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       Ruth, a Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham, p.1

           Patricia Cornwell
Ruth, a Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham

  Also by Patricia Cornwell












  the wise old woman



  Other Books by this Author

  Title Page


  The Beginning

  1 Before Ruth

  2 A Second Little Nuisance

  3 The Year of the Horse

  4 Crumbling of the Wall

  5 War

  6 An Innocent Abroad

  7 Billy Frank

  8 The Ring

  9 Wartime Wedding

  10 That Hustling Baptist Preacher

  11 Little Piney Cove

  12 Her Jungle

  13 House on the Mountain

  14 The Beginning of a Mission

  15 The Terror by Night

  16 Other Children

  17 Power and Influence

  18 A New Season

  19 Lighting the Darker Places

  20 Darkness Over the Face of the Earth

  21 Return to China

  Little Piney Cove, 1996




  MAY 2, 1996



  The Hendersonville High School band, of western North Carolina fame, played on the lawn, cool air warmed by the sun, while Secret Service watched. Celebrities and senators and old friends like Tricia Nixon Cox and Lynda Bird Robb, and Paul Harvey, and a crime novelist whose first book had been Ruth Bell Graham’s biography, took seats inside. They assembled in good spirits amid oil portraits and marble, on this National Day of Prayer, when the Reverend Billy and his wife, Ruth, were to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. George Washington had been honored thus in 1776. Two hundred years later, the first clergy couple followed.

  I was there, in truth, to take notes. It had been suggested that I update the biography I had decided to write long ago when I was twenty-four and too young to have any business asking. As I sat in a section near the front, among Ruth Graham’s vast relations, I was struck by how time has spent itself. I was sweetly sad, and amazed that some people are never a disappointment, no matter where journeys take us or how well we finally know those we chose to emulate and love.

  Neither Billy nor Ruth had shifted in a way that counts. He was still tall and a bit befuddled by all the attention. His eyes were no less blue, but they were not as much here as there, and most of all they were kind. Hers typically didn’t like being noticed and didn’t miss a trick. She still plotted practical jokes and would rather chat with ushers and housekeeping staff. Vice President Al Gore gave her a chair when she was escorted to the front. When Billy was led in, he gave Ruth a kiss.

  I sneaked ahead of Newt Gingrich to hug Ruth in all her magenta. She thought I was sweet to come all this way from Richmond, Virginia, and hoped I might find time to stop by the Renaissance afterward and visit. She asked me if I were still doing my work in morgues, and I assured her I was and all was going fine. She would get room service, something Chinese, if the hotel had it, she promised. If that would suit?

  She did not know if the Gold Medal was really gold or something else, but she suspected something else when a granddaughter persisted in knowing a little later in a room of the Renaissance, where she and Billy briefly rested. I was certain Ruth did not care about the medal’s composition, nor was she especially impressed when the four major television networks let the world know that the Grahams would be dining with the Clintons at the White House this night.

  That’s interesting, Ruth commented from her bed, as she dipped into a dish of Chinese food. “Honey?” she called out to her husband, who was stirring cream of broccoli soup, wondering if it was cool enough. “Did you agree to something you didn’t tell me about?”

  “What’s that?” He cupped a hand behind an ear, from his couch.

  A striking teenage boy, who wore a small earring, pointed a camera, intending to take another photograph of his legendary grandfather. “I don’t have a good picture of you.” The grandson was having fun.

  “You can get one in my coffin.” Grandfather Billy leaned forward and dipped into his soup.

  “What?” The grandson guffawed.

  “Bill!” Ruth chided her husband as misinformation on the evening news went on. “What a dreadful thing to say!”

  The journey that led us here, or at least my humble few miles of it, opened with rain. The night was cold and interminable and blew over eaves and in billowing sheets through an open stadium, shrouding lamps in milky light, on June 5, 1982. I was still young and newly married, and unknown, and on a budget. I had attended but one Billy Graham crusade prior to this, in Asheville, when I was too young to precisely remember the decision I made.

  At one end of Boston’s muddy Nickerson Field was the wooden platform, this moment occupied by four rows of empty folding chairs and several tall amplifiers and a baby grand piano enveloped in heavy plastic. Bundles of thick cable snaked across the wet plank floor. The podium was covered with a small square awning flapping loudly like a wind-ripped flag. It was 7:00 P.M. I had never been so cold and wet and hungry in my life, and I let my then-husband know this more than once.

  For the past hour some thirteen thousand people cocooned in slickers, trench coats, hats, plastic bags, and galoshes had trickled through the field house for the 7:30 service. It would not be televised because of the weather. Wide wooden boards bridged puddles leading to tiers, and rainwater was an inch deep on the seats. The Reverend Billy Graham had been urged to cancel and as usual had refused, leaving his hotel with plastic-laminated sermon notes and his large-print black leather Bible. Wearing a Greek fisherman’s cap, a khaki trench coat, and tinted glasses, he arrived in the flashing blue of a light attached to the roof of his rental car.

  No one seemed to notice the figure slipping out of the backseat. She left him at the field house door and skated across the muddy tile floor, Sheraton trash can liners over her feet and fastened at the ankles with rubber bands. She wore black kid gloves and a fuchsia plastic rain cloak with a matching cap that was an umbrella from her crown to the tip of her nose. Looking like a psychedelic version of the Morton Salt girl, Ruth gave me a wet hug.

  In no hurry to file outside to find a seat as there would be plenty to choose from this raw, dreary night, we sat in folding chairs against a cinder block wall, watching the crowd slog by. Outside, propagandists were passing out tracts accusing Billy Graham of being a Communist sympathizer, and buildings and buses near the stadium boasted anti-Graham signs and banners. A deranged man less than ten feet from us loudly asked a security guard if he was Billy Graham disguised as a cop.

  Ruth seemed impervious to it all, unaffected by the confusion that seemed to eddy around her husband everywhere he went. She missed little. An amused smile tugged at her lips from time to time as her brain processed images, expressions, snatches of conversations here and there. With dignity, she sat. Her Styrofoam cup of steaming coffee disappeared at intervals beneath her voluminous hat.

  At close to 7:30, she slogged through the mud, dragging her trash bag-covered pumps over makeshift boardwalks and puddled artificial grass. She chose an empty row on the playing field, several hundred yards from the platform, in front of the back tiers. She tilted a gray metal folding chair to spill rainwater from it, and demu
rely seated herself, tucking her skirt and bright pink rain cloak around her. She proceeded to remove her wet black kid gloves one finger at a time, and wormed her hands up her sleeves, kimono-style.

  Regal and unflinching in the bone-chilling downpour, she sat erect, the steady thrumming of rain muffling her husband’s voice as it echoed off the stands. Swathed in a heavy khaki trench coat and now hatless, Billy preached, slightly bent against the blustery wind and rain. The awning flapped wildly above him. He could see little but the hazy white glow of the lights clustered on poles bordering the field high above him. He was oblivious to the bird that had alighted on a nearby lamp to sing lustily for the duration of the service. From Billy’s vantage, the crowd was dark and formless.

  To Ruth he was a faraway figure, sometimes obscured by umbrellas tilting in her line of vision. Soberly she listened, her eyes riveted straight ahead. She smiled when he leaned close to the microphones and began teasing her about the bright new rain outfit she had just purchased, cracking the usual jokes about wives and their outrageous shopping habits, adding that she was sitting “somewhere out there among you, but I don’t know exactly where.”

  That was the way she liked it, in the middle of the masses and invisible. The pathos, the motion interested her. Anonymous, she became animated like a child. She became pensive and reverent, relieved to keep her public self folded up and in her pocket like a dime-store rain bonnet.

  “And if people start recognizing me after this book,” she let me know in 1981 when this research began, “I’m going to dye my hair and move to Europe.”

  Not long before she made this threat, on a January morning, I telephoned to ask if I could drive up for a visit. She was in bed with the flu but said to come anyway since it seemed I had something very important on my mind. It was bitterly cold, and the sky was lead as I made the two-hour trip from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Montreat, where she lived on the side of a ridge in a house built of century-old logs.

  She was alone, split wood smoldering quietly in the fireplace in front of her hand-built bed. She was propped against several pillows and surrounded by letters, stationery, books, pens, cassette tapes, napkins, Kleenex, and her large black leather-bound King James Bible. She smelled faintly of Rose Milk. A woman of regal beauty, she was thin but shapely, her features flawless, as though chiseled with love. She was intense and soothing, like the fire on her hearth. Her movements were graceful, her presence hypnotic, even on this day when her bones ached and her eyes were glazed with fever.

  “I want to write a book about you,” I said to my hero.

  “You want to do what, honey?” she asked in a voice distracted and weary.

  “You know, I want to write your biography,” the twenty-four-year-old police reporter announced.

  “Well, sure. That’s fine,” she said with a weak smile. “But I don’t think it would be very interesting.”

  Several days later, Ruth and Billy flew to Mexico and rested for a month. Her health and senses restored, she telephoned me one afternoon at the Charlotte Observer, where I was working on my latest crime story.

  “Patsy,” she said, “no way you’re going to write a book about me.”

  I met Ruth through her parents, Nelson and Virginia Bell, whom I grew to love shortly after my mother moved my two brothers and me from Miami to Montreat in 1963, when I was seven. Homesick for my own grandmother, I visited Mrs. Bell several times each month, entering without knocking through the screened-in back porch that led into the warm, fragrant kitchen. Beneath a layer of wax paper on top of her refrigerator there were always cups of homemade custard, generously sprinkled with nutmeg and deliciously moist.

  I’d find her in the same place each time, sitting in her favorite chair beside the living room couch, a pink baby blanket over her knees, a battery-powered magnifying glass in her lap.

  “Go get a custard,” she’d chirp before I could sit down. For the next hour she’d spin colorful and exotic tales about her missionary days in China while we played games like Rook or Scrabble. She always won or made me think I had.

  It was during these visits that I became acquainted with Ruth, when she would glide in with dinner for her parents, or perhaps for a chat. I was struck with her beauty, her gentleness, and her spontaneous laughter. Other encounters came when I was in the local red brick grammar school and would spot her car idling out by the endless line of orange buses wrapped around the school. She was there to pick up her younger son, Ned. I would conspicuously walk back and forth in front of her Oldsmobile, searching with mock gravity for bus #91, until Ruth noticed me and asked if I wanted a ride. It was a shame if Ned, much less empathetic than his mother, spied me first. Once he rolled down his window and said, “You can quit walking around the car ‘cause we’re going to Asheville.”

  When I was nineteen, Ruth and I began to become friends. In April of 1976 she invited me out to lunch. Invitations to her house, which was two miles up the mountain from mine, followed. Usually she was alone. Husband Billy was delivering lectures at major universities and preaching throughout the world. After three decades of international acclaim, his pace was more, not less, frenetic. My earliest memories of him are when he sat with his family near the back of the Montreat Presbyterian Church on the infrequent Sundays when he was in town.

  Back then I wasn’t aware of who he was, but I surmised, based on all the head-turning and ogling, that he was very important. After the service, people flocked around him to shake his hand, ask him to autograph their Bibles or bulletins, or wonder if he might pray for them. I remember a woman pointing out that the price tag was still dangling from his suit jacket. She asked if she could keep it as a souvenir.

  In later years, when I would see Billy in his own home during my visits with Ruth, I was surprised that he did not seem affected by the adulation and criticism. He just seemed tired. She would attempt to shield him when anyone else appeared. “Bill, why don’t you go sit up there in the sun and rest,” she would say as he greeted people, a slightly bemused expression in his eyes when she repeated the suggestion two or three times.

  More often than not, he would amble out onto the lawn or into the living room with Ruth and the guests. At home, he didn’t look so austere. He usually wore a tennis sweater, jogging shoes, and baggy blue jeans. Sometimes his socks clashed with his shoes or half his shirt collar was crumpled inside. His eyes didn’t have that steely gleam. They were soft, far away in thought. They became softer when they looked at her.

  Ruth seemed virtually untouched by the pressures of living in his wake while conducting a significant ministry of her own. Her eyes were vulnerable. After all these years of being exposed to the public, she had not slammed and latched the door to her emotions. She had always been an excruciatingly private woman, sensitive to others and fiercely protective of her family. She could not see what good could come of my writing her biography. It was difficult convincing her.

  “Ruth,” I told her in May of 1981, after she had repeatedly rejected my idea throughout the spring, “I haven’t changed my mind.”

  “I know you haven’t,” she said, discouraged.

  “If you don’t let me write this biography, it will be the only selfish thing I’ve ever known you to do.” I was out with it.

  “That’s really hitting below the belt,” she fired back.

  “Not because you’ll be denying me the privilege,” I was quick to add, “but because you’ll be denying those who have never met you and never will.”

  Several days later she telephoned me.

  “OK,” she said.

  “It will be painless,” I promised.

  It wasn’t.

  “We’ll have fun.” I was sure.

  We didn’t.

  “What a great way to spend time together,” I encouraged.

  After it was finished, we did not speak for eight years.



  Before Ruth


  North J
iangsu, China, December 5, 1916. The Grand Canal meandered through the frozen lowlands like a muddy snake and carried the launch and its barge past dozens of sampans, tugboats, and junks.

  Nelson Bell was a twenty-two-year-old medical doctor. He buried his chin deeper inside the flipped-up collar of his wool coat, buffering himself from the cold air and the sour smell of dirty feet on the deck outside a window that had no glass. His wife, Virginia, wrote letters at a small table behind him, glancing up each time her husband briefly retreated from frigid air. He was captivated and repulsed as he watched their arrival into a new life. Across murky water rose an ancient city surrounded by high gray brick walls, and heads of criminals impaled over the gate stared with dull, blind eyes.

  Lemuel Nelson Bell was a witty, intelligent young man with a character as sturdy as his Scotch-grain leather shoes. Handsomely built, he had wavy brown hair, even teeth bright as a blade, a square jaw, and a patrician nose. He was six feet tall, a solid hundred and ninety pounds, and looked more like a matinee idol than a missionary. Bell was a professional baseball recruit when he forsook his dream because he longed to share the Gospel with those who had never heard it. As he stood in his cabin, it seemed the Grand Canal beneath his feet and the faith of his forebears were moving together, carrying him to his destiny.

  He was born July 30, 1894, in the iron-laced Allegheny Mountains near Clifton Forge, Virginia, where his father, James Bell, headed the commissariat at the Longdale Mining Company. Nelson Bell’s ancestors were Scotch-Irish immigrants who had begun farming and lumbering some eight hundred acres of fertile land in the Shenandoah Valley in the early 1700s. He was probably most like his great-great-grandfather John McCue Jr., whose father had immigrated to America from Northern Ireland around 1731. Young McCue, born in 1753, was educated at Liberty Hall, which would later be renamed Washington and Lee University. He set his heart on becoming a Presbyterian minister and briefly wavered when Thomas Jefferson offered to train him as a lawyer and let him live at Monticello, as legend has it. But McCue refused and set about evangelizing the territory. By 1791 he was ordained and settled in the small parish of Tinkling Springs in Augusta County, Virginia.

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