OUTSIDE THE MAGIC CIRCLE; The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr. Edited by Hollinger F. Barnard With a Foreword by Studs Terkel. University of Alabama Press. 360 pp. $24.50.
WHEN an oral history autobiography published by a university press reads like a novel, someone has done something extremely well.
Like most southern women, Virginia Foster Durr would rather talk than breathe if the two could be disassociated. Born in Birmingham in 1902 into that hotbed of tranquility known as "quality folks," she started out as a good little conservative who wore her white gloves and gave no thought to the blacks in the back yard who were being killed by kindness, or the steelworkers "over the monutain" who were being killed by pellagra and company goons.
In the pretty world of her childhood, absolutely nothing reared its head. "Sex was something black people did in the basement" but white ladies never indulged, as Virginia learned when her newly married aunt fled from her bridegroom after two days and returned home to announce: "I'm sure my brothers would never do anything like that." Virginia shared her aunt's faith in the purity of southern gentlemen; noting that some black people had light skins, she accepted without question her father's explanation: "Dear, that was all due to the Union army."
As she grew older she sensed that all was not well. Many genteel ladies suffered from melancholia and had to be institutionalized periodically like her mother, while another aunt turned catatonic: "She didn't do anything. She never even did fancy work. She just rocked."
Gradually Virgina perceived that the serpent in the garden was white male patriarchy, specifically her Presbyterian minister father who made no secret of the fact that he had wanted her to be a boy and advised her to "kiss your elbow" so she would turn into one. Reverend Foster got mad with his daughter for needing glasses because they spoiled her prettiness and predicted that she would be an old maid because she was too bookish to appeal to men.
When bellehood beckoned, she did her best to hide her intellect and joined the fray. Her descriptions of outsized "popularity" are nightmarishly funny and prove that Amanda Wingfield did not exaggerate. Virginia's glamorous sister, who married Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, had 50 or 60 gentlemen callers every weekend; another belle received 45 love letters in one day and so many boxes of candy and flowers that she was continually calling the hospital to donate the overflow to shut-ins. A girl was considered a social failure unless she was surrounded -- literally surrounded like Custer at Little Big Horn -- by men, so that when her parents peered into the ballroom to see how she was doing, they would not be able to se her at all.
VIRGINIA'S FIRST break with the Southern Way of Life came at Wellesley College when she refused to share a table with a black student because, as she told the dean, "My father would have a fit." Given the choice of sharing the table or withdrawing from school, she exchanged prejudice for pragmatism and for the first time tasted freedom from Big Daddy. Shortly afterwards she married fellow Alabamian and New Deal lawyer Clifford Durr, moved to Washington, and proceeded to do everything she could think of to give her father fits.
Her transfiguration from bird of paradise to stormy petrel began with the Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax, which drew from Senator Cotton Ed Smith of South Carolina the prediction, "If anything happened to change the Southern system, the white women would just rush to get a black man," and from Mississippi Senator James Eastland a bloodcurdling scream: "I know what you women want -- black men laying on you!"
Durr's sweetly psychoanalytical reply must have been good for a fit or two: "It used to embarrass me because I felt it was a terrible reflection on the Southern white man, that he was such a poor lover or husband or impotent or weak that the white Southern women just couldn't wait to get a black man."
The Durr home on Seminary Hill in Alexandria soon became a New Deal annex and a gathering place for every left-leaning maven- at-large who passed through the Nation's Capital -- Corliss Lamont, John L. Lewis, Henry Wallace, and "an English girl who kept throwing up," Durr's initial description of the newly pregnant Jessica Mitford, who remained with the Durrs for the duration of World War II and helped out in Wallace's bid for the presidency on the Progressive ticket in 1948.
Neither of the Durrs ever joined the Communist Party but that made little difference in the witch-hunting climate of the '50s. Subpoenaed to testify before the House Un- American Activities Committee by her old friend Senator Eastland, Virginia Durr was accused of conspiring with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass cabinet secrets to the Russians. The hearing dissoved in chaos when Cliff Durr, ever the southern gentleman, vaulted over the railing to beat up the committee's informer and had a heart attack.
Cliff was fired from his government job and the Durrs returned to Montgomery just in time to make bail for Rosa Parks and get involved in the bus boycott. Soon the Durr home became a civil rights movement annex and a hostel for activists like Tom Hayden, who spent the night on the floor. At the height of the Freedom Rides the Durrs welcomed once again their old boarder Jessica Mitford, who wanted to do a magazine piece on the South called "You-all and Non-You- All" to counter her conservative sister Nancy's "U and Non-U Speech." Eager to see a southern riot, Jessica borrowed the Durrs' Buick and returned at 3 a.m. to say airily, "Oh, Virginia, they burned your car. I'm so sorry."
And on and on, with no let-up in fascination and with a gift for dramatic narrative that any novelist would envy. As a storyteller Durr's only fault is signposting; the liberal good guys are introduces as "a wonderful man," "a brilliant woman," "a lovely couple," "our dear friends," while the conservative bad guys are invariably "as common as pig's tracks."
As slanted as her opinions are, they are never blindly one-sided. She admits that she found the "black is beautiful" chant tiresomely childish and delivers herself of blunt opinions that most flaming liberals would keep to themselves. Of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell she says: "He always gave me the cold shivers, because I never thought I could trust him. He was extremely light and was terribly wounded by the fact that he was considered a black." And while she greatly admired Eleanor Roosevelt, she shrewdly discerned a chink in the first lady's armor that all of her biographers have missed: "She would often be repetitive and tell the same little tale over with the same little laugh. She told all the Southerners repeatedly that her grandmother came from Georgia and was a Bullock . . . I bet she told that tale fifty times. She was trying to identify with the Southerners."
My grandmother, who refused to read the paper until I had cut Mrs. Roosevelt's column out of it, would have loved that. She also would have loved Virginia Durr, as I found myself doing on every page of this magnificent story. She may be a little old lady in tennis shoes, but if so, she certainly gives the breed a good name.