Opinion: The Portrait in the Attic 

How would Hollywood portray a man who was a figure from my childhood, Judge Leon M. Bazile?

click to enlarge Portrait of Judge Leon M. Bazile by John Gabbert.

Portrait of Judge Leon M. Bazile by John Gabbert.

It was with trepidation that I went with friends to see “Loving.”

The well-reviewed film tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the mixed-race couple in Caroline County who, in the 1950s, were forced to leave the Old Dominion upon threat of imprisonment for miscegenation.

Another member of our group also was hesitant, fearing gratuitous violence because of a preview featuring lawmen who burst into the couple’s bedroom in the middle of the night.

I was anxious for another reason. Of course I knew that because “Loving” is based on facts, justice would prevail. But how would the movie portray a man who was a figure from my childhood, Leon M. Bazile?

It was he, who as judge of the 15th Judicial Circuit Court, had uprooted the Lovings’ lives by sending them packing to Washington.

How would Hollywood portray a man at whose Atlee home I’d spent many a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the late 1950s and early ’60s? How would it depict a valued mentor to my father, whom Bazile had given his professional start when he was fresh out of the law school at the University of Virginia?

Although both men have long since passed on, for years I’ve run into Judge Bazile, as we always called him, upon going to a storage area. Because the judge had few descendants, certain things were passed on to my family — antique books, framed diplomas and family portraits.

While mostly dispersed, one oil portrait of the jurist remains. But neither my siblings nor I have ever hung it because he wasn’t family. And because it’s no great work of art, we’ve never been tempted to claim it as a portrayal of forebear — out of respect to the judge and his family, we couldn’t do that anyway. But truth to tell, we know Bazile was on the wrong side of history, if not plain wrong, and in death remains politically incorrect.

In life he was erudite, intelligent and hospitable.

While courtly, Bazile also was down-to-earth and decidedly old-school. At home he wore a tie. His trademark was his well-worn pair of high-top black shoes. They were, it was explained to me, the shoes he’d worn during World War I in Europe. He still suffered after-effects from being gassed in the trenches.

I first recall visiting the Judge and Mrs. Bazile — I never heard her first name — at their unpretentious home, a raised cottage in Elmont in rural Hanover County. It had a large screened porch where Mrs. Bazile would serve us ice tea and, occasionally, sugar cookies.

But that first visit was cut short as we all piled into cars and drove to Atlee to inspect the construction site of the Baziles’ dream house, called Retirement. The first floor was roughed out, but walls were yet to come. I collected scraps of lumber and took them home for my collection of blocks: Now I could build an entire imaginary city, not just one structure.

But there was something else about the construction site. It already had a front walkway defined by mature English boxwoods, a shrub I that knew to be the epitome of old Virginia landscaping from an elementary school trip to Stratford Hall and Wakefield plantations. So I asked my mother if the Baziles were building their house on the site of a former dwelling.

No, she explained. Bazile had planted the slow-growing shrubs at least a decade earlier in anticipation of the day they would line the path to his front door. With old boxwoods on the place, the new brick house would appear older than it really was. Even as a boy I was impressed that someone was sophisticated and smart enough to think about such things — or did I find it pretentious? It was probably a little of each.

Judge Bazile, an epicurean, loved and produced wine. I never saw him take a drink and seldom visited the kitchen, but on those occasions was struck by numerous wine bottles that populated the countertops.

Upon the completion of Retirement, visits to the Baziles were more fun than before when we just sat on the porch. There were country roads and woods to explore as well as an ancient, brick-walled cemetery with the remains of a family that predated the Baziles’ occupation of the place.

Inside the new colonial revival house, to the left of the traditional center hall, was a huge living room that I sensed, even at a young age, was ill proportioned. The Oriental rug was too small for the space, adrift like a raft at sea. My father and the judge always sat on a Victorian sofa that was set against a wall and enjoyed intense discussions.

I’d find something to amuse me — Bazile’s library, as expansive a personal library I’ve ever seen. It occupied the entire second floor of a dependency wing and extended above a sunroom. The wooden shelves were arranged, stack after stack, like a public or college library. Every surface was laden to sagging point with books about the Civil War and European, especially French, history.

After the Baziles’ deaths, an heir sold Retirement and the estate was melded into suburbia. Today the brick mansion is called the Manor House and serves as the architectural focal point of the King’s Charter residential development. If most residents think the house dates from the time of Patrick Henry and not Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bazile would be pleased.

On the big screen in “Loving,” actor David Jensen plays the judge. And how does Hollywood depict him? Not as a racist caricature, but considering the law at the time, thoughtful and measured.

The portrait, however, stays in the attic. S

Edwin Slipek is a contributing editor and architectural critic for Style. He is an adjunct instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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