Architecture & Interiors, Design & Décor, Living with Style, The Newport Diary

Newport Society: The Passing of a Legend

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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.

Photo Credit: Nick Mele

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.

Photo Credit: Mick Hales

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.”

Photo Credit: Mick Hales

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.

Photo Credit: Mick Hales
Photo Credit: Mick Hales

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.

Photo Credit: Mick Hales

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.

Photo Credit: Mick Hales

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.

Photo Credit: Mick Hales

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…

Photo Credit: Nick Mele

The warmest of New Year wishes to you, dear friends and followers.

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About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

17 thoughts on “Newport Society: The Passing of a Legend

  1. Thank you Bettie.
    Grand Dame Oatsie was definitely a Legend! I referenced her lifestyle, wit and courage in my Southern Grand Dame Teas for many years. My heart is sad yet it leaps with Joy as your words gently and beautifully keep her alive. I just hope heaven’s ready for the Party!!
    Happy New Year to you,

    Sepia (another fan)

    1. What a wonderful and insightful comment. Thank you! And yes, I just hope heaven is ready for the party, too! xBettie

  2. Hello Betty,
    I enjoyed reading your tribute to Oatsie. We had the pleasure of meeting her and touring Whim while on a Mother -Daughter trip during the annual Flower Show hosted by you for Theresa Smith and her friends from Mobile. It was an unforgettable trip, highlighted by our visit with such a colorful lady as Oatsie as well as our visit to your beautiful garden and home. You also arranged a memorable dinner in the Vanderbilt tea house. What a trip, we still talk about it. I really enjoy keeping up with you and Newport through your blog. Thanks for the memories!
    Ann Gunter

    1. Oh Ann, how lovely to hear from you. Wasn’t that a fun time, way back when. I’m just so glad that Oatsie was still well enough to see us that day…but then, she is from Alabama so couldn’t have missed you all. And the Tea House, my favorite dining spot in Newport. Wishing you a joyfilled, Happy New Year…All my best, Bettie

  3. Thank you, Bettie. When I first read about Oatsie Charles’ passing, I had hoped that you would prepare a tribute. Fabulous inspiration for the new year–she was one-of-a-kind.

    1. Wonderful story! Also, Nick Mele was the photographer for my 80th celebration this past summer. Our family, 3 sons and daughters-in-law and 10 grandchildren have wonderful photos of a grand time.

      1. Such a small world…and so sorry again that we couldn’t be with you to celebrate your 80th…now onward to 99!!
        Happy, Happy New Year xBettie

    2. Indeed she was, and I took mental notes each time that I was with her. Shed a few tears when writing my tribute but that’s to be expected…
      Happy New Year!

  4. I am one of Oatsies granddaughters and while the majority of your article was elegantly and beautifully written , eloquently capturing the bombastic yet regal society grande dames personality I was more than offended at the lack of a mention that (for instance) her late husband and my beloved grandfather Robert Charles among other things was under secretary to Kennedy hence Oatsies introduction to him was due entirely to my grandfather moreover the love they shared for 30+years her absolute devotion to him and his contribution to the aesthetics of “The Whim” etc makes me extremely disappointed in your journalistic research skills and even more saddened by the loss of my only surviving grandparents. Please get all the facts straight before you choose to print an article as delicate as the topic of “losing a legend” aptly titled. Thank you for your time the photos and rest of the article were exquisite.

    1. I am sorry for your loss, Alexandra. Your grandfather was a wonderful man whom I was honored to have a chance to meet.
      I’m sure you treasure your memories of both of them.

  5. What a touching tribute to your cherished friend. So endearing and heartfelt. My condolences until you meet again!
    My favorite of your many blogs over the years.
    – A New Orleans fan

    1. What a lovely note, thank you! She lived a wonderful life and left with MANY memories. Happy New Year to you down there in NOLA, xB

    1. I couldn’t agree more…sums up her and her lifestyle beautifully. And I love that it was taken by her grandson.

  6. It’s probably too late for you to notice this comment, but I too enjoyed your retrospective piece on Oatsie. She and I met when I was conducting research on her grandfather, William C. Oates. Oatsie gave me exclusive use of the family papers she had in her possession, and I couldn’t have written the book without her help. She was always sharp witted and sharp tongued. Occasionally she said to me, knowing that I was raised in R.I., “I do like you, even though you are a damned Yankee!” I took that as a compliment. I found out about her death a whole month after it happened, but I’m very grateful to old friends in R.I. who remembered my connection to her and let me know she was gone. I will miss her. I will never forget her. I’ve never met anyone like Oatsie. And I never will.

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