Book Review: Forever Belle: Sallie Ward of Kentucky

Forever Belle: Sallie Ward of Kentucky. By Randolph Paul Runyon. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2024. Softcover, 170 pp., $24.95.

Reviewed by Sara L. Elliott

Sallie Ward Lawrence Hunt Armstrong Downs, a not unattractive woman, was known for her charisma, willfulness, and a striking fashion sense. Author, Randolph Paul Runyon, quotes from Dr. Thomas D. Clark’s book The Kentucky the best description of anyone ever! He described a bejeweled Sallie Ward as glittering “like a drunken conquistador’s dream of El Dorado.” (XV)

She may not have been from El Dorado, but Sallie was born into privilege in Louisville, Kentucky in 1827. Her parents, Robert Johnson Ward and Emily Flournoy Ward, were leading members of Louisville society. Ward was a successful businessman, leading a large-scale shipping/importation business. The Wards had eight children with Sallie being the second-born. Sallie was such a source of interest to both men and women; people named their children after her. There were steamboats and livestock named after her and women of all ages wanted to dress, and act like her.

Despite a lack of personal correspondence and papers from Sallie, Runyon has put together a lively account of Sallie, and indeed, her whole family, in Forever Belle. Letters from family and friends, and gossip columns from state and national newspapers and magazines tell the story of a woman who lived life her way and consequences be damned.  Whether it was wearing Turkish trousers, smoking a cigar or wearing rouge, Sallie led a life full of fashionable clothing, shocking behavior for the time period, and a knack for filling columns in the social pages.

Sallie married four times, divorced once, and widowed twice. She had three children with her second husband, Robert Hunt. Only one, John Wesley, survived childhood. Always the “belle of the ball”, Sallie was never without male attention, even to the point of being the catalyst for a duel. Her choice of husbands, except for the first, seemed to be based on love or the necessity for a support system. Her first husband, Timothy Bigelow Lawrence, of Boston was a complete contrast to her. Sallie was used to doing things her way. The Lawrences were stereotypical Bostonians; somber people who lived socially rigid lives. While wearing outlandish costumes to parties and sleeping late were trying for the Lawrences, Sallie’s wearing rouge was completely unacceptable. After Bigelow insisted that Sallie stop wearing the cosmetic, Sallie’s mother advised her to “seem to obey, but do as you please. If you use proper caution, he can never know it.” (20) Not surprisingly, the Lawrences divorced a year later.

Although Forever Belle is ostensibly the biography of Sallie Ward, Runyon also includes the story of the Ward family. From sister Malvina’s elopement at 15 to brother Matt’s murder of a schoolteacher and his politically acquired acquittal, the reader is given the background and family dynamics that influenced Sallie’s life. He also includes a short biography of Sallie’s granddaughter, Ruth Hunt aka Diana Bourbon, a writer, actress, producer who worked with such stars as Orson Welles.

Readers interested in 19th century social history will find this book fascinating and enjoyable. Although Sallie was not from El Dorado, she was an intriguing woman who still inspires talk almost 200 years after her birth.


Sara L. Elliott is a retired museum professional. As park manager at Waveland State Historic Site in Lexington, Kentucky, Ms. Elliott introduced the full story of enslaved people for the first time at a Kentucky historic site. She continued her efforts in the telling of Kentucky’s history through her work as director at Liberty Hall Historic Site and Director of Museum Collections and Exhibitions at the Kentucky Historical Society both in Frankfort Kentucky.

1 Response to Book Review: Forever Belle: Sallie Ward of Kentucky

  1. “Sallie’s mother advised her to “seem to obey, but do as you please. If you use proper caution, he can never know it.” That is advice we could all live by.

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