#994: Whatever Happened to the High Priestess of the Flappers?

October 17th, 2018

One night in 1992, Kathy Moody got a call from her aunt. Mimmy had taken poison.

“I just said, ‘Leave her alone. Don’t try to have her stomach pumped — she already did this. This is what she wants.’ So they did. They left her alone,” she said by phone from Natchez, Mississippi.

Kathy’s cousin Marsha Colson missed her call.

“I was in a new job and working hard long hours and the night she died I worked late,” Colson wrote in an email after confirming with her sister that the family is fine with me telling you this story. “I got home and had a message from her saying in a shaky, quavery voice saying ‘Marsha? Mimmy. I love you, I love you.’”

Margaret Persell Marshall — she preferred “Mimmy” to “Grandma” — had taken 21 Darvon. Technically, she only took 10, but she had the pills recapsulated into a larger size because 10 pills would be easier to swallow than 21. She had been planning this. She had been a member of a pro-euthanasia society for 15 years before her death; she had macular degeneration, worsening hearing problems and near-constant pain after falling picking up sticks in the driveway of her home, Lansdowne.

“So she was in some level of pain, going blind and going deaf, and she didn’t like that,” Moody said.

“I’ve always regretted that I didn’t get that message in time to see her and tell her goodbye and hug her and tell her one more time that I loved her,” Colson said, “But her husband and my mother and Uncle George were with her. They found out what she had done but didn’t stop her that time. They just stayed with her until she died.”

The High Priestess of the Flappers was gone.

In 1922, Margaret Persell was 17, wild, gorgeous and, as her then 13-year-old brother Ralph told the Chicago Tribune, “nutty”

A Natchez girl whose wholesale pharmaceutical salesman father had been transferred to Chicago, she had sneaked downtown the year before and become a showgirl, until they found out she was only 16. Her parents sent her to boarding school in Florida for that, and the boarding school sent her right back for sneaking out the window at night. She was witty, brilliant, the height of fashion, the bee’s knees, cat’s pajamas and duck’s quack and a blushing violet who knew she was the berries.

She was, in short, a flapper, and the High Priestess of the Royal Order of Flappers.

When I wrote about the Royal Order in 2016, I said the group was organized as a publicity stunt for The Flapper magazine. Based in the former Ogden Building where the 1980s glass UFO of the Thompson Center now sits, the magazine was the brainchild of two decidedly non-flapping former newspaper reporters, Thomas Levish and Myrna Serviss. Whether trying to represent or just make a buck off the fashion trend, Flapper Publishing Co. put out seven issues of the magazine (tagline: “Not for Old Fogies”) between May and November 1922.

However, it appears I was wrong, and that Persell’s teen gang was actually a rival crew, with Levish running warnings in his magazine about the Royal Order, saying they were organized not by Persell, but by a “so-called moving picture promoter and would-be newspaper reporter.” Much of the feud appears to be because Levish couldn’t get Persell and her Royal Order to sign on as his spokesflappers, according to a HILOBROW article from earlier this year.

Whatever was behind the newspaperman’s rivalry with the teenaged girl, the flapper flock’s exploits made fun copy for the papers, who printed such derring-do as the girls charging into Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson’s office to demand the city stop local ministers from preaching about flappers as signs of moral decay, and who predicted the group’s end when Persell eloped with her boyfriend.

The newspapers moved on with no crew of dolled-up glamour girls to photograph, but Persell’s life continued.

The marriage that ended the Royal Order didn’t last.

“After my daddy was born, they came down to Mississippi and her father got him a job [selling pharmaceuticals]. And people wouldn’t buy from him because of his northern accent,” Moody said.

Her first husband returned to Chicago, and the couple divorced.

“I think my father met his biological father once when he was 8 and he took him to the Chicago World’s Fair, which I think was 1933,” Moody said. “Took him on the train, then never saw him again at all. He died fairly young.”

It would be the first of five marriages to four men. George Marshall, who was 12 years older than Mimmy, was both her second and fourth husband, their second marriage lasting until his death. The grandchildren called him “Ampa.”

“Our grandfather was the sweetest, gentlest person on earth,” Colson said by phone from Lansdowne, where she still lives. “I think he gave unconditional love even more than Mimmy did because she was sweet, she was wonderful, she was generous. But she, I think, needed more love. I think she needed love more than our grandfather did. He was there and never expected anything.”

Persell’s grandchildren, now in their 60s, knew Mimmy had been a flapper — they staged a 1920s-themed flapper party for what would have been her 100th birthday — but she never mentioned her brief bit of fun charging into mayors’ offices and feuding with magazine publishers.

They knew she had been a showgirl, and briefly dated a pre-”Tarzan” Johnny Weissmuller.

They knew she taught her oldest to read using adult books, as she couldn’t afford kids books but wanted her children to be as voracious a reader as she was.

They knew about the massive parties, the long beach vacations with the grandkids, trips to Mexico and South America, helping found Natchez’s yearly “Pilgrimage” tours of antebellum homes in 1932. They knew about the “big, huge, fancy antebellum dress with peacock feathers,” Moody said Mimmy wore as Pilgrimage president in the first tableau. They knew about her involvement in the creation of the first subdivision in Natchez that would sell to black people, in 1952.

They knew she had been a high school basketball star and spent years in New Orleans and that a photo of the family ran in National Geographic about “Six Little Girls of Lansdowne,” the book she wrote about the first six of what would eventually be 10 grandchildren.

They didn’t know about the Royal Order until Moody googled Mimmy out of curiosity one day, and came across my 2016 blog post. One of the grandchildren remembered Mimmy mentioning the Order, but 1920s Chicago was one story of many, and Margaret Persell simply had too much going on.

“I keep saying we need to get together at least once a year and just tell stories,” Colson said.


This is Mimmy at 35.

This is Mimmy at 65.

Unfair, really.

When Mimmy died and the grandchildren divvied up personal mementos, Colson took a cashmere sweater and wrapped it around her pillow for a few weeks until the lingering, sweet aroma that seemed to follow Mimmy everywhere faded away. Marsha Colson and Kathy Moody have been wonderful to me, sharing stories of the High Priestess and making me cry one or two more times than I want to admit. I thank them, and want to do right by Mimmy’s stories.

Here’s one last one. It’s from when Marsha was 4. Another big gala had broken up at Lansdowne, but the little girl didn’t care. She was staying with Mimmy that night, and wanted their time together to begin.

“The party was over, somebody was walking around the hall, picking up glasses and napkins and kind of cleaning up, and I was just standing in her bedroom door, waiting for her. She came to the door and reached out her hands, and took me by both hands and pulled me toward her and said, ‘Dance with me! I don’t want to stop dancing!’ That was her. That was her.”

[Author's note: If you're on the site today because of the Chicago Reader article, click on this sentence to check out some free sample chapters of "The Chicago Corruption Walking Tour," a book in need of a publisher. Then send it to your publisher friends.]

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