Elise Winter said she was never really sure what her job as First Lady of Mississippi was. “I just always thought I was a glorified homemaker,” she told us last week as we talked to her and husband, former Governor William Winter. “I didn’t want to be set apart as special.” She recounts with chagrin visiting schools with teachers building up the role of first lady akin to that of Queen of England. “And it was just me. I thought ‘If I could be somebody great at this point.’”
Mrs. Winter, author of 2010’s Dinner at the Mansion, was — and is — a great asset to our state’s past and present. Visiting with her recently, she recounted the special times in the Governor’s Mansion, the second longest occupied gubernatorial residence in the country. Moving there from their Fondren home in late 1979, the Winters hosted dinner parties that she calls some of their fondest memories.
“They were his idea,” she said of the parties as she pointed to her husband. “After sprucing up the mansion, we invited people to come home.” Governor Winter told us dinners at the mansion centered around ex patriots who had gone on to make a name for themselves outside the state.
Ethel Kennedy, on a tour of the country, was one of the Winter’s first guests. Dean Rusk, U.S. Secretary of State from 1961-69, joined the Winters, too. “It was a list of people, and a glorious time,” Mrs. Winter said.
Opera singer and Laurel native Leontyne Price came several times, as did Eudora Welty, Muddy Waters and Margaret Walker Alexander. Their family and friends were always invited, too. Alexander and Elizabeth Chisholm were among those friends that Price brought along. After all, the affluent white family encouraged the young black girl, even helping to fund her education.
“We could seat 60 for dinner,” Mrs. Winter said. “There would be a nice dinner and we’d go across the hall to the parlor.” Mrs. Winter explained that the Governor would stand by the fireplace and talk to the guests, drawing them into conversation about their lives. “It was just marvelous.” On the night Price was there, she wound up singing A Capella. “This Little Light of Mine, wasn’t it?” Mrs. Winter asked her husband. “Yes,” he remembered. “That was one of many.”
“At one time, we had the Executive Editor of Fortune from Edwards, Executive Editor of Forbes from Starkville, head of Associated Press in New York City, head of United Press International and Bob Pittman of MTV,” Governor Winter said. “They were all people with Mississippi connections that we asked them to come down and talk about their experiences. We wanted them to look at us and us have a look at them.”
Citing lack of affluence for the state in that era, the Winters told us the State Legislature pulled out all the stops to “do whatever we wanted to do in order to show state at its best.”
Read more about the Winters, their time at the mansion and beyond in the new issue of Find It In Fondrenâ„¢ Magazine, on stands Friday, December 7!