For Judy Culbreth, a journalist and historian, an absorption in the past starts close to home.
At her house near Mobile Bay, her stairwell is lined with family photographs going back multiple generations.
“I come by my interest in history naturally,” she says, walking up those stairs, pointing to black-and-white images of ancestors, recounting their tales.
“Growing up in Mobile, I was bathed in family stories.”
During an illustrious career in New York as top editor of magazines with circulations in the millions, and, back home, at the helm of Mobile Bay Magazine, Culbreth immersed herself in the stories of countless others.
Now, in a new book, she turns her focus to a double-portrait of women whose lives, from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, are rich with meaning: “Bedford Garden Club Originals: New York’s Eloise Luquer and Delia Marble.”
Raised in Bedford, New York, forever unmarried — known in that era as “spinsters” — Delia and Eloise first met as children, became friends and shared a passion for botany and improving their community in myriad ways.
Their efforts gave rise to the Bedford Garden Club, and they were also early leaders of The Garden Club of America (GCA). Felicitously, the GCA, with its 200 chapters nationwide, has chosen Culbreth’s book as a Holiday Book Recommendation.
“Their creativity and influence didn’t stop at the village green,” Culbreth writes in the book. “As they matured, their reach extended to the larger world.”
Eloise, a visual artist, would go on to be known as “the Audubon of Wildflowers,” and Delia was a proponent of the Women’s Land Army of World War I, an agricultural force helping feed the nation.
Together they furthered the nature trails of America’s parks.
Their contributions could be measured in another way, too. In a restrictive era for women, they pushed beyond societal boundaries, as Culbreth’s book shows.
“I love these turn-of-the-century women and their powerfulness,” Culbreth says.
Intrigued by their lives, but not yet committed to writing about them, she had an other-worldly inspiration.
Culbreth’s daughter, Brett, lives with her family at Bedford’s Arlie Farm, Delia’s long-ago home. On a visit, Culbreth walked to the unused top floor.
“I knew a little about Delia and had pieces of the story,” she recalls. Still, a book was a big undertaking.
On the third floor of Brett’s house, she stood before a cast-iron tub from Delia’s time, then walked through the rooms.
“I could hear laughter.” There was no one. “It was haunting.”
She made her decision. “I’ve got to write this story.”
A Career for the Books
The sunlit study in Culbreth’s Baldwin County home is filled with reams of material on Delia and Eloise, including their portraits from a century or more ago.
There’s another stylish photo, from 50 years ago, of a young woman in Glamour. She has long brown hair, a reflective demeanor and reclines with a book.
The caption: “Judy Culbreth ’72. University of South Alabama.”
How the young coed became featured in a national magazine, like much of her story, has its roots in her hometown.
Growing up in Mobile’s public schools as one of five daughters to Grace and Ralph Culbreth, young Judy matriculated at a then-fledgling institution in town — University of South Alabama. Her early interests were propelled by her USA history professors, among them Larry Holmes, Lewis Curtis and Betty Brandon.
As they brought to life topics ranging from ancient Greece to the Revolutionary War, “they made connections,” she says. “They were storytellers.”
She considered becoming a historian, too.
With her talent for writing also evident, she was asked by USA’s Dean of Women, Blanche Cox, to pen an essay for Glamour magazine, reflecting on these questions: What are my goals? How did I choose them? How do I plan to carry them out?
Her answers changed her life.
Culbreth was chosen from throughout the nation as one of Glamour’s Top Ten College Girls. She spent two weeks in New York, visited the magazine, was featured in the photo shoot.
She became captivated by the city.
She moved there for a longer stay, resided in a hotel for women — accommodations in those days for “career gals,” as she puts it — and got a job at Seventeen magazine as an editorial assistant. Then, she rented a one-bedroom apartment with two friends, ambitious but struggling. “We were basically sleeping on the floor.”
The city fed her mind, her heart. She explored museums, stood for Broadway shows, enjoyed “people watching.” Sometimes, “the millions of strangers made me feel weepy for family.” But there was a heady freedom in being unknown.
“New York was my finishing school and junior year abroad rolled into one.”
And the 1970s, as she explains, “were a turning point in feminism. Every woman I met was in a state of becoming.”
Her pen name became Judsen Culbreth. She graduated to other magazines, climbed the ranks.
At Ladies’ Home Journal, she edited the wildly popular column, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”
She moved on to Mademoiselle, rising higher on the masthead.
“It was the heyday of women’s magazines. They rocked.”
She got married, had her daughter, Brett, and son, Charlie, and hit the pinnacle of her career — executive editor for Redbook.
“It was the magazine for ‘red hot mamas,’” she says, laughing. Masters & Johnson, Benjamin Spock — she lists columnists and contributors. An expense account, a driver — for a “career gal” who’d slept on her coat at the outset, the perks were amazing. “Redbook changed everything for me.”
Looking back on those high-energy, jam-packed, vibrant New York days, she explains her work philosophy: “I always believe you should extend yourself, do something out of your comfort zone.”
She became editor of Working Mother and a regular on-air contributor to NBC’s “The Today Show.”
But she was a media star with a secret: “I was shy. I didn’t want to do public speaking, I’d blush.”
She pushed beyond her comfort zone. “I’ve learned to make myself more extroverted.”
She emceed a conference in Manhattan on the 100 best companies for working mothers and was invited to the White House by First Lady Hillary Clinton for a luncheon, thanks to a story she had published on career moms in the White House.
Her first marriage over, back in the singles’ world, she wrote her first book: “The Boomers Guide to Online Dating.”
She met Walter Kirkland, a Wall Street bond trader and avid fisherman, also on his own again after starting a family. The Mobile girl and the Atlanta native married.
All the while, young Judy, child of the Deep South, was amazed at her grown-up accomplishments.
When she discovered the lives of Delia and Eloise, she found resonance with her own.
“I didn’t grow up in a privileged family, but I became a top editor. I had my native intelligence and the idea that I could do something. I identified with the women in my book. They realized they could make a difference not only in the town where they tried their wings but in the nation.”
Back to Her Roots
In Manhattan, the morning of September 11, 2001, Culbreth was in her office as vice-president of Scholastic Publishing when she looked out the window to see “the World Trade Center exploding.” Visualizing that moment, she repeats: “Trauma, trauma, trauma.”
Soon after, traveling with Kirkland to her mother’s birthday party in Fairhope, they had “a defining moment. Walter said, ‘Why don’t we live here?’”
A realtor showed them a bucolic spread near the water.
“I loved the excitement of New York but I knew I came from a beautiful place and I missed that. When I saw our lot, I realized what a longing I had for nature.”
A friend since childhood, T.J. “Jocko” Potts, publisher of Mobile Bay and other magazines, asked her if she’d “ever think about being the editor.”
She signed on; they built their house. The New York couple became Southerners again.
Having stepped back from her role at Mobile Bay, Culbreth is focusing on her own writing again, researching history, mapping genealogies, enjoying, with Kirkland, a sociable Gulf Coast life with family and friends.
“Bedford Garden Club Originals” embodies, in certain ways, many strands of her interests and career, her commitment to exhaustive research and her spontaneity, too.
In the book’s preface, she writes:
“Like a nature trail, this narrative is not perfectly straight and orderly. I did substantial clearing to keep the main characters distinct. But I confess to meandering when I discovered particularly scenic beauty or interesting individuals with connections to Eloise and Delia. I hope you’ll enjoy these wanderings off the path. I know, too, that when I visit public gardens, such as the famous Bellingrath Gardens in my hometown, I may make a beeline to the cascading chrysanthemums exhibit. But how can I not also stop to admire the orchids?”
Excerpted from “Bedford Garden Club Originals: New York’s Eloise Luquer and Delia Marble.”
“This pea family is a very interesting family. It is a very ancient and honorable family. The pea has all kinds of characteristics.
It has nerves.
It has a great many nerves. It is a most sensitive plant. It is sensitive, it is climbing, it is the first family that begins to want to climb up and get high up in the world.
I brought down my baby pea to show you because I thought you would be interested to see. There is a little shoot coming up and there is the little root going down. And it is just six days old. I put it in the cotton garden and the second day it began to grow, and there you see the leaves are starting, the two leaves which will feed the plant. Last time I tried this experiment, my plant lived seven months in cotton wool and water just as well as if I had used soil. And it grew and grew. It grew up over the trellis and then it blossomed.
And so these plants teach us all the time the wonders of creation, and I think that we must just think of that. Think of beautiful things and not of sadness and horrors. I want to say about the little sensitive plant.
‘A sensitive plant in a garden grew. And the young winds fed it with silver dew And opened its face like leaves to the light And closed them beneath the kisses of the night.’
– Remarks by Eloise Luquer.; poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley”
Roy Hoffman is the author of six books, including his most recent novel, “The Promise of the Pelican,” and the nonfiction “Alabama Afternoons.” His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Hoffman lives in Fairhope.