Olivia Manning: The First Lady of Football

Paul Costello
by Julia Reed - Louisiana - August/September 2012

She's more than just the matriarch of the South’s most famous football family. She’s also a champion of good causes and good times 

Olivia Manning is sitting in her Garden District living room, drinking champagne with two of her closest friends, and looking slightly askance at a hand-painted sign on the mantel reading “Will You Be Our Queen?” The friends are there for moral support; the champagne and sign are courtesy of a delegation from the Audubon Nature Institute, which operates the New Orleans zoo. The group had come to implore Olivia to be chair of the following year’s fund-raiser, known as the Zoo-To-Do, and they’d pulled out all the stops, bringing along the Institute’s chair as well as a boom box playing the zoo’s unofficial theme song, the Meters classic “They All Ask’d for You.” By the time I turned up—after pushing past the almost constant handful of tourists who come to pose in front of the house where Peyton and Eli Manning grew up—she’d already said yes. “After all that,” she said in her soft Southern drawl, giving me about half an eye roll, “how in the world could I say no?”

Olivia Williams Manning is no stranger to being queen. She grew up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the eldest daughter in a family that was its own brand of royalty. In 1907, her grandfather and great-uncle founded the Williams Brothers Store, a legendary (and still- thriving) institution in nearby Williamsville that was featured as early as 1939 in National Geographic, where it was cited as a source for everything from “needles to horse collars,” as well as for being the nation’s top seller of snuff. Her mother, Frances, reigned as May Queen of her junior college and became the second female pilot to be licensed in Mississippi. In Olivia’s senior year at Ole Miss, the same year she became Mrs. Archie Manning, she was elected queen of the homecoming court; her new husband was the most famous—and beloved—quarterback in the SEC.

In New Orleans, where the Mannings have lived since 1971, she is known as a champion of causes, including the Red Cross (she’s on the national board) and Longue Vue House & Gardens, as well as a gracious hostess. (Just before the Saints won the Super Bowl two and a half years ago—by prevailing against Peyton’s Indianapolis Colts—she held a black-and-gold party for legions of female friends, including Mrs. Drew Brees and Saints co-owner Rita Benson Le-Blanc.) Finally, to pro ball fans everywhere, she is nothing less than the heart and soul of a great American football dynasty—mother of no fewer than two Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks as well as an always fashionable fixture in the stands.

For all that, says Mimi Bowen, owner of the New Orleans boutique Mimi and one of the friends in Manning’s living room that day, “Olivia really doesn’t like to be the center of attention.” Which is not to say she’s ever been a wilting flower. “Oh God, no. She loves to laugh and have a good time. But she’d rather be the one who stirs the pot and then sits back to watch what happens.”