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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Training middle-class southern belles

Coming from a world where appearances determined marriage opportunities, future employment, and respectability, families who fell on hard times had a limited number of ways of maintaining their status. One respectable option some widows tried was moving to New York City and offering young southern belles a home away from home as they visited the Northeast.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Then, my father had . . . there was a woman in New York that we called Aunt Mamie. She had been married to my father's best friend, Mr. Patterson, no kin, who had been the pastor of a church down here in Montgomery. And Aunt Mamie had come from Tennessee and Daddy had known her when he lived at Mt. Pleasant. She had been a very fashionable girl, she was brought yp by her sister since her mother had died and her sister was very well off. She was fashionable, used to champagne and four in hand coaches and they all lived in Nashville on Pike Road . . . or some Pike that everybody lived on. Nashville, you know, was a seat of fashion and still is in large measure. You had race meetings, you know. Well, Aunt Mamie was very fashionable. She wore the biggest hats and the most pearls andchiffon dresses and she even rouged, which was supposed to be rather fast. (laughter) And her husband died, Mr. Patterson, and left her with a son and a daughter and didn't leave her with very much money, I think. Then, she did something that was just considered to be awful: She married a man named Mr. W. . . .. . . .who was a shoe clerk. Oh! That was considered to be absolutely beyond the Pale. "Who was Mr. W. . . .. . . .?" Nobody could place Mr. W. . . .. . . . He was like Mr. Leary, he just didn't exist. He had no roots at all. (laughter) People would say, "Well, I never heard of anybody that knew Mr. W. . . .. . . . . . " (laughter) You see, you had to be placed, this was very important. They would always say, "Now, is he kin to the Smiths who lived in Eufala? Is he related to the Walkers who lived in this place?" You had to place people to be sure that they were respectable and your kind of folks or something. So, Mr. W. . . .. . . ..never got placed. So, Aunt Mamie took him up to New York and she began to take girls. This was a thing that southern ladies did to make a living. They would go to New York and get a big house or apartment and they would take girls. This sounds like they were running a whore house, but (laughter) they would take young Southern girls who would come up and they would go to the opera and to the theater and they would take music or French.
SUE THRASHER:
They would live with her.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
They would live with her and they would be exposed, to culture you see, and Aunt Mamie would get them introduced to boys or an invitation to Annapolis or to West Point or she would introduce them to somebody. She was very big in the Presbyterian church up there. They would get polished, you see.
SUE THRASHER:
How did she maintain that kind of image, having married a shoe clerk? Did she have money of her own?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Well, she must have had some money, but she had this great big apartment. I'll tell you how it worked. My sister had been to Sweet Briar and Daddy was the guardian of Aunt Mamie's children in some way. And she would come to visit us for long periods of time and she would always get handsome presents out of Daddy. In those days, ladies used to wear french puffs. Do you know what they were?
SUE THRASHER:
No.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Well, they were kind of big sausage rolls that they would put on top of their hair. Their hair was always up, and on top of that they would pin these artificial french puffs. They were very expensive. And Mother got furious at Daddy because he bought Aunt Mamie these very expensive french puffs that must have cost fifty dollars. But she had a way of getting things out of people. She was a very pretty woman and very sexy with a great big bosom and a tiny little waist and swelling hips. She was not a bad woman in any way, she was very virtuous. I'm sure that she would not have married Mr. W. . . .. . . ..if she hadn't been. He was an extremely handsome man. Anyway, my sister had been to Sweet Briar and Aunt Mamie persuaded Daddy to send Sister to her in New York because her daughter, Ella Vaughan Patterson, had visited us a great deal and she and sister were friends. She was one of the most beautiful creatures that I have ever seen. She put every other southern belle that I have ever known into the shade. She was absolutely gorgeous. She had red-gold hair that was all curly and great big blue eyes and marvelous complexion, just beautiful. You see, girls didn't use much make-up in those days, and she had a marvelous figure. And shewore the prettiest dresses that you have ever seen, satin slippers and chiffon and georgette crepe and she would wake up in the morning and I would go to watch her because she was so beautiful even in the mornings. She was just absolutely gorgeous. I can't remember anybody in my life that was prettier than Ella Vaughan Patterson. And Mother and Daddy were devoted to her. She was the daughter of his best friend. Aunt Mamie, of course, was very anxious for her to marry a rich man. I can't tell you how many beaus she had. When she came to visit us, the telephone would ring and the doorbell would ring and five pound boxes of Nunallys would come in and great long boxes of American Beauty roses and violets in little square boxes and gardenias. She would have late dates and an early date to go out for dinner at six or seven o'clock and then have another date at nine o'clock and a late date at eleven o'clock. She could only stay with him for a little while. And all day long, the men were calling up. You see, they became kind of institutions, if you know what I mean, these great southern belles. A man was very proud to be seen with them even. It gave him sort of a status to be seen with one of these beautiful girls and they became kind of institutions. Their cities were proud of them and their families were proud of them. Zelda was that way, but of course she was younger. Then there was another girl named Willie Gale and Margaret Thorington from Montgomery and a lot of them that came on with me that were just . . .Mary Allen Northington, they were just really authentic southern belles. Oh, and Blanch Divine and Sarah Orme from Atlanta. I can remember a lot of them and when they came to town, there was a lot of excitement and they were almost like visiting movie stars. They were not on the stage, but they were playing a part all the time. They were the epitome of Success and oh, I wanted to be like them so badly. But I knew that I wasn't. This was the ideal that was held up to me, to be a belle. My sister was extremely popular, too. Boys would come on Sunday afternoon and a crowd of them would come together, say eight or ten together and then when one crowd would come, the other crowd would have to leave. So, Sister would sometimes on Sunday afternoons, have as many as fifty or sixty callers, in one Sunday afternoon.
SUE THRASHER:
All boys?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
All boys, sure. You see, she was extremely pretty and the boys were crazy about her and she was one of the very popular girls. Sister was never sort of an institution like Ella Vaughan Patterson or Blanche Divine, but she was a very pretty girl and the boys were crazy about her. She never said much, she was just so sweet and pretty and they just fell in love with her, you know. But Aunt Mamie, I suppose that she wanted her to board, and she persuaded Daddy to send her to New York, so she did go to New York to live with Aunt Mamie. She stayed there for 2 years and in the course of those years, she took a business course, of all things, and became a secretary. Now, when the war broke out in 1918, she was still in New York and she and Ella Vaughan Patterson joined the Navy as Yeomanetts.