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Anne Rivers Siddons, Novelist Whose Muse Was the New South, Dies at 83

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Anne Rivers Siddons, whose popular novels, set largely in the South, took female characters on emotional journeys that touched on the region’s racial and social attitudes, died on Wednesday at her home in Charleston, S.C. She was 83.

Her stepson David Siddons said the cause was lung cancer.

Ms. Siddons had been an advertising copywriter and a magazine writer when she started writing novels in the 1970s. Her breakthrough, “Peachtree Road” (1988), was a generational saga about Atlanta’s evolution since World War II told through the stories of two cousins.

She was urged by her friend, the writer Pat Conroy, to write a major novel that would reflect her ambivalence about Atlanta, her adopted home. She had long admired its vigor but felt that its relentless growth had gone too far.

“As Ms. Siddons offered argument after argument about why she couldn’t do the book,” The Atlanta Journal and Constitution wrote in 1988, “she mentioned that a woman friend of hers had just died. ‘The South killed her the day she was born; it just took her that long to die.’”

Hearing that, Mr. Conroy told her, “That’s the opening of your great book about Atlanta.”

It was, indeed the first line of the prologue in “Peachtree Road,” in which she replaced “she” with the name of one of her lead characters, Lucy Bondurant Chastain Venable.

“Peachtree Road” invited comparisons to “Gone With the Wind,” an earlier sweeping novel with Atlanta as its backdrop. In his review in The Journal and Constitution, Bob Summer wrote that Ms. Siddons had evoked the city as well as Margaret Mitchell had.

He added, “Ms. Siddons skillfully weaves bright threads of humor, nuance and an exacting observation of the social mores of the times she is writing about; surely she is the Jane Austen of modern Atlanta.”

ImageCreditHarperCollins

Ms. Siddons defined herself as a storyteller, like Mr. Conroy, and resisted being categorized as a women’s writer. Still, her understanding of women’s struggles imbued all her novels, up through her final one, “The Girls of August” (2014), about a group of longtime friends whose annual ritual of oceanfront gatherings is interrupted when one of them dies.

“All my books are about women taking journeys they might not want to take,” she told an interviewer in 2008. “It’s about finding wholeness. I know so few families anymore, and how can we have whole families if we don’t have whole women?”

Sybil Anne Rivers was born on Jan 9, 1936, in Fairburn, Ga., a small town about 20 miles southwest of Atlanta. Her father, Marvin, was a patent lawyer, and her mother, Katherine (Kitchen) Rivers, was the secretary to a high school principal.

She was a young Southern belle: a cheerleader and homecoming queen in high school and a popular sorority sister at Auburn University in Alabama. But in 1957, early in the civil rights movement, she broke with custom by writing two columns for the school newspaper supporting integration.

“What we are advocating when we gather in howling mobs like animals and throw stones and wreck automobiles and beat helpless individuals is wrong, and I don’t care from which of the myriad angles you choose to look at it,” she wrote.

She was fired after the second column was published.

(In 2013, Auburn’s College of Liberal Arts named Ms. Siddons the first winner of its Women’s Leadership Institute Lifetime Achievement Award.)

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, she moved to Atlanta, where she worked in advertising and as a writer and editor at Atlanta magazine.

“I saw that my writing was a gift and not just a twitch,” she told People magazine in 1991.

Essays and humor pieces that she had written for Atlanta, House Beautiful and Georgia magazines were collected in her first book, “John Chancellor Makes Me Cry” (1975).

Her first novel, “Heartbreak Hotel,” followed a year later. Inspired by her experiences on the school paper at Auburn, it tells the story of a similar act of defiance by a popular sorority sister on the campus of fictional Randolph University in Alabama.

“That book spoke to me,” the novelist Cassandra King, Mr. Conroy’s wife, said by phone. “I thought this was a woman of my generation who had had the courage to do what she had done at Auburn. She really stuck her neck out and took risks.”

ImageCreditGallery Books

“Heartbreak Hotel” was made into a movie, “Heart of Dixie” (1989), starring Ally Sheedy, Virginia Madsen and Phoebe Cates and directed by Martin Davidson.

Ms. Siddons’s writing career was derailed in the early 1980s by severe depression. She didn’t write for three years, but after being prescribed medication and working with a therapist, she returned with “Homeplace” (1987).

“If I couldn’t write, it would have killed me,” she told BookPage, a book review publication, in 1998.

In all, she wrote 15 more novels, many of which made The New York Times’s best-seller list.

Jamie Raab, who as the president of Grand Central Publishing edited Ms. Siddons’s last three books, said that she created characters that resonated deeply with her readers.

“When we met, we started talking about her characters like they were personal friends of ours,” Ms. Raab, now the president of Celadon Books, said by phone. “That’s how we bonded.”

Ms. Siddons had thought of an idea for a new novel — about the friendship between a white girl and black girl at the time of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches in 1965 — before she died, David Siddons said.

In addition to him, Ms. Siddons, who had homes in Charleston and in Brooklin, Me., is survived by three other stepsons, Kem, Rick and Lee Siddons, and three step-grandchildren. Her husband Heyward Siddons, died in 2014.

Ms. Siddons came to understand that her desire to write was a reaction to her traditional upbringing.

“The South is hard on women,” she told People, “partly because of the emphasis on looks and charm. No matter what I did, I always ended up with this hollow feeling. It finally hit me.

“That’s why I wrote: I am writing about the journey we take to find out what lives in that hole.”

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Editorial

Johni Cerny Dies at 76; Helped the Famous Find Their Roots

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Johni Cerny, the chief genealogist for the PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” who helped some 200 famous people — among them Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Senator Bernie Sanders and Speaker Nancy Pelosi — trace their ancestry, died on Wednesday in Lehi, Utah, near Salt Lake City. She was 76.

Deborah Christensen, Ms. Cerny’s partner of 23 years, said the cause was coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure.

“Johni Cerny was the proverbial dean of American genealogical research,” Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor who is a host and executive producer of “Finding Your Roots,” said in a statement. In an email message on Thursday, he described her work as “transforming raw data into narratives and metaphors about diversity and our common humanity.”

Ms. Cerny’s passion for the field began in childhood, for intensely personal reasons.

Jonnette Elaine Cerny was born on Aug. 27, 1943, in Kansas City, Mo. Her mother was Vivian Elaine (West) Cerny, and the man she was told was her father was John Steve Cerny, a soldier in World War II who later worked in the heating and air-conditioning business. She was the oldest of five children.

The family later moved to Southern California. She enrolled at the University of Missouri but transferred to Brigham Young University in Utah, where she received a bachelor’s degree in social work and genealogical research in 1969.

She was always fascinated by family trees. Her maternal grandmother, Bertha Smith West, had been adopted and always wanted to learn the identity of her biological parents. Johni was 19 when she began that research, but it was not until long after her grandmother’s death in 1972 that she was able to use DNA — essentially a 21st-century genealogical tool — to find their names.

Meanwhile, Ms. Cerny had long suspected that John Cerny was not her biological father. It was not until 2018, however, that with the help of DNA she was able to identify the man who was: Charles Owen Williams.

According to Nick Sheedy, a researcher at Lineages, Ms. Cerny’s family history and genealogical research company, he and Ms. Cerny signed up with “every database out there” and the process took about nine months.

Mr. Williams had died in 1960, but Ms. Cerny soon met a whole new circle of relatives on her father’s side.

Ms. Cerny did not go into genealogical research immediately after college. From 1972 to 1979 she served in the Army, reaching the rank of captain. She returned to Utah because of its research resources, particularly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library.

She founded Lineages in 1983, before most computerized databases and long before $99 mail-order DNA reports. As a social media tribute to her observed, she spent a lot of time “looking through microfilm and toting bags of quarters for the copy machines.”

Ms. Cerny was an editor and author of “The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy” (1984) and “The Library: A Guide to the LDS Family History Library” (1986). A favorite research subject of hers was Germanna, the Virginia settlement of Germans who in 1718 were tricked into indentured servitude. She and Gary J. Zimmerman published several “Before Germanna” books, including histories of the Baumgartner, Dieter, Moyer and Willheit families.

She began working on PBS projects with Professor Gates in 2006 as a researcher on “African American Lives,” which Virginia Heffernan, in a review in The New York Times, called “the most exciting and stirring documentary on any subject to appear on television in a long time.” Ms. Cerny also worked on “Faces of America” (2010) and “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” (2013).

From 2012 through 2019, she was the chief researcher for “Finding Your Roots.” Her subjects on that series also included Stephen Colbert, Larry David, Queen Latifah, Representative John Lewis, Meryl Streep and Tina Turner.

Ms. Cerny was never one to pinpoint a favorite project, associates said, but in a 2019 interview she mentioned an episode with the comedian Sarah Silverman.

“Her comment just took the words right out of my mouth,” Ms. Cerny said. “She was looking at a photograph of family members she had never seen before. And she just said, ‘I wish I could crawl into this picture and know what’s going on in there.’”

In addition to Dr. Christensen, a psychologist, Ms. Cerny is survived by a brother, Jack Cerny, and three sisters, Antoinette Greenstone, Nanette Muirhead and Stevette Shinkle. She helped raise Dr. Christensen’s sons, Tim, Matthew and Jake, and her daughters, Anna Ward and Rachel Stowe. There are 11 grandchildren.

There was little doubt that Ms. Cerny loved her career. In a 2019 video, she admitted to a workday that began around 7:30 a.m. and ended at about 6:30 p.m. — and to a habit of waking up in the middle of the night with an idea and going straight to her computer. Her work, she said, was “very addictive.”

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Editorial

Review: At the Philharmonic, New Music for a Changing World

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Sometimes, depending on current events, a new piece can take on unexpected resonance. Before the New York Philharmonic gave the premiere of Ellen Reid’s “When the World as You’ve Known It Doesn’t Exist” on Thursday, she asked the audience whether anyone, like her, “has felt that way recently.”

Her question drew some laughter. She explained that the long title of this 11-minute orchestra work is meant to convey the experience of a questioning journey through a realm where once-familiar surroundings suddenly seem different, both scary and wondrous.

Conducted by Jaap van Zweden at David Geffen Hall, “When the World” was the latest offering in the Philharmonic’s Project 19 initiative to commission 19 female composers to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Ms. Reid, whose opera “Prism” won the Pulitzer Prize for Music last year, also describes herself as a sound artist. The opening of her new piece came across as a wash of alluring sounds, effects and colors, with high-pitched strings, fluttering winds and softly wailing brass bustling along — yet with a jolt of inner tension. The whole sound mass then glides downward and becomes more agitated.

Suddenly, thematic bits protrude ominously from various instruments, and the violins try to lead the journey into dark terrain with a slinky, elusive melody. The music goes through fitful episodes, with percolating riffs, pummeling percussion and gratingly dissonant clusters. Throughout, three sopranos (Eliza Bagg, Martha Cluver and Estelí Gomez) sing wordless lyrical fragments and soft sonorities, lending an eerily angelic touch. Mr. van Zweden drew a lush, suspenseful performance from the Philharmonic.

The orchestra’s two previous Project 19 premieres felt shoehorned into standard-repertory programs. This time, at least in the first half, Mr. van Zweden choose recent works that complemented Ms. Reid’s score.

Following the premiere, the star soprano Renée Fleming joined the orchestra as the soloist in two songs from the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg’s “The Strand Settings,” written for her, and two songs by Björk, orchestrated by Hans Ek. (Ms. Fleming recorded both works on her 2017 album “Distant Light.”)

Mr. Hillborg’s songs use sections of Mark Strand’s 45-part poem “Dark Harbor” as texts. One describes the “sickness of angels” during their “brief term on earth,” with final images of “kisses blown out of heaven.” The vocal lines shift from clipped, nearly declaimed passages to sensually lyrical phrases, elegantly rendered by Ms. Fleming and cushioned by the orchestra’s hazy, spiraling and pungent sounds. The other basks in nostalgia for a moment when two lovers felt safe from the elements. The text brought out Coplandesque musical warmth, with achingly lyrical lines written with Ms. Fleming’s sumptuous voice in mind.

The Björk song “Virus” likens a deep love to a virus that “needs a body.” Before singing it, Ms. Fleming spoke to the audience to say that, with a deadly virus breaking out in China, the song may now have disturbing overtones. The arrangement brought percolating animation to Björk’s music. Ms. Fleming, holding a hand microphone like a pop singer, performed it tenderly. She also sounded splendid in the wistfully romantic “All Is Full of Love.”

After intermission, Mr. van Zweden led the Philharmonic in Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. The performance, though sometimes marred by shaky brass playing and Mr. van Zweden’s tendency to push the music forcefully, had impressive breadth, structural clarity and Wagnerian heft. But it felt like an entirely different concert.

New York Philharmonic

The program repeats through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; nyphil.org.

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Editorial

A Billion-Dollar Scandal Turns the ‘King of Manuscripts’ Into the ‘Madoff of France’

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Mr. Lhéritier seems an unlikely figure to spark this mania. He was raised in a small village in the east of France, the son of a plumber, and he wrote “self-taught” in the diplomas section of his Who’s Who entry. Other than some handsome volumes he published to hype his collection, there aren’t a lot of books in his home.

Which is a villa, valued at $6 million, with a swimming pool, a panoramic view of the coast and, rather incongruously, a number of chickens roaming the backyard. In an expansive living room crammed with photographs and art, a huge TV played a loop of burning logs, right next to a log-less, ornate hearth.

“It’s a good time to save money,” Mr. Lhéritier said with a shrug.

None of it belongs to him anymore. All of his assets have been confiscated by the authorities. A judge has allowed him to continue living here as his case is adjudicated.

But he seemed every bit the lord of the manor, wearing an electric-blue sport jacket over a Hitchcockian frame. With surprising serenity and flashes of wit, he argued that he was the victim of petty French officials, who he believes were embarrassed by and resented his success. The logic of his narrative could be hard to follow, and the facts maddeningly difficult to pin down. He lectured, backtracked, dissembled and fibbed. (In a postinterview email, he claimed to be 82 years old, for some reason.)

As Mr. Lhéritier thumbed endlessly through receipts, catalogs and lists, his show-and-tell lacked neither vigor nor conviction.

“One day, if you want to be a crook, ask me about it,” he said at one point, smiling. “Because it’s a lot of work.”

Seventeen years ago, Mr. Lhéritier crashed through the doors of the genteel market for manuscripts with all the subtlety of a famished wild boar. That Einstein collection was the first he divvied into virtual shares. Soon, representatives of Aristophil were rampaging through auctions around Europe and the United States, outbidding everyone for anything of quality.

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