If we’re talking about famous figures in Lexington’s history, it’s only fair to start with the guy who (arguably) started it all!
In 1775, Pennsylvanian William McConnell and a group of pioneers (including his brother) were exploring the Virginia territory wilderness, mapping the land around Elkhorn Creek. Under Virginia law, they were able to stake claim to a plot of land surrounding a spring where the party had set up camp to survey. The “sinking spring” became known as McConnell Springs, which today has been reclaimed as a park.
Here, the pioneers learned that the first battles of the American Revolution had been fought at Lexington and Concord. In honor of the event, the group named their settlement “Lexington.”
The settlement would later be contested by Native peoples who had long used the land as hunting territory, and the British encouraged these attacks. In spite of this, permanent structures were built, and what would become the city of Lexington grew in the area. While McConnell was a relatively unimportant figure in America’s history, he did have a big hand in our history!
This year would’ve been the 100th birthday of celebrated Kentucky artist and poet Henry Faulkner. Born in Holland, Kentucky, Henry attended the Louisville School of Art before adopting a bohemian lifestyle of moving here and there, as his mood suited. He continually returned to Lexington, however, and Kentucky remained an important influence.
It is estimated that Henry completed over 5,000 paintings in his lifetime. His work is colorful, playful and often exhibited a sense of humor; he often painted his bourbon-drinking pet goat, Alice. Faulkner’s work ended up in the collections of Bette Davis and Vincent Price; Henry’s painting of Ernest Hemingway hangs above the writer’s bed.
Faulkner was a close friend – and rumored lover – of playwright Tennessee Williams. What is known is that Faulkner was one of the pioneers of Lexington’s LGBTQIA+ culture. He often dressed in drag and as a well-known associate of Sweet Evening Breeze.
Tragically, Faulkner was killed in a car accident in 1981. The Faulkner Morgan Archive, Inc. was created to help preserve the artist’s work, as well as to help share Kentucky’s LGBTQIA+ history.
A more recent notable name is a character actor (as well as musician) whose career spanned more than six decades. Appearing in some of the most influential films of all time, even if you don’t know his name, his face is surely familiar.
Born in West Irvine, Harry attended Lafayette High School and the University of Kentucky. His director at the Guignol Theatre encouraged him to leave school to become an actor.
Wondering where you’ve seen him? His acting credits include Cool Hand Luke, Alien, Repo Man, Red Dawn, Pretty in Pink, The Green Mile, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Bonanza… to name a select few. Roger Ebert was a fan of HDS’s work. He famously wrote that “no movie featuring Harry Dean Stanton… in a supporting role can be altogether bad.”
It’s less commonly known that Harry was just as passionate about singing as he was acting. He occasionally toured as a singer and guitarist and worked with a number of artists. Funnily enough, the actor – famous for his gruff, homespun looks – served as the singing voice for Brave Heart Lion in 1985’s The Care Bears Movie.
To commemorate this Lexington actor, the Lexington Film League created the annual Henry Dean Stanton Fest in 2011, screening select titles from the actor’s lengthy career.
Sweet Evening Breeze was born as James R. Herndon in Scott County to formerly enslaved people in the late 1800s. She became a Lexingtonian as a child when her uncle abandoned her at Good Samaritan Hospital.
Living in a segregated city where homosexual acts were illegal, “Sweets” as she was known, was a pioneer of both the LGBTQIA+ community and the Black community. In her lifetime, she helped channel funds from her events into these communities. Scholar Jeffery Alan Jones notes, “Sweets was visible within white [Lexingtonian] society in few ways that African Americans of the period could be.”
While the culture at large wasn’t accepting of queer identities, Sweets was for the most part embraced by Lexington society. Sweets began hosting public drag performances as early as the 1920s. She appeared in newspapers, cheering at UK games in uniform and walked the streets in her finery relatively unbothered. The rumor mill held that this was due in part to Sweets holding the secrets of many locals’ proclivities.
That said, life wasn’t all wine and roses for Sweet Evening Breeze. She was arrested in violation of Lexington’s anti-crossdressing ordinance. She was once severely beaten, and her home was often vandalized.
In spite of all of this, Sweet Evening Breeze was known around town for her unflappable humor. As one of the first “out and proud” figures in Lexington’s history, Sweets remains a legend – just ask anyone who lived here in the 1970s or before!
Southern society loves a good scandal, and there’s none more saucy than the keeper of the “most orderly of disorderly houses.”
Belle Brezing was born Mary Belle Cox, the daughter of Sarah Cox, a dressmaker and part-time prostitute. When her mother married, Belle adopted her stepfather’s last name. Belle’s scandals began when the girl was just twelve years of age (the age of consent at the time). She took various lovers, including cigar maker Johnny Cook – who was rumored to be the father of her child – and who she may have murdered.
At nineteen, she began her first job at a brothel in the former residence of Mary Todd Lincoln. She became a top earner, and in 1881, she rented and served as madam of her own brothel at 156 North Upper Street. She was arrested for “keeping a bawdy house” in 1882 but received a pardon from Governor Luke P. Blackburn – ostensibly to relieve prison overcrowding. Within two years, she had upgraded her accommodations to a house she purchased at 194 North Upper.
In January 1889, the Lexington Daily Press published a “Petition of Citizens” that called for the closure of three notorious “houses of ill fame.” With the help of a Philadelphia millionaire, Brezing relocated to the red light district, remaining open through the Temperance Movement and World War I. It wasn’t until her partner’s death in 1917 that she finally retired.
When Belle died in 1940, Time magazine published the obituary of the “famed Kentucky bawd.” Brezing is perhaps best known as the supposed inspiration for Belle Watling, the madam in Gone With the Wind (Mitchell denied the inspiration, but her husband was a former Lexingtonian who certainly would’ve heard of our Belle!) •