Early in Owen Wister’s 1905 novel Lady Baltimore, the narrator, recently arrived in Charleston from Philadelphia, remarks upon the stillness of the city, its “silent verandas” and cloistered gardens behind their wrought iron gates—“this little city of oblivion . . . with its lavender and pressed shut memories . . . ” For Wister the people of Charleston had somehow been spared “by [their] very adversity” the indignities of Gilded Age America and its mad scramble for status and wealth. In their faces, in their reticence, in the soft refinement of their manners Wister found a “moral elegance” that he believed to have all but vanished in the great cities of the North, amid the “sullen welter of democracy.” Charleston had indeed suffered much adversity: siege and bombardment in 1863-64, the chaos of Reconstruction, economic devastation, a major earthquake in 1886. Yet miraculously much of its unique architectural heritage had remained intact, while its ruling planter and merchant elite, led by the “Broad Street Ring,” reestablished political control. Despite the attempts of some to railroad Charleston into the arms of the burgeoning New South, the city remained—for the most part—haughtily resistant to progress through the first two decades of the 20th century. Even as the nation danced the “Charleston” the city’s streets still rang with the calls of Negro peddlers—“Come chilluns, get yer monkey meat, monkey meat”—while her poets, like DuBose Heyward, sang of her “narrow ways of troubled stone,” of her “empire of forgotten things.” By some mysterious alembic of pride and circumstance, Charleston continued to exude the magnolia-scented atmosphere of the antebellum era, however faded her glory.
In the early years of the last century, Charleston attracted only a handful of well-heeled Northern travelers, usually during the spring season when the city’s magnificent gardens were in full bloom. Today, tourists flock to the city from all over the world, the annual number now rising toward five million—a figure that is sure to increase after Conde Nast’s 2012 designation of Charleston as the most desirable tourist destination in the world. They come for many reasons: for the splendidly restored Charleston houses and public buildings; for the historic plantations and gardens; for a regional cuisine that vies with the best in North America; for the pristine beaches and sea-island resorts; for sweetgrass baskets and ghost tours; and for the internationally acclaimed Spoleto Festival USA. A century ago most Charlestonians, and especially the old families, were only too happy to live quietly with their memories of a nobler past, to be spared the harsh and vulgar glare of publicity. Now her streets are aswarm, not only with armies of slovenly tourists but with scads of the nouveau riche, celebs and wannabe celebs, tattooed fashionistas, and, worst of all, Hollywood producers on the make. The reality-TV industry has discovered Charleston, and the Bravo network’s recently aired first season of Southern Charm has generated a storm of criticism in the local media, as well as a good deal of attention in national venues. The guardians of Charleston’s carefully crafted image of gentility have predictably denigrated the show. Charles W. Waring III, scion of one of the city’s most distinguished families and editor of the Charleston Mercury, told a New York Times reporter that Southern Charm was “a pop culture smear on the Holy City.” Even Mayor Joe Riley (now serving his tenth term of office) felt compelled to denounce the show, despite the fact that he had apparently refused to watch it. “Decadence,” he declared, “didn’t build Rome; it destroyed it.”
This is hardly apropos. Decadence is a relative term, and Southern Charm, by comparison to much reality-TV fare, is mild stuff. Yes, it presents an embarrassing image of the city, but not so much for its decadence as for its sheer banality. Conceived by Whitney Sudler-Smith (who resides here with his mother, socialite Patricia Altschul) the show follows the feckless pursuits of a cast of young and not-so-young male bluebloods (and their female companions) who spend most of their time boozing and chasing skirt, while, as the Bravo website hilariously promises, “struggling to preserve their family names.” The show’s “star,” 51-year-old Thomas Ravenel (“T-Rav”), is the only Charleston native in the bunch, though all but one are South Carolinians. The plot thread involves the notorious womanizer T-Rav’s decision to find himself a mate and reenter the political arena. (I say “reenter” because, as most anyone in South Carolina knows, Ravenel was a rising Republican star who, until he was convicted on a charge of cocaine possession in 2008, served as state treasurer with an eye on the U.S. Senate.) We are offered privileged glimpses into T-Rav’s Church Street bedchamber; we see him jauntily clad on the polo field; we grimace when he delivers a boorish after-dinner speech at his plantation just outside the city; and we moan as he pursues the willowy 21-year-old Kathryn Calhoun Dennis (yes, that Calhoun), beds her, and produces a bastard baby girl who, according to recent press reports, has acquired the Ravenel name sans wedlock. Thirty years ago this sort of behavior might have been scandalous, but today, when over 40 percent of American children are born “out of wedlock” (over 30 percent for non-Hispanic whites), it is simply yawn-inducing.
To be fair, Southern Charm does have its amusing moments. After Kathryn is introduced into the cast, the others become convinced that she’s a gold digger. In one of those “confession cam” scenes when a cast member speaks directly to the camera in the interview mode, the lovely Cameron Eubanks, undoubtedly the least charmless of the show’s regulars, explains Kathryn’s power over T-Rav: “She’s beautiful and has lots of eggs, and men can smell that.” (Imagine it delivered deadpan in a sweet upcountry drawl, with just a hint of malice.) Even more amusing is Patricia Altschul, whom we see exclusively within her $4.8 million, 1851 mansion on Montagu Street. She routinely complains good-naturedly about the vapid twentysomethings with the “brains of a doorknob” that her son Whitney parades through the house, expressing her delight that he intends to acquire a “stabbin’ cabin” of his own. On one occasion Whitney laments that society blogger Ned Brown is following him and his friends around looking for dirt. Patricia says, “I could just kill him. Where’s my little pink pistol?” Later in the same episode, when Patricia’s beloved cat Rocky dies, we see her in her posh boudoir, tearfully surrounded by flowers sent by friends from all over the world, attended by her decorator, the “Prince of Chintz,” Mario Buatta, who consoles her with the suggestion that the urn containing Rocky’s ashes might tastefully adorn the wall behind her bed. Banality, spiced with a dash of the absurd, can sometimes approach the level of art. However, Southern Charm mostly lacks the courage of its convictions (if its producers have any convictions), and I am not without sympathy for the Charlestonians who cringe at the exposure. My repeated attempts to persuade acquaintances among the old families to talk on the record about the show and the image of the city that it reflects were generally met with stony silence. One who did agree to talk, David Farrow (related to the Ravenels on the distaff side), stated, “I think what I resent [about the show] is that it opens us up to mockery. We have worked so hard to prove that we aren’t the vain, clueless bunch that people think we are.”
It is hard to imagine any intelligent viewer of Southern Charm believing that the oafish behavior of T-Rav and the rest of the male cast is necessarily representative of Charleston’s young bluebloods. Does anyone, aside from the most incorrigibly gullible, believe that reality TV has anything to do with reality? However, if their fear of mockery has any foundation, the guardians of Charleston’s aristocratic heritage have only themselves to blame. Had they—or their parents and grandparents—not very deliberately chosen, almost a century ago, to promote the city as a unique tourist destination, the vulgar exposure they dread today would hardly be an issue. Make no mistake, Charleston did not reach its exalted place in the $1.2 trillion world-tourism industry by sheer happenstance. Beginning in the late 1920’s the city’s pioneering preservation movement arose hand in hand with the promotion of tourism. At that time tourism seemed a relatively harmless way to address the city’s malnourished tax base, while at the same time attracting investment in preservation efforts that were unquestionably driven by a sincere love of the city’s storied history and architecture. Key figures in the movement (all of impeccable lineage, including Susan Pringle Frost, the leading inspiration behind the creation of the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings) were not altogether opposed to “progress.” They sought to isolate industrial development to the fringes of the city and to discourage aesthetically “vulgar” commercialism (retail outlets, gas stations, and so on) within the historic district. The city’s business interests were slow to realize the commercial potential of preservation, and the old families (the Frosts, Stoneys, Manigaults, Heywards, Pinckneys, Warings, and many others) engaged in a running battle with those interests for years. Only after Thomas P. Stoney was elected mayor in 1923 did tourism become a municipal priority. According to Stephanie Yuhl in The Making of Historic Charleston, under Stoney’s leadership Charleston was publicized relentlessly nationwide as “America’s most historic city,” and Stoney himself repeatedly insisted that “we must sell the city . . . to the outside world.” By the end of the decade Frost was boasting in a letter to her friend and benefactor Irene DuPont that “Standard Oil is proposing to built a yacht basin [in Charleston] costing a hundred thousand dollars.” For Frost that proposed facility meant that more wealthy Yankees might be persuaded to take up residence in the city and to buy up and refurbish the historic houses that had, all too often, been abandoned or subdivided and rented out to black families. By the end of the decade, on the eve of the crash of 1929, the number of tourists visiting the city had risen to nearly 50,000, an historic high, leading the editor of the News and Courier, William Watts Ball (one of the few prominent opponents of tourism), to quip, “Nothing is more dreadful than tourists, whether grasshoppers, boll weevils, or money-bagged bipeds. They will make Charleston rich, and ruin her.”
Tourists have certainly made the city rich again. According to the College of Charleston’s Office of Tourism Analysis, the total economic impact of tourism in the metro area is now over $3.5 billion annually (a figure that includes job earnings). During the last decade alone, under Mayor Riley (whose family’s fortune was made in real estate), Charleston’s population has grown by 20 percent and its population density by over 16 percent. Tourism is a key factor in attracting most newcomers to the city, and many of the new arrivals, drawn by Charleston’s fabled “charm,” are extremely affluent, as the pricey condominium blocks rising on the banks of the Cooper River testify. Gentrification proceeds apace across the peninsula, driving up taxes and driving out the middle and lower classes, many of them black families that have inhabited the same neighborhoods for many generations. Smart bistros with names like The Larder replace family-run hardware stores and the corner barbershop. Indeed, even many of the old families have sold out, as the “South of Broad” area—once their stronghold—is increasingly inhabited by new money from “off.” One of the great ironies of the new Charleston, the Charleston remade in the image of tourism and preservation, is that control of the city is now, after almost 350 years of dominance, slipping out of the hands of the old elite. As one of my sources noted, “My mother used to point out that Charleston was the one place where money could not buy social status. That is no longer the case, as newcomers lavish their money on . . . socially prominent nonprofits like the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Gibbes [Museum], the Library Society, etc.” My own research bears this out. It is difficult today to find old Charleston names on the boards of trustees of local foundations, but easy to find names associated with corporate America. The chairwoman of the Gibbes board of directors, Laura Gates, a part-time resident of the city, serves (among other things) as a trustee for AMLI Residential Properties Trust, a Chicago-based company which, according to its website, is “focused on the development, acquisition and management of luxury apartment communities across the United States.” She also occupies seats on several other prominent Charleston boards.
Tourism is not, of course, the root of all evil. If for no other reason, a city rich in history like Charleston must bow to the obligation of hospitality that such a patrimony demands. Yet its impact on “quality of life” is much subtler than its critics often realize. Blocking the expansion of the cruise-ship industry or limiting the size of new hotels is praiseworthy, but fails to get at the crux of the matter. Once upon a time Charleston was a community, not a small town but a city of humane dimensions, deeply rooted in its folkways, and deeply Southern in character. Today, one can go for months without running across a native-born Charlestonian or encountering a Southern accent. The tourist season, which used to be limited largely to the spring and early summer, is now virtually a year-round endurance test for those who live in or near the historic district. I lived there for several years before retreating to the relative silence of the suburbs. Too often I felt like a stranger in my adopted city. As recently as ten years ago, the quality restaurants downtown frequently still required dinner jackets for men (and if you arrived at the door without one, they provided); today, one is more likely to dine with tourists and locals alike garbed in polo shirts, shorts, and sandals. And what of the moral elegance that Wister so admired a century ago? Needless to say, that’s in short supply these days. Perhaps the mayor, as a final gesture to the city in this his final term of office, should consider hiring a cast of actors to play the part of mannerly old Charlestonians. They could wander about the city charming the tourists, who certainly wouldn’t know the difference.