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Eugenia

Knoxville's poor little rich girl leaves legacy of mystery, generosity

September 20, 1998

PHOTO
A digital "portrait" of Eugenia Williams as a woman in her 40s was derived from a photograph taken when she was in her 90s.
Editor's Note:

Who was Eugenia Williams?

Knoxville's late Coca-Cola heiress passed into history fiercely guarding her privacy. She outlived her contemporaries and had for the most part kept her own counsel. Few knew much of the girl she was, the woman she became. Her death in February at the age of 98 brought little attention. It was only when her will revealed her desire to donate her Lyons View Drive home to the University of Tennessee that the curtains of mystery surrounding the heiress began to lift.

In an attempt to piece together the puzzle that was Eugenia, staff writer Barbara Aston-Wash delved into archives, conducted interviews and made inquiries from New York to Texas. While separating fact from fiction is definitely a problem, and pieces are missing that only the subject could have supplied, the composite Eugenia drawn from remembrances of friends and acquaintances gives clue to a colorful woman who lived life "her way."

Eugenia Williams was decidedly a woman of contradiction.

Born just after the 20th century began, she was a woman ahead of the times, one who defied convention, perhaps not by design but from circumstance.

A complex personality, she is described in as many ways as the number of people you talk to: congenial, difficult; kind and warm, cool and haughty; shy, outgoing; refined, seamy; charming, an ogre; forgiving, vindictive.

But traits that seem to have had no flip side were the woman's great generosity, her keen intelligence, business acumen, and endless quest for perfection.

She was private to an obsession, an enigma to those with whom she had a passing acquaintance and to many who had known her over a period of years. Those to whom she confided are guarded and loyal about what they will reveal.

The air of mystery that surrounded her extended to her home, the impressive brown brick residence behind the tall brick wall on Lyons View Drive, willed to the University of Tennessee at her death in February.

For almost a half century, passersby have craned their necks for a peek down the long drive to the Regency-style house designed by Knoxville-born Houston architect John Fanz Staub, a childhood acquaintance of Eugenia's.

The house rests on 24 acres, part of which is a manicured lawn that sweeps past the house to an area by the river that she later had reforested, giving up to the trees a personal view of the water in exchange for privacy from the eyes of those who passed the house via boat or barge, or who walked along the water's edge hunting arrowheads.

She spent her childhood in Knoxville, living first, she told one friend, in a house on Main Street that was later torn down. The family moved to a brick home on Lyons View Drive (called Pike at that time).

A decade after her father's death in October, 1929, Eugenia had the house razed to ready the site for the building of her dream house, the present structure built in 1940-41.

Her father, Dr. David H. Williams, was a prosperous Knoxville physician who backed a venture of a then-not-well-known soft drink, a fizzy-syrupy concoction created by a druggist in Atlanta and called Coca-Cola.

J. P. (Pat) Roddy had come upon a bottle of it in an icebox at the Bancroft Grocery on East Fourth Avenue at Deery Street while making his rounds for the Roddy-Goodman candy factory. The young man liked it. He felt sure others would like it, too, and with his partner, W. E. Goodman, obtained the Knoxville franchise.

Roddy put up the $5,000, said to have been all that he had, to buy the franchise, but that left them with no working capital.

He convinced Dr. Williams, the Roddy family doctor, to back the venture. They became partners and friends, often attending UT football games together at Wait Field, Cumberland Avenue at Fifteenth Street, before the site for the present field was cleared .

The success of their business enterprise, begun on block-long Lucky Street in 1902 when Eugenia was a two-year-old, is history. It brought additional wealth, but not happiness to the Williamses.

On a personal level, theirs is a tragic family saga.

* * *

Eugenia was born to Williams and his wife, Ella Cornick Williams, on Jan. 14, 1900. Their second child Elizabeth was born six years later but lived to be only 21 months old. A year after her death, the couple's only son, David H. Williams Jr., was born. He was five when Ella Williams died of tuberculosis, leaving her husband with the young son and daughter Eugenia, who was 14 and away at boarding school in Pennsylvania at the time. Two years later David died of rheumatic fever, just a month past his 7th birthday.

Eugenia told Karen Waggoner Stecher, a primary care nurse who became her close friend during the last 14 years of her life, that she did not learn of her mother's death until after the burial, something she always regretted. She was, however, at the bedside of her little brother when he died. "He caught hold of my hair in his hand, and they had to cut my hair to free me," Eugenia said.

"Her father was the only family member she talked much about. She was very fond of him," Stecher said.

Losing so many family members while so young doubtless made her growing up painful. She is said to have been the epitome of the "poor little rich girl." Shy, she had a dog but few playmates. Helen Weaver, whose home is a short distance west of the Williams property, remembers: "My mother always spoke of her as "poorlittleEugenia" as if it were one word."

One source said, "Eugenia had multiple personalities, not the named, reincarnated kind, but different Eugenias for different occasions, to help her cope with life and to absolve herself from blame . This remained with her throughout her life."

The happiest years of her girlhood seemed to be while away at school where she enjoyed a camaraderie with the other girls.

"I once got caught smoking, and I was about to be expelled from school," she told her nurse, "but the other girls said, 'if Genie goes, we go,' and that was the end of that."

She remembered as great fun the rides on the handlebars of the bicycles of boys who pedaled over from a nearby boys' school to see the girls. She said she never cared to ride a bike herself. She liked horses better.

* * *

The Williamses kept animals to pull the conveyances that transported them about town, a pair of fine mules and horses. After she grew up Eugenia, while still interested in horses, became attracted to expensive cars. Many Knoxvillians recall seeing her, blonde hair flying in the breeze, buzzing about the city in a flashy, creamy-yellow roadster convertible.

There are mentions of Eugenia owning the second Rolls Royce in town and possibly the first Mercedes. Others talk of a Bentley and a Deusenberg. In any event, she had a series of memorable cars, all driven by someone else. She didn't drive, and, in her later years, she took cabs.

It was just after World War I that Eugenia married realtor Gordon Chandler, who apparently shared her interest in expensive automobiles.

The bride, it was said, had grown into an attractive young woman who, though not beautiful, had a great sense of style.

"Slender, about 5'4" tall," she is described by Martin Hunt, who as a boy visited at the home with a relative, "as a charming woman with a sort of golden look about her. She was petite but wiry with a warm smile and a wonderful personality. She dressed in tailored clothes. Though I understand she had fine diamonds, I saw her wear only handsome gold jewelry. "

Adding to Hunt's description, Stecher, her nurse, said Eugenia had flashing blue eyes (that never required glasses!) and a dimple in her left cheek that appeared during mischievous moments. "She was petite and always a fanatic about weight. For her, 88 pounds was the magic number. As she got older and less active, she weighed more, but we always had to tell her the scales registered 88, or she would not eat!

"She had a good sense of humor, a delightful little chuckle when she was amused. She could pout, too. Be a bit haughty and high-handed on the days she thought herself royal, a demanding perfectionist who would command things be done as she wished them -- for instance her bath towels painstakingly folded just so -- but she could be sweet, generous, caring and very kind as well. I loved her dearly, and I felt she loved me. She found it almost impossible to speak of love. She always said she was 'fond' of people, but before she died she did tell me that she loved me." Talking about Eugenia brings both smiles and tears from her nurse.

Dr. Fred Hurst, who served as her doctor after his partner retired, says her soft but husky voice reminded him of Patricia Neal's. "She loved attention, as we all do, and as a woman in her 90s still appreciated a male compliment. Sometimes as she was being rolled down the hallway in the hospital after just having her hair done, I'd make a comment at how pretty she looked, and that always got a big smile. She was a delightful patient, never complained and was grateful for everything done for her."

That Eugenia did not think herself attractive was mentioned by several who knew her as well an anyone was allowed. She was, they concurred, never pleased with the image that stared back at her from the mirror. For that reason, she would not consent to being photographed. There are no family photos around, no album of her wedding to Chandler that anyone has found. This writer could find only a few snapshots taken by her nurse.

Chandler was described in an obituary run at his death in 1958 of cirrhosis of the liver as a tall, dark, and handsome man-about-town, a sportsman with a penchant for expensive foreign and sports cars.

* * *

Eugenia would never discuss Chandler if she was asked, seldom mention him of her own volition, but a few times to her friends spoke of living in Chicago and having a wonderfully exciting time while living there.

Admittedly a night person, she loved to dance, and the couple did a lot of that while in Chicago, she told her New York friend Marge Cordova .

It was the Roaring '20s. The day of the flapper. The Charleston was the dance rage, speakeasies flourished, bathtub gin defied prohibition. Gangsters and racketeers provided the city an interesting brand of decadence during that period.

Eugenia found big city life fascinating, but the couple came back to Knoxville to live. The marriage was not to last, however. Its duration is a matter of dispute. Some remember it as a brief interlude, others as a 14-year marriage.

The marriage ended, Eugenia explained to one friend, when she learned via a letter mailed her that her husband was having an affair with his secretary -- a woman she is said to have sent clothes to, so she could dress well at work.

Eugenia never married again.

It was no secret that Dr. Williams neither liked nor trusted his son-in-law.

It may have been Chandler who prompted the terms of Dr. Williams' will. He clearly did not want anyone marrying Eugenia for her money.

At Dr. Williams death at age 66, Eugenia was 29 and had no close relatives except an aunt on her mother's side, who made her home with her until she died, and a few close friends.

The will, according to published accounts, stipulated that at age 30, Eugenia was to receive the entire income and profits from the estate during her lifetime, and in the event she died without children (she later told a friend she was unable to have children), the original holdings in the Coca-Cola Company would be equally divided between the National Geographic Society and J.P. Roddy or his heirs.

Not long after her father's death the National Geographic Society filed suit against Eugenia seeking income on the stocks. After a 40-year-long court battle the Tennessee State Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, and the National Geographic was ordered to pay the court costs.

In attempting to clarify the terms of the original will and suit, a call was made to one of the attorneys involved in the case. He said he could not discuss the case and hung up on this reporter.* * *

The divorce and her father's stipulations may have set Eugenia on a different path leading to greater wealth and to personal destruction.

Articulate and intelligent, she became a business-wise woman who began to add to her personal fortune via the stock market. She served on the board of Roddy Manufacturing Company and independently compiled an impressive portfolio of stocks over the years, a fact she later said "would have made father proud."

He might not have been as pleased with her avant garde lifestyle. Sadly, money, not enduring love and affection, seemed to have been her birthright. Stories of Eugenia's romantic escapades -- true, false or somewhere in between -- are legion.

Country music's "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places" seems to have summed up her conduct during some periods of her life. "Alcohol, possibly a means of coping, added to her problems but was finally conquered by Eugenia," said her nurse.

Eugenia met the man who was to become, in today's terms, her "significant other" in Florida. His name was Williams, too. Lee Williams, no relation. Scottie Cox and her husband John, now deceased, encountered the couple while driving the Tamiami Trail, traveling from Fort Lauderdale to St. Petersburg. A loudly honking horn from another car, a large and impressive one with a Tennessee license plate, brought the Cox car to a halt. In the other vehicle were Eugenia and Lee. Scottie had presumed they were married.

"Because of his work (Cox, a well-known banker and founder of Bank of Knoxville), John knew them. We chatted briefly. They were very friendly and cordial, and Eugenia Williams invited us to come see them when we were all back in Knoxville. I was like everyone else, very curious about the house, and when she called and invited us for a particular time, I was excited about the invitation," Scottie remembers.

"She was warm and gracious and took us on a tour of the house. It was simply, but elegantly, furnished. Not with satin sofas and elaborate trimmings that were popular at the time; the house had a tailored look. Just handsome looking furnishings. I was simply amazed that there were two kitchens, all done in stainless steel, a usual look in the early 1940s. No one I knew had two kitchens. I was very impressed, and she seemed to be very proud of her home."

* * *

Eugenia had asked Staub, the architect, to go to New York City and find antiques and other furnishings for the house. Howard Barnstone's book, "The Architecture of John F. Staub, Houston and the South," published by the University of Texas Press, Austin and London, now out of print, credits Jane Christian, a New York designer, as collaborator with Staub on the interiors of the house.

Reportedly he purchased a fine Louis XV suite for the master bedroom, one of two sets that were said to have belonged to the king himself. The other set, according to reports, was bought for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

No furniture of that description was among the items stored, and the architect's daughter, Caroline Callery of Houston, said she had heard nothing of it. The story may have been just one of the many rumors that swirled around Eugenia, although it does ring true to her reputation for insisting on only the very best.

Another request reportedly made of Staub involved the high, graduated brick wall that borders along Lyons View Drive. Eugenia was said to have told him she wanted a very TALL wall.

Seems an across-the-street neighbor, who often regaled the view of Mt. LeConte as viewed from her bed, had made an unkind remark about Eugenia's building the house there, saying she didn't want that promiscuous woman living in the neighborhood. The remark got back to Eugenia.

The story goes the woman had been less than exemplary in her own conduct -- a kind of pot-calling-the-kettle-black syndrome that infuriated Eugenia. She is said to have had Staub execute the design of the wall to perfectly eclipse the neighbor's view of the mountain.

* * *

While she did not purchase her own furniture, Eugenia frequently went to New York City, taking the train because she did not like to fly, for a round of shopping and dining at some of Manhattan's fine restaurants. She always stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

In the 1950s, at the Belgium Shoe Company, Eugenia met Marge Cordova, who was to become her New York connection for shoes, clothes, and a warm and enduring friendship that lasted until Eugenia's death.

In a telephone conversation from Manhattan, Cordova remembers the Knoxvillian as "a refined woman of great style and infinite taste. A perfectionist. A friend who was generous and grateful for even the smallest kindness."

She saw Eugenia frequently in the 1950-60s when she was in New York. "Eugenia had clothes made by a French couturier who had a small and very exclusive New York salon. She shopped at Bonwitz, her favorite smart shop along Fifth Avenue, and didn't miss the city's famed jewelry stores," Cordova said.

Rack after rack of shoes in her dressing room closet reflected her passion for collecting footwear long before Imelda Marcos indulged herself in the same manner.

Eugenia's casual shoes were handmade in Italy and sold at the Belgian Shoe Company where Cordova worked, a company that has served many of the famous people of the world.

"Eugenia especially liked pink shoes. Actually pink was her favorite color. She also liked brown and navy, and those colors were primary in her wardrobe as well as in her shoe closet," Cordova said.

It was a time when wearing alligator and other reptile shoes paired with matching bags from Paris were politically correct, Cordova said. "Eugenia ordered one of everything in all the colors.

"Lee often came with her to New York. They always shopped for him at Brooks Bros. They seemed to get along well. He was good company and very helpful to her. Eugenia didn't want a lot of people working in her home, so Lee, a good cook, often was the chef. He drove her cars as well.

"I remember calling her one day to ask about something she wanted sent to her, and she was cleaning the stainless stove in the kitchen, grumbling that Lee had left it greasy. It was a little surprising that a woman of her means was cleaning her own cook stove, but apparently Eugenia was quite comfortable with doing that.

"She was a very savvy woman when it came to the stock market. She give me tips, many of which I could not afford to act on, but she knew what she was about."

"A few times she mentioned living in Chicago with Gordon Chandler, but she said very little about him. I never asked questions, but if Eugenia wanted to talk, I listened. She was not an unhappy woman, but one, I think, who had made peace with life as she found it.

"Eugenia was extremely generous to me, and for a woman who seemed to be able to afford whatever she wanted, it was hard to do something for her in return. I often sent her flowers, and she always admonished me about spending my money like that. I had no idea then of the kind of wealth she had."

It was to Cordova that Eugenia sent the Scalamandrae silk drapery from the living and dining rooms at the closing of the house when she was moved to Shannondale nursing home.

Cordova says the drapery was beautifully made with four linings, two dark among them to cut out the light. They also served to keep prying eyes, should there be some, from peering in, and were doubtless the reason the house looked dark at night. The draperies now hang in the Cordova home in Flushing, N. Y., and are "so heavy I can hardly handle them for cleaning anymore."

Eugenia also sent Cordova "some nice furniture and rugs," and Eugenia's will specified that her friend be given choice of any of the other furniture still in storage and a diamond ring. When she came to Knoxville in May to look over the furniture, Cordova confessed she was a bit surprised. "The furniture did not seem in keeping with Eugenia's exquisite taste, but the house was a different matter. I was not in the house, but from the driveway, it reflected very much the Eugenia I knew."

"Earlier she gave me some beautiful gold jewelry, very weighty pieces, that remind so much of her with their simple elegance."

The marquise-cut diamond, 16.2 karats and almost flawless, is in the lock box at Christy's. Those of similar karat weight and clarity are said to have brought as much as $680,000 at auction.

"The ring is not one I could ever wear in New York City. I would be afraid to, and I couldn't afford the insurance, " Cordova added.

"I loved Knoxville and the people I met. I can see why Eugenia chose to live there when she could have lived anywhere."

The diamond left Cordova was so large its owner had not felt comfortable wearing it, either. Even in Knoxville. "She wore it to the beauty shop once," remembers Elaine Ballard, her hairdresser of many years. '"She turned the diamond inside her hand, letting only the band show, because she was afraid it might catch the wrong eye. It was beautiful -- and huge!"

* * *

For a number of years, the two Williamses were seen rather often in the West Knoxville neighborhood.

Martin Hunt remembers they used to drive up Cumberland Avenue early in the morning to shop for handmade silk ties for him that commanded a $600 pricetag. "That in a day when $6 would buy a very presentable tie," said Hunt, who was in the fashion business himself.

Eugenia and Lee were often seen dining at Highland Grill, the building that now houses Andrew Morton's on Old Kingston Pike, one of the few places in town where finger bowls were a part of the service, and the downstairs had a bar and a dance floor. Much later, when Andrew Morton's took over the building, she ordered gifts sent from there. "She always bought lovely presents, but I don't know whether she ever attended the weddings or other functions," said Morton.

"Eugenia and her friend would stop by Long's Drug Store for ice cream at the soda fountain on warm summer evenings," remembers Helen Weaver, who brought her children to Long's for a confectionary treat. "They were always pleasant and chatted about the children."

She liked children, but she never wanted any, according to her hairdresser. And she may have had reason not to like them as she got older. At night her house looked dark and abandoned, probably because of the dark linings in the draperies, and UT and neighborhood teen-agers would drive down to find a place to park with their sweeties, frightening her.

The wall had an electric signal installed in it to give clue when a car approached -- the first or certainly one of the first in Knoxville. The alarms sounding every time those cars rolled down the driveway must have been very disturbing, especially late at night. Eventually Eugenia had a gate installed to further prevent uninvited guests and to insure her privacy.

Twice when she was hospitalized at St. Mary's, her house was broken into and jewelry taken. One case involving $65,000 in gems was never solved; the other robbery resulted in the jewelry being returned for a $6,000 reward.

Lee Williams left, it was said, sometime in the 1970s, when he came into some money from a relative. He is said to have gone to Oak Ridge and found a new relationship that failed. He later asked to come back but that she refused to let him. However, he continued to run errands for her and remained a friend until his death.

* * *

She was at home alone, a woman in her 80s with no one to care for her, when she agreed to moved to Shannondale. From there she then went to St. Mary's where she lived the last dozen or so years of her life on special status, one of three such people to ever have resided there, says Sister Albertine Palus.

Eugenia came and went in the care of her nurses just as if living at home. She enjoyed riding up to the mountains, which she loved, and around Knoxville to get her hair done, eat at restaurants, etc.

She had often been a patient at St. Mary's over the years and was exceedingly fond of the Sisters. She was especially close to the late Sister Mary Annunciata, who started the hospital. Also Sisters Celeste, Martha, Madgalena and Elizabeth, who is now president of the hospital, says Sister Albertine.

"Surrounded then by her own furniture in a spacious room, she spent her time reading romantic novels, munching on Godiva chocolates, playing solitaire, watching television. She liked Lawrence Welk, wrestling and horse races, especially the Kentucky Derby," explained her nurse Stecher.

Her original room became part of the administrative offices during the hospital renovation, and Eugenia was moved three times, the last time to a standard hospital room that allowed special care but, because of its size, none of her own furnishings.

Her last days were spent in that small room, often listening to a nurse read her favorite Bible scriptures, while her big, beautiful dream house sat empty of its furnishings, alone and unoccupied.

One day last January she told her nurse she wanted to go home.

"And she didn't mean her house on Lyons View Drive," Stecher said.

Less than a month later Eugenia Williams was dead. She was buried quietly in the family plot at Old Gray Cemetery where her parents, sister and brother were placed before her. Her headstone is in the same Victorian styling of those used for other members of her family.

One prone to give far more than she got from any source, by her will she left the cemetery $10,000 .

In life Eugenia had sought love but was given riches. She desired anonymity but, by her lifestyle, acquired notoriety.

But her kindness and generosity so pronounced in her lifetime carried over in death.

By her will, her residuary estate, after special bequeaths, was divided into fourths to establish philanthropic endowments.

Eugenia, who never needed glasses throughout her lifetime, left a fourth portion to the Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Ky., to provide reading material for those who cannot see.

The woman with no children left East Tennessee Children's Hospital monies for research and the care of sick children.

A patient grateful for care of the Sisters and the staff at St. Mary's Medical Center, a place that came to be home to her in the latter days of her life, left funds for equipment, furnishings or medical and surgical research.

A daughter who had great love for her physician father established via her will the "Dr. David Hitt Williams' Memorial Fund" in trust with income from the principal to be used for scholarships to assist worthy and deserving medical students.

Also as a memorial to her father, the residence at 4848 Lyons View Drive was left to the University of Tennessee and designated as the "Dr. David Hitt Williams Memorial" with specific limitations for its continued use by UT.

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