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How's Bayou? 50 Years of Marshall Law

Turning 50: J. R. Damonte surveys grandsons Don and Keith, with Don's son William, in the parlor of Madewood.Turning 50: J. R. Damonte surveys grandsons Don and Keith, with Don's son William, in the parlor of Madewood.

Turning 50: J. R. Damonte surveys grandsons Don and Keith, with Don's son William, in the parlor of Madewood.Turning 50: J. R. Damonte surveys grandsons Don and Keith, with Don's son William, in the parlor of Madewood.

The last half-century at Madewood will tell you all you need to know about why women should be allowed, nay encouraged, to engage in combat operations.

It was 50 years ago today, June 10, 1964, that Mother, my brother Don, and a scattering of Mother's friends and relations drove up to Madewood Plantation House on Bayou Lafourche, near Napoleonville. Please note the absence of my father, whom Mother had out-maneuvered to purchase Madewood the previous week, while he was out of town.

She had boldly stared down the previous owner, who wanted to sell her only the house and surrounding eight acres, leaving the adjacent pasture and bayou frontage open to development by others. She sweetened the pot with a downpayment of the then-hefty sum of $5,000, which she garnered by selling a lot in New Orleans artist George Dunbar's Coin du Lestin Estates in Slidell, where she'd planned to build a stylish vacation home. She got the additional 10.8 acres.

The next strong female presence was Eliska Freeman, wife of Madewood's caretaker, "Mr. Chester," whose son, Warren, continues his legacy as groundskeeper today. He and I, both 67, regularly recall what we used to be able to do that summer when we were both just 17 and feeling frisky.

That fateful Sunday in June, 1964, "Miss Eliska" strode briskly out of her small cottage as our car approached, and inquired of mother, "You back already?"

"Yes," Mother replied sheepishly, "I bought Madewood."

Years later, when an itinerant salesman selling burial insurance knocked on her screen door and demanded entry, Eliska glared at him and calmly informed the would-be intruder, "I got a cane knife under my bed; and if you come through this door, only one of us is comin' out."

She was just as firm with a pesky roach that appeared in the mansion's central hallway while she was giving a tour. Each time she'd put her foot down to crush it, it would scamper away. She tracked it the full length of the room, not rushing, calmly continuing the tour, until I heard "crunch" and then, "Now we're going into the parlor."

As Mother was still working in New Orleans, she needed a manager. Returning by train from New York, where she'd met with other business owners, she sat down in the dining car next to a retired, decorated WAC (Women's Army Corps during World War II). Before the train pulled into New Orleans, Madewood had its first resident manager.

Mary barked orders more firmly than Morton, my father's miniature poodle, who accompanied him on the occasional visit to Madewood. But the isolation of Napoleonville proved too much for her, and a secret stash of white port for quiet evenings proved her undoing.

The figurative general was Francis Dorsey, who maintained that if a man could spell Francis that way, so could she. Francis, a Louisianian who'd cooked for Groucho Marx and served as Phil Silvers' (Sargent Bilko in the TV series) housekeeper, had returned to Napoleonville and placed an ad in The Assumption Pioneer to sell her stuffed crabs. Mother bit, and Francis swept into Madewood, dressed from day one in her starched white uniform, white stockings and black Dr. Scholl's lace-ups, ready to do battle with anyone who questioned her authority.

Francis had standards and ran a tight ship. Everything had to sparkle. Once, when I was having friends up for the weekend, Francis informed me, "I polished the copper bottoms of the pots so you wouldn't be embarrassed."

When she was serving lunch one day to a group of local school teachers, Francis was stunned when one woman asked, "Are these green beans fresh?"

Francis dropped the serving spoon, placed her hands squarely on her hips, and indignantly retorted, "Can you imagine?"

"Miss Dorsey" made it through the first days of our accepting overnight guests in the early 1980s, but the growing phalanx of guests who wanted things done differently than she did proved too much.

A succession of managers followed, including three men, and a former managing director of Claridge's in London, and his wife, for a brief spell.

Following in the Eurocentric footsteps of the Joneses of Claridge's, Christine Pinault Gaudet swept in, wielding Gallic power across the board with the aplomb of former French Prime Minister Georges Pompidou. Under her direction, the sine qua non of Madewood was an undefinable je ne sais quois that only a Frenchwoman could impose. Elegance appeared everywhere, in both little and big changes that bespoke a reign of Continental flair that remains part of Madewood today.

The main strong woman in this picture, "my Millie," simply gets her point across with expressions of wifely concern such as, "Are you really sure you want to do it that way?"

She's a master -- or mistress -- of walking into a room and honing in on the most glaring detail I've missed, bless her heart. The fact that I respond like a Private First Class to her Commander-in-Chief observations suggests that she's lobbed the grenade just where it needed to go. To more than mix metaphors, it's the keen eye she developed in her newsroom training at The Times-Picayune that makes her so effective on the plantation playing field.

And Angie Johnson, Madewood's House and Events Coordinator, not only keeps everything running smoothly, but also wields a strong and creative hand on the outstanding Madewood Facebook page that she created and maintains.

So, formidable females, keep it up. There's no fear of a Taliban takeover of Madewood as long as you're around.

How’s Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.