By Tom McGehee, Museum Director of the Bellingrath Home
Visitors from across the nation and around the world have enjoyed Bellingrath Gardens and Home since the Gardens first opened to the public in 1932. Over the past 84 years, the guests have included quite a few celebrities.
One of the earliest celebrities to discover and love Bellingrath Gardens was the columnist Dorothy Dix, a well-known journalist who offered advice to millions of readers of her syndicated columns. She kept a vacation home in nearby Pass Christian, Miss., and was a frequent visitor to the Gardens in the 1930s and 1940s.
Edith Wilson, wife of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, signed the guest book on March 3, 1937. The former First Lady was legendary because of speculation that she took over running the country after her husband suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919. Like Dix, the Wilsons had also maintained a home in Pass Christian, which may account for her visit.
In 1938, James J. and Betty Compton Walker visited Bellingrath Gardens. He was the famed Jazz Age mayor of New York City; she was a former Broadway showgirl. As mayor, Walker never arrived at his office before mid-day and was known for his dapper appearance — and for taking numerous vacations. When a Prohibition raid took place at a club at Montauk, Long Island, Walker unsuccessfully tried to disguise himself as a waiter to make his escape.
Greta Garbo was spotted in the late 1930s as she dined nearby at Mary’s Place at the end of Bellingrath Road. At the time, word was that the elusive star was driving to Florida from Hollywood and had stopped in to see the famed Gardens, but if she did, she didn’t sign the guestbook.
On April 13, 1944, the register was signed by Minnie Pearl, who listed her address as “Grinders Switch.” The future Grand Old Opry star apparently assumed that everyone knew that Grinders Switch was her hometown in Tennessee.
In the 1950s, more celebrities discovered Bellingrath. Actress Debbie Reynolds and her husband, singer Eddie Fisher, came to see the azaleas and the recently opened Bellingrath Home in 1956. At the time, they were touted as “Hollywood and TV’s most popular married couple,” and Eddie Fisher was an official spokesman for Coca-Cola. However, his contract was voided on a morals violation three years later, when he left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor.
On March 11, 1957, the Bellingrath Home was visited by three celebrities whose names are still well known 60 years later: Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian, and popular radio broadcasters Paul Harvey and Ted Malone.
During his visit to Mobile, Harvey gave a broadcast from WABB to 300 radio affiliates across the country, during which he praised the beauty of Bellingrath Gardens, calling it “a Garden of Eden.” “For my poor words … to try to describe Bellingrath Gardens and Home is like trying to play Beethoven on a toy piano,” he was quoted in the Bellingrath newsletter. “But some day you may travel this way … and you will turn south off Highway 90 … and then you’ll understand.”
Many Miss Americas took part in the tradition of coming to Bellingrath to open the Azalea Trail each spring. The ladies were declared “Queen of the Azalea Trail Festival.” Among them were Lee Ann Meriwether, Miss America 1955, Sharon Kay Ritchie, Miss America 1956, and Marian Ann McKnight of South Carolina, Miss America 1957.
The America’s Junior Miss program, now known as Distinguished Young Women, was founded in Mobile and has always had a strong tie with Bellingrath Gardens and Home. Actress Celeste Holm visited the Gardens when she was in town as a judge in the event.
Diane Sawyer, who became America’s Junior Miss in 1963, visited again 35 years later to broadcast an episode of “Good Morning America,” which featured a live performance by Faith Hill on the Great Lawn.