You May Not Know Her, But...
You probably never hear of Bess Whitehead Scott, but this woman broke barriers like nobody's business. And I'm a beneficiary.
Pioneering journalist, Hollywood screenplay writer, advertising executive, and beloved teacher--these are but some of the titles you could bestow upon Bess Whitehead Scott (1890-1997). Born and buried in the tiny Texas town of Blanket, Bess cast a wide net across the Lone Star State and beyond.
She may have had many careers, but words were central to each one of them. The woman wrote her whole life. And here I am, the inaugural recipient of the Writers' League of Texas Bess Whitehead Scott Fellowship for Creative Writing--an honor which will forever be reserved for older emerging writers. Late bloomers, all.
There's a good reason for this. Other than a few textbooks, Bess didn't get around to publishing her first book--an autobiography--until the spry age of 99.
Wait. I need to spell that out: Ninety-nine.
This is both inspiring and exhausting. Inspiring because, at 60, this makes me a relative babe-in-the-woods as I write that first novel. Exhausting because, well, I'm 60. But damned if the ghost of Bess Whitehead Scott doesn't cling to my imagination and prompt me to quit whining and get back to work.
Get a load of this: in 1915, Bess marched into the offices of the Houston Post and suggested she be hired to cover hard news--not weddings and funerals. She successfully made the case that all the male journalists would soon be fighting World War I, and the paper would need a woman to take over that work. She was 25, and she got the job.
Now, when I was 25, I waited tables in between auditions. One day, a lunchtime regular who knew I was a young actor asked me what my career ambitions were. I stumbled over an answer about wanting to be "respected by my peers." He said I'd never make it in the biz because I wasn't a climber. A planner. A dreamer. And he wasn't wrong. He was, however, quite publicly arrested not long after that conversation. Embezzlement, I believe, was the charge.
But back to Bess.
I knew nothing about Ms. Scott before the Fellowship. And, owing a true debt of gratitude to this revered grande dame of letters, I knew in January that, once vaccinated, I needed to make a pilgrimage to her tiny town of Blanket. It seemed an important way to honor this honor.
So, Keith and I and our dog Taffy piled into the Mazda last Saturday headed northwest through the rain to Brown County. As there are no hotels or motels in Blanket, we stayed at an always-dog-friendly La Quinta in Brownwood. I loved it. This was our first road trip since COVID, and I don't think I could've been any happier if we'd checked into the Four Seasons in Maui.
I went to the Walmart next to the hotel to pick up some flowers to place at Bess's grave. The available blooms weren't anywhere close to fresh, but we do what we can with what we've got in this world, right? For dinner, we avoided maskless people and feasted in our hotel room on hummus and tabouli and grape leaves we'd packed in the cooler.
Because of the spring rains, my biggest concern was walking into a cemetery with tall grass and lots of snakes. I'd obsessed about baby rattlers all week. I went down the Google rabbit hole to learn more, and what I'd learned left me sleepless. I pulled my old cowboy boots out from the back of the closet and threw them in my suitcase thinking this is exactly what cowboy boots are for. But a smarter me would've tried them on before leaving Austin. A smarter me would've realized that my right foot--permanently swollen from an injury a few years back--was never going to fit into that boot ever again.
Sunday morning in Brownwood was spent wondering if I shouldn't lumber around the cemetery in Keith's boots instead of my flimsy shoes. Or wrap magazines around my calves. On our way to Blanket, we stopped at a Big Lots where the only foot coverings I could find were flip flops. A sales clerk asked if I needed help.
"Any kind of rain boot in stock? Or garden boot? Something plastic you slip on, maybe?"
"No, it's sandal season now."
"You ever see snakes around here?"
"All the time. Why you want to know?"
"We're heading over to a cemetery in Blanket. Not sure how tall the grass will be."
She arched her eyebrows and shook her head as if to suggest that the safest option would be for me to throw the flowers over the Rock Church Cemetery gate and slowly back away.
Turns out I needn't have worried. The cemetery, a few miles north of Blanket on a sloping hill in the middle of absolutely nowhere, was beautifully manicured. I found the Whitehead family plot, and there was Bess's marker--simple, and without an ounce of bravado. You'd never know that she was a trailblazer.
I shared a few quiet words of enormous thanks for a life well-lived, and thanks for the Fellowship, and that was pretty much that.
The drive home was beautiful. The rain had passed, and the fields and hills were dotted with brilliant yellow and red and orange wildflowers. We finished listening to A Confederacy of Dunces and talked of more road trips to come.