Back in the fall of 2007, British actor and writer Stephen Fry arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, camera crew in tow. His destination was The Whim, a former eight-car garage and adjacent manager’s cottage that Oatsie Charles had combined into a residence in the late 1960s.
At one point, the conversation, which was being recorded for the BBC television program “Stephen Fry in America,” veered — as would any journalistic chat with a woman regularly described as a doyenne, a hostess, and the like — to an exploration of East Coast society.
Fry was curious: Was fashionable New York in the days of the original Mrs. Astor truly limited to 400 people, the number of guests that her Fifth Avenue ballroom reportedly could accommodate? What if you happened to be society figure Number 401?
A tumbler of iced vodka close to hand, Mrs. Charles deadpanned, “As we say in Alabama, ‘tough titty.’”
The Montgomery native and Washington, D.C stalwart, Oatsie Charles died in Newport on December 5th at the age of 99. She was the last of America’s grande dames. One, it happens, with an intoxicatingly bittersweet edge — irreverent, irascible, and a deliverer of comments that could be so caustic that longtime friend Charles Dana, the owner of Newport Shipyard, admonished, “If I said half the things you do, I’d have black eyes.”
Another friend, proudly showing off his newly built house, was stunned when Mrs. Charles, known to have an expert eye for architectural proportions, took one look and bluntly responded, “Oh, Taylor, how could you?” Dolly Fox, the daughter of the late Washington society figure Yolande Fox, Miss America 1951 (both were close friends of Oatsie’s), recalls that all it took as a teenager to realize that she needed to change into something more appropriate was Mrs. Charles saying, in a withering tone of voice, “Oh, God.”
“Most children were terrified of her,” admits grandson Desmond Butler, an investigative editor with The Associated Press. “So were most adults. But she would have been a wonderful diplomat because she had a great mind for politics and contemporary events.” If you witnessed Mrs. Charles being excessively nice to someone then “you knew she didn’t like them,” remembers her only child, Victoria Leiter Mele, noting that her mother adored people who took her sharpness in stride. “It worked like a personality test,” Butler agrees. “She would immediately say something offensive, and if you gave it right back, she loved you.”
Paralyzing bon mots like those, which were often accompanied by a grin, are traded among Mrs. Charles’ admirers—among them, me, who met her in Washington in 1985 and soon named my Chow Chow bitch Oatsie, with her permission—like the abolitionist artifacts that she, a great-granddaughter of slave owners, had long collected.
Consider the evening she greeted Bill Clinton in a White House receiving line, reportedly on the day that the intern scandal broke, cupping his right hand between both of hers, and mischievously saying, “Mr. President, if only I were 23.” She once donned a half-black, half-white sheath to attend a Kennedy White House party—the guests were asked to dress as an issue currently confronting the nation—and when asked what concern she embodied, she drawled, “Integration, honey.”
While her second husband, Robert H. Charles, a former assistant secretary of the Air Force, whom she married in 1969, was recovering from a tumble, she was heard to say, “The trouble with the men in my life is that when they fall, they get back up.” She handled her own travails with aplomb, from lifelong bouts of depression to a radical mastectomy at the age 36. “In those days, you didn’t say you had cancer. It was like saying you had syphilis,” she wrote in an inspiring online essay, noting that after the emergency operation, “a nurse stood me in front of the mirror and said, ‘No one is ever going to look at you again.’ So I told her, ‘Don’t count on it.’”
Politicians on both sides of the aisle knew that Mrs. Charles was an unshakable Democrat when it came to the voting booth yet Republicans were welcome at her dinner table, reveling in her biting conversation and sage insights. “She was a muse to a lot of people,” Desmond Butler said, after I informed him that Stephen Fry had told a friend of mine in London, “Everything that came out of her mouth was a funny or wise.” Well, not all Republicans found favor in her eyes: A few weeks ago, upon hearing the news that George H.W. Bush had died, she muttered, “Wrong president.”
As for making an entrance, few women in Washington commanded attention like the raven-haired Mrs. Charles, who favored the designs of Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, and André Laug, footwear by Hélène Arpels and Belgian Shoes, knuckleduster cocktail rings, and black nail polish. Says Charles Dana, “All that was missing was organ music.”
Her rule for attending any party is one that should be a universal mantra: She never accepted an invitation without fully expecting to enjoy herself upon arrival. As one of her maids once observed, “You take your good times with you.” Even a hair-raising trip to Vietnam in 1968, during which she sailed down the Mekong River with Frank Wisner, the C.I.A.’s head of covert operations, delighted her. (She returned home with “a piece of shrapnel that had fallen at my feet” during a Vietcong mortar attack—her sangfroid stunned even hardened veterans.) “That is really the only way to go in life,” she explained to her photographer grandson, Nick Mele.
Marion Saffold Oates was born in Montgomery on September 29, 1919, making her entrance with a clubfoot that surgery would eventually correct and a moody disposition that led her to be dubbed “Black Marion” as a child.
“My mother hated my straight hair and the fact that I was lame and that I was ornery,” she said in an interview with journalist Bob Colacello for Bruce Weber’s “All-American” magazine. Dyslexia didn’t help matters, though she became an omnivorous reader (biographies and histories were preferred). She stacked her floors in Newport and Washington with what our mutual friend Deeda Blair recently described as “the most alluring and compelling books and towering piles of Country Life.” Her education was genteel, most of it spent at Montgomery’s Margaret Booth School, a small institution located in its spinster-founder’s house. Young Marion was something of a pet among the 30-some students, taking her lessons from the comfort of a red velvet chair in the drawing room. “People have always pampered me,” Oatsie once said, adding that Miss Booth had absolved her from learning arithmetic because she found the subject too trying and so claimed that she never learned how to make change.
Summers were spent traversing Europe in the company of her maternal grandmother, or with Miss Booth and some schoolmates, visiting cathedrals and listening to her headmistress read aloud poems and stories about the sites. “We’d sit there bug-eyed,” Mrs. Charles remembered. “But, shall we say, I was not like the rest of the girls in Montgomery, Alabama. I seem to have absorbed things that they didn’t. The Rhine was another place I thought was fascinating. All those castles, wine, good eats, and knights. Teutonic knights, can you imagine anything worse? But I thought they were fascinating.”
Harp lessons were taken at a finishing school in Brussels, and Oatsie was dispatched to an Ursuline convent school in Bavaria to learn the language after a German diplomat had expressed an interest in courting the 15-year-old Alabamian. (“I never liked him much, but my mother was crazy about him.”) There, the classrooms were hung with large photographs of Adolf Hitler, she recalled, that were turned to the wall—landscapes were painted on the reverse—until a Nazi official dropped by for an inspection. At which time, she said, the photographs would be flipped, and “We would rise and give the Nazi salute and say, ‘Heil, Hitler!’”
Home for much of Mrs. Charles’ youth was Belvoir, a columned redbrick Montgomery house that her lawyer father—the namesake only child of the one-armed Civil War hero and Alabama governor William C. Oates—had built in the 1920s, before drinking himself to death in the wake of a financial scandal that evaporated his life savings. (She held onto Belvoir for years until finally selling it in 2002.) “I remember one day [in 1932], they sent for me at school to come home, and so I went,” she recalled. “And when I got home, everybody, [my maternal grandmother] Mimi, my mother, all the help, were in the drawing room, and my father stood up in front of the fireplace and said, ‘I am sorry to inform you all but I have been wiped out … I remember this dramatic moment sitting in this lovely room, both black and white—not the room but the people—and we were told we had absolutely no money whatsoever … Well, we must have had something because we went on living exactly the same way, which was never that lavish. We must have eaten a lot of turnip greens and fatback.”
Mrs. Charles’ mother, Georgia, would succumb to alcohol, too, but not before divorcing the impoverished Oates Jr. and making an advantageous second marriage in 1938 to utilities king Philip Green Gossler, a New Yorker with a townhouse on East 65th Street and a Nassau getaway. (The latter was later owned by the Hon. Olive, Lady Baillie, an heiress to the Whitney fortune.) Gossler’s millions ensured that his new stepdaughter, who disliked him, would have two publicized debuts in 1938.
“He insisted I come out,” she once said. “Why, I don’t know, but he did. And I did him quite proud.” The first party, to introduce her to senior friends of the family, was a reception at Gossler’s townhouse, and she was dressed in the ivory slipper-satin gown that her grandmother had worn at her husband’s 1893 gubernatorial inauguration. A snappier candlelit supper dance for a younger crowd was held days later at the St. Regis Hotel’s glamorous Viennese Roof ballroom. Marion—by then nicknamed Oatsie, thanks to Brenda Frazier, the era’s most celebrated debutante and later godmother to Victoria Leiter Mele—donned a white tulle hoop skirt that was spangled, wittily enough, with golden decorations in the shape of oat panicles.
Four years later, Oatsie’s photograph appeared in The New York Times again, when she married, in the chantry chapel of Manhattan’s ultra-fashionable St. Thomas Church, Thomas Leiter, a Marshall Field & Co. heir and a nephew of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, and of the 19th earl of Suffolk. The bride wore an idiosyncratic sari-style dress of white chiffon that gave her the look of a maharani. Actress Tallulah Bankhead, a family friend from Montgomery, informed the bride-to-be about the facts of life the night before the ceremony, ultimately explaining that the act itself wasn’t really that exciting. (That being said, Oatsie confided many years later, “I don’t think I have ever been in love.”) Bright, handsome, and wildly popular, Leiter also drank to excess. A divorce followed in 1955, three years before alcohol killed him at the age of 46. “They would have stayed married if it hadn’t been for his drinking,” their daughter says.
A newlywed in wartime Washington, where her mother-in-law occupied a 55-room mansion on Dupont Circle, Oatsie swiftly made her mark, being as darkly beautiful as she was darkly witty: Louise Dahl-Wolfe photographed her, as did Slim Aarons. “Every afternoon it was filled with officers for teatime,” she said of the grim Victorian townhouse where she and Leiter, a private in the U.S. Army, lived when they weren’t at a military camp in Wyoming. (In 1952, they purchased Land’s End, novelist Edith Wharton’s former cottage in Newport. Oatsie sold it—too big, too much upkeep—after her divorce and was pleased when her daughter and son-in-law bought it many years later.) “I had a lovely war,” she told Colacello. “Fully staffed. I feel that is one of the secrets of life.” So much so that when her daughter told her that Queen Elizabeth II has more than 400 servants, she responded, “Heaven!”
Great friend Ian Fleming, whose James Bond novels she introduced to John F. Kennedy, would name the character Felix Leiter after the couple, though she held out the hope that he would use her nickname in a future book. He demurred, telling her that he thought it was too distinctive, to which she tartly replied, “Anybody who can use Pussy Galore can use Oatsie.” Another intimate was tobacco heiress Doris Duke, who named Oatsie to the board of trustees of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Other Washington hostesses may have been respected but none possessed Mrs. Charles’ star power—which was unusual in postwar Washington, her daughter points out, because it was achieved on the strength of her personality and developed during her years as a single woman rather than as the wife of an important man. Nancy Reagan recognized that social preeminence, cannily asking to meet Oatsie after her husband was elected president in 1981.
The first lady knew that she wouldn’t thaw the cold shoulders of Georgetown’s cave dwellers without a inside champion. So the former movie actress, joined by her decorator, Ted Graber, headed like to 3259 R Street, N.W., a lemon-yellow Victorian peppered with Oatsie’s favorite antique japanned furniture and abolitionist relics, seemingly collected as a rebuke to her Confederate grandfather’s career and beliefs. (Mrs. Reagan’s visit, by the way, turned out to be a lovefest, though, Oatsie admitted, “I certainly didn’t think that I would feel that way.” She also gave the first lady a nickname of her own: Beauty.)
“She used to tell me that it was only when she was five or six that she realized that her mother was actually her mother—she had been raised in the kitchen,” Desmond Butler told me, adding that his grandmother was a longtime supporter of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “If I have any nice traits—any kindliness, any awareness of anything—it’s because I was raised by loving black hands,” Oatsie said. “And it’s true. I wouldn’t think of anything in the world if I hadn’t been raised by them … Black is beautiful.”
Conversations about Montgomery often turned to the city’s African-American community, especially Oatsie’s Saturday strolls with her nursemaid. As she told Colacello, “The sidewalks on Madison Avenue were covered with tin roofs just like in old Westerns, and there were hundreds of buck horses and mules … And the women all had on their wonderful headwraps, with the bandanas. It was noisy, it was colorful, it was simply marvelous.”
Growing up in the Alabama also inculcated in her expertise in the domestic arts, and Mrs. Charles’ breakfasts (grits, ham, and red-eye gravy), luncheons (often soufflés), and dinner parties (gumbo followed by a coffee ice cream bombe stuffed with shaved chocolate) were considered the most effervescent in the capital.
“She handled her guests like kindling, setting fires among and between people, until the whole party was aflame,” Dolly Fox explains. “You’re trained to do that when you’re young in the South, to know what people are interested in, and then pair them. It’s a dying art.” Victoria Leiter Mele adds that guests ran the gamut from the world-famous to the utterly unknown—as a young aspiring writer, I was definitely among the latter. “She was a snob about intelligence but not about background or social things,” Mele explains. “She used to say that the most important thing in life is curiosity, because that’s what keeps you alive, keeps you relevant.”
Though Oatsie Charles once said she would like “Off to find an adventure” to be chiseled onto her grave marker—echoing a comment made by one of her young great-grandsons—Desmond Butler might have a better one: “She loved fried chicken, drank tons, lived well, and slept little.”
Marion “Oatsie” Charles is survived by her daughter, Victoria Leiter Mele of Newport, a son-in-law, Joseph Mele, also of Newport, grandsons Tyssen Butler of Laconia, New Hampshire, Desmond (Miriam) Butler of Washington, D.C., and Nicholas (Molly) Mele of Newport, and several great-grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be given in her name to The Newport Restoration Foundation, where she served for many years as president of the board of trustees.