Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Own Private Richmond

Starbuck Neck, 2008

“Society people are wonderful, but they have no rhythm.”

“Society” bandleader Meyer Davis

In the late 1960s and early 70s, Richmond, Virginia, was still very provincial. It was joked that Richmonders hadn’t gotten over the Civil War, and that maybe some day the editorial page editor of the city’s afternoon newspaper might be dragged kicking and screaming into the Twentieth Century.

I knew a bit about this before I went to Richmond to go to college. The summer before I started college I became smitten with a girl from Richmond. She was a year younger than me. We met at the beach. I worked there. Her family had a “beach house” more imposing than our year-round, and only, home. We went out a bunch and had a good time.

The night before she returned to Richmond, I showed up to take her out. She was already out with someone else. Her mother covered for her and welcomed me to call them when I got to Richmond, “because Betsy has many nice friends.”

Ouch! If you’ve gotten that line before, you know what she meant. (If you don't, it means, “Don’t bother asking my daughter out again. But maybe she has some friends with lower social standards.”) Betsy and I remained friends for many years. But that was it.

Later that year I met a college girl who was about to begin her debutante season. That sort of thing still mattered in Richmond then. I wasn’t on the official escort list, but my girlfriend’s parents saw to it that I was invited to a lot of these events. We laughed and played through a summer of mindless dinner parties and soirées. Imagine Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan with a Southern accent.

There was interesting fallout from all this partying with, as Bob & Ray used to say, “the socially prominent…in stately splendor far away from the squalid village below.” I witnessed homes and lavish lifestyles beyond anything I’d ever seen. I met doctors, tycoons, politicians, tobacco barons, people whose names were on all the big buildings downtown and some of those old “first family of Virginia” people who were intractably connected to the past, the ones who hadn’t gotten over the Civil War.

Turns out they weren’t so bad after all. Anachronisms? Yes. But the truth was they were little more than two generations away from the Civil War. That history was still very much in their blood because they descended from those ancient generals. They lived in ancestral homes on land where blood has been shed.

By the time Christmas rolled around and the debutante season ended, my girlfriend and I were over the high life. We drifted apart a year or so later. In the years that followed I had occasional reason to be back into the high society world. But I was never comfortable there and much happier when I came home to my own friends.


  1. Having grown up on St. Simons Island, I know this feeling. And no matter how hard I tried, I could never shake it. Still haven't.

    About the Civil War, a Yankee friend of mine speculated that Southerns are still so bitter about the war because, in the South, there are constant reminders of it with battlefields and statues everywhere you turn. I suspected he might have been on to something....

  2. Sounds like some of what F Scott Fitzgerald wrote about. He was always fascinated by those "others." It was only when I came South that I became acutely aware of the Civil War and the fact that the South has never really gotten over it all...