Thursday, May 24, 2012

Charleston Social Diary

Guests raise their glasses at the Art of Design luncheon for the Women’s Council of the Gibbes Museum of Art.
Why Charleston?
Ned Brown, Spring 2012.

More and more I am asked, “What’s it like to live in Charleston?” The question is coming from many who are considering the Holy City as a second or third home. Instead of me answering with my own biases, I posed the question to others who have relocated here, and they readily shared their findings. There is an increasing number of stories about what to see and do in Charleston (e.g. the New Yok Times, Wall Street Journal, Conde Nast Traveler and more), but nothing about what it is like to come here as an outsider, what your expectations might be, and hopefully a guide on how to smooth the transition. So you are reading it first here on NYSD.

On the last point, take it from my experience that I stubbed my toe two years ago with the natives writing a story for NYSD, which in hindsight, I should not have done. The story was factually correct; the problem was that I wrote about locals who are part of the birth-wedding-obituary crowd (the only three occasions you should see your name in the press), and they are very private.

Check-in for the Art of Design Gibbes Luncheon.
There is also a story within a story here about making Charleston a new home. Carolyne Roehm recently spoke here as a guest of the Women’s Council of the Gibbes Museum of Art. The event was a smashing success; it sold-out within the first 24 hours, all 300+ seats.

Carolyne came here previously with her Connecticut neighbor, the late Bill Blass, to visit their mutual friend, Dick Jenrette. Carolyne visited this spring for a few days to speak at the Gibbes event, spend time with Jenrette, and get an intimate feel for the city. Carolyne Roehm obviously has the financial resources to live anywhere. She has a spectacular farm in Connecticut and a home in Aspen; so when we spoke, I asked “Why Charleston?”

Carolyne replied, “I love the farm in Connecticut, working in my garden, but the winters are long, cold, and miserable. I love Aspen for its natural beauty and the intellectual give-and-take (i.e. the Aspen Institute) and the arts. I was looking for something more temperate from November until May as gardening is my passion, and it replenishes your soul.

"At first, I thought about the South of France, but looking ahead to the next twenty years, I had to be mindful about healthcare and practical issues like that. When I stayed with Dick (Jenrette) this last time, I had the opportunity to visit several other homes, and walk about to view the private gardens. I knew I had found the perfect place.”
Carolyne arranging. Table setting for lunch in "Roehm" blue.
Addressing the ladies lunch.
I had heard similar comments from others. Charlotte Beers and hubby Bill Beadleston told me that they sold their home in St. Remy because of these concerns. Edward Lee Cave, formerly of Sotheby’s Real Estate and now of Brown Harris Stevens, rented here in February and March. When I asked how he found it, he replied, “What’s not to like about paradise? If you can’t love this, something is wrong.” I suspect Ed will be back next winter. I know his brother from Washington, DC wants to move here.

Back to Carolyne Roehm and the Gibbes ladies lunch. The Gibbes is a splendid local cultural institution. Best of all, its board membership is evenly split between locals (Charlestonians born here) and those from “off” — people who have made Charleston their adopted home. The Gibbes is established, imbedded in the community, it has a vibrant membership and donor base. Best of all, their events are fun.
Under the luncheon tent for the Art of Design benefiting the Gibbes Museum of Art.
Barbie Kratovil, Tommy Bennet, Bill Thompson, Lee Manigault, Dick Jenrette, and Carolyne Roehm.
Women's Council Members at lunch: Joyce Hudson, Susan Palmer, and Barbara Kratovil.
Carolyne Roehm with Tara Guérard, luncheon event planner.
On the other hand, there are organizations in Charleston with only locals or very few outsiders on their board. They will gladly take donations from the “offs," but forget about taking a leadership role if you were not from here. Take a guess how long they will last financially as more outsiders move in? I guess these boards are the antithesis of what Groucho Marx said, “I would never join a club that would have me as a member.”

The Gibbes Women’s Council luncheon was preceded the night before by a cocktail reception for benefactors at Dick Jenrette’s Roper House on the East Battery. The luncheon was the following day in the courtyard of the Gibbes (completely tented), where Carolyne regaled the audience with stories of her life, tips on decorating and floral arrangements. She was a huge success from the reviews. Carolyne told me following the event, “I met so many nice people, and had a wonderful time. It was unbelievable.”
Dick Jenrette's Roper House grounds.
The night before the lunch: Gibbes Executive Director Angela Mack introducing Carolyne Roehm and thanking Dick Jenrette.
Carolyne Roehm, Dick Jenrette, and Angela Mack.
Angela Mack, Dick Jenrette, and Barbara Kratovil.
Steve and Joanne Harth, President, Women's Council.
Linda Strohl and Christina Baxter.
Frank and Barbara Tribble.
Alice Wyatt and Allan Anderson.
On living in Charleston, Allan Anderson, President of the Gibbes Museum Board told me, “Jane (wife) and I lived and worked in London before I retired. We already had had a home on Kiawah while we were overseas. Moving to downtown Charleston reminded us in many ways of life in London: the parks, shops, restaurants, etc.” The Andersons live in a beautifully restored and converted house on lower Meeting Street that would be hard to discern as the local grocery store in the 19th century.

John Dewberry, an Atlanta-based commercial real estate developer and former Georgia Tech All-American quarterback at 48 years old owns a beautifully restored home on Meeting and Tradd Streets. He also owns a home in Doonbeg, Ireland. Dewberry has been coming to Charleston since the mid-1980s when he was at Georgia Tech. He has owned here for the past decade.

John Dewberry's town house in Charleston, S.C. Photo: Stephen Morton for The New York Times.
When I asked him why he liked Charleston, he said, “When I am working in Atlanta, I am going full bore. I used to get into my car for the five-hour drive to Charleston, I am going 90 m.p.h. The moment you hit the Charleston city limits, everything slows to 25 m.p.h, and I mean it. And, nobody in Charleston ever honks their horn. You could literally sit at a green light in Charleston until it turns yellow and nobody would honk. They would just wait until the next light change; try that in New York!”

Travel for Dewberry from Atlanta to Charleston these days has changed a bit; he now arrives by private jet, yet says the decompression still happens when he arrives in Charleston.

Dewberry continued, “My favorite past-time when I go to Provence and Tuscany is to wander around villages on foot, and just look at the architecture. When I am in Charleston, I am on my bike with my dog in tow and cigar in hand, and do the same thing. Where else in America can you see such a marvelous collection of preserved architecture, and the gardens are always changing with each season.”

Dewberry is in the process of converting the former Federal Building on Marion Square (or “The Green” as it is called locally) into a SoHo-styled hotel. If you want to read a story on John Dewberry’s Charleston home, click here.

Lou Rena Hammond, public relations maven in New York, Charleston and Palm Beach always gives it to you straight. Lou is omni-present and omni-known in Charleston. With her red hair, orange also being her favorite color and her wired-hair Dachshund, Presto, who thinks he is three feet taller and one hundred pounds heavier when he encounters other dogs. When you ask Lou about Charleston, she gives you her native “Texas straight”:

“Honey, when we got here 20 years ago, the only cheese you could get was Velveeta; all that has changed. We’ve got wonderful cheese shops, great butchers and everyone knows that the restaurants are world-class. I like to cook for friends, food costs are considerably less of what they are in New York and the quality is better.”
Lou Hammond and Christa Percopo.
Lou continued, “The people are friendly, yet reserved and very private. You have to go slow getting to know people. People entertain on a much more intimate basis in their homes. There aren’t any Fanjul, Koch or Trump Mar-a-Lago-style parties like you see in Palm Beach. Charleston is different. It takes more time here to meet people, for you to feel comfortable with them and vice-versa. I truly believe my Charleston friends will be with me no matter what.”

Lou lives in a wonderfully restored and modernized (great kitchen) three-story Georgian brick house on the corner of King and Tradd Streets, which formerly served as the locus for booze during Prohibition (medicinal purposes naturally).

Tommy Bennett with Carriage Properties was born and raised here. He helped Pat Altschul find her magnificent home (the Isaac Jenkins Mikell house on the corner of Rutledge and Montagu Streets and a superb recreation of an Italian villa). Pat had her home redone with the help of Mario Buatta. Tommy also assisted Carolyne Roehm with her house search.

Pat Altchul's Charleston residence.
1939 view, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress.
When I asked him about his thoughts about the new people coming to Charleston he said, “They are really making the place better by leaps and bounds. When I was growing up here, the town was really stagnant. It is the new people that have made the most change. They get what Charleston is all about, they embrace the culture, they invest financially in their homes and in the community organizations (just look at the Gibbes or Spoleto, he says), and they are fun to be with.”

The second question I am often asked is, “What are the locals like?” My first answer to that is, if you are looking for a social scene similar to New York, Palm Beach and the Hamptons, cross Charleston off your list. As for the native Charlestonians, there are people who welcome outsiders and others who will consider you as intruders on their turf.

There are people here with impeccable manners and others (whom you would believe to be raised properly) are incredibly boorish. Invite them to dinner, but don’t hold your breath for a RSVP, never a thank you note or any acknowledgement — nada. To be fair, the same problem exists in New York and elsewhere.

There exists, even today, two sides of Charleston (socio-economically and racially) — astonishingly close to each other just a dozen blocks away. One African-American friend of mine, who cares for many of the downtown homes, and who I encounter during my early morning dog walks said to me, “There are people I work for who will smile to your face, and then refer you as damn Yankees. Many of these Charlestonians are still mad at the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that Blacks still aren’t just the help. There is definitely a side of Charleston that won’t change for a long time.”

Friendly Native Charlestonians: Thomas and Sophie Carter.
The antithesis of that attitude is Gay Carter, who lives in her family’s home on lower King Street with her two Norwich terriers, Sophie and Thomas. Gay is constantly out walking her dogs, and loves to talk with tourists in the streets. Gay loves to escape to Europe, and definitely has an outside perspective.

The other tip I give to newcomers is: get a dog, and walk around town. You will meet tons of interesting people.

My neighbor on Legare Street (pronounced Lagree) is Michael Baffa, a New York architect with an apartment there, a significantly renovated carriage house here and a farm in Old Lyme, CT. What I love about Michael is that he is a fellow curmudgeon (The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself. ~Ernest Hemingway), and Michael is sanguine about Charleston:

“I didn’t move here wanting to meet people. I came ten years ago because of the architecture, beauty, peacefulness, and I want to be left alone. If I meet someone I want to talk with and get to know, I will tell them. Otherwise, I am happy with what I have."

After six years in Charleston, I have met a varied and wide group of people. I have friends who are native Charlestonians of many generations and others who moved here for what it is, a spectacularly beautiful place. Nothing beats my sunset cocktail ride on my bike along the Ashley River waterfront of Murray Boulevard, even when the sun sets in December at 5:00 p.m. The Croisette in Cannes cannot beat this ride along the Carolina palmettos.
Ashley River sunset as viewed from Murray Blvd.
I also believe that the key to enjoying Charleston is getting away on a regular basis (like every six weeks). The beauty, slow pace and elegance are a bit narcotic; your mind can go numb without regular intervals in the real world. And you definitely do not want to be here from July to mid-September when the intense heat and humidity smothers the peninsula. The approach that Michael Baffa and Lou Hammond are correct: come to Charleston for what it is, go slow meeting people, get a dog, and be secure with who you are.

Author Pat Conroy summed it up best when he recently told a College of Charleston student (in my presence) that, “Once you leave Charleston, life just goes downhill.”

I suspect Carolyne Roehm believes that to be true. She just signed a contract to buy a house here.
Carolyne signing copies of A Passion for Interiors after the AOD luncheon.
Julia Lynn Photography (Gibbes Museum of Art luncheon and cocktails)

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