John Junior in Bluesland

On a Mississippi afternoon, an old woman recalls the president's son who came to visit.

By Douglas Cruickshank
July 19, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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In the early '90s I was driving from New Orleans to Memphis on assignment for a New York travel magazine, researching an article about blues music and the Mississippi Delta. One of the people I visited on that trip was Mrs. Z. L. Hill, who's gone now, but at the time was running the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Miss. The Riverside is something of a legend. Blues aficionados from all over the world stop by to see the place.

The hotel sits on a sloping bank above the shambling Sunflower River in one of the town's older residential neighborhoods. A modest brick-front building with a Coke machine outside and red and white aluminum awnings, it was a hospital once; in fact, it was the very hospital where Bessie Smith was brought on the September night in 1937 when the car she was riding in crashed on Highway 61. Mrs. Hill bought the building and refurbished it more than 50 years ago, after the hospital closed.

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As I approached the Riverside's screen door, a voice from behind it said, "Please, come on in." Inside Mrs. Hill, a chatty, gracious woman of incandescent sweetness was sitting in a large lounge chair to the right of the door. "Yes, I was here that night working at the hospital when they towed Bessie's car -- left it outside. I could tell by her condition she wasn't going to live. She died in that first room on your right."

Mrs. Hill then called for Clarence Powell, her maintenance man, to show me around. He opened the door to "Bessie's Room" first -- there was a wreath of white cloth flowers on the dark blue bedspread -- then took me all through the evocative old hotel, which has been home at one time or another to most every blues performer who's passed through Clarksdale -- which is to say most every blues performer.

On my way out, I sat down in a straight-back chair next to Mrs. Hill and chatted with her for a few moments. "Oh, all kinds of people come by here," she said. "Not long ago, I had a very special visitor, meant a lot to me." She showed me a snapshot taken in front of the Riverside of her standing beside John F. Kennedy Jr.: "Do you recognize him, dear?" I said I did and she laughed and put the picture in her pocket.

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"He dropped by to visit you, huh?"

"Didn't drop by," Mrs. Hill corrected me. "He called first, then come over and talked for most of an hour. I fed him iced tea right where you're sitting."

"What did you two talk about?" I asked her.

"Oh, this and that. He was a very polite, nice young man. He had a kindness about him, if you know what I mean. You can tell with some people, you know?"

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"Did you talk about his father?"

"No, no," she said, putting her hand on mine. "I wouldn't have asked him. But, you know, that man meant the world to me, and his boy seemed so much like him."


Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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