450 Years of Architecture and Interiors. The text is Connors’. The principal photography (under Connors’ watchful eye) is by Brent Winebrenner. And the overall design is by the great Massimo Vignelli. But this is not the popular view of Cuba falling apart or already in ruins. By “the splendor of Cuba,” Connors means it: plantations and city residences, government buildings and cultural institutions, Ernest Hemingway’s Finca Vigia and Hotel Habana Riviera. Connors takes you inside and outside of preserved or restored Cuba — from the country’s colonial past, on to its era of sugar prosperity, through to the republican era and modernization (including a spectacular house by architect Richard Neutra).

“Deteriorated Cuba: That’s what art photographers want now, and that’s what people think Cuba is about,” Connors says. “I’ve taken a different approach. Over the course of two years of research and photography, we covered the whole island. We went where the sugar wealth was; where, in the first half of the twentieth century, the barons of trade were. The modernist movement in Cuba? I barely touch on it. There’s so much. It’s incredible.

“But five to 10 years ago? No way,” he continues. “Many of the places we visited hadn’t been restored. Now they have been — restored to their formal, gorgeous original settings. And there’s more to do.

“Let me tell you, though. It’s not easy doing things down there,” Connors admits. “If it were easy, a book such as this one would be done by now. My being the first to do it is great.”

Connors launched The Splendor of Cuba in early October with a lecture and booksigning at Manhattan’s temple to the book arts, the Grolier Club. He’ll be doing the same at museums in Palm Beach, Miami, Sarasota, and Ft. Lauderdale. He was at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art years ago. What’s he doing not coming to his hometown to promote his latest book? That is the question. No question, though, that Connors is open to invitation.

“I love the excuse to visit Memphis. It’s where I was brought up. It’s no longer home, but I always feel home when I’m there. If Memphis ever raises the flag, any venue, I would rush to go.” 

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