Born in the Confederate White House and named for her mother, Varina Anne was the youngest of the Davis children. She was known for most of her life as "Winnie," a nickname her father had first bestowed on her mother. According to Varina Anne, she was told that "Winnie" was "an Indian name meaning bright, or sunny" (Davis Papers, 8:169).
Winnie received her early education from her mother during the family's postwar travels, and subsequently was enrolled in boarding schools in Karlsruhe, Germany, and in Paris. She inherited her mother's literary interests and later authored a biographical monograph (1888) and two novels (1888, 1895), all published under the name Varina Anne Jefferson Davis.
"The Daughter of the Confederacy," as John B. Gordon anointed her in 1886, lived with her parents at Beauvoir in the 1880s and accompanied her father to numerous public appearances. Beloved by veterans' groups, she became an icon of the Lost Cause.
The adoration became a burden when Winnie fell in love with Alfred C. (Fred) Wilkinson, a Syracuse, New York, attorney whose grandfather had been a leading abolitionist. Public turmoil created by the five-year romance drove Winnie into periods of deep emotional distress. The couple finally received the blessings of both Jefferson and Varina Davis and were briefly engaged in 1890. Although their breakup has always been blamed on the public outcry, recent investigation seems to indicate that it was due more to questions about Wilkinson's financial situation.
Winnie moved to New York City with her mother in 1891 and continued her literary pursuits. She contracted "malarial gastritis" while visiting in Rhode Island and died at age thirty-four. In keeping with her status among ex-Confederates, she was buried with full military honors at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.