Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Charleston Social Diary

Geometric gardens at Middleton Place in Charleston, South Carolina, home to America's Oldest Landscaped Gardens.
Charleston Social Diary: Random Charleston Musings
by Ned Brown

If you are reading this, then you are probably like me in that you like the social and lifestyle doings in local newspapers and magazines.

During the summer, I often peruse the Southampton Press and the Easthampton Star while sitting in Candy Kitchen or Bobby Van’s. This week, in the Shiny Sheet (DBA-The Palm Beach Daily News), they are featuring stories about feral cats on the island, the Ferrari owners show at the Breakers and the newly rebuilt Palm Beach Publix supermarket – all socially important “hard-news” stories.

The Shiny Sheet.
The Riviera Times online.
The Charleston Mercury.
Sunday morning. Sitting on a park bench with coffee and the Times. Life could be worse.
Another favorite publication is the digital version of The Riviera Times, which is not read by many Americans, yet thoroughly enjoyable. It covers the social, business and event doings between Cannes and Monte Carlo. Nearly every week, there is a story about Monaco’s reigning couple, Prince Albert and the stunning Princess Charlene. And this week, Prince Albert promoted his nephew, Andrea Casiraghi (Princess Caroline of Hanover’s son) to Corporal in the Prince’s Caribiniers military guard. 
And then, in my beloved adopted city of Charleston, SC, there is the “unusual” bi-weekly Charleston Mercury restarted just a decade ago, and published by Charles Waring III.

Charles is a lovely Charleston gentleman. He graduated with a B.A. in History from the University of the South (better known in these here parts as Sewanee), where Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham has a home when not editing in New York and providing political commentary on TV. The Mercury identifies itself as a conservative cosmopolitan Charleston newspaper – underscore conservative. The Mercury does have the requisite party pictures, art show openings, charitable events and other doings.

It also has a political column written by a former Dixiecrat Congressman who lives in Washington, DC, and admits he hardly visits Charleston these days. There is a whiskey column (a personal favorite) by a couple who have wisely dedicated their lives to visiting boutique U.S. bourbon makers and whiskey distillers in Scotland and Ireland. A worthwhile pursuit of the holy grail if I ever heard one.

Another column near and dear to me is written by a veterinarian whose local specialty clinic cared for my 13-year-old Westie, Olivia. Livvy’s specialist kept her in good shape with meds for the past two years, and he texted regularly about her status, so he gets a big “thumbs-up.” She went to dog heaven on December 28th.

The Mercury gets a bit goofy when it deals with politics and local social customs. On the political side, an issue hardly goes by when some columnist doesn’t write about how distraught they are regarding our current President of the United States.

Curiously in 2008, Charleston County voted overwhelmingly for Obama, and you likely have to contribute that to a strong African-American turnout and more moderate white voters. Many old Charlestonians are still in a state of disbelief. I’m not sure if it is race-based, Obama’s policies or a combination. Don’t get me wrong, I have my doubts with some aspects of the President’s performance. Mine are focused on his handling of the economy and the housing  foreclosure crisis.

I find it odd that a local lifestyle newspaper treads so heavily into the national political muck, but Charles Waring says his readers want it. In full disclosure, Charles asked recently if I would write for the Mercury. Mind you, this was after our third cocktail together, so he gets a waiver and plausible deniability. I did say, “Are you kidding? You will lose your readership when they read my stuff."
On my dog walk in Battery Park/White Point Garden. 7:20 a.m.
The social morays and goings-on in Charleston are my favorite. The Mercury readers are the same throwbacks who will likely resist energy-efficient incandescent light bulbs over the next few years, and cling to their 100 watters. Social advancement came much too quickly for many of them.

A curious series of article appeared recently on the beneficial social purpose filled by debutante cotillions. Really? I liken debutante balls to men embroidering their initials on the shirts. As if they are going to forget who they are, or in the case of the young debs, from where they came? Maybe it’s to remind the “outsiders” who the debs are?
Garlands and wreaths along the Miles Brewton House in Charleston. The house was built ca. 1769.
Holly tree with red berries and flowers in bloom along King Street.
Two little Charleston Angels.
Way back when, I fulfilled my requisite male function with these events, social occasions I am happy to forget. And once, I served on the committee for the New York Infirmary Ball, but opted to go skiing the weekend of the event. They didn’t invite me back the next year.

Ah yes, the fall to winter season is when the Charleston princesses get their one-time chance put on their $5,000 plus floor-length gowns to be escorted by eligible young gentlemen in white tie, and presented to proper Charleston society. And why not, if Daddy is willing to pay for it; and you get to be the center of attention? The oldest of the Charleston debutante balls, the St. Cecilia Society’s, was held last week.
St. Cecilia Society Punch. This punch was the traditional beverage of the exclusive St. Cecilia Society, founded in Charleston in the 18th century.
Mind you, these are the same refined young ladies, who in a few months during spring-break, could be doing JELL-O shots half-naked in a Cancun hot tub. Waltzes will give way to Jägerbombs. I loved a quote in the Mercury series about the proper ball gown: “Debutantes must wear long white gowns with at least half-inch wide straps.” And how wide are those bikini-top straps on spring break, if present?

Having said all that, I still subscribe to the Charleston Mercury. It’s a fun read. The aforementioned is pretty silly when I think about the recent death of a serious social commentary writer, Christopher Hitchens, a sad occasion. I occasionally saw “Hitch” around Washington, DC, and we always had a cordial conversation. One of the last was in 2009, before his illness, when Carol Joynt interviewed Mark Halperin and John Heilemann on their best-seller, Game Change, for her Q&A Cafe.

This was just before Hitch was waylaid in his New York hotel room with swelling in his throat (the first sign that he had esophagal cancer) after speaking at the 92nd Street Y. Hitch, as was his custom at the Halperin/Heilemann lunch, had a whiskey before lunch and a couple glasses of red wine to follow. He and I would joke and agree to the Churchillian philosophy espoused to Lady Beaverbrook that, “I have taken more out of liquor than liquor has taken out of me.” Much of my writing is aided and abetted by copious red wine consumption. Hitch’s writing was accompanied by cigarettes, mine by a cigar. Hitch had it right: he lived to write, drinking and smoking helped the process, so he would never regret his indulgences.
A typical day in Charleston: Walking through Middleton Place, where the principles of LeNotre (who designed the gardens at Versailles in the early 1700s) were followed.
Walking along the Ashley River path at Middleton Place.
Under the Spanish moss.
An Allée of Camellias about to bloom.
I think about Hitch dying at the young age of 62. I am about to turn 60. I think about Hitch’s outlook on life as I sit on a Charleston park bench writing this, and overlooking the water. I bask in the warm winter afternoon sun as I have my glass of wine. Hitch knew what he lived for, and how to live to get it. He was grateful to live each day to ply his craft. And when it ended, it just ended. And that is Hitch’s lesson to all of us.

This winter in Charleston will be my first, and it is part of a larger life adjustment. I was e-mailing Somers Farkas and her sister, Kellam White, yesterday that I was adapting too well. I decided that it was all becoming too much, both financially and in terms of the time commitment. I decided to narrow my focus to Washington, DC, and Charleston, my adopted home.

My first move was to relocate to my Charleston home on December 10th with a commitment to be here at least until the end of January. Was that ever a prescient move given all the zaniness going on in Washington these days? Unfortunately, it followed me here last week with the South Carolina GOP primaries.
Continuing my walk through Middleton Place. Here, on the pathway from Main House, with spectacular view of the Ashley River.
Ruins of Main House burned by Sherman's troops.
North Annex house was spared from burning.
Symmetrical ponds and the mill house to process rice.
So far, my move has been a brilliant. The weather has been splendid – cool mornings with warm afternoons. In the evening before dinner, I get on my bike (with a cup of wine, of course), and casually ride by the homes in the historic district. Hard to believe after looking at the recent snowfall pictures in New York that spring is on its way here. One garden already has daffodils, and someone’s front lawn has two tulip trees just starting to bloom.

We literally had one day of winter shortly after Christmas when temperatures dipped overnight into the twenties.
Putting aside the occasional quirky aspects of the Charleston life-style, I cannot imagine a more interesting and pleasurable place to spend the next few months; that’s if I am not run out of town before then.
Holding Miss Livvy, 13, loyal companion, emotional supporter in times of despair, and always happy until the end on December 28, 2011. She was the spirit of many an NYSD story.

Charleston photographs by Christina Baxter.

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