A touch of class

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Reaching for the moon. Photo: JH.

Friday, December 28, 2018. Sunny yesterday, and in the low 40s, a mild cold.

The last slice. A thoughtful friend gave me a gift certificate to Zabar’s. I went there with it yesterday afternoon. Not one to look for “sales” I accidentally came upon piled high boxes of pumpkin pies with a sale price of $9.99, marked down from fifteen bucks. It suddenly occurred to me that that was what was missing from my olden days reverie of Thanksgiving and Christmas: pumpkin pie. And so, I bought one. Large, at first I asked myself if I’d eat it all. “I don’t care,” I answered myself. I ate one quarter of it when I got home. One slice and then a slimmer one to even out the cut. Then yesterday lunch after my sandwich, I ate a larger piece in two slices, totaling one half. Then later in the afternoon, I gave up resistance and finished the last quarter. Yum!!

Oatsie Charles.

The lady is NOT a tramp. Wednesday and Thursday’s Diaries about two grand dames (as in grahndoms) of the last half of 20th century America got me thinking. There’s the nostalgia part that includes people’s behavior, the rules, the rituals, the wit and the hypocrisies. Their personas – Oatsie Charles and Susan Mary Alsop – appeared to be diametric opposite. But what they had in common was that not rare Quest for Power that we humans have. As it happened, both girls, born the same year, outlasted most of their sisters and their brethren which also gave them The Last Word.

Susan Mary was WASP-ish and not forbidding in her appearance but clearly: serious. Oatsie Charles was a character, a performer in her own very welcoming milieu, a charmer, a darer, a Puritan hiding out in a casbah. But she and Susan Mary made their way identically, among the elite whom they were both brought up to socialize with. Elite in their day was “Society” and Power, which means money. Today the “Society” part is significantly dwarfed by our cultural changes. These two women were admired for their forthrightness in seeking pubic attention, actors, as it were, in The Story. Both women traveled in political atmospheres in world capitals, especially Washington. Both were “women to know” and they naturally knew this about themselves. Their social value – which is concurrent with financial value at their level – could be assessed in dollars and cents – although I’d guess it was never material.

Susan Mary Alsop.

The biographies about Susan Mary reveal a complicated and vulnerable woman who on the other hand was publicly self-possessed, and actively participating (she was a journalist and memoirist). She knew everybody and they knew her. She consciously created that position for herself and paid whatever the price was – and evidently in both marriages the price was emotional isolation. To this observer, she wore it all like a well-pressed uniform and it was most admirable to the outside world.

Oatsie Charles had the good time personality. Memories of her often provoke laughter about something she said to someone about them or someone else. A Southern belle, unlike the cool, even cold Northern lady, was encouraged to play the role that Scarlett O’Hara would have played had the Civil War never occurred. She married well, socially, and continued along a healthy path of socialite, wife and mother. She was not a writer. She played golf, a sportswoman-ish. But the personality was an inquiring one, and it was that which opened the doors to a larger world of society and power.

Oatsie Charles in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1950s. Behind her is Belvoir, the house where she grew up and which her father had built in the 1920s.

They were women of the 20th century — both born a century ago this year. They created their independence, and paid for it as well. A young woman today is on another path, higher path of self-realization. Many are running for office, as opposed to knowing the men in the corridors of power. Or they seek “power” in much the same way men do: through business. Even marriage plays a different role in their lives; a woman today may be the breadwinner in a high powered corporate or financial position.

I would be surprised if Susan Mary and/or Oatsie Charles didn’t have high regard for the woman of today. They themselves were revolutionary compared to their mothers’ and grandmothers’ generation. But it’s a new century and a new world for women, and for men. I’d also be surprised if they’d prefer the new over the paths they traveled on.

Susan Mary with her son Bill in a 1948 photograph for Vogue magazine.

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