Forever Belle

Sallie Ward of Kentucky

  • Author(s): Runyon, Randolph Paul
  • Series:
  • Imprint: University of Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2024-02-09
  • Status: Active
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Forever Belle is the intriguing story of a nineteenth-century socialite, Sallie Ward Lawrence Hunt Armstrong Downs (1827–1896). Beautiful, charming, and kind—but also reckless and bold—she was born in Scott County, Kentucky, to a family of means beset by tragedy—early deaths, suicides, and even murders. Sallie basked in the national spotlight, appearing in newspapers as far-flung as Milwaukee and Charleston, written up for her exploits, which included such scandalous behavior as smoking cigars, dressing in “Turkish pantalets,” wearing rouge, and getting divorced.

Such a character invites romanticizing, and in this new biography, Randolph Paul Runyon does much to ground Sallie Ward in reality, fact-checking stories such as her infamous horse ride through the Louisville market house and examining his subject in the context of her wealthy family. Runyon carefully details his subject’s life, beginning with her aristocratic origins as the descendant of slaveowners, merchants, and politicians who stole land from Native groups and grew rich off the labor of enslaved people. He accurately covers Sallie’s madcap adventures and charitable actions, faithfully representing her legacy as a Kentuckian, a mother, and a grandmother. Illustrated with images of the family, their property, and their lavish grave markers, this volume provides an entertaining and informative glimpse into the world of antebellum privilege in a border state, as well as an examination of the birth of celebrity for its own sake. Forever Belle, finally, is also the story of an early if conflicted feminist: a woman who believed she should have control over her own appearance, actions, political views, and marital status.

RANDOLPH PAUL RUNYON is emeritus professor at Miami University of Ohio. He is the author of Ghostly Parallels: Robert Penn Warren and the Lyric Poetic Sequence, Order in Disorder: Intratextual Symmetry in Montaigne’s “Essays,” and The Assault on Elisha Green: Race and Religion in a Kentucky Community.