My first post of the New Year is in honor of Marion Oates Charles, a legendary hostess and fixture of society in Newport and Washington D.C. since the 1950’s. “Oatsie,” as she is affectionately known, was born in Montgomery, Alabama (the granddaughter of an Alabama Governor) and will be interred there this week, having passed on December 5 at the age of 99. The date was 7 days before her traditional Christmas cocktail party in Newport, confirming one of my first memories of this Grand Dame…Oatsie was one who reveled in doing the unexpected.
Side note: Of course, this being Newport, the party was not canceled.
Cocktails (to include her favorite, vodka) flowed at the Whim, her Newport home that she created in the 1960s. I always liked to refer to it as a dower house, for the 8 car garage had originally been part of Land’s End, Edith Wharton’s large home on the ocean. The understated white clapboard exterior dramatically belies the jewel box within.
Its “creation” story is pure Oatsie, delivered with just a hint of a southern accent that adds a touch of intrigue. “In its day, Newport used to have the most marvelous auctions. The paneling that you see in these three rooms and the hall all came from the attic at Marble House. It’s eighteenth century, from England, and when the house was turned over to the Preservation Society of Newport County, I was able to buy it. It adds a certain elegance to these garage walls.”
This very dressed up cottage, which is surrounded by a beloved garden, provides a window on a life well lived and experiences cherished. Images of the Whim, the domain of our legendary hostess, will provide the backdrop for some personal remembrances of my fellow Southerner and Newport lover. Her good taste and talent for identifying just the right resource at the right time made these intimate rooms the epitome of comfortable elegance, scattered with framed pictures of friends and family, accomplished “names” and public figures.
The house’s name, the Whim, perfectly suited Oatsie’s personality. As she said to me once, “I don’t have any plans; things just evolve.” But there was nothing casual about her discerning eye. She knew what she wanted and pushed for perfection. Case in point? The color of her bedroom walls, inspired by the treatment rooms in New York doctor Erno Laszlo’s offices. She and decorator Tom Hagerman tried to recreate the black of those walls, but to no avail, until enlightened by a luncheon conversation with a Washington friend (whom she enjoyed quoting) – “You fool! You have to get royal purple paint and put black in it; then it will have a seductive, translucent quality.”
Despite her trenchant humor, withering asides and memorable bon mots, one could not miss that she was grounded in common sense with a razor sharp ability to size up a situation. No surprise that she was the first person I turned to as I took on my initial coffee table book project in 2004, Private Newport, at Home and in the Garden. She had always been an encouraging voice and before any other decisions were made, I knew that I wanted her to pen the preface. It also seemed so appropriate for one who was a voracious reader (and suggested to President Kennedy that he read Ian Fleming’s first book, Casino Royale, thereby putting that author on the map).
Oatsie had an enviable and impresssive curiosity that kept her always engaged, interested and interesting; it also helped that nothing seemed to shock her. Her broad cross-section of friends and acquaintances speak to that. As a true doyenne, she early on mastered the art of the hostess, from the enjoyment to the prestige in entertaining and being entertained. She attended every party she chose (even when it required rolling her wheelchair over pebbled paths) to include one we hosted as recently as August. Like the true Southerner that she was, anything could be perceived as an occasion for entertaining…and she could shake up a guest list like a good martini, playing one guest off another.
But as she confided to her grandson, photographer Nick Mele, “Life is a theater. Unfortunately, not everyone knows how to act.” Sage observations coming from one who truly had presence, in the grandest sense, and thrived in being the center of attention. Her many devoted friends honored their friendship in gestures grand, including an eighteenth-century Venetian secretary that was a gift for hosting a friend’s wedding.
As well as simple — decorator Mark Hampton’s dinner thank you that included this whimsical watercolor interpreting her entry hall console on which it now rests.
With all her bona fides, the one that most fascinated me was that she achieved her position as a peerless hostess while a single woman, and divorcee, at a time (1950s and 1960s) when a woman’s influence was a reflection of her husband’s stature.
However, that didn’t stop her from favoring the company of men over women. In her later years, a parade of gentlemen came by the Whim weekly to read to her, most often in the “green room,” with its touches of Chinoiserie. If only these walls could talk…
Dear Oatsie, I admired your sharp wit and wisdom, appreciated your insatiable curiosity, and adored our shared passion for gardens. No, don’t rest in peace! Kick up your heels and start planning a party. I’ll be sending the Southern cheese wafers along shortly.
Aaah, heaven will never be the same…
The warmest of New Year wishes to you, dear friends and followers.