by Walter Ryland

Cally Thomas Ryland, at one time a well-known Southern author, is today something of a mystery woman.

The first enigma concerning her is when she was born. Cally was the daughter of Josiah Ryland and Caroline Virginia ("Callie") Thomas. Every reference book, and the card catalogs at the Library of Congress and the Library of Virginia, give her birth as 1871. But this cannot be so; her mother died June 18, 1868, as her obituaries in the Petersburg (VA) Daily Index and the Petersburg Express reported the following day.

Although no records substantiate this, Cally's birth name might well have been Caroline, after her mother. A contributor to the LDS archives estimated Cally's birth at "abt 1852." Perhaps for career considerations, Cally may have felt obliged to shade a few years off her age -- but a "fib" of nearly 20 years does not seem credible. Absent any better data, it seems most likely that she was born after the war, sometime around 1867. It is possible that her mother died due to complications of childbirth, which would place Cally's birth in 1868.

Cally's father was a Confederate soldier who married Caroline Thomas Feb. 26, 1863, in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. She was apparently his second wife, but no record of the first has been found. After the war, he sold pianos at his stores in Richmond and Norfolk. He was sometimes known as "Josiah Ryland, Sr." to distinguish him from a younger cousin of the same name. After the death of Cally's mother, Josiah married Julia Dean Wortham. (Again, there are no records, but the marriage took place after the census of 1870.) He lived until May 27, 1903.

Cally had shown a talent for writing, having penned a number of poems and short stories. About the time of her father's death, perhaps because of it, she "turned professional," going to work for the Richmond News Leader.

In those days, particularly in the south, female journalists (with a few notable exceptions) were relegated to the women's ghetto -- almost exclusively "society" reporters and "sob sisters," while the hard news, politics and crime, was a man's game. Cally became the society editor for the News Leader, where she was to cover engagements, weddings, and the rounds of parties, banquets, and balls attended by the city's elite.

Cally's society page did all that, but with a difference. The keystone of her page was her own column, "By the Way," which not only related the glittering doings of socialites, but frequently ventured into commentary on larger cultural and social issues. It is to the credit of the management that they recognized the value of this material and allowed her to persevere. It is difficult today to appreciate what a bold move this was. The "society page" has evolved through "women's issues" to today's "Lifestyle" sections -- read equally by men and women -- and Cally Ryland was in the forefront of this development.

Cally resorted to a device used by American humorists from Ben Franklin to Edgar Bergen -- the creation of a fictional "alter ego" who could get away with speaking the outlandish truth. Cally's creation, "Aunt Jemimy," was enormously popular with readers. If Aunt Jemimy looks like a racial stereotype from today's vantage point, at least she was one created out of genuine affection and endowed with great folk wisdom. Aunt Jemimy's dialect aphorisms were widely distributed, printed on blotters and calendars. They appeared in a book-length collection, Aunt Jemimy's Maxims (Broadway Publishing Co.) in 1907.

In the meantime, Cally's first novel had appeared in 1904, The Taming of Betty (Lee and Shepherd, publishers). A silent movie version was released by Vitagraph in 1913, starring Clara Kimball Young. About the same time, a second book, Daphne and Her Lad, written with M. J. (Mary) Lagen, also appeared (Henry Holt and Company, 1904). She was able to continue her "outside" writing while still with the newspaper by keeping a daily quota for writing outside of office hours.

When the editorship of the News Leader became vacant in 1915, Cally could have done the job except for the "glass ceiling" of those days. The management hired a young history major who had been employed by the Library of Virginia to catalogue the letters of Robert E. Lee, but who had no newspaper experience. Indeed, he had just contracted with Scribner's to produce a "short" biography of Lee. His book would be 20 years in the making before it emerged as R. E. Lee, four massive volumes that won the Pulitzer Prize.

Douglas Southall Freeman, younger than Cally no matter how her age was calculated, was likewise the offspring of a proud Confederate veteran. Having much in common, they became good friends and each had much to learn from the other. She knew newspapers and he knew history. He became a great editor and she became a noted author -- fair exchange indeed.

Cally worked for her bright young boss for three years more, retiring from the News Leader in 1918. In the years to come, she would continue frequently to contribute to the paper. A children's book, Sulky Sue, written with Caroline Wise, appeared in 1921.

Cally had another close personal and professional relationship with Mary Newton Stanard, whose husband was the great Virginia genealogist W. G. Stanard. Mary had written much about colonial Virginia and had also edited the letters of Edgar Allen Poe in preparation for a biography. Many Richmonders were Poe buffs, although in the popular mind Poe had come to be associated more with Baltimore and New York. To rectify that situation, Cally joined with other concerned locals who made it a project to restore Poe's home in Richmond and open it as the "Edgar Allan Poe Shrine."

(This attraction, now known as the Poe Museum, remains open at 1916 East Main in Richmond. Its website, http://www.poemuseum.org features a "virtual tour" giving a good view of Richmond home styles in Poe's time.)

Cally's piece for the News Leader on the opening of the shrine in 1922 was reprinted as a pamphlet, presumably for distribution to visitors in the early days. Unfortunately, the museum no longer has a copy although one is in the catalog of the Library of Virginia.

Another younger writer Cally befriended was Alexander W. Weddell, who wrote several books of Virginia history and became U. S. envoy to Spain just before World War II. She was an occasional guest at his palatial James River estate, "Virginia House," which is now another major Richmond attraction.

By then, she was a civic leader in her own right, deeply involved in the social and cultural affairs of Richmond. Cally's correspondence with her friends trailed off after 1940 or so. She died in Richmond in 1947, never having married.

The Library of Virginia is the official depository for Cally's manuscripts and correspondence. The material was donated to them by Charles H. Ryland of Warsaw, VA.

 

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