Elise Ayers Sanguinetti
Edel Elise Ayers Sanguinetti (1926-2014) was a novelist and journalist from Alabama who tried to counter southern stereotypes typical of journalism in the North. Sanguinetti’s published fiction—a short story followed by four novels—all center around one upper-class southern family whose members defied popular images of southerners as ignorant, bigoted, poor, and socially inept. Her career as a writer for the Anniston Star reflected her concern for objective reporting, and her formation of The Ayers Family Institute for Community Journalism provides a legacy to perpetuate her support of reportorial integrity.
Elise Sanguinetti Sanguinetti was born on January 26, 1926, in Anniston, Calhoun County, to Harry Mell Ayers, owner and publisher of the Anniston Star, and his Norwegian-born wife, Edel Ytterboe. Elise and her brother, Harry Brandt, grew up with ample social and economic advantages. Sanguinetti’s father, until his death in 1964, most influenced her literary career by encouraging her early creativity and later allowing her to write articles for the Star, and her mother contributed to her daughter’s literary interests through unwavering dedication to education, most particularly by supporting St. Olaf’s College in Northfield, Minnesota, a private liberal arts school co-founded by her parents and their friends. Her 1969 publication of The Old Main, a short historical novel, details her family’s efforts to bring Norwegian culture to North America.
Elise and Harry Ayers as Children Sanguinetti attended school through the eighth grade in Anniston. She then attended Ashley Hall School for girls in Charleston, South Carolina, although she found the institution too strict and spent most of her time writing stories. After graduating from Ashley Hall in 1946, Sanguinetti attended St. Olaf’s College for a year, which she found to be a relief from the enforced strictness of Ashley Hall. The following year, Sanguinetti enrolled at the University of Alabama and took a creative writing class. She then began to consider a future as a serious writer and began a novel about a Norwegian family, a work that she never completed. During her second year at the university, creative writing professor Hudson Strode invited Sanguinetti to join his writing class, an elite group of 14 students that included Harper Lee. Strode’s influence on developing successful writers gave Sanguinetti the confidence to pursue writing as a career. The summer after her graduation in 1950, with a degree in French and English, Sanguinetti attended the University of Oslo in Norway. Although she found the school unchallenging, the trip satisfied her desire to visit Norway.
After returning from a summer abroad in 1950, Elise Ayers married Phillip Anthony Sanguinetti, a native of Norfolk, Virginia. The pair was earlier introduced by mutual friends at a social function and found they had a common interest in writing: while she divided her time between creative fiction and newspaper reporting, he published scientific articles as well as newspaper editorials. His work as a chemical engineer for Monsanto would take them to St. Louis, Missouri; Leverkusen, Germany; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The couple never had children and concentrated on their individual careers. While living in Pittsburgh, Sanguinetti wrote her first short story, “To You, Frere Twig,” which was published in the August 1960 issue of Mademoiselle. About the growing pains of an awkward southern boy, the short story was eventually expanded and published in 1962 as Sanguinetti’s first novel, The Last of the Whitfields.
The Dowager Cover She published three other novels within the decade following the Whitfields: The New Girl (1964), The Dowager (1968), and McBee’s Station (1971). In these works, Sanguinetti writes about the experiences she knows best, those of an upper-middle class family that lives south of the Mason-Dixon line, both geographically and culturally. Her primary characters, the Allison Whitfields, consist of the parents and two children, Arthur, the only son and last bearer of the Whitfield name, and Felicia, a younger daughter. This family is the basis for the many experiences that center upon various stages of development and change throughout life. Felicia’s passing from childhood into adolescence, her wayward brother’s being sent to a private school in Connecticut, and the racial integration of their hometown are among the adventures recounted during the two-year coverage of the family’s life. Sanguinetti’s initial plan was to create a number of books dealing with the chronological development of several people in general and Felicia Carr Whitfield in particular, and the novels generally succeed in that effort. The New Girl focuses on the growing-up years of daughter Felicia; The Dowager recounts the personal unhappiness of cousin Winky Carr’s relationship with the city of Charleston; and McBee’s Station revisits the themes of loss and love among extended family members.
At the time of writing Whitfields, Sanguinetti hoped to correct impressions in the northern press about southern life. Her goal was to present southerners as rounded characters capable of goodness as well as evil, intelligence as well as ignorance, success as well as failure, grace as well as garishness. In short, as a group, southerners were no different from any other group of people, no better, no worse, exhibiting the same frailties and achieving similar accomplishments.
Elise Sanguinetti and Truman Capote After her mother’s death in 1977, Sanguinetti took over ownership of the Anniston Star along with her brother, Brandt Ayers. They ensured the continuation of the Star in future by establishing the Ayers Family Institute for Community Journalism. The institute directs the Star as a teaching platform for journalism education throughout the state, with the University of Alabama and Jacksonville State University as primary beneficiaries. Sanguinetti died on November 17, 2014.
With four published novels and hundreds of unpublished short stories in her private collection, Sanguinetti found that her dedication to her work was time consuming and often lonely, making her wish at times she had never seen a typewriter, but also realizing that writing was very important to her. She maintained that she knew of no noticeable influences upon her style of writing, but wrote from her own personality and experiences, although she admired many writers. Sanguinetti’s style is also a culmination of her practice and experimentation writing in several mediums such as newspaper articles, short stories, and novels.
Works by Elise Sanguinetti
“To You, Frere Twig” (1960)
The Last of the Whitfields (1962)
The New Girl (1964)
The Dowager (1968)
McBee’s Station (1971)
Bass, Sarah Woodruff. “Elise Sanguinetti: An Alabama Author.” Unpublished biographical sketch. Samford University, 1968.
Buzbee, Peggy. “Elise Sanguinetti: An Introduction and Interpretation.” M.A. thesis. Samford University, 1970.