People saw Neil Cargile Jr. in a great many ways. For me, though, an enduring vision was the very first one. I was a junior or senior at Montgomery Bell Academy back then, and there he was at a sorority dance, jitterbugging with one of the cutest girls. He was six or seven years older than she was, and had already been a Navy fighter pilot. Everybody in the ballroom—particularly the girls—was aware of his presence.
Neil was born May 21, 1928, the eldest son of Eleanor and Neil Cargile, who owned Allen Manufacturing Co. At the age of 12, Neil set up a machine shop in his parents’ West Meade garage and built motor scooters out of washing machine engines. As a teenager he and a friend founded the Southern Maintenance Co., a clinic for putting ailing motor scooters and cars back in running order. Still later, he would transfer his mechanical skills to airplanes.
At age 16, Neil built an airplane out of surplus parts of a World War II plane. A daredevil pilot from the get-go, Neil soon flew loop-the-loops and once buzzed his father on the Belle Meade Country Club golf course. Mr. Cargile, BA’26, BE’27, who had been Vanderbilt’s football captain in 1926, promptly grounded Neil for two months.
Neil entered Vanderbilt University in the fall of 1946 as a freshman in the School of Engineering. His plan was to become an aeronautical engineer. On weekends, when he wasn’t playing football, he usually was working on a plane in his parents’ yard. He often drove to Jackson, Tenn., where he kept several crop-dusting planes. He earned extra spending money by spraying cotton fields.
On one occasion Neil was cropdusting with a couple of other guys in Madison County, Tenn., loading their sprayers with a poison by using a pump. When the pump malfunctioned, Neil grabbed a garden hose to siphon the poison. To start the liquid flowing, he sucked on the end of the rubber hose, casually spitting out the small amount of poison that got in his mouth. With that task completed, he and his crew went to a “meat-and-three” restaurant in Jackson. There, in the midst of lunch, Neil suddenly grew rigid and fell to the floor unconscious. His buddies revived him by throwing cold water on his face. They finished lunch and drove back to the hangar. Neil said he was fine, and they picked up where they’d left off that morning.
Neil left Vanderbilt after his sophomore year to join the U.S. Navy, where he became an excellent pilot. Returning to Nashville after his discharge, Neil re-entered Vanderbilt, graduating in 1954 with a degree in mechanical engineering. During all this time, he continued to work as a crop-duster, piloting his own plane and hiring others to fly planes he owned.
In 1955, Neil married Connie Stevens, who was seven years younger. In 1956, Connie had a baby boy, whom they named Neil Cargile II. Five years later Connie gave birth to a little girl, whom she and Neil named Cornelia. The next year Connie and Neil divorced.
Neil’s second wife’s name was Tommie. He called her “Tommie Tomato.” They had a son named Hastings. That marriage also failed.
Neil became engaged in designing, building and operating mammoth dredges that were used to deepen river channels and harbors and to find gold and silver, often in remote parts of the world. His friends were under the impression he made a great deal of money in the dredging business, only to lose it and then turn around and make it all over again.
The first time Neil ever wore women’s clothes in public may have been at a Halloween party at the Palm Bay Club and Marina in an exclusive area of Miami. Four ladies talked Neil into impersonating Dolly Parton. Neil won the prize for best costume, and his picture was posted on the club’s bulletin board.
Some months later, George and Em Crook of Nashville happened to be at the club, where they saw the photograph on the bulletin board. Em, BA’67, said, “My God, that’s Neil Cargile.” Slowly, rumors of other cross-dressing excursions by Neil began to circulate in Nashville.
“The other occasions were costume parties, too; they were always out of town,” stated a 1995 profile of Neil in The New Yorker. “But then Cargile began to dress up in Nashville. At first he did it at private parties and with a degree of subtlety. He’d wear a blazer, a shirt and a tie—and a kilt. Instead of the traditional knee-length woolen socks, however, he’d put on black stockings and high heels; or he’d wear the kilt and heels with a formal dinner jacket.”
Some of Neil’s close friends asked him if he had lost his mind. Neil assured them that he was not gay but was simply having a good time.
By this time, Mr. Cargile Sr. had died. Had he been alive, Neil said, “He’d have killed me.” When Mrs. Cargile heard about what her son was doing, she confronted him. “You are the best-looking man in Nashville, Neil. Why on earth would you want to dress up in women’s clothes?” Neil replied, “It’s fun, Mom.”
Jeweler Michael Corzine, BA’65, has colorful Neil Cargile stories, too. “I decided to have a cocktail party. Neil came, uninvited, in a big red dress and a big old wig and a hat. I didn’t notice it, but I later learned he was dancing on top of my marble coffee table with his girlfriend, whose name, I think, was Peaches. The next morning when I got up, my maid said, ‘Your coffee table is cracked all the way down the middle.’ … I called my good friend Wally Graham, and he said, ‘Neil broke it, dancing on it last night.’ So I called Neil, and I said, ‘You have just broken a $3,500 coffee table, and I want you to pay for it.’ When he said he didn’t have any idea of paying for it, I called my attorneys at Bass, Berry and Sims. They wouldn’t handle my claim because Neil was also a client of theirs.
“Finally, I called Neil again. I said, ‘Everybody knows you broke the coffee table dancing on it last night. I’ve just got to tell you that in that big blond wig and that big Gucci dress and that Hermes belt and those Jourdan shoes, you are a very big woman.’ And he said, ‘I am, aren’t I?’ And he sent me a check. But I think it was only because I flattered him.”
In the spring of 1994, the same year his best-selling novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was published, writer John Berendt visited Nashville and heard about Neil Cargile Jr. The following August, Berendt called Neil and asked to meet him to learn more about his motivation for dressing in drag. Cargile was open to the idea, and they agreed to meet in New York City when Cargile would be up there with his girlfriend.
Berendt’s article about Neil appeared in The New Yorker in January 1995. It came complete with photos of Cargile in a business suit and in the festive female outfit of “SheNeil,” as he called his female alter-ego. Nashvillians made a run on local bookstores to get a copy. A few months later organizers of Nashville’s annual Oyster Easter Benefit nominated Cargile both Oyster King and Oyster Queen.
John Bransford Jr., BA’55, a lifelong friend of Neil’s, said, “I asked him what he did it for, and he said he enjoyed the excitement of it.” John continued, “In every other way, he was normal as can be.”
Not long before his death on Aug. 2, 1995, Neil returned to Nashville from Guyana, where he said he had “dumped every penny” into a failed business venture. While there he contracted a fatal case of malaria. Up until the time of his death, Neil remained president of American Marine and Machinery Co., a Nashville manufacturer of dredging equipment.
Friends were stunned at his passing. They knew there was a possibility that he would die prematurely, but thought, if that happened, it would be the result of a plane crash or some other horrific accident because of the aggressive, flamboyant way in which Neil lived.
Bransford admitted, “I didn’t think anything could kill him, as tough as he was. I would not have been surprised if he had died in an air crash, but I was really surprised that a disease got him.
“He was a hell of a nice guy, and very bright. He was about as good an engineer as I’ve ever seen in my life—extremely creative. He lived life fully; I’ll tell you that. He never forgot his old friends, even though he’d taken up a different life.”
This essay has been adapted with permission from Heritage, Highballs and Hijinks: Colorful Characters I Have Known by Ridley Wills II, BA’56. Wills, the author of 13 books, is an emeritus member of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust.