The South, or Nearly So

I do not claim to be an expert on the classic South, that is, the states below the Mason Dixon line, other than what I know from books and movies like Gone With the Wind, or Jezebel, or the works of Eugene O’Neil, Beth Henley, or Tennessee Williams. So, that’s a pretty limited experience.

I have benefited from Southern hospitality, like the tour from Pennsylvania to Florida that I took as a member of the Heinz Chapel Choir from the University of Pittsburgh and the folks who welcomed us into their homes. This includes the crazy Savannah anesthesiologist who crammed four of us sopranos into his Porsche and took us on a freeway joy-ride at speeds up to 90 miles-per-hour—at least that is what his speedometer read just before I closed my eyes.

Last week my work-related travel landed me in Durham, North Carolina, home to Duke University. And Bull Durham, Lucky Strike, and other tobacco plants, whose occupants are now long gone and which are being converted into office buildings and museums. Durham, according very friendly folks I met there, including the clinicians we were training, Uber drivers and the employees of our hotel who drove us out to restaurants—Southern hospitality again—had not long ago been a ghost town of homelessness, drugs and crime, now hosted numerous excellent restaurants, parks and boutique hotels.

Other than grand dining at a Portuguese restaurant, an outdoor beer garden and the Naan Stop, an Indian buffet, we had little time on our short visit to see much, but grabbed an hour between the end of the training day and the cocktail hour to walk to the Duke Chapel.

James Buchanan Duke, owner, president and CEO of American Tobacco, endowed Trinity College with a boatload of money, gave his name to the College, and is buried under or inside a marble mausoleum along with his brothers in the Memorial Chapel. While much can be said today about tobacco fortunes, the likely use of slaves for its harvesting and shipment, and the death toll of both slaves and smokers, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries no one thought much about it, especially in the South. As I walked through the ecumenical Christian Chapel, wishing someone would appear to play Beethoven’s classic Toccata and Fugue on the Benjamin N. Duke Memorial Organ, I found myself seeking scandal. In and around the Duke campus, I got a sense of the conservatism that infuses all of North Carolina with the exception of Raleigh, the one progressive enclave in a very red state. (Fox News was the channel the previous occupant of my hotel room had been watching when they turned off the TV.) However I didn’t feel it. As do all churches from the lowliest Mission iglesias to San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, Duke Chapel held a quiet, respectful majesty. Nothing the Duke family might have said or done mattered here.

I was, however, as I did a high-level search on the Dukes, interested particularly in Doris Duke, whose Doris Duke Charitable Foundation funds HIV research and likely my job relies on some of that money. If I was going to write historical fiction about an heiress in mid-century USA, I would like one who wrote for Harper’s Bazaar, was a competitor in surfing, and had an affair with General George S Patton. Married twice, her only child dead shortly after birth, Doris had enough money to both live as a play-girl and give tons away for charitable aims. Duke Gardens in Hillsborough Township in New Jersey was funded and designed by Doris.

We had a few short minutes—not long enough!–to tour Duke University H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants where I captured this photo of a female cardinal below. I hadn’t seen one in many, many years. I think Doris liked a good garden, too. There is one dedicated to her on the campus.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


The South, or Nearly So — 6 Comments

  1. I thought that bench and the tree behind it looked familiar. We lived in the area for many years and my wife was on the faculty at Duke. I remember climbing that tree with her son.

    This isn’t quite a scandal but Duke Chapel was one of the sites caught up in the controversy last summer over Confederate monuments. There was at the time a statue of Robert E. Lee (since vandalized and then removed) flanking the entrance, although no one really knows quite how it got there:

    When we lived there (until a decade ago) it was Chapel Hill and Durham that were considered the hopeless liberal hotbeds in the state. Duke University itself, being “old money,” was comparatively conservative.

    That’s a male cardinal in the gardens picture. The females are pale brown with reddish highlights.

    Thanks for the flashback.

  2. Agreeing with that handsome male cardinal, and also that Doris Duke would make a wonderful part of a period tale! Thanks for telling me about her–I had heard her name many times on NPR sponsorship. Sounds like her life was not boring.