If you forced me to name a great, undiscovered part of America, I’d nominate the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In the popular imagination, Mississippi stands only for backwards. But when my sister was a graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi from 1993-1995, she took me to the Gulf Coast & I found that I had to let go of my preconceived biases. I thought the coast was great – mile after mile of beautiful beachfront on U.S. Highway 90, along with beautiful homes, seafood restaurants, and mega casinos.
By reputation, Pass Christian (pronounced christy-Yan) is one of the nicest places on the coast. It’s long been a weekend retreat for wealthy folks from New Orleans. In the 1960s, a woman named Nana Brazo bought an enormous beachfront home in Pass Christian and immediately set about making the home even bigger and filling it with opulent furnishings. But, in March 1969, a man tied up three of Nana’s household staff, then murdered her. That long-forgotten murder is the subject of Dan Ellis’ book Lady in Red.
Nana – from Mississippi to Chicago and Back
Nana Shakle was born in 1914 in Gulfport, Mississippi, into a devout Roman Catholic family. Despite the fact that Nana would always be an observant Roman Catholic, she eventually fell in with one of Al Capone’s lieutenants who took her to Chicago. In 1934, Nana became pregnant and had an abortion. Through the doctor who performed the abortion, Nana met Dr. Sylvester Brazo, a wealthy plastic surgeon and psychiatrist who provided medical services to Chicago’s gangsters.
Though Sylvester was more than 20 years older than Nana, they married. When he retired from medicine in 1956, they moved to Mississippi. Sylvester died of a heart attack in 1958, leaving Nana about $3 million.
Nana’s life took on a soap opera quality. Materially, she had the best of everything. Soon, she wed a Polish immigrant with a murky past and she adopted a son. The second marriage was very stormy. Nana had many affairs with wealthy men along the Gulf Coast. Eventually, the second marriage ended in a bitter divorce.
Much of Lady in Red centers around two stories. First, Ellis tells of Nana’s experiences with her psychiatrist, Dr. Dale Olivier from 1964-69. Nana was a demanding patient who observed none of the traditional doctor-patient boundaries. Second, Ellis recounts the investigation into Nana’s murder from the perspective of a Mississippi Highway Patrolman named Bubba Parka. Parka’s investigation unveils multiple suspects and a tangled web of shady characters. Both stories are well told and quite interesting.
Ellis’ prose is only OK. I found nothing on Dr. Olivier or Bubba Parka online, so I’m guessing that those names are pseudonyms. I wanted to know about Ellis’ sources, but he tells the reader nothing. (He does quote the local papers quite a bit). Also, the stories that Nana told are a bit hard to believe, but Ellis never comments on their veracity. The reader frequently wonders what to believe.
As a final note, the book opens with a weak, overlong introduction on the history of Pass Christian. Similarly, it closes with an overlong description of Hurricane Camille in August 1969. (To be fair, Ellis does eventually tie the storm to the Brazo case).
Despite these shortcomings, Lady in Red is excellent in places. Nana’s story is so compelling, so bizarre that the pages turn with ease.
I bought Lady in Red on Amazon.com as an e-book. It was worth the $5.99 that I paid, but I can’t give it more than 6.5 out of 10. At the end, the reader is left with too many loose threads for the book to be fully satisfying. Still, Nana was a great (if tragic) story and I’m glad that she hasn’t been completely forgotten.