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|In 1940, Dickson bets on Fort Rosalie and his home town|
(Ninth in a series)
During the 1930s, while the world economy stagnated, the fortunes of Jeff Dickson, Jr. were skyrocketing. A year or two after Wall Street crashed, Jeff was building Paris's own version of Madison Square Gardens, the Palais des Sports.
Yet fame and fortune didn't spoil him. All accounts of him indicate that the handsome young man remained affable and open to people from all walks of life. Nor did he forget his home and family in Mississippi. In 1939 it was reported that Jeff "loves to talk long distances on the telephone, particularly to his nice old father in Jackson, Miss., who gets so excited over each call that he has nervous indigestion and can't eat for days."
In April 1936 Time magazine mentioned that Jeff had arrived in New York from France "on his annual visit to his homeland." The article mentioned that Jeff traveled to Jackson to see his father. He had apparently continued to see his parents on an annual basis since the war.
In August 1937, Jeff, his father, and his brother Alba from New Orleans rendezvoused in Natchez "just to see what the old town looks like." His presence there "created somewhat of a sensation" with the press and locals. He told them that he had come back to "see and get photos of the modest home in which he was born on Pearl Street and to visit for a few hours with his boyhood friends and with friends and relatives of his father and brother." While in Natchez Jeff "regaled himself on watermelon" and was photographed with an old black man, both seated on a mule-drawn wagon. This was clearly designed to link Jeff to his Southern roots.
A year and a half later, in early 1939, sitting in his office in Paris, Jeff told reporter Jerome Beatty that he was "hankering to promote something in the United States." After tossing around the idea of taking an up-and-coming French welterweight champion to the US to fight, he mused on a different promotion. As Beatty recorded:
"In his office is a big colored lithography he found in a barbershop in Paris recently. It shows a steamboat race on the Mississippi, down in Jeff's country, between the good ships Baltic and Diana. Now and then he leans back in his office chair and half closes his eyes and squints thoughtfully at that picture.
"'Those races must have drawn mighty big crowds,' he says. "I wonder—'"
It appears that he was tossing around ideas pertaining to Mississippi. However, before he returned to Natchez, he would marry. He had just met the future Mrs. Jeff Dickson in Paris the previous year. At the time she was Louisette "Billie" Mastbaum of Philadelphia (1905-2001), the daughter of Jules and Etta Mastbaum. Photographs reveal that she was a beautiful young woman, nine years younger than Jeff. Her father was a motion picture magnate and philanthropist who was quite well known. When Billie first married on May 20, 1926, her wedding had been attended by the mayors of Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and New York City along with Adolph Zuker, founder of Paramount Pictures.
In 1923 Jules became interested in the work of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, most famously known for his sculpture, "The Thinker." During trips to Paris he began assembling what would be the largest collection of Rodin's work outside France and started having a museum constructed to house the work. His unexpected death in 1926 meant that he saw the 1929 opening of the Rodin Museum which still operates in Philadelphia. He also initiated the restoration of Rodin's house and studio in Meudon, France. In 1938 his widow and daughter, Billie, were in France inspecting the restoration project when they met Jeff. In September the three set sail for New York on board the liner Normandie.
Jeff apparently returned to Paris some time later, but the next year set sail for America. On July 8, 1939 the couple was married in a private ceremony at the Pickwick Arms Hotel in Greenwich, Connecticut. The wedding was reported by Time magazine.
On September 1, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, beginning World War II. Consequently Jeff and Billie didn't return to Paris and the Palais des Sports. As he related, "We were ready to sail when the war broke out. So we began touring the United States." This apparently provided him with the opportunity to look into something that had been kicking around in the back of his mind, a promotion concerning the South.
In January 1940 Jeff returned to Natchez for what was supposed to be a short visit. While there he was taken on tours of ante-bellum homes by members of the Natchez Garden Club and entertained at several social events and regaled with stories of the successes of the Natchez pilgrimages. He later related that while touring Rosalie mansion with Miss Rebecca Rumble, a former owner, Miss Rumble pointed to a high knoll to the south with an American flag flying on top and told him "That's where old Fort Rosalie stood." He immediately snapped his fingers; he had an idea.
His plans were immediately described in the local press by Edith Wyatt Moore:
"Since arriving here an idea has taken root in his fertile brain, an idea that means much to the future of Natchez. Mr. Dickson would like to restore some shrine that would benefit the entire community and make it a point of historic interest for tourists. Translating his thought into immediate action, he has taken options on three different plots of ground and to be sure he hasn't made a grave error in evincing so much confidence in the future of Natchez, he has made reservations for both Pilgrimages and will study the reaction of visitors.
"His plan is to restore either Fort Rosalie, Fort McPherson or the Natchez Village as it was during the French period. He expects to make a dignified bona fide shrine possessing educational value and international appeal."
In early March, while in New Orleans, Jeff told the Times-Picayune (March 10): "I had intended to stay only a day, but … I haven't been able to get away yet. While the war in Europe is going on, I plan to devote my energies to promoting Natchez."
The article continued by noting that "he has acquired an option of the Fort Rosalie site. He said he feels that the government of France will be interested in lending relics and helping to rebuild the fort as it originally stood." Dickson was quoted as saying "I have been promoting ventures in Europe for all these years and passing up the best bet of all, my own home town."
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