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How's Bayou? The Picture of Miss Ball

This is the story of a portrait that had a much happier ending than Dorian Gray's.

It all begins with an interview, "Astrologer Leaves Reporter with Stars in Her Eyes," published on March 6, 1971, in The Times-Picayune, that  my wife, Millie Ball, did with a prominent astrologer. At the end of the interview, she asked him to look into her future, and the sage cautioned that she'd "have a rotten time if I marry before August 1978."

Portrait of a red-head by Taos artist Nicolai Fechi

Portrait of a red-head by Taos artist Nicolai Fechin

Our marriage date of October 17, 1981, ensured her future bliss. She was right to dump several other suitors and crushes between that interview and another piece that ran on Sunday, February 15, 1976.

The night following that Sunday in 1976, I was dining alone at the old Maspero's at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis in the Quarter. It was a warm day for January, and the French doors were open to the street.

In my 20s, I'd asked Millie on safe dates to things like the opening of the Royal Sonesta hotel, or a charity ball in the old First National Bank of Commerce building. I hadn't seen her for years, but as she passed by that evening, I leapt up, accosted her, and congratulated her on the piece, "Iris Captain Lives Hectic Days, Time of Happiness," an extensive interview with the captain of the oldest women's Carnival krewe. Because captain's names are kept secret, a notice in bold type informed the reader, her name had been changed in the article -- to Mrs. Rose Johnson.

The real life Irma Stroud had regaled Millie with an unending stream of breathtaking quotes, and I congratulated my future wife on extricating these gems.

"While we're not snobs," the punctilious captain maintained, "we want people with nice backgrounds. Ladies who aren't boisterous and who don't curse." (Muses, take note.)

"I'd love to say ladies shouldn't chew gum or cross their legs, but I guess I shouldn't."

And regarding tipplers, "If anyone has too much to drink, I ask her to leave and ask for her resignation."

You wouldn't want such brazenness in an organization in which "we always write in purple ink, since the invitation is purple and gold. It's the little things that count."

Millie was pleased that I was able to quote such choice bits almost verbatim, but she was more concerned with finding someone who'd buy a season subscription to the symphony and attend with her.

I bit.

In the world of coincidence and concordance, things had begun brewing earlier.

Millie with her silver-platter Press Club award

Millie with her silver-platter Press Club award

On March 27, 1972, a photo of Millie, with fellow Times-Picayune staffers David Cuthbert and Don Lee Keith, clutching their respective Press Club awards, showed her with fiery-red locks cascading down her shoulders. At about the same time, my mother purchased a painting from the then Isaac Delgado Museum of Art, "Portrait of a Young Girl," by Russian emigre, Taos-school artistic titan Nicolai Fechin. A shy but self-possessed young girl with reddish locks and a demure little Mae-West smile like Millie's stared out from a sea of color.

Despite her interview with the astrologer, Millie still doesn't understand the working of fate. Only when mother sold the painting in 1978 to Forrest Fenn, the multimillionaire Santa Fe connoisseur recently known for hiding his fortune in the desert with cryptic clues as to its location, was it time for us to get serious. But no wedding before that August.

I was distraught when the painting was sold, and it didn't dawn on me until a year or so later that the painting had, Pygmalion-like, become Millie. I needed time to process this, so in March 1981 -- a mere five years after our chance encounter at Maspero's, we were engaged.

I've tried many times to track down that portrait -- the illustration here is of another that doesn't quite match up to Millie. But I've got my living statue, a new dog ominously named Pandora, and, most important, justifications from an astrologer and a painter for waiting so long to pop the question.

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.

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.