The High and the Low: Going Deep in Dixie

Illustration by Michael White
by Julia Reed - June/July 2012

A few words of praise for that Southern feel

In January, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a change in strategy at the St. Joe Company, the former timber and railroad outfit that’s one of Florida’s largest landowners. After the success of Seaside, the award-winning New Urbanist community founded in 1981 on the northwest Florida coast, St. Joe began working on its own master-planned developments, one of which, WaterColor, abuts Seaside and the other of which, WaterSound, is just down the road. Like pretty much everybody else in the luxury real estate business, St. Joe got slammed in the housing bust, and its new board of directors signaled to the SEC that it would be significantly reducing expenditures in the planned communities, which was the peg of the piece. Since I already knew that, I was about to turn the page when the last line of the story, written by a fellow named Robbie Whelan, caught my eye. The “area,” he wrote, “is often derided for its deep southern feel and muggy climate.”

Now, as it happens, I have spent a large part of my life in this particular “area,” also known as the Panhandle. In fact, when I read the article, I was sitting in the living room of the house in Seaside my mother has owned for the past fifteen years. She’d spent much of her own childhood in an entirely different Florida, vacationing with her parents and grandparents in Palm Beach at the Breakers hotel. The “feel” there, as at so many of the other über-social, high-WASP (or at least formerly high-WASP) resorts along Florida’s South Atlantic coast, is not so much regional—Deep South or otherwise—as tribal. The Palm Beach Breakers is not all that different in look and provenance from the Newport Breakers (a lot of Mr. Vanderbilt’s summer houseguests in Rhode Island were also winter guests at Mr. Flagler’s hotel), or, for that matter, from the Andrea Doria, the cruise ship on which my grandparents also vacationed before it sank.

My mother hated the Breakers. She and her nurse had to dress up just to cross the lobby to the pool; she spent her afternoons playing shuffleboard with my great-grandfather. There’s a picture of him there, with my great-grandmother and my grandmother and some close family friends. The men are in tropical-weight suits with ties and pocket squares; my grandmother has on a printed silk day dress, white pumps, and a fair amount of diamonds and pearls. No one is smiling.

So it was that my own family spent vacations in Destin at the Frangista Beach motel. With her marriage to my father, my mother had already made one revolutionary move, from the plush confines of Nashville’s Belle Meade to the swampy wilds of the Mississippi Delta; the leap from Palm Beach to the Panhandle was sort of the same thing. At the Frangista, the screen doors of the linoleum-tiled “suites” opened directly onto the beach, we rarely wore anything other than bathing suits, and there was certainly no shuffleboard. Instead, there was a next-door RV park, temporary home of one of my earliest crushes, a guy named Larry who caught rays atop his Winnebago and whose straw cowboy hat featured a band made of Pabst Blue Ribbon pull tabs, which were in ample supply.

My brothers and I and all our friends fished and swam and made ourselves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and at night we went with our parents to restaurants like the Sand Flea or the Blue Room for pompano and stuffed flounder. The grown people stayed up late drinking whiskey they bought at the Green Knight, a package store named for the garishly painted figure out front, while we went crabbing with the help of flashlights and the beach-loving dog Dexter, who belonged to my father’s best friend, Nick. I’m sure that by the time July and August rolled around it was, in fact, plenty “muggy,” but we didn’t notice. That was what the water, and the ever-rumbling Frangista window units, were for.