EASTERN DIXIELAND – April 2001
Prior to the main tour of the USA, I had decided to concentrate my efforts on the South. Over a couple of months I managed to coordinate dates and travel with ten different towns and cities across Dixieland. In return for a performance at each branch, I would receive hospitality, some remuneration, and a tour of any Civil War battlefields, etc, in the immediate locality. This latter perk was a personal request based on a childhood fascination with the Confederacy, a fascination sparked and fuelled by seeing ‘Gone With The Wind’ at the age of ten – not a very PC education tool. Having performed a show in California, I moved back towards the east.
2001 April: Sunday
The plane took off from Reno at 6 30am amidst a minor snowstorm, but soon soared into the sunlight above the clouds. We headed east across New Mexico, Arizona, and West Texas before touching down for a couple of hours in Dallas. I took the opportunity to buy some postcards. One was a photo of Dealey Plaza, the scene of President Kennedy’s assassination, with arrows picking out such salient points such as the Grassy Knoll and the Texas School Book Depository. Another was of the Lone Star State flag embossed with the logo ‘Don’t mess with Texas’.
Wilde’s tour had reached the state in June 1882. His show in San Antonio went well despite some complaints from the audience that its hour-long length was ‘too long between drinks’. He admired the Alamo (scene of the famous battle 46 years earlier) but mislaid his hat during the visit.
At 2pm (Central) we again flew east. The idea of arriving in Charleston S.C. was personally thrilling. It all stemmed from my adolescent fascination with the American Civil War. As previously mentioned, as a ten-year-old, I was overwhelmed by watching ‘Gone with the Wind’. Something about the film enthralled my imagination; the doomed romanticism of the Confederacy, the equally doomed passion of Rhett and Scarlett, the lurid beauty of Selznick’s Technicolour Old South. It was only later that the realisation of the hard facts of slavery and of war itself cracked the illusion. But a Proustian something still lingered. And now I was heading into the city that first seceded from the Union, the site of the first battle, and the home town of Rhett Butler ‘himself’.
However, as the plane landed at 5pm, practicality intruded into reverie. I walked to the airport concourse and looked for my contact – there was none. I tried a message over the loudspeaker system – again no response. This was getting tricky. Finally, I phoned the original number and a voice replied that someone was on their way. I sat outside and sweated in the 93F heat and the sub-tropical humidity – it was a long way from the morning snows of Nevada.
Two hours later, a professor called Rosemary arrived in an open top sports car.
“Are you Oscar Wilde?” she Southern-drawled with a smile.
We drove south-east on the interstate then stopped off at a restaurant in North Charleston. Rosemary suggested that I try some of the local food and recommended gumbo, low country boil, or grits. I ate something that tasted like scampi – but then, in my experience, all unidentifiable seafood tastes of scampi; everything else on the menu of the exotic tends to taste of chicken. Over the meal, Rosemary said that she also gave talks to the ESU clubs.
“The main problem is keeping them awake.”
When we left, darkness had fallen and we drove slowly into the Charleston Historic District, an area that Rosemary said was known as ‘South of Broad’ and the really classy side of town. Broad Street was the dividing line – to the south lay the rich heartland of the city. To emphasise the social divide, I noticed a shop sign that advertised itself as: ‘Only Just North of Broad’.
As we cruised through the tree-lined streets and gorgeous ante-bellum mansions, I assumed that Rosemary was taking me on a sight-seeing tour. It was with some surprise and even more gratification that I found we were stopping in front of one of the largest and most beautiful of the mansions and that this was to be my home for the next three nights.
As Rosemary’s car glided away down the street, I turned to meet my next connection and the owner of this sumptuous three-tiered wedding cake of a building. Barbara was aged about 85 and, as Rosemary had explained earlier, was one of the grandest of Charleston grande dames. Barbara explained that her servant had died recently and that she was having to get used to housekeeping: “I feel nervous making tea for an Englishman.” Her accent was pure south: Charleston was pronounced ‘Chawlstun’.
We sat and talked for the rest of the evening. When I enthused about the beauty of her house and of the local area, she laughed: “That’s all due to Hugo.”
‘Hugo’ turned out to be Hurricane Hugo, a particularly destructive Category Four storm that had hit the city in 1989. Almost all the houses in the ‘Historic District’ had suffered damage. Barbara:
“I stayed here right through it all, even though the water was flowing through the main ballroom.”
However, the resultant federal aid and insurance claims had not only restored Charleston to its former glory but had radically stimulated the previously moribund economy. Barbara:
“Before the storm the city had no money. People said we were ‘too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash’.” Hugo had been a godsend.
The other memorable aspect of our conversation was my first exposure to the South’s loathing for ‘the Yankees’. Barbara:
“They are loaded with dollars and they’re coming here to buy up our houses.”
When I mentioned ‘the Civil War’, Barbara gave me a look of reproof:
“Here, we call it The War Between The States.”
I had assumed that any residual animosity from the Civil… War Between The States was long gone – after all, it had ended 130 years ago. I was wrong.
2001 April: Monday
After breakfast, I stood outside the door for a morning smoke. On the opposite side of the road, Meeting Street, stood the 1876 Calhoun House. This was another of the stunning ‘South of Broad’ mansions and often used as the backdrop for TV and film sets. A group of tourists were busy taking photographs of the place and several turned their cameras in my direction. I took up an elegant pose against the wall of ‘my’ mansion and, with a haughty flick of cigarette ash, ignored them. Rhett was in his element. Well, such opportunities come so rarely.
Charleston is the oldest city in South Carolina and built on a peninsula almost at sea level – the whole area is known as ‘the Low Country’. Its earliest inhabitants were a tribe of Native Americans called the Sewee. After their first encounters with Europeans, they concluded that it might be a good idea to start trading with the newcomers. Unfortunately, the decision was made to skip the middle-men and trade directly with London. The whole tribe set out in twenty canoes to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Not surprisingly, the Sewee disappeared from Charleston and from history.
With the land conveniently cleared of the indigenous people, and with a large influx of French Huguenots and Sephardic Jews, the city flourished as a centre for the slave trade until the Civil War destroyed its prosperity. Throughout the 20th century, the city slumbered on, its economy bolstered mostly by the large military establishments nearby. It had, though, held its reputation as ‘the most polite and hospitable city in America’.
Barbara called me inside for an introduction to Zeff, a young man originally from Minnesota and now renting a room at the rear of her home. He offered to show me the sights by car. We checked out such town highlights as the bronze plaque on the house where secession was declared in 1861, and the Irish base, the Hibernian Hall. Zeff:
“They make great play of the fact that they alternate Presidents each year. One year Catholic, the next Protestant.”
We passed Rainbow Row, a waterfront terrace of mid-18th century houses; it gained its name from the different pastel shades of paint on each house. It made it look vaguely like a line of large Dutch beach huts.
Circling round under the palmetto trees along East Bay St, we drove back into town and stopped at the City Market. Originally this had been the old slave auction sheds; the stalls now sold tatty Old South memorabilia. Elderly black men sat on the ground selling farm produce from open baskets. Horse-drawn carriages touting for tourist trade regularly clip-clopped down the street. The morning sun slowly cooked a scene that could have fitted into the 1850s.
Zeff: “Charleston is pretty evenly divided between black and white. Before the Civil War the black slaves were the majority; now there are probably more whites here. But it’s an odd place. There’s less racial tension here than I felt back home in Minnesota. I reckon it’s because they’ve spent so long together they understand each other. Where else in the world other than the South have white and black lived this close for three hundred years? OK, for two hundred years it was master and slave – but that’s still close. And it’s why Bill Clinton picked up the black vote. Because of his Southern upbringing, he knew them and they knew him.”
In a rare comment on the US racial divide, Wilde said he was ‘surprised that painters and poets have paid so little attention to the Negro as a subject of art’.
Zeff dropped me off at the Battery Park, the furthest tip of the main Charleston peninsula. Shimmering on the horizon across the bay I could just see the outline of Fort Sumter. This was the exact spot where the Civil War started – a bombardment from guns along this very stretch of promenade against the Federal garrison defending the fort.
Despite the appalling consequences of the action, there was a farcical element to the actual engagement. Although the shelling was heavy, it caused no casualties and very little damage, one officer saying that all it did was to make the fort ‘look as if it was suffering from smallpox’. However, after a small fire started, the Union commander decided to surrender. The Confederate commander, General Beauregard, as a mark of respect, agreed that the Union forces could fire off one last round in honour of the US flag. The gun misfired, blew up, and killed a Union private – the first (and accidental) victim of the war.
While on tour in New Orleans in 1882, Wilde met Beauregard. The former general had ended his career working for the Louisiana State Lottery. It was his job to spin the wheel and intone the winning numbers – Louisiana’s official state bingo caller.
Along the sea front there were several military memorials erected by a group entitled ‘The Daughters of the Confederacy’. This turned out to be a heritage association, open only to female descendants of Confederate veterans, and not noted for espousing liberalism. During the 1920s and 30s, they had attempted to erect a monument on the Mall in Washington in memory of what they described as the ‘faithful slaves’ of the pre-Civil War days – as opposed, presumably, to the slaves who objected to slavery. The idea, unsurprisingly, fizzled out under a fusillade of objections.
After an afternoon siesta back at the mansion, and an early dinner of seafood with the local ESU President and his wife, Barbara and I were taken to an evening performance of Bach’s St John Passion at the First Presbyterian Church. It was a gala show with two choirs, a full orchestra, and ten soloists. Pontius Pilate bore a strong physical resemblance to Pavorotti, while Jesus Christ looked very like John Major. It lasted two hours and ended with tumultuous applause.
As he introduced me to the Presbyterian Minister afterwards, the ESU President said:
“I think Mr Titley will have a tough job following that tomorrow!”
“Yes, I probably will” I replied. “Still, we’ve only heard from St John tonight. In Oscar’s case, it’s rather like saying ‘And now for a few words on behalf of Satan’.”
They gave an uncertain laugh.
At midnight, I sat outside the mansion and smoked a cigarette. The slight breeze was mimosa-scented, and the stars in the Carolina sky glistened. I remembered one of Oscar’s stories. He said that wherever he went in the South and whatever he talked about, the invariable reply was “Ah, but you should have seen it before the war”.
One evening in Charleston he turned to a gentleman and remarked how beautiful the moon was. The answer came: “Yes, sir, but you should have seen it before the war”.
A cypress swamp near Charleston