When “Oatsie” died recently at age 99 it closed the final chapter on Santa Rosa’s history with the Oates family.
Much has appeared here about the doings of the Comstock clan in the 20th century. But if not for a twist of fate her father might have owned (what would become known as) Comstock House – and had her family stayed here, their wealth along with her celebrity and forceful personality would have undoubtedly left its mark on Santa Rosa, for better or no.
It’s a shame the obits for Marion Oates Leiter Charles (at least, those which have appeared so far) dwell mostly on her final sixty years, with those everyone-who’s-anyone Georgetown parties and her place as the doyenne of Newport’s mansion dwellers. Interesting as that part of her life was, the beginning of her tale – the Oates part – is waved off with short shrift.
This is not a personal memoir of Oatsie; we corresponded very briefly (my first and only email with someone over ninety) and solely on details related to her family visiting Santa Rosa. She invited me to visit her in Newport a decade ago and to my regret, I did not take the trip. Most of what appears here is cobbled together from old issues of the Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser together with interviews and private correspondence from others who crossed her path.
When done here, scan some of the items in the sidebar below, particularly the Owens article. There you’ll meet the mature Oatsie as she matches wits with young JFK, Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond), Katharine Graham – and surprisingly, Nancy Reagan.
She may have started life as an ingénue little different from the others who wallpapered the newspaper society sections, but she made herself into an indomitable woman. In 1955, a year after divorcing her first husband, she was found to have breast cancer and had a radical mastectomy. She recalled, “One day, a nurse stood me up in front of the mirror and said, ‘No one is ever going to look at you again.’ So I told her, ‘Don’t count on it.'”
Marion Saffold Oates was born on September 29, 1919, about four years after her father made the worst mistake of his life.
We don’t know what her dad said (or did) during the six-week visit with his rich California uncle but less than three weeks after he headed back to Alabama, James Wyatt Oates added a codicil to his will which completely disinherited his nephew. Before that, William C. Oates Jr. – who was his closest blood relative – was to get one-third of the entire estate (before taxes and any other distribution) which would have been about the equivalent of $900k today. Uncle Wyatt even dropped the bequest of a gold watch which came from Will’s father, suggesting the offense was so great as to shatter family bonds.
Had he not been kicked to the curb, it’s not hard to imagine 32 year-old Will and his wife, Georgia, moving here. They had visited Santa Rosa several times in previous years, and his father and mother had brought him along on earlier vacations. Will had friends in Santa Rosa; when he died in 1938 the Press Democrat was the only paper outside of Alabama that ran a full obituary, noting he was “well known here.”
There was no directive in uncle Wyatt’s will concerning the house, but as the main heir he could easily have made a deal with the executors for it – and since Will was an attorney, he might have even slipped behind his late uncle’s desk in the law partnership with Hilliard Comstock. Will might have considered that his sizable inheritance would have instantly made him a big fish in Santa Rosa’s very small pond, but the greatest draw to living here would have been the chance to get him away from his parent’s very long shadows.
Will’s late father was General William C. Oates, former Alabama governor, seven term congressman, and most importantly in Alabama, a Confederate Civil War hero – even though his most famous moment in the war was a humiliating defeat in the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. He died in 1910 leaving an estate equivalent to $5+ million today.
Inevitable comparisons of the son to his father only reminded Alabamans that Will was not only lacking his pop’s character but he was something of a bounder. Will was admitted to West Point in 1900, only to be abruptly booted out in the middle of his junior year along with three other young men. The official reason was “deficiency in trigonometry and higher mathematics,” but it was said to be a cheating scandal. Although his father told a reporter he “could have had his son re-appointed to the Academy without any trouble,” the letter from the Academic Board was clear they would not consider letting him retake the classes – which certainly suggests there was a bigger problem than flunking trig. He was sent to public universities and earned his law degree in 1908.
When his father died Will was named executor and tasked with creating a trust on his mother’s behalf. The paternalistic general had long bullied his wife by accusing her of being a spendthrift, demanding postmortem that a trust be created so “that she may not waste the means I leave her.” Administering that trust was apparently most of what he did for most of the next decade; I can’t find a single reference in a newspaper of Will representing a client – it’s all small-scale property management. He and Georgia also lived with his mother until he was 43.
And it’s a good thing they were living there once Marion was born; it seems Will and “Georgie” were lousy parents. The newspapers didn’t print anything about his lawyering, but there was frequent news about the couple partying and taking off on trips. Oatsie always said she was raised by her grandmother, Sarah Toney Oates (who went by the abbreviation “T”) and her African-American servants. “If I have any nice traits – any kindliness, any awareness of anything – it’s because I was raised by loving black hands.”
The year 1919 was pivotal for the family. Oatsie was born and her maternal grandfather died, which gave his widow, Oatsie’s grandmother Minnie Saffold, the freedom and finances to have her fill of world traveling. Also from this year on, Will would henceforth refer to himself as “Captain Oates” because during WWI he was an officer of 117th Field Artillery Regiment (they never left Camp Wheeler near Macon, Georgia). And Will also finally landed a real job by being appointed head of the Alabama State Securities Commission, a position he would hold until 1935 without somehow screwing it up.
By the time Oatsie was seven family dynamics had shifted. In 1926 they began living with Georgia’s mother in an ostentatious mansion Will had built just outside of Montgomery, about three miles away from where grandma T lived. They called it Belvoir, and it was an over-the-top interpretation of an antebellum plantation house with the same name as a similar manse built a century earlier by Georgia’s great grandfather. We can only hope Oatsie still lived with T (or mostly so), because the place with grandma Minnie reeked not only of sickly-sweet honeysuckle but of the stench of 19th century racism.
Georgia and Minnie were tight with the Bankhead family and as a child Oatsie was often around Marie Bankhead Owen, a close friend of Minnie’s and the aunt of movie star Tallulah Bankhead. (One of the most often repeated Oatsie stories concerns Tallulah getting her blackout drunk while telling her about the birds and bees.)1 Marie was the Alabama state archivist and historian, prolifically writing children’s plays, biographies of those whom she and her late husband deemed notable, plus all sorts of articles and books on historic topics. She wrote one novel, “Yvonne of Braithwaite: a romance of the Mississippi delta” – sort of a precursor to “Gone with the Wind” – which had a romanticized portrait of Georgia Oates on the dust jacket to represent the plucky heroine. Marie was also an unabashed white supremacist who had fought against women’s suffrage because she feared it would lead to weakening the state’s Jim Crow laws.
But little Oatsie didn’t have to visit Tallulah’s aunt for a dose of racist attitudes. Grandmother Minnie was known for her “light dialect poetry” which she had privately printed into a book titled, “Pickaninny Pickups.” She did readings at women’s clubs and Georgia – who fancied herself a serious composer – set some of them to music. Their musical high water mark was “Good Mawnin’ B’rer Mose” being performed at a 1943 Carnegie Hall recital by an inconsequential Russian violinist.2
Their lust for the good ol’ days of slavery was also on inglorious display at a 1929 costume party at Belvoir. “Once again the ‘deep South’ reigned supreme,” reported the Montgomery Advertiser. Guests impersonated famous people in the Confederacy by wearing their ancestor’s Civil War uniforms and antebellum wedding dresses while “all the servants wore bandannas and hoop ear rings.” (Bear in mind this disturbing Confederate cosplay was happening in a city with a 45 percent black population.)
Grandmother T – probably the person in town with the best Confederate bonafides, being the general’s widow – didn’t attend that party. (Weirdly, a couple came dressed as her mother and father.) Her views on race seemed to match what sadly passed as moderation in the South, with T objecting in 1904 to President Teddy Roosevelt’s tiny steps towards recognizing African-Americans as being “negro socialism.” But to be fair, this was likewise the view of many here in Santa Rosa in the day, and exactly mirrored the opinion of Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley. She might have felt more at home in Santa Rosa than the rabidly rebel world of Montgomery.
While granny Minnie was preoccupied with demeaning slaves and descendants of slaves (she also wrote “Sugar Babe: A Sketch of Plantation Life in the Seventies”), T had literary and artistic interests which rubbed off on Oatsie, who once wanted to be a writer and was bookish her entire life. T was a charter member of the Ionian Club in Montgomery, which was the women’s cultural society. Like the Saturday Afternoon Club in Santa Rosa, members were expected to make presentations on intellectual topics of all sorts. Classical music was performed at meetings and the club hosted professional musicians touring the area.
The family faced financial disaster in 1932, according to a new article by Mitchell Owens (see sidebar – it’s a must read). Oatsie was called home from school for an announcement. “My father stood up in front of the fireplace and said, ‘I am sorry to inform you all but I have been wiped out’…we were told we had absolutely no money whatsoever.” What that meant is unclear; had he foolishly invested all of T’s once-enormous trust fund, or had he only lost his personal nest egg? T died the next year, so if there was any of that left, Will must have inherited a fortune (at least by the standards of it being the depth of the Great Depression).
Oatsie’s privileged life continued uninterrupted. At thirteen she was attending an exclusive girl’s school in Montgomery (the 1935 commencement exercises for the ten members in her class was held in Belvoir’s garden). After that she was packed off to European boarding schools 1935-1936, first the equivalent of three semesters at an english-speaking school in Brussels which Minnie interrupted at Christmas time to drag her around to meet former German royalty. This was the second time she had been her grandmother’s “darling little fifth wheel.” When she was eleven she had spent the summer in Germany with Minnie, who wrote a letter to the Montgomery paper boasting of all the wonderful and expensive places they stayed and all the very, very important people who warmly welcomed her. And her granddaughter.
A semester at a convent school near Munich followed. The family’s description (read: Minnie’s) emphasized this place practically injected blue blood into Oatsie’s veins – she was supposedly the first American as well as the first Protestant allowed to attend Kloster St. Joseph, as the nuns traditionally only accepted girls who were the crème de la crème of European dynasties (which no longer existed, of course). Oatsie later spoke of sentimental memories where the young women cut hay alongside the local peasants, then lunched on black bread and white radishes by a stream. Since this was 1936 Germany, a portrait of Hitler hung in every classroom but the nuns had it turned to face the wall, flipping it forward when the Nazis dropped by.
Like her relatives, Oatsie was now making regular appearances on the society pages in the Montgomery newspapers. Long before she was born her parents and grandmothers were often mentioned for their social doings; Minnie’s globe trotting is particularly easy to track because she knew folks back home in Alabama were sleepless, wondering just how many crown princes and baronesses she had checked off during her latest tour of Luxembourg. Oatsie likewise was given VIP treatment. The Montgomery Advertiser printed its first portrait of her at age two, another when she was a 13 year-old “sub-deb,” and the 1935 photo, shown at right, ran on the top of the front page. In between she popped up in class pictures and similar groups.
In her late teens she began attracting national attention for her good looks; Marion Oates might not have been a household name outside of Montgomery but her face was unforgettable, with her distinctive eyes and lantern jaw. (Yale, BTW, has a lovely photo of Oatsie and mother Georgia in 1937.) Three or four pictures of Oatsie circulated on the wire services every year in the late 1930s and early 1940s. She wasn’t alone, of course; glamor shots of pretty socialites and starlets were in papers almost daily all over the country, but she appeared often even though she was then a celebrity for no other reason. The images were a kind of Great Depression upper class pornography, just as movies in that same era might gratuitously throw in a scene at a glitzy nightclub or a palatial drawing room.
And lo, then came the Great Upheaval of 1938. It began right before New Years’, when the Montgomery newspapers printed a last-minute announcement that the upcoming party at Belvoir had been indefinitely postponed. No reason was given.
Then on January 14, 1938, the marriage of Will and Georgia Oates was dissolved by divorce.
Oatsie was then attending (yet another) finishing school in New York City and was called home on February 4 because her father was gravely ill. William Calvin Oates Jr. died two days later.
After waiting a respectful 34 days, Georgia married Philip Green Gossler on March 12 in New York City.
You can bet tongues were wagging back in Montgomery. A couple of stories were handed down that I won’t repeat here, except to say they are probably what you’d expect. Clearly problems had been brewing for some time.
The Montgomery Advertiser all but blacklisted any mention of the family, which must have given attention-hound Minnie the cold sweats. Even Oatsie’s blowout debutante party in New York (there were two, actually, both covered by the NY Times) merited only a few cursory paragraphs in the back of their hometown newspaper.
In late 1939 the Advertiser reprinted a lengthy article about Georgia which portrayed her as someone who was likely very mentally ill. Introducing the item with the snarky remark, “Mrs. Phillip Gossler of New York, formerly the lovely Georgia Saffold Oates of Montgomery,” the story claimed she rarely slept, believed she had psychic powers, was so sensitive she became sick when seeing clashing colors or discordant music and couldn’t bear to be far away from her huge collection of newspaper clippings. She was convinced F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a story about her which was clearly about his future wife. When you read about manic, schizophrenic Zelda Fitzgerald and see a portrait of yourself, time’s overdue to seek help.
Let’s wrap up our story in 1940, when 21 year-old Oatsie was profiled in the Hearst’s Syndicate “Cholly Knickerbocker” gossip column. It’s mostly fluff about her taste in clothes and jewelry but gives us a peek at her unbounded life at the time: Fly fishing at her stepfather’s fishing lodge in New Brunswick, winter at his family’s estate in the Bahamas, a month at Belvoir every April. “Her clothes have a permanent crease from packing.” Her business mogul stepfather was stinking rich, and the man she would marry two years later stunk even more.
It would seem two paths were always open before her. Like her parents and Millie, she could have embraced their morbid antebellum sentimentality – “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” per the famous closing line of The Great Gatsby. Or she could have surrendered to the great wealth which she always enjoyed and idled away her days in the social whirl of the leisure class. Instead, she created a little world of her own and challenged the brightest and most interesting people to keep up. “She was a snob about intelligence but not about background or social things,” her daughter said.
I offer this as an epitaph: She made herself into a remarkable person, in spite of her crippling advantages.
1 Oatsie apparently told the birds-and-bees story often. This version appeared in “The Story of Edgewater House” by Nancy Glidden Coffey: Just before her wedding in 1942, a friend took her out to dinner. “After dinner he said, ‘Let’s go see Tallulah. She should be home from the theater by now.’ So we went to see Tallulah. And she said, ‘I know Georgia’s not going to tell you the facts of life,’ so she proceeded to tell me. In the meantime, I had [laryngitis and] no voice, so she was giving me bourbon on sugar. She more or less said sex wasn’t all it was cut out to be. I woke up the next morning and mother came in with a wedding present and some sort of tissue paper was rustling. I said, ‘My God, what’s that horrible noise?’ And I’ve never remembered what Tallulah told me.”
2 Only a single work by Georgia was published: a choral church piece, “For thy Gifts Untold.” It is unclear if Georgia could actually read music; a 1943 profile said she composed in a dark room with her eyes closed as one of her “arrangers” put it all down.
|Marion Oates Leiter Charles at ages two, seventeen and eighteen
ALABAMA RELATIVES OF COLONEL J. W. OATES
Mr. and Mrs. William C. Oates of Montgomery, Alabama, are visiting Col. James W. Oates at his home on Mendocino avenue. William C. Oates is a nephew of Colonel Oates and is the son of Gen. William C. Oates, former Governor of Alabama. He is a capitalist and a member of the bar of that State. Mr. and Mrs. Oates will probably remain here until fall. They have made several visits to this city and at all times seem loath to go and anxious to return.
– Press Democrat, August 6, 1915
Society and Club Gossip by Dorothy Ann
Flashing lights, beautiful gowns, scintillating jewels and pretty women were paramount in the brilliant assemblage that gathered at the invitation of Col. James Wyatt Oates, Wednesday evening, at which time Mr. and Mrs. William C. Oates of Montgomery, Ala., and Miss Lois Granberry and Miss Pat Granberry were the honored guests. Amaryllis lilies cast their dainty fragrance from every nook and corner of the beautiful home, with long sprays of asparagus fern to enhance their pink beauty. The strains of soft music floated down from the balcony of the broad stair cases into the spacious rooms, where many friends gathered to bid welcome to the charming quartet of southerners.
Interest centered in Mrs. Oates, whose attractive beauty, sweetness of manner and charming simplicity won as one the hearts of those invited to meet her. Sharing with her the honors of the evening were Miss Lois Granberry and Miss Pat Granberry who have been with us a sufficient length of time to establish for themselves a prominent place in our social circles.
Particularly attractive were some of the gowns worn, that of Mrs. Oates greatly enhancing her flower-like beauty, it being white taffeta, trimmed with Bohemian lace and crystal trimming. A little scarf of tulle was draped around her shoulders and she carried Amaryllis lilies tied with graceful bows of pink tulle. She wore diamond ornaments…
– Press Democrat, August 22, 1915
Mrs. G. Frank Comstock has issued invitations for a tea to be given Tuesday afternoon complimentary to Mrs. William C. Oates and the Misses Granberry.
– Press Democrat, August 29, 1915
Mr. and Mrs. William C. Oates left for San Francisco Friday morning, on route to their home in Montgomery, Alabama. They will spend this week at the Exposition and then go to Los Angeles, where they will make a brief stay. They will be joined at the latter place by Miss Lois Granberry and Miss Pat Granberry who will accompany them home.
– Press Democrat, September 19, 1915