Right place, right time: The Grigson-Didier house in New Orleans

Two Windsor chairs and a 1790s southern dropleaf table occupy the loggia, where the floor is painted canvas.  

Didier will teach a select few how to look-or in the case of William Keyes Rudolph, curator of the exhibition In Search of Julien Hudson: Free artist of color in Pre-Civil War New Orleans-where to look. "He drops hints slowly," Rudolph says. "He will give you leads, trails to follow if he thinks you are okay, but he is adamant that you have to pursue the best works." Didier owned several of Julien Hudson's best works at one time or another. He awaits an exhibition that will go beyond this one artist and rescue the rich culture surrounding Hudson-the music, food, furniture, and literature by and about free people of color that vanished after the Civil War.

Didier's standards about everything are equally exacting, and he is disciplined and passionate in meeting them. Josh Broussard, who says he has "studied him studying," describes his unusual calm. "Nothing breaks his focus. He looks at things in a different way from anyone else. With most people you see right away a judgment forming in their eyes. Don doesn't do that. It is a long, long time before a judgment is made. When he finally does judge there is no wavering." And, Dave Wojciechowski says, "there is no compromise. You can't fool Don by touch or eye."

All of this helps to explain how he was able to find and disseminate what Dale Couch, curator of decorative arts at the Georgia Museum of Art, describes as masterpieces of southern culture-among them works by Adrien Persac, a set of eighteenth-century watercolors of birds that came from Drayton Hall, paintings by Julien Hudson-not to mention masterpieces of American classical furniture and decorative arts.

At some point anyone this closely attuned to history will sense the way his life has entered its current path. In the years following Katrina there was suffering both public and private, and no doubt there has been a narrowing of focus in Didier's life to needs more important than things. Didier Inc. now occupies a smaller space on MagazineStreet while Don Didier considers the future. But there has been a widening of focus too. One afternoon he brought out a group of objects he acquired a few years ago-the badge, ticket book, and blood-spotted Ku Klux Klan robe of Lawrence A. Rainey, sheriff of Philadelphia, Mississippi, when civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered there in 1964. Rainey had an alibi for that night, but Didier knows that the robe is significant because in the wider investigation of conspiracy the sheriff always claimed that he had never been a Klan member. ("The damn FBI was paying all these witnesses to lie," Rainey said. "I attended some of the [Klan] meetings. They had open meetings, but that was all.") If you have been listening to Didier you don't need to ask him why he has these things. Seeing history clearly also means facing unpleasant facts. Its most important artifacts, beautiful or gruesome, belong in careful hands.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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