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Stealing Magnolias: Tales from a New Orleans Courtyard

Debra Shriver

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Oct 13, 2010
Category: Travel

My first meeting with Debra Shriver tested my sense of reality. As the chief communications officer for Hearst, she had the big office on a high floor. She had the clean desk I always associate with the truly powerful. And there were pictures of Deb with the mighty.

But her professionalism seemed to go only as far as was absolutely necessary. Deb’s hair was too short to be spiky, and it was unclear to me how much was blonde and how much was white. She didn’t power-dress. And almost every surface not devoted to Hearst was covered with personal photographs and souvenirs from her travels, artifacts from her Southern heritage, mementos from an earlier stage in her career.

Slowly, I got it: Debra Shriver’s an… original.

I’ve come to know Deb better since then, both in her Hearst role and as a neighbor, and I think I’m a reliable witness here: She’s smart, incisive, supportive — and, unlike so many people with ever bigger titles and ever smaller minds, she gets the joke.

One problem: she disappeared.

Not exactly disappeared. But starting a few years ago, I never saw her and her husband walking their dogs on weekends — the Shrivers had decamped to New Orleans.< She still has the big office. But every spare minute is now spent in New Orleans, where --- three weeks after Katrina --- the Shrivers bought a house. And what a house! It’s not the centerpiece of “Stealing Magnolias: Tales from a New Orleans Courtyard.” [To buy the book from Amazon, click here.]

The photographs that dot her beautiful — and beautifully art-directed — book testify to a rare kind of taste:  personal, thoughtful, and not at all “fancy.” < Yes, a decorator was involved, but Deb clearly drove the bus. And that sure sense of direction can be found in her account of her love affair with New Orleans and, more to the point, her New Orleans.

Although Shriver was born in Alabama, settling in New Orleans represents a kind of coming home after seeing every chic city in the world, going to all the cool parties, meeting all the powerful people.

But that’s not the whole story.

New Orleans — a city of contrasts, a city both elegant and vulgar, “Europe with heat” — wasn’t her final destination. She met the place head-on, then edited it so it formed a personal refuge.

Who chooses a “dream house” in a city “that’s eighty percent underwater?” Easy: someone who buys most of a bin of silk tassels in a Paris hardware store — and uses them as the starting point for the decoration of her New Orleans house. Someone who has any number of upstairs bedrooms that have been repurposed so guests can’t stay with her. Someone who appreciates monogrammed linen, adds kumquats and Cointreau to her champagne, buys “Red Brick Dust” at the voodoo shop.

Touring suggestions, decorating ideas, recipes, photographs far too artistic for a book about a city, and, linking them all, Deb Shriver’s gossamer prose — “Stealing Magnolias” is hallucinatory in its appeal. It’s worth the loss of the chats we used to have on upper Madison Avenue for the world to have this book.