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Greenville native Julia Reed to keynote Jackson Symphony League annual spring luncheon

Queen of the Turtle Derby returning home for a visit

When Julia Reed was called to the principal`s office as a high school sophomore in Greenville and was chided for reading a book during a football pep rally, she knew she needed to make a major change. Instead of obediently putting down the book and picking up a spirit stick, Reed followed in the footsteps of her mother and aunt and headed to The Madiera School in McLean, Va., a private girls-only boarding school for grades nine-12.

“After I was told that I wasn`t showing enough school spirit, it was clear to me that I was never going to be a successful cheerleader so I thought, as much as I love Greenville, I gotta get out of here,” said Reed. “I threw a fit to go and demanded to go to Madiera, so they let me.”

The decision altered the career for Reed, a senior writer at Vogue magazine, contributing editor at Newsweek and a food columnist for The New York Times Magazine. A regular guest on CNBC`s “The News with Brian Williams” and MSNBC`s “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” Reed will make a stop in Jackson to sign copies of her first book, a collection of essays about the South, “Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena,” published by Random House earlier this month.

On April 29, Reed will be the keynote speaker at the Jackson Symphony League`s annual spring luncheon at the Country Club of Jackson.

“We’re delighted to have a Mississippi native come back home, and especially someone of Julia Reed`s caliber and literary stature,” said Pat Evans, past president of the Jackson Symphony League and assistant dean of admissions at the Mississippi College School of Law. “Julia has accomplished so much, and I can`t wait to read her new book.”

Reed kicked off her book tour at the family-owned McCormick Book Inn in Greenville, a fitting venue “since Mrs. McCormick would put 12 books in my hand and tell me to read them,” she said.

“Julia`s book signing was such a huge success that we had to call the police to direct traffic,” said owner Hugh McCormick. “She had to return the next day to finish signing books. I won`t give out numbers, but I will say it was one of our largest-ever book signings.”

Coming home was the best benefit of penning “Queen of the Turtle Derby,” said Reed.

“I give speeches in the North and in the South, and I like Southern audiences much better,” she said. “It was almost like a holiday to write about my roots. It`s certainly a joy to be back here roaming around.”

An early, solid start in journalism in high school boosted Reed`s visibility. At Madiera, instead of attending school on Wednesdays, juniors worked on Capitol Hill. Seniors worked in their chosen profession.

“My roommate wanted to be a housewife, so they got her a job at a florist,” said Reed, with a chuckle. “I wanted to be a journalist, and the school had an ‘in’ with The Washington Post and Newsweek, since Katherine Graham had gone to Madiera. So once a week I went to work at the library at Newsweek. That was how I got into big time journalism before my time.”

Reed continued working afternoons at Newsweek while attending college at Georgetown University.

“I owe my career to Norma, an old lady from Texas, who used to be a journalist but was too nuts to be one anymore,” said Reed. “She ran the library, and badly I might add. Nobody had listened to her in 20 years, but I listened. In the South, we’re used to eccentric old ladies, so I knew how to deal with her. And I loved her. She`s the one who insisted they give me a job.”

Reed`s first Newsweek byline involved the story of former Madiera headmistress Jean Harris, who murdered her boyfriend, Herman Tarnower, the famous Scarsdale diet doctor.

“I lucked out on that story because they sent me back to the school,” said Reed. “At the luncheon, I`ll elaborate on that story a little bit, and I`ll touch on a lot of things that sets apart us Southerners.”

Since 1987, Reed has been a senior writer at Vogue, where her profile subjects have ranged from Bill Clinton, George Bush and Condoleeza Rice to Robert Deniro, Barbara Walters and Barbara Streisand. The April 2004 issue features a highly favorable review of Reed`s “rambunctiously charming essay collection.”

“Glittering Louisiana debutantes in pearl-encrusted gowns that weigh in at 80 pounds; the heavenly equilibrium between tomato juice and Hellman`s mayonnaise in a well-executed Frozen Tomato; the member-in-good-standing of Nashville`s top drawer Belle Meade Country Club who happens to be a cross-dresser; and those hungry Formosan termites nibbling away at New Orleans: These are among the many mysteries of life below the Mason-Dixon line explained in ‘Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena,’ a breezy gazetteer of all things Dixie.”

Reed, who is still a newlywed, divides her time between New York, where Vogue is based, and New Orleans, where she and her husband live in old slave quarters located in the heart of the French Quarter on Bourbon Street.

“As much as I love it, its charm is starting to wane,” she said. “If I have any luck, I think our next stop will be the Garden District.”

Tickets to the luncheon are $35. For more information, contact the Mississippi Symphony office at (601) 960-1565.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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