September 21, 2019, 5:26

My Friend Dorothea Benton Frank

My Friend Dorothea Benton Frank

The best-selling author Dorothea Benton​ Frank died last week at the age of sixty-seven.

At an authors lunch outside Detroit in May, 2016, a brunette in a bold red-and-white print dress made a beeline for me. She was Dorothea Benton Frank—known to her friends as Dottie—the author of best-selling books set in the Low Country of South Carolina, and she was eager to talk about grammar. We were in a clubby room with a bar and retractable walls, enjoying a cocktail or something milder, before appearing on a program that featured Steve Hamilton, a curly-haired, prolific author of mysteries, and Lesley Stahl, the “60 Minutes” correspondent. We watched Stahl make her entrance, impeccably coiffed, a loose coat thrown over a slim dress. Her book about being a grandmother had just been published, and Dottie and I had a strong suspicion that the big turnout for this event—more than a thousand tickets had been sold—was for her.

The authors sat at a long table on a platform at the front of the room and were given five or ten minutes apiece to pitch our books while the audience consumed a three-course lunch. Dottie didn’t touch her food, except to push it away; she never ate at these affairs, she explained. We were there to sell and sign books. Dottie’s talk was fluid and practiced, with many wisecracks. She told the story of how, when her beloved mother died, her grief was compounded by learning that her four siblings intended to sell the family home on Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston, where she grew up. She couldn’t bear it—to lose both her mother and her childhood home in one blow? By now she was living in Montclair, New Jersey, where she and her husband, Peter Frank, raised two children, although she frequently returned home to South Carolina. She asked her husband, an investment banker, if he would buy the house. (Suspense.) “And he said no.” So Dottie determined that although she had never written a book before, she would churn out a best-seller and make enough money to buy the house herself. And she did. (Applause.)

The best-seller was “Sullivan’s Island,” the story of a woman, betrayed by her husband, who returns with her teen-age daughter to the place where she grew up and rebuilds her life. Steeped in memories of the Low Country, it came out in 1999 and sold more than a million copies. That I had never heard of this or any of Dottie’s other books did not surprise or perturb her one bit. They were beach reads, a genre that she was well aware did not get reviewed in publications like the Times or The New Yorker. Anyway, Dottie didn’t need me. She had a devoted following. Her books were so popular that you couldn’t just show up at her signings: you had to buy a ticket. There was even a Dorothea Benton Frank Fan Fest in Charleston. Dot Frank was an industry.

After the signing, Dottie was going straight to the airport for her next gig. But she gave me her business card and told me that an event similar to the one we’d just done would be held in Charleston in November, and she’d get me invited. I e-mailed her the next day, before I could lose her contact information. “Tickled pink to hear from you!” she wrote back. “Send me your address and I’ll send you a copy of my funniest book!” She sent two, with inscriptions, “Sullivan’s Island” (“It all started here”) and “The Last Original Wife” (“For Mary Norris—My new BF!”), and added, “I can keep you in beach books forever!” Later that year, I was invited to an authors luncheon hosted by the Post and Courier in Charleston. The first night, the organizers put me up in a serviceable hotel, with the usual hideous hall carpeting, on the outskirts of town. My room overlooked the football stadium of the Citadel, the famous military academy. That weekend, there was a homecoming game as well as a reunion, so the hotel was fully booked, and after the book signing I would have to move across the river to a different, even more remote hotel. When I told Dottie this, she asked, “Are you packed?” I nodded. “Come home with me.”

Suddenly there I was driving to Sullivan’s Island with Dorothea Benton Frank. Her fans would be pea green with envy! In the car, she gossiped about her children, just as the women in her books do. Her daughter, Victoria, she told me in confidence, was pregnant. (Victoria’s son, Teddy, would be born the following year and turn Dottie into a fan of Lesley Stahl’s grandmother book.) She had encouraged her son, William, to try online dating and threatened to write his profile herself. Dottie was throwing a dinner party to celebrate Victoria’s birthday, so on the way home we stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few loaves of Victoria’s favorite frozen garlic bread.

The house wasn’t the one Dottie had grown up in. It wasn’t even the one that she had bought with the best-seller money. She had traded up to a mansion by the sea. The street was lined with palmetto trees—pronounced pal-metto, not palm-etto, she told me—and alongside the house was a pristine white cottage to which she gave me the key. But instead of retiring to the cottage I hung out in the kitchen while Dottie bustled around, whipping up dinner for twenty. I also admired the many ship models in glass cases in the hallway and living room—Peter collected them. Then I settled in a rocking chair on the back porch and tried to read. But I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t get over how I had scored. I had been delivered from a hotel in suburbia to this magnificent historic property with a view of Fort Sumter. For dinner, Dottie seated me with her on the porch while her daughter and friends took over the dining room. The climax of the evening was when Peter fired a blank from a small cannon, of the type used to signal the start for yacht races, off the back-porch steps.

The next morning, Dottie came to the cottage to invite me for coffee and show me a note from a reader, who loved her work but felt compelled to write, “I shuddered each time I read ‘was’ when it should be ‘were’! My Mom taught me (and she was a grammar fanatic!) when it comes to using ‘was’ or ‘were’ you use ‘were’ when it is contrary to fact.” The fan had cited a line of dialogue from “Lowcountry Summer”: “None that I know of, honey. I wish there was a pill.” Dottie wanted my professional opinion: How should she answer? Was she obliged to use the subjunctive? “Tell her this is fiction and this is how people talk,” I said. She was pleased to be able to quote a copy editor in her reply, adding that, for her own part, she believed that “it’s more important for dialogue to ring true than it is for it to be grammatically correct.”

We stayed in touch via e-mail and Facebook. When Dottie learned that I was working on a book about Greek, she told me that the protagonist of her latest book was from Corfu. At a book festival in Savannah, she met Colson Whitehead and Jay McInerney, who she thought might be a cousin. She was a big fan of other writers. Her twelfth Low Country tale, “Queen Bee,” came out in May, and Dottie was all over social media promoting it. Last month, I saw a note on her Facebook page from her family, stating that she was in the hospital. Less than three weeks later, on September 2nd, it was followed by the announcement that she had died, of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a bone-marrow condition, at the age of sixty-seven. Nearly ten thousand people have expressed their sadness on her Facebook page; the memorial service, this Saturday at Grace Church Cathedral in Charleston, is sure to be mobbed. Luckily, those of us who cannot make it to Charleston need only open a book to be with Dottie. In “Sullivan’s Island,” the plucky narrator, Susan, gets a job as a columnist for the Post and Courier, and her daughter—impressed, for a change—asks her what she’ll do if she ever has to write about death. “That may possibly be the toughest question I’ve had to answer all day, but even death has humor, wakes and funerals especially,” Susan replies. “I guess I’d advise people not to take hams to the bereaved.”

Source: newyorker.com

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