By Carole Ashkinaze
"Celestine Sibley, the prodigious chronicler of a half-century of Southern life, is gone," The Atlanta Journal and Constitution reported in August. Not a bad lead, by her standards. Crisp. Factual.
But a tad pompous. A "prodigious chronicler" she was, rising at 3 a.m. daily for years, to write books and start the kids' breakfasts before heading downtown to cover murder trials and political hi-jinks for the AJC. But I think the phrase would have made her squirm. As would the tributes from the high and mighty, and the (yes) prodigious amounts of newsprint that her old newspaper devoted to retrospectives, reminiscences, and reprints of her past columns in the days following her death at 85.
Sibley, who by her own account wrote more than 10,000 columns and countless news stories for the paper between 1941 and 1999, preferred the workaday term "reporter" though she was also the author of 25 books. She lived long enough to see herself described, in news stories shortly before her death, as a "legend," and pleaded with her friend Bill Emerson, former Atlanta bureau chief for Newsweek, to "get them to stop this legend talk . . . tell them I'm not a legend."
Emerson would not. As he said in one of two eulogies delivered at her memorial service in Atlanta, "There is a scarcity of legends in the journalism business today, and Celestine's death is a serious loss."
"She was the best columnist that the Atlanta newspapers ever had, better than Bill Arp, Henry Grady, Ralph McGill, Lewis Grizzard or any of the others," he said.
She was, former Constitution editor Bill Shipp said, "absolutely the best court reporter I ever saw. She knew how to bring a trial to life like nobody I've ever seen before or since."
"That woman," said food writer John Egerton, "could write a column while I was trying to figure out how to set the margins on my typewriter."
Another late lamented figure in the Constitution's history, the Pulitzer Prize winning editor, publisher and columnist Ralph McGill, doted on her. "If there is a queen of our news shop, it is Sister Sibley," he once wrote. "She can put words down in a manner to excite envy among the rest of us."
Celestine did not always feel so appreciated, in life. She lived a hard life, in and out of the newsroom raising three children without much help from an alcoholic spouse who died at 45; writing pulp fiction for "true confession" magazines, and novels as well as news stories to keep a roof over their heads; burying her beloved second husband, Jack Strong, in 1988; and in her later years, baffling "Generation X" editors from other parts of the country who could only scratch their heads at the vast following her prosaic "Sweet Apple" columns enjoyed.
"Like Sibley herself," AJC staff writer Bo Emerson wrote after her death, "her columns were deceptive in their plain attire. She dealt in the homely and the homespun. She wrote about washing and starching curtains, digging in the garden, enjoying spring rain and summer vegetables. These topics she related without artifice, but with an abiding love of language and a natural raconteur's ability to spin a yarn.
"Her sharing of the small and large moments of her life at her log cabin home, Sweet Apple, made for an intimate relationship with her readers, who were forever mailing her packets of seeds, cuttings from favorite plants, cakes and poems, books and music, and letters of undying affection."
Sibley was already nearing retirement age when I joined the paper back in '76, at less than half her age, and she was hard to miss in our newsroom, with her mismatched sweaters and skirts, flyaway hair, chortling laugh and sensible shoes. She was a Southern original, about as far from the Southern belle prototype as one could get, and a lot more authentic. She was a good ole girl, who valued food and family over fashion; who understood the pull of one's home place; who loved a good story more than anything in the world; and who had absolutely no intention of being put out to pasture at age 65 or 75 or 85.
She wrote a book, Dear Store, about the Atlanta department store with a heart (Rich's) that endeared her to Buckhead matrons as well as country folk. (It was also novelist Pat Conroy's favorite). She had a sense of humor that she regularly turned on herself, choosing an absolutely grotesque picture of her gangly, knock-kneed 9-year-old former self dressed as a "fairy queen," for the cover of her 1988 memoir about the eccentrics in her life and family, Turned Funny.
She did not have to give the time of day to me, a relative nobody. But she accepted an invitation to address the weekly writing class I taught at Emory University, with glee and then disarmed us with her candor. If you want to be a writer, she told the group, don't be too picky about where you're published. There's money to be made in writing about teenagers who sell their babies, for pulpy magazines. Then she confessed that, in all her years of book-writin', she had never used an agent. "Maybe an agent could have made me rich," she mused, "but that isn't why I write my books."
Though she was eventually persuaded to "retire" from the AJC in the '80s, she continued to churn out newspaper columns for the AJC after her beloved Jack died, at a freelance rate so paltry that, notwithstanding the simplicity of life in a log cabin, she didn't have enough to live on. She had been underpaid for so many years, in comparison with trendier columnists like the late Lewis Grizzard, that not working wasn't an option either. It took a formal protest by her colleagues to win her an adequate post-retirement contract, even after all those years of yeomanlike duty.
Celestine, now extolled as a legend, also endured the indifference of boy and girl wonders, who breezed through the newsroom in the '80s and '90s on their way to greater glory in New York or Washington, without so much as a "How's yo' family an' them?" for her. She knew that to some of those telegenic, upwardly mobile reporters, she was older than Moon Pies and as unappealing as a Chattahoochee mudslide after a heavy rain.
But Celestine did not depend on others for her sense of self. Heartaches, poor relations and personal embarrassments that would have been hidden by many a Southerner were trotted out as stars and emblems of her columns and books. She not only knew how to turn a good phrase, she also tapped a deep well of personal triumphs and terrors. Like good ole country songs, Sibley's stories tugged at the heartstrings of readers who had "been there," whether they continued to eke out hardscrabble lives in Dawsonville or had ascended to one of the stuccoed palaces along Atlanta's fabled West Paces Ferry Road.
Alexis Scott, a former AJC editor who left to become editor and publisher of the Atlanta Daily World, a black newspaper, admits she had never even read Sibley's columns until she was assigned to copy-edit them, having had virtually no interest in the life of North Georgia mountain folk. Once she started, however, she was stunned at how beautifully crafted they were and how they held her attention, no matter what the subject matter.
Celestine was "not a goody-two-shoes," Bill Emerson said, in his eulogy. "You made a mistake if you thought she was a passive, accepting sort of person. She had mirth and instant wrath, but along with the fire came good taste and a keen sense of justice. If you knew her or read her carefully, you discovered that she was mischievous, insatiably curious, improvident and very bold. If you were seriously rude to Celestine or one of her friends or family, she would tack your hide across her next column."
Once, asked to cite her favorite among the thousands of columns she had written, she chose one she had written about the "Retreads" men who'd survived fighting in two or more wars; her column, lambasting civic leaders for failing to grant them free admission to the Cyclorama, a civil-war memorial, won the vets free tickets and a Peachtree Street parade.
My personal favorite is one she wrote in 1976 when she joined a team assigned to cover the Democratic Presidential Convention in New York. With no floor pass, and an outsider's sense of the absurd, she strode into the convention hall in her freshly dry-cleaned raincoat and sensible shoes, an oversized "VIP" tag dangling from her lapel. Anyone who took the trouble to check the fine print on her "badge," which didn't look a bit like the press credentials her colleagues wore, would have discovered that it was her dry cleaner's way of apologizing for failing to get a stain out even though it had received "VIP" treatment. Whether those standing guard at the entrance to the inner sanctum were intimidated by the sheer force of Sibley's determination or just appreciated a good joke wasn't clear; but her audacity got her in, and resulted in one of the most hilarious, and memorable, columns of the campaign.
Celestine was, and remains, an inspiration to me. I've never known anyone like her. But former Congressman Jim Mackay, a friend of the Los Angeles Times' Jack Nelson, may have said it best. As Nelson quoted him, in the second of two eulogies delivered at Sibley's memorial service:
"(Celestine) has loved the people in all walks of life in Georgia and she has received that love back and it's not easy to be loved if you're a newspaper person."
Carole Ashkinaze, a Washington-based freelance journalist, is a former columnist and editorial writer for The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, and Associate Editor of The Southerner.
Copyright © The Southerner 1999. Illustration by Tattau.