When Mamie Spears Reynolds Gregory died the other day in Louisville at age 72, her death received only a modest amount of notice.
But when her parents married in 1941, it created headlines. Her father was North Carolina Sen. Robert Reynolds, age 57. Her mother, Evalyn Walsh McLean, was the 20-year-old daughter of the publisher of the Washington Post. The McLeans were among the most socially prominent and richest families in Washington and owned two of the world’s most famous gems, the Hope Diamond and the Star of India.
McLean, who had shocked her family when she declined to make her formal debut, met Reynolds at a party and said they shared an interest in nightclubs, parties and flying.
The couple honeymooned at Raleigh’s Sir Walter Hotel.
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Reynolds, who had been married four times previously, including to a Ziegfield Follies show girl, had an unlikely political rise in buttoned-up North Carolina.
During the hard days of the Great Depression, Reynolds, sometimes called “Buncombe Bob,” campaigned as a champion of the poor man against the plutocrats.
Playing poor man’s friend
In 1932, he unseated Democratic Sen. Cameron Morrison, a former governor who was a millionaire. Reynolds, a former patent medicine salesman before becoming a lawyer, campaigned wearing a ragged suit and worn shoes and drove a broken-down Tin Lizzie. Before entering a town, he often emptied his radiator so that steam would be pouring from under the hood when he arrived. Pretending poverty, Reynolds would ask the crowd for gas money to help him get to the next town, or borrow an automobile, or for a place to stay. The pleas were so phony that Reynolds didn’t even bother to cash many of his campaign checks.
When he learned that Morrison stayed at the Mayflower Hotel when he was in Washington, Reynolds hit the campaign trail with a hotel menu noting that it included caviar, according to news articles at the time.
“He does not eat cabbage nor turnips nor ham and eggs, not fatback like you and I do,” Reynolds would tell the farmers and textile workers. “My friends, think of it. Senator Morrison eats caviar. What the hell’s caviar? This here jar ain’t a jar of squirrel shot; it’s fish eggs. Friends, it pains me to tell you that Cam Morrison eats fish eggs and Red Russian fish eggs at that and they cost two dollars. Now fellow citizens, let me ask you. Do you want a senator who ain’t too high and mighty to eat good old North Carolina hen eggs or don’t you?”
Playing on voters’ religious biases, Reynolds claimed Morrison ate “eggs Benedictine. They’s regular hen eggs alright, but they’s cooked up by special Benedictine monks that they keep there in the hotel just for that purpose.”
An eventful life
Reynolds served two terms in the U.S. Senate, until his isolationism, strong anti-British bias and pro fascist sympathies put him at odds with his constituents. He did not seek re-election in 1944.
He returned to Reynolds Mountain – named for a grandfather – to raise his daughter, Mami. His wife had died 1946 from an overdose of sleeping pills. Despite being the poor man’s politician, his biographer Julian Pleasants notes that he gave Mami a lavish party for her 18th birthday complete with a famed society orchestra flown down from New York, a dress designed for her by Christian Dior, and yes, caviar.
Mami had an eventful life and was a fixture in the social circles of Asheville and Palm Beach. She was owner and driver for the Reynolds Racing Team of Asheville and became the first woman to qualify for the Daytona 500, according to her obituary. She and her second husband, Joseph, were the first owners of the ABA Kentucky Colonels professional basketball team.
Like her father, she was a world traveler, having been around the world seven times.
Presumably she had her share of fish eggs.