Virginia King was a Jacksonville icon. For decades before her death in 2001, she walked the city dressed in fashions from a long-gone time, taking photographs and meticulous (but often wildly incorrect) notes about the buildings and people she passed by. Driven by an obsessive desire to capture her hometown before its old structures were lost forever, King may have been Jacksonville’s most singular chronicler. Her efforts became an immense, handwritten book that spanned more than 8,000 pages and bore the baroque title Interesting Facts About Leading People and Families of Duval County: Also, Where Progress Has Changed a Lot of Homes and Buildings.
Jacksonville author Tim Gilmore has spent years researching King, the subject of his 2015 nonfiction novel The Mad Atlas of Virginia King. Author of 20 books, Gilmore is an English professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville and a heavyweight in the First Coast’s literary scene. He is a founder of the JaxbyJax literary festival and chronicles Jacksonville’s underknown history at his website, Jax Psycho Geo. His work has appeared in a variety of local and nationwide publications, including numerous stories in The Jaxson.
Virginia King in front of the Haydon Burns Library, now the Jessie Ball duPont Center, during its construction in 1964. Image by Rocco Morabito, courtesy of the Jacksonville Historical Society.
Gilmore first encountered the story of Virginia King in 2014 during a visit to the Jacksonville Historical Society archives, repository of the final version of King’s magnum opus. Now he’s turning her story into a play, also titled The Mad Atlas of Virginia King, starring actors from Florida State College at Jacksonville and directed by FSCJ theater professor Ken McCulough. The play is the fourth collaboration between Gilmore and McCulough. “Besides teaching, working with student actors, stage designer Johnny Pettigrew and director Ken McCulough is the most meaningful and poignant work I’ve done with FSCJ in my 15 years,” says Gilmore.
The Mad Atlas is also McCulough’s swan song. He will retire this year after over 50 productions at FSCJ. The play follows King, portrayed by Mary Cumpton, and her obsessive quest to document a city in flux. It also includes characters based on Jacksonville natives who met King, including Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Rocco Morabito and legendary mid-century architect Taylor Hardwick.
The play will be performed at 7:30 pm on Thursday, March 31, Friday, April 1, and Saturday, April 2, and at 2 pm Sunday, April 3. All performances will be at the Nathan H. Wilson Center for the Arts at FSCJ South Campus (11901 Beach Blvd). Tickets are $10 for general admission and $5 dollars for FSCJ students with valid ID; purchase tickets, call FSCJ’s box office at (904) 646-2222.
Interview with Tim Gilmore
Author Tim Gilmore
Bill Delaney: To start things off, why this play, and why now?
Tim Gilmore: Since I first found out about and wrote about Virginia King, I’ve looked for multiple ways to tell and celebrate her strange story. Now, after 25 years and more than 50 stage productions, Ken McCulough, director of FSCJ DramaWorks, is retiring. We’ve collaborated on three stage productions already and knew we wanted to do one more. I couldn’t be more honored to work with Ken on The Mad Atlas as his sendoff.
The first two projects Ken and I worked on together were heavy, dark. The first one was Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic, about the phony serial killer who called Jax home. Then we worked on Repossessions: Mass Shooting in Baymeadows, a documentary play that tells the story of the aftermath of the survivors of that terrible day in 1990, told entirely in the words of survivors and family members. Last spring I wrote “The Covid Monologues” to be interspersed in the variety program A World Distanced. Some of those monologues were hard, some humorous. We definitely wanted to work on something lighter this time. Virginia is odd, quirky, funny, annoying and lovable, and however quixotic her effort, you have to love her for it. Her story also asks questions about why we create and why we need to leave something behind after us, matters of artistic legacy, topics that are perfect for celebrating Ken’s long and successful career. There’s also the bicentennial aspect. What better way to celebrate the city’s 200th birthday than by telling the story of someone who tried to write the city into a book?
Virginia King was certainly an interesting person. In the book, you write that even in the late 20th century, she dressed like she’d “walked straight out of 1945.” One person you talked to said she seemed like she came out of a “time warp.” What drew you to her as a subject for a book, and now a play?
So one day in 2014, I was visiting my friend Lauren Mosely, who worked at the Jacksonville Historical Society. She was showing me around, introducing me to some of the oddities. As the JHS is located in the Old St. Lukes Hospital building, those oddities included old wheelchairs, Yellow Fever journals and a trip up the lightwell to the cupola (of course). They also included a shelf of 19 binders containing the writing of a strange “character” named Virginia King.
I wrote a JaxPsychoGeo story about Old St. Luke’s including how smitten I was with Virginia King. In 1968, she wrote and published a book called Interesting Facts about Leading People and Families of Duval County: Also, Where Progress Has Changed a Lot of Homes and Buildings. By 1977, she’d published a fifth edition that stretched to 869 pages. Her last edition, which includes 8,448 pages, remains handwritten and was never printed.
Who would write something like this? Who would so dedicate herself to such a quixotic project? And why this strange method? Most of the writing is in lists. Much of it is inaccurate. She also took hundreds of photographs with her Kodak Brownie camera. They’re not good. They’re mostly crooked and blurry, as though she couldn’t stop long enough to snap the photo, but they say something about who she was and show a Jacksonville that no longer exists. Many of the buildings she took pictures of were demolished decades ago.
Whence the fuel? Actually I strongly suspect Virginia had undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome. She was curt and acerbic, dominating and determined, didn’t understand social cues or norms, and was absolutely obsessed with her mission in life – recording and writing the city she knew before it disappeared. The more I found out about Virginia King, the stranger she seemed. So I wrote (I think it was) my 10th book about her, The Mad Atlas of Virginia King, in 2015. I have an updated version of the book available for the play as well. You can find the book at Chamblin’s or San Marco Bookstore, through jaxpsychogeo.com or on amazon, and it will be available at the Wilson Center.
In the book, you talk about King keeping meticulous but often wildly inaccurate notes about the buildings she encountered for her “Mad Atlas”, and of course taking pictures of places now lost. What motivated her to keep such painstaking records?
Her book captures the city in a way only Virginia King could have done. She was obsessive. She learned to love old buildings through her father, a realtor named Rufus King. The family moved from one Riverside address to another almost every year of her childhood and by the end of her life, she’d lived in almost 20 places across Riverside. Her life’s work was a reflection of her father and her love for him.
Because Virginia was strange – probably with Asperger’s, most certainly not “retarded,” as kids called her at school, but also with epileptic seizures – her father took her out of school, took her everywhere he went on a daily basis. She became fascinated with the architecture, but also with the city’s wealthy old families, and when White Flight hit the urban core, she took to documenting as many old structures as possible before they were demolished. She walked across Riverside, Downtown, LaVilla, Springfield and across the urban core.
Her book has that kind of urgency. It also has the urgency of a person trying to keep up with recording an ever-expanding city, trying to keep up with the rate of change. So it balloons in growth from one edition to the next. Besides its own impossibly long title, the book’s chapters bear titles like “These Were Built, Organized, Changed Hands, or Demolished, Certain Dates” and “Former Locations of Stores, Buildings and Beautiful Homes Years Ago.” The longer the book got, the less sense it made. It spiraled vertiginously.
You also talk about how a lot of King’s details are inaccurate, including about her own life and family. How did you go about researching someone who’s kind of an unreliable source?
True indeed. Luckily, both the Times-Union and The Jacksonville Journal occasionally published stories about Virginia. Pulitzer-winning photographer Rocco Morabito took some great shots of her. Her book itself is fascinating to comb through. So are the notes of longtime Jax Historical Society President Dena Snodgrass, who despised Virginia but read each edition of her book carefully enough to annotate the mistakes. She wrote things like “Horrors!” in the margins. I have two of the earlier editions, but the only extant version of the final handwritten one – 8,448 pages in 19 binders – is, of course, at the Historical Society.
But the best details about Virginia came from the people who remember her. The person who was kindest to Virginia was Jean Lyerly, formerly Jean Towers, whose nickname was Pokey and whom Virginia called “Pork Chop.” Pokey called Virginia “Ginger.” She remembered a great deal about Virginia and probably knew more about her than anyone else. Wayne Wood, Helen Lane, Charlie Towers and Jerry Ferguson, who lived in the Leon Cheek “Castle” near Memorial Park, all remembered her. Pokey knew about her childhood, how cruelly other kids treated her, how she suffered from seizures or “spells.” Charlie Towers remembered her brother, Rufus Jr., who was also “not right.” I even spoke with the folks at FotoTechnika who developed her photos for years.
This is your fourth theatrical collaboration with FSCJ DramaWorks director Ken McCulough. What was it like to turn the Mad Atlas of Virginia King into a stage play? How did writing her story as a play differ from writing a book?
Seeing FSCJ students act is one of my greatest joys at this school. All FSCJ DramaWorks plays use a full cast of FSCJ student actors. I chose FSCJ student actors for Barbara Colaciello’s production for JaxbyJax too. It’s a thrill to work with them. I love the way their talent and art connects the college to the community, since several student actors also end up working with local companies like Atlantic Beach Experimental Theater and Phase Eight. I love seeing the passion of student actors and watching them hone their talents and skills and evolve. Honestly, besides teaching, working with student actors, stage designer Johnny Pettigrew and director Ken McCulough is the most meaningful and poignant work I’ve done with FSCJ in my 15 years. As for adapting the book into the play, it’s hard work, but it’s also a joy. I tend to be pretty cerebral and stage adaptations have taught me to be more visual, to highlight the interaction of characters and to look for action as visual metaphor. So adapting the books into plays means looking for those things that work best on stage, things that happen more quickly and dramatically and capture a live audience’s attention. I love both watching plays and reading them, so this direction feels natural. I always teach Streetcar Named Desire in my writing classes and have often used documentary theater like The Laramie Project as well.
Virginia King was such a singular person, I can only imagine what it was like to write a role based on her, let alone cast it. Can you speak a little about that?
Insightful question. I don’t do casting. It would be interesting to hear what Ken might say about that. I will say that I worried about the role a bit. Virginia was offputting. She annoyed people. One of the things that Mary Cumpton does so well is she portrays that effect without annoying the audience. I had worried about the audience itself being put off, but Mary plays the role perfectly. I also didn’t want it to be a situation where the audience laughs mockingly at Virginia. So while Virginia’s behaviors often elicit laughter, you don’t feel like you’re laughing at her. You’re with Virginia. You realize how strange she is and how unfathomable her project, but you’re with her all the way.
Are there any surprises for those who have read the book? Absolutely. The way the actor, Mike Von Balson, who brings Rufus Jr. to life, portrays him is fascinating. Mary Cumpton is a wonderful Virginia King. There’s a character based on the architect Taylor Hardwick and a character based on Rocco Morabito. And the way the play ends is pure celebration.
What’s something you’d like your audience to take away from the play?
Somebody once asked New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, who wrote the 1965 nonfiction classic Joe Gould’s Secret, why he always wrote about “the little people” and he said, “There are no little people.” In his 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman said to “despise riches” and “hate tyrants,” to “stand up for the stupid and crazy,” to “have patience and indulgence toward the people” and to “go freely with powerful uneducated persons.”
In his 2002 eulogy, Revered Tom Are, then pastor of Riverside Presbyterian Church where Virginia was a lifelong member, said, “It seems to me that Virginia King served as something of a prophet in our town. Here she was, circumstantially alone, but constantly reminding us of the value of being together.” In a recent email, Ken told me, “Virginia won’t be taking the bus this time.” Figuratively (or not), he said, “She (and we) are going to get to dance down Riverside Avenue!”
Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at email@example.com. To purchase tickets to The Mad Atlas of Virginia King, call FSCJ’s box office at (904) 646-2222.
Bill Delaney’s new book Secret Jacksonville, a Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure is out. Order a signed copy at thejaxsonmag.com/books.