At the southwest corner of Government and St. Emanuel streets, near the entrance of the Bankhead Tunnel, there once stood the brick, two-story, Federal-style home of the beautiful Madame Octavia Walton LeVert and her husband Dr. Henry S. LeVert. For nearly two decades in the mid-19th century, the elegant mansion represented the cultural center of Mobile’s cosmopolitan society. The gold and white drawing room, some say, was the first real American salon patterned in the French fashion. All of the spacious rooms and halls of the home were appointed with works of art, and the walls were adorned with paintings by the renowned masters of Europe. Surrounding the home, the gardens were crowded with rose bushes lying under canopies of oleanders and magnolias. In the evening, when the guests arrived, the home and the grounds were lit, illuminated with a blaze of light from a multitude of lamps.
Yet, the most distinguished feature of the home was the accomplished lady receiving her guests. Known throughout America by such accolades as the “Queen of the South,” and the “Belle of the Union,” Madame LeVert was thought by many to be “the most charming woman in the world.” A New Orleans newspaper in describing her “sculptured beauty,” gave it a pretentious flair: “Her face is Madonna-like, brown waves of hair parting from a high, broad forehead; her eyes are blue, and seem to melt with thought, and her chiseled lips are tinted like the delicate sea shell.” Such extravagant praises were typical, and she constantly received them. It followed, then, that Octavia was understandably haughty. She had, after all, been born into a wealthy and famous family, and from childhood had always been told that she was superior to others. And given her refinement and accomplishments, it seemed she was. Although never officially enrolled in a traditional school, she was tutored by some very erudite scholars. By the time she was 20 years old, she was fluent in French, Spanish, Italian and German, and had a working knowledge of Greek and Latin. By her mid-40s, Octavia had traveled extensively throughout the United States, made two tours of Europe and wrote a book on her journeys.
After returning to Mobile from Europe, Octavia LeVert was deemed a woman of international fame. It seemed she knew, or at least had met, every person of any importance in her travels. In London, Queen Victoria invited her to a ball in the court before she had been formally presented, an indiscretion which sent the royal society into an uproar. In Paris, she was presented to Napoleon III, and in Rome, she was granted an audience with the Pope, with whom she carried on a conversation in Italian. On our side of the Atlantic, she was as well known in New York, Philadelphia and Washington as she was in Mobile. Her friends and acquaintances included politicians, diplomats, touring noblemen, Supreme Court judges, physicians, artists, writers, actors, journalists, and an assortment of swashbucklers and men of adventure. The list of names is encyclopedic, but among the many were such important political figures as Millard Fillmore, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster; American legends, such as David Crockett and Sam Houston; famous actors, Tyrone Power and Joe Jefferson; poets and writers, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allen Poe, and her close friend Washington Irving, who exalted her as “A woman such as appears but once in the course of an empire.” There were others, of course, who had failed to achieve such prominent status, yet were people she found to be interesting, intriguing or entertaining such as a barber with a good tenor voice or a struggling actor with a passion for the theatre. But whatever their distinction, they remained her welcomed guests, never failing to visit her salon and pay their respects when they passed through Mobile.
As Mobile was a city consumed with the traditions of society, to receive or not receive an invitation to Octavia’s salon might embellish or diminish one’s social standing. In the late 1850s, or “Golden Fifties,” as it was called, her home was the gathering place for the famous and renown. Except for those times she was in New Orleans attending the theatres, the salon was open every evening for her guests, and on Mondays it was open from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. There were, of course, some Mobilians who found her too flamboyant, but none who were not anxious to meet her and her guests. Anyone would have envied an invitation to one of her receptions. There, eminent people gathered around her to discuss politics, art, music and literature. Even the most educated found nothing to be beyond her intellect; the queen hostess could converse with her guests in French, Spanish, Italian and German.
At times, it was difficult to determine whether it was Madame LeVert or her celebrated guests who commanded the greatest attention. When Henry Clay, an American statesman known as the “great compromiser” passed through Mobile, he planned a visit with her. Considered one of the most important political figures of the era, she met his ship at the docks with her carriage and driver. The two were engaged in conversation as crowds of people gathered along the streets, watching them as her carriage rolled by. Noticing this, Octavia called his attention to the tribute he was receiving from the admiring multitude. But Clay simply shook his head and smiled, “No, Madame,” he said, “it is for you.” Indeed, Clay was at least partially right. As the story goes, an old man watching them pass, remarked, “Well, there’s the president-to-be riding with the Queen of the South.”
In the late 1850s, as the threat of civil war loomed over the country, Octavia’s salon was becoming less of a center for politicians, artists and the literati. Instead, the salon’s accent had shifted more to a venue for adventurers known as filibusters. In those days, that term referred to men who were intent on conquering new territory in the Caribbean, not only to enrich themselves, but to acquire new lands for the expansion of slavery, a sort of Manifest Destiny for visionary Southerners. Although this was applauded in the South, it was clearly a federal crime under “The Neutrality Act,” which prohibited private citizens of the United States from making war upon countries with which our government was at peace. Moreover, it was risky business for those daring enough to set sail on expeditions to Central American countries with the intent of overthrowing their governments. Nevertheless, filibustering continued to take place, and the waterfront at Mobile swarmed with such adventurous men, both foreign and American.
Many of these filibusters found their way into the home of Madame LeVert. Although she had little interest in their political or financial motives, Octavia was fascinated by them. She loved to listen to their exciting tales of adventure. She welcomed and entertained the Hungarian Lajos Kossuth when he visited Mobile, and received Narciso Lopez after his failed attempt at a revolution in Cuba. But, by far, the most famous of her filibustering guests was “the grey-eyed man of destiny,” William Walker, a Tennessean, who had formerly been both a doctor and lawyer, but had abandoned those professions in favor of an audacious scheme of leading a military force into Nicaragua to overthrow the government and establish his own empire. It was in the LeVert home that Walker convinced Harry Maury, the former Marshal of Mobile, to join his expedition to Nicaragua.
But the American Civil War changed everything. Prior to the first shot being fired, both Lopez and Walker were executed in the Caribbean countries they had attempted to overthrow. Filibustering soon lost its appeal as Southerners became more concerned with fighting for independence, and trying to keep the slaves they had rather than expanding the institution into other lands.
As for the Madame, the war was especially trying. Although the LeVerts had a number of slaves staffing their home, they had always been Unionists and opposed to secession. Octavia, of course, had close friends on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, and had no desire to take sides in a war between them. Nevertheless, as the conflict dragged on, the LeVerts started a hospital, and devoted themselves to the care of the sick and wounded Confederate soldiers. For Octavia, the war days were difficult. Her chances for travel had ended and the graces of her polite social life waned. Adding to her distress, her husband died in 1864, leaving her as head of the household and without a source of income.
By the time the war finally ended, Octavia’s wealth was gone. When Union soldiers occupied the city of Mobile in the spring of 1865, the man in command was General Gordon Granger, who happened to be an old friend of Octavia. He offered to guard and protect her home, a favor she graciously accepted. That, of course, offended many of the loyal Confederate citizens, who defiantly closed their homes to Federal troops. Their attitude towards her became one of resentment, and she was ostracized from the very society over which she had once reigned. Soon thereafter, a great ammunition explosion occurred in the city, just blocks away from Government Street, destroying or damaging many buildings and homes, and which probably caused at least some damage to the LeVert home. In any event, it was more than Octavia and her family could take. She and her daughters left Mobile. Without a source of income for her family, she was forced to rent the home that once housed the famous salon.
Octavia spent the remainder of her life trying to earn money through her writings and parlor readings in New York and other cities she and her daughter, Diddie, would visit. She also spent time in Augusta, Georgia, with her youngest daughter, Cara Netta, and her husband. It was there, in Augusta, that Octavia died on March 12, 1877, some say, from a broken heart.
In 1965, her home, in which she had established what some said was “the first real American salon,” also vanished, demolished despite the outcry of public protests. Sadly, for all who love history, the home can only live on in our imaginations. Her husband’s office still graces Government Street.
Russell W. Blount, Jr., is the author of five books on the American Civil War as well as a number of articles on 19th-century America in historical journals and publications.
Madame Octavia Le Vert Candle
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