In the Land of the Debutantes

I’m being asked quite a bit about my research for Lookaway, Lookaway, and I can report that I truly did squeeze my bulk into some outgrown formal wear for the N.C. Debutantes’ Ball, that I immensely enjoyed socializing with sutlers (traders, 19th Century-style), during a Civil War re-enactment, and that, yes, I took a notepad along with me during Rush Week at Chapel Hill, where I ambled past all the snooty sorority houses and eavesdropped on gossip and pledge-talk unaware. But one person required no research at all: Jerene Jarvis Johnston, socialite, matriarch, art proprietor, family savior, shakedown specialist, criminal, villain and heroine. I have known this woman all my life. Admired her, feared her, been terrorized by her, been charmed by her — sometimes in the same single conversation!

No, not my own mother — and Mom is adamant that I make crystal clear at EVERY venue that she is NOT the basis for the implacable Mrs. Johnston. My dad worked in the chemistry lab for a cigarette factory; my mother was a mountain farm girl who became a school teacher. We were not High Southern Society by a longshot, but, growing up, I knew plenty of people whose mothers harbored great social pretensions, and a lifetime of Southern mingling, often with university donors and trustees, first-family aristocrats as well as the new money, has filled in the rest. Jerene is one of those Southern women who, like the NSA, has databanks of social information in her head. So tell me, Wilton, your mother was a Dunlap? Is that of the Greensboro Dunlaps? Scots-Irish in the Asheville area you say… Very well. And Barnhardts—of course, they’re Kannapolis, Concord, Charlotte… surely you know [fill in name of impossibly important, rich Barnhardt I’m no relation to]? No? I’m sure if you go back far enough, you’ll find you are related. Once I am fixed in the firmament of North Carolina society (or non-society as the case appears), a perfectly pleasant conversation can be maintained.

These society matriarchs are often misunderstood: they are not all about wealth. Actually, they take note of it and prefer it, but it does not impress them. Positive ambition impresses them, manners impress them. Culture, art, attainments in medicine or business or law does indeed count for something, and, while there may not be a society connection, there is always a search for accomplishment of some sort, a hope that the person she is talking to may indeed be interesting, worth knowing, worth having over for one of her glorious dinner parties. Such things — manners, membership in the symphony, the ballet, the Mint Museum of Art, say, speaking with charm and authority, free from vulgarity or dreariness — show that your “people” may be good after all, whether or not your family fortunes have yet to place you into that inscrutable elect known as “Southern Society.”

I always wanted to write about this kind of society matron, and I also figured there was no point writing a social Southern novel if I couldn’t come up with a woman to give Tennessee Williams’s heroines a run for their money. Whether Jerene achieves such stature I will leave for the readers and critics to say, but I do believe J.J.J. is a force to be reckoned with!