A History Lesson
I met her in 1999 but came to know her through correspondence leading up to the Gueydan Centennial Celebration. Based on what I gathered then, I can close my eyes and imagine her hunched under the car hood with her dress waving in whatever slight breeze would be a blessing in such a hot, foreign country. It was an unimproved, Middle Eastern road where women were treated like the dirt she was standing on. She accompanied her husband who was taking photos but equally inclined to wield power through his decisions on the U.S. Supreme Court. Would those be influenced here, in the Middle East?
That was important to Mercedes Gueydan Hester since she was keenly aware of and heavily involved in politics herself. It was in her blood, so to speak. Her grandfather was a former Louisiana Senator. But, at that moment, repairing their car was forefront in her mind. Before they began their trip from Karachi to Istanbul, she enrolled in a local mechanic course in order to be self-sufficient if the need arose. And there she was, this lady, this steel magnolia now bent under a hood, not wearing a burka but a blue dress with her naturally blonde hair hanging to her shoulders. All of which would be recorded in the January 1959 issue of National Geographic Magazine.
Merci, as she was known to friends and family, was quite a woman. She was born on June 28, 1917 to Marie Mercedes Gueydan and Clifton Hester in Calhoun, Louisiana. Merci’s mother, Marie, was Henry Gueydan’s first child of five by his first of three wives, Mercedes Alvarado, the daughter of a coffee planter from Antigua, Guatemala. Miss Alvarado would only be married to Henry for a few short years before dying from childbirth complications. Since Henry had been in Guatemala until 1895 on business and brought back a wife and child from there, the family spoke Spanish as well as French very fluently. While they may have lived in these barely settled Louisiana marshlands, Jean Pierre’s children were schooled in Europe and still retained their love for all things classical and social, which they passed on to their children and expected of their grandchildren.
In her youth, Merci lived in northeast Louisiana with her parents on a cotton plantation on US Hwy 65 in Transylvania. Her parents moved to Tallulah the year Merci graduated from high school, where her father became Sheriff. She spent her young summers in the south Louisiana town bearing her family name. She sat on her grandfather’s front porch on hot afternoons there and remembered it vividly. She attended SLI, now the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, with Margaret Chauvin of Gueydan who would later become Margaret Steen of the local syrup company fame.
After college in 1939, she married a Yale trained lawyer, Crow Gerard Davidson, and had her only two children by him, Joan and Michael. In 1954, she married William Orville Douglas, the United States Supreme Court Justice. Her final marriage was to Robert Block Eichholz in 1963. He was, she said, the best of the bunch. Mercedes’ patience had a limit and that included men who roamed freely, which is how she came to marry three times in life.
Merci was proud of her past but lived in the present. Besides her active political affiliations, she was a past chairman of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, a philanthropist for non-profits and counted Lady Bird Johnson among her close friends. Late in life, when downsizing to a townhouse, she sent the Gueydan Museum a portrait of her grandmother, rather than to her father’s alma matter, LSU, in order to help the fledgling museum acquire a bit of town history. After visiting here one last time in 1999, she told me this museum needed to happen.
I received word from her daughter recently that Mercedes H. “Merci” Eichholz left this world on August 22, 2013 at the age of 96. She used every minute of the life given her and wasted not a drop. We remember her as a strong individual, passionate about the people and things she cared about. By way of her heritage and our geographic location, we are connected to her. And, in a way, she is our beginning. As we say goodbye to Merci, we say hello to our history from a very personal standpoint.
We will deeply explore and render not just a man but a family that erected a town from a marsh that would bear their name. Join us once a month as we use the documented conversations, gifted to us via our centennial celebration, of the Gueydan family, the legal and personal articles, and our founder’s business life to explore and acknowledge our history in a very personal way. From the Gueydan family to the town of Gueydan, let us begin.