Roanoke-based biographer and independent curator Heath Hardage Lee focuses her biographies and exhibitions on hidden stories of women whom history has overlooked or forgotten.
The subject of her first book, Winnie Davis: Daughter of a Lost Cause (Potomac Books, 2014), was Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis, the daughter of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It’s easy to see how Davis’ story captivated Lee, a Richmond native. Davis was an active public figure in the wake of the war, making public appearances for confederate veterans. Today’s struggle over recognition and memory in public spaces is directly tied to the era and work of Davis, who faced her own controversy around her engagement to a northern descendant of a prominent abolitionist.
Heath’s second book (forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in 2019) looks at the role of a group of women amidst another American war. The League of Wives: A True Story of Survival and Rescue from he Vietnam Homefront portrays the courage and resourcefulness shown by American POW and MIA wives in rescuing their husbands from the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”—a North Vietnamese prison. It was again a tumultuous era for the country, complete with struggles for veteran recognition and remembrance, and even the retrieval of POWs.
To mark Veteran’s Day, we talked with Heath about her work.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: Let’s start with a story. How is one of your subjects a model for how we might live today?
Heath Hardage Lee: Phyllis Galanti, one of the POW wives I am writing about, was a real-life heroine. She who was originally from Roanoke, though she lived in Richmond when she was a POW wife. She was a French major at William and Mary College, but she was so shy she couldn’t teach after she graduated. When her husband Paul was shot down and imprisoned, she had to force herself to speak out publically about the POWs. She became an international diplomat and used her French to outwit the North Vietnamese. Her new nickname then became “Fearless Phyllis”! We all could learn a lot from Phyllis about overcoming our own fears, even in the face of terrible situations.
BCR: Definitely. Examples we can emulate seem even more relevant or provide a seemingly more achievable standard when we have a tie to them, like place. So far it seems you have close geographic ties to your subjects.
HHL: Yes, both in Richmond and here in Roanoke. Galanti actually lived on Jefferson Street which I pass by most every day. It helps when I am writing about people to know exactly where they lived for context and background.
BCR: How else does Roanoke inspire you?
HHL: When I get stuck and can’t write, I know I can always go take a beautiful hike to sort things out—I think walking and hiking helps your mind organize and create in a way just sitting at your laptop cannot. A good glass of Virginia wine at Bent Mountain Bistro also helps!
BCR: Are you part of a community of writers in Roanoke?
HHL: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know Beth Macy here in Roanoke who has been so generous with her time and expertise. I also have a close group of biographer friends in Richmond, Charlottesville and D.C. like Dean King and Kitty Kelley through Biographers International Organization (BIO). I’m a board member of BIO, and I have found a really supportive community there.
BCR: What challenge are you currently addressing in your writing?
HHL: A primary challenge is making myself stay on a consistent writing schedule. Life and raising my two children often interferes with work!
BCR: I think most writers struggle with that. It sounds so easy, to sit down and write, but there are a lot of competing demands.
HHL: Yes, and some of those other pursuits can help fuel creativity too. I am a museum curator, and I love objects, especially vintage clothes! I love finding cool items from the 1960s and 1970s—jewelry, clothes, books, campaign buttons! Material culture is very important in the books I write and the exhibits I curate.
BCR: Tell us a little more about the exhibits.
HHL: I curated The League of Wives exhibition for Senator Bob Dole’s Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics. The exhibit is currently in Lawrence, Kansas, but will come to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond in 2018. They are one of the funding partners, along with the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. The Pioneers Museum has the exhibition next: it opens there on March 24, 2018. It should be here in fall 2018. Then we have three more venues interested in California and Iowa.
BCR: That should really boost interest in the book.
HHL: Let’s hope! Authors need more than just the print platform these days to get the word out about a new book.
BCR: What are you reading at the moment?
HHL: Right now I’m reading a lot about Iran and the Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s. The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran by Andrew Scott Cooper, and Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi. I love 1960s- 1970s history—(American history primarily) but Iran also fascinates me.
BCR: What’s next?
HHL: It will probably be something related to women and the 1970s. But I’m not sure yet exactly what. Stories tend to find me, so I’m waiting!
BCR: There certainly are plenty more under-celebrated women to write about. Thanks, Heath. Keep us posted on the next project and local readings for The League of Wives.
Heath Hardage Lee lives in Roanoke with her husband Chris and two children, Anne Alston and James. Learn more about her work at www.heathleeauthor.com.★