Arts & Culture

Real Talk on Southern Marriage

A North Carolina weddings writer dishes on her favorite Southern couples, explains why we all love love, and shares the traditions she’s ready to see annulled

Photo: Courtesy of Cate Doty

The author Cate Doty's grandmother's wedding in 1984 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“When I set out to write this book, I didn’t know it was going to be a memoir,” says the writer Cate Doty. A former Weddings reporter for the New York Times who still remembers trying on her mother’s gown and veil as a kid growing up in North Carolina, Doty has long been fascinated by weddings and marriage customs. Her new, personal, sometimes biting and often hilarious book, Mergers and Acquisitions: Or, Everything I Know About Love I Learned on the Wedding Pages, combines rollicking stories of matrimonial reporting and her own heartbreaks and ultimately triumphant love story. “When I started out writing the wedding announcements, I was like, Oh my God, who are these people? But as I was going through so much personal turmoil, it was like an outlet, a way to understand the world at a very specific moment in time.”

Here, Doty shares a little more about the book, what it was like to move back home to Raleigh after nearly fifteen years at the Times, and the Southern romances she wishes she could matchmake.

You write that “no one ever knows the interiors of another’s marriage.” But why are we so fascinated by them?

We’re all fascinated by romantic love—even people who say they’re not. It’s a basic state of humanity to love and want to be loved. A marriage is a long and short tale of how we love and help and sometimes hurt someone. Marriage and the act of being in a family opens up this vulnerability that I don’t think anything else can do other than making a piece of art. And marriage is always good gossip.

As a student at the University of North Carolina, you worked at the Daily Tar Heel. What lessons did you learn there?

It’s where everything started for me. Newsrooms are run by people who stay up late and get the job done no matter what. I also learned how a newsroom is so heavily built on relationships. It’s a bunch of creatives thrown together and trying to figure out the truth. It’s where I figured out that writing and reporting is exactly what I want to do and why would I do anything else?

Did being a Southerner help you write about weddings in any way?

I’m a pretty relaxed person, and I think that helped a lot. I also used to work in weddings. As long as you have good manners and can approach people in a kind way, that smooths it all over. I think that’s what I was supposed to get out of cotillion. [Laughs.] I don’t think there’s anything inherently kind about being a Southerner, but there is a sense of common humanity. We love a good wedding in the South, and we also love good gossip. I knew how to ask the right questions to get the gossip. And to be perfectly frank, there are some things that are not in this book that will never see the light of day. I know better. I have some Southern tact.

photo: Baxter Miller
Cate Doty.

Did you ever watch yourself as you turned on your Southern-ness in New York? 

Oh yeah, it’s a switch. One hundred percent. When I went to boarding school in Massachusetts in the nineties, we had one hall phone. I’d call home, my accent would come out, and people would hear me in the booth and they’d be like, what are you saying? In New York, I could slip in and out of my accent. I would sometimes feel out of my element, but I also felt malleable to the situation, and that was a good tool to have. I’ve always felt both very malleable and very rooted.

In the newspaper world, which one is more iconic—wedding announcements or obituaries?

You learn more about people from the obits. My grandmother would clip obituaries and send them to us from the News & Observer, not even for any purpose, just to be like look at this fascinating person. He’s dead, he can’t do anything anymore. All major news organizations have a trove of pre-written obits. I used to work an overnight shift and I’d get really bored and read the advance obits in the publishing cue. It was such a great way to spend my time. Obits for the win.

You’ve moved back to North Carolina—what are some of your favorite spots you’ve discovered in Raleigh?

When I told some New York friends I was moving back down South, they were mystified. But now you see the migration that’s happened down here. The pandemic has sped it up and you can’t get a house in some neighborhoods for a million dollars. I think people are realizing it’s way oversimplifying to say that people live more slowly here. I don’t know, I have no time. The living patterns and pace have changed, and people are starting to recognize how complex it is to be alive in the modern South. 

My family survived this pandemic by buying baked goods and eating them in green spaces. We go to Logan’s nursery at the old train station, it’s where everybody inside the Beltline goes to get their plants. A classic Raleigh place with a café. We’ve been hitting up Yellow Dog, which has been around for a long time. And we love Union Special, this really awesome bakery that makes spectacular crumb cakes and cinnamon rolls. We’ll get pastries and go over to Oakwood Cemetery and just wander the head stones and look at all the names. My kid is six and she’s fascinated with all the people under the ground.

My husband and I had our eleventh anniversary last week, and we stayed at the Guest House on Bloodworth in downtown Raleigh. It’s so clean and you’re self-sufficient—it’s perfect, quiet, and you can walk to Death & Taxes if you can get a table. It’s also a block from Transfer Co. Food Hall, which has Locals Oysters Bar that’s amazing. It’s run by two guys who started out by selling fresh seafood from a big Igloo cooler. It was such a delight to sit at the bar and order two dozen oysters and this crab roll thing on an amazing sesame bun. It’s everything you want in your life.

photo: Jason Arthurs
The author Cate Doty and her husband, Michael McElroy, on their wedding day in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2010.

Okay, some rapid-fire questions. Southern wedding you wish you could have attended?

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, in Franklin, Kentucky, the day after they won a Grammy for “Jackson.” I mean, obviously. 

Favorite Southern divorce?

Jane Fonda and Ted Turner. Mostly because Jane Fonda deserves all the good things in life, and she got them when she divorced him.

Southerners you wish you could matchmake?

Willie Morris and Julia Roberts. I think they’d have a lot to talk about: big people of the small-town South who went north or west toward home and found success. I once spent a very fun evening in Jackson, Mississippi, with Willie’s widow, JoAnne, and her intellect and perspective were both welcoming and wildly intimidating. I have a feeling that dinner with Willie and Julia would be the same. Or frankly, Julia Roberts and Julia Reed. Can you imagine? Julia Reed was my idol since I was eleven years old and I read her in Vogue. I remember reading about her fabulous life, her wit, and then I learned how deep her smarts went. And I love her hot cheese olives.

photo: Courtesy of Cate Doty
The author holds her grandmother Susan’s bouquet in 1984 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

A wedding custom you think it’s time to do away with?

Let’s see: the whole “giving away” thing, which people have started to reframe and rename, which is a start. But just the idea at all of a person—usually a woman, let’s be honest—being given away in marriage to another person needs to vanish for good. I did that eleven years ago and wish I had not. I also despise the engagement ring worn only by women. I disliked it when I got engaged—and you can read all about my own ring disaster in the book—and I dislike it even more now. The biggest one, though, is the expectation of happily ever after. Happily ever after does not happen. But I can say there is joy on the horizon, always.

Wedding custom you love?

There are a lot. I love how people interpret the borrowed and blue thing, and it never fails to make me cry. But my favorite—I really love the Episcopal tradition of the community’s declaration of consent, in which the priest asks all in attendance if they’ll help support the couple and their marriage. We’ve been married eleven years and have seen some real shit: enormous stresses, losses that shook us to the core, and also wild, sustained joy. But through it all, the people at our wedding who pledged to stand by us lived up to their word. Marriages, just like the individuals in them, need community to thrive. (I should also be clear that we did not get married in a straight-up Episcopal ceremony—we sort of borrowed from Protestant and secular traditions.) Also, can people please serve more pulled butter mints? More butter mints in 2022.

Mergers and Acquisitions by Cate Doty is available now.