Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Charleston Peeled Back

Bird's eye view of the city of Charleston, South Carolina, 1872.
by Edmund F. “Ned” Brown, IV

Charleston, South Carolina is like an exquisite jeweled-box. From the overall layout of the Peninsula, as it is locally referred to, down to the individual narrow city lot properties with their carefully- designed pocket gardens. Every square foot is carefully constructed and has a purpose. Charleston is the closest comparison you will find to a European city, more suitably placed in the South of France rather than the coast of South Carolina. Charleston can hold its own with Villefranche, Beaulieu or St. Jean.

While I am soothed spiritually by the beauty of Charleston’s architecture and the design of the abundant gardens (many done by noted Southern landscape architect, Loutrel Briggs), it is the composition and character of the old Charlestonians that I find most attractive. These are people of deep history who have been together, in many cases, for ten generations or more, and the off-spring keep coming back here to live. Old Charleston families live a unique American life: one part is among the perfectly restored homes on the Peninsula with streets that have nary a speck of litter, and twenty minutes later one can be walking among the marshes and swamps of their plantations filled with alligators and poisonous snakes.
Van Noy Thornhill. Thornhill with Brittany's on Midway Plantation.
Van Noy Thornhill has the complex mix of a Charleston gentleman: sportsman, well-travelled, successful in business and steeped in Low Country culture. Businessmen and politicians in New York and Washington, DC (where I also reside) live their lives between orderly environments of work, their apartments or Georgetown homes and appropriately appointed weekend retreats. Their lives are filled with business meetings, quasi-business or political functions, and perhaps weekends in the Hamptons, the Virginia countryside or the Maryland shore. Van Noy Thornhill, in his early eighties, lives in an elegantly appointed carriage house on Legare (pronounced Lagree) Street behind the stately brick home in which he grew up.

Entering the Thornhill’s cypress-paneled study, Van Noy is sitting in his favorite chair by the fireplace in his field pants, quilted hunting vest with wild turkey hunting magazines strewn about the floor. He greets me with, “Fix yourself something over there to oil your esophagus.” I pour myself a bourbon. On the walls are oil paintings of Van Noy and his beloved Brittany spaniels rendered over thirty years ago at his plantation, Midway. His sons and grandsons have now taken on the family tradition of raising Brittany’s for bird hunting.

Mrs. Van Noy "Big Jane" Thornhill.
Van Noy’s effervescent and forever wife, Jane, a true local grande dame and great personality unto herself, sits at a nearby chair. I ask, “Van Noy, what’s new?” Taking a sip of his rum and Coke he says, “Well (long pause), two weeks ago, I was out with my grandsons at my plantation on Thomas Island with two of the dogs who were rompin’ about the waterfront. All of a sudden, an eleven foot ‘gator bolts from the marsh and ate one of the dogs.” Van Noy was a bit forlorn, yet responded as if it were a normal occurrence in South Carolina Low Country life. After chocking on my drink, I asked, “Well what did you do?” Van Noy replied, “My grandson walked over to the car, took out his gun, and shot the son’bitch dead. Want to see some pictures? Jane, show Ned the pictures.”

Readers in New York might be horrified by this primeval scene. We don’t have ‘gators roaming the banks of Mecox Bay in Sagaponack. Yet the scene described by Thornhill is not uncommon. When I retold the story a few days later at the “men’s only” bar at the Carolina Yacht Club, the response was a shrug and, “Better a dog than a grandson.”

Charleston men and women are of style. Thomas Sumter Tisdale, Jr. is a prominent local attorney, and his family is about as old as Charleston dirt. Tom is impeccable in appearance and exudes Southern charm and courtesies. His suaveness reminds me of the Jim Williams character Kevin Spacey portrayed so well in the movie version of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Tom’s ability to turn my brief 3-letter nickname into an elongated two syllables, “Nay-yed” always makes me smile.

Tom Tisdale lives in a beautifully appointed antique-filled home on Broad Street (the main street), and is married to a Norwegian noble, Nina. He spends his free time with the South Carolina Historical Society (most recently as its President), President of the South Carolina Chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati (the oldest national organization in America whose first president was General George Washington); and Tom writes short stories and plays about Charleston history. He is a true Renaissance man.
Thomas Sumter Tisdale, Jr. Author Pat Conroy and Ned Brown.
Pat Conroy, in his recent bestseller, South of Broad, covers in great detail, the arrival of Hurricane Hugo in September 1989 and the destruction left in its wake. Conroy, in his novels, is a great chronicler of Low Country and Charleston history. So, I asked Tom Tisdale where he was twenty years ago when Hugo hit Charleston, “Right at my house on Broad Street with my 83-year-old daddy,” he replied.

Tom Tisdale continues, “We sent the women up to the North Carolina mountains. We started with cocktails. I figured that we’d lose power and everything in the freezer would spoil. The candles were lit throughout the house. I cooked up some quail, opened up a good French Bordeaux; my daddy and I had a fine dinner. The winds were blowing over 100 miles per hour, debris was flyin’ and the house was shakin’; so we figured about all we could do is sit it out the best we could.” Now, that’s style.

I admit a vulnerable weakness: I adore well-bred, attractive Southern women. In New York, I can listen to Somers Farkas and her syrupy Virginia Tidewater lilt for hours. And nobody wears dresses like Somers. Jonathan Farkas is a very lucky husband.
Mrs. Charles F. "BeTTina" Middleton III. Another Charleston beauty: Mrs. Alfred "Julianna" Pinckney, Jr.
One of my favorite Charleston born and bred ladies is Mrs. Charles F. “Bettina” Middleton III. Bettina embodies everything I find attractive about Charleston women- except maybe her Strom Thurmond-esque view of politics. She is beautiful, smart, irreverent and one hundred percent Charlestonian. Chuck, her husband’s family, also descends from original signers of the Declaration of Independence (Arthur Middleton).

Bettina was raised a proper Charleston lady and spent her summers at her family’s Sullivan Island beachfront home- running barefoot all day in view of Charleston across the Cooper River; that’s the “cut-loose” side of Bettina that has never changed. Standing the other evening with Tom Tisdale, Alfred Pinckney (whose antecedent Charles Pinckney was another Charleston signer of the Declaration of Independence) and Henry Burnett Fishburne (a nine plus generation Charlestonian), Bettina Middleton lets one of her classic lines fly, “For years Henry Fishburne misspelled my name. I said, Henry, my name is spelled with two big T’s.” Not missing a beat, Tom Tisdale chimes in, “And what a fine pair of T’s they are Bettina.” Alfred, Henry and I choked on our drinks, but Bettina lets loose with a deep laugh.

Bettina Middleton typifies an important lesson I’ve learned about life in the Holy City of Charleston: the men can control the local business and politics, but it’s the women who run Charleston.

Is it hard to befriend Charleston society if you are an outsider? Yes and no, there is an unspoken protocol. Relationships do not happen quickly in Charleston.
Alfred Pinckney, Jr., Henry Burnett Fishburne, Jr., and Ned Brown.
Conversely, in New York or Washington you can BFF someone in a relatively brief period ... people come and go. In Charleston, more and more people who are from “off,” as they are referred to, and who have means, have discovered Charleston’s charms, and want to make it their home. The old Charlestonians who are “with it” will welcome interesting people who respect the local customs and traditions. It also helps to have friends in common from outside of Charleston, whether they are from New York, Washington or elsewhere.

I have also observed something very important about being accepted in Charleston; everyone who has grown up here and stayed, knows everything about everyone else: warts and all. As one society member often says to me about someone, “You know that so-and-so has some history.”

In contemporary New York society, about all people care about is what you do, how much money you have, and how famous you are. Most New Yorkers really don’t care about someone’s past or their family. In Washington, it’s all about power or perceived power. In Charleston, ones past, good and not so good, is the great equalizer. People are like the local buildings. The homes that have been around for centuries (as are many families who occupy them), are beautiful, have character, yet not perfect. So if you come to Charleston without a past, it is akin to a person having no shadow. And unlike New York or Washington, if you have a “past,” that can be an asset for acceptance.
Gator destined to be a Kelly bag. Garden & Gun magazine cover.
Since we are discussing life in Charleston, I want to close on one of my favorite finds that is mostly unknown to Northerners, Garden & Gun magazine, located here in Charleston. The magazine is a combination of Field & Stream (from which its Editor in Chief, Sid Evans, came), the New Yorker (for the quality of its writing), and the unfortunately now defunct Gourmet (for its articles on food, recipes and dining). Garden & Gun celebrates life, culture and the land of the South. It attracts well-known writers and artists such as Roy Blount, Jr., Jimmy Buffett, P.J. O’Rourke, Julia Reed and Clyde Edgerton.

Surprisingly, for a small publication of twenty-some employees, it is holding its own business-wise in a very challenging magazine market. Garden & Gun was started by Pierre Manigault, a scion of a media family that owns the local newspaper, a television station and a considerable amount of downtown real estate, and Rebecca Wesson Darwin, President and Publisher, who was formerly the youngest publisher in the history of the New Yorker. I proudly pay for my Garden & Gun subscription and provide the same to friends as a gift. Every issue of Garden & Gun teaches you something about Southern culture, and reading it just plain makes you feel good.

How good is life in Charleston? Pat Conroy recently asked a College of Charleston student at a local book signing if the young man was going to stay in Charleston after he graduated. The young man replied in the affirmative. Conroy nodded and advised him, “Good. Because if you leave Charleston, life just goes downhill.”
Photographs by Christina Baxter.

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