Every once in a while when I am in a nightclub—which is not any oftener than I get asked—I look around me and am suddenly stupefied by the swift, sudden spectacle of women all over the place bending every nerve and sinew to the effort of being charming to men. It gives me a start. They are laughing, flashing their teeth and eyes, listening intently, laughing again, chattering, looking arch or babyish or tantalising, preening themselves prettily, keeping up a constant show of animation, gaiety, and sparkle. It is appalling. Then I go home and ponder the problem of feminine charm. What is it, what makes it, who’s got it, and what of it?
I often wonder what they teach in those charm courses, but I have never sufficiently roused myself to find out. Besides, I am pretty sure they would be like the women’s-page columnists who give advice. “Dear Miss Potts: When I am introduced to a strange boy, I never can think of anything to say to him. Please help me—Hazel-Eyed Wallflower.” The answer is: “Dear Hazel-Eyed Wallflower: When introduced to the young gentleman, smile and say ‘How do you do?’ If then left alone with him, simply murmur a few pleasantries. This will ‘break the ice’ and soon you will find that every thing is ‘smooth sailing.’ ” This business is as helpful to me as the cookbooks that seem to think they have solved everything when they say, “Bind with a white sauce,” and leave you wondering what a white sauce is, and how would you go about binding with one even if you knew.
“Murmur a few pleasantries and bind with a white sauce.” That, in a nutshell, is the secret of charm. The same columnist, whom I have now given up as more hindrance than help, also said that if you are not very attractive you should nevertheless have some outlet for your emotional life, like a hobby; and why don’t you keep turtles? (Up in the country, where I was born, they used to say, “Why don’t your mother keep ducks?” To which the answer ran, “ ’Cause she’d rather peddle ice.” I have always been fond of considering this repartee as a sample of esoteric and unfathomable upstate folklore, but it now appears to have its present-day urban counterpart. “Why don’t you keep turtles?” Answer: “Because I’d rather have men give me mink coats.”)
As you can readily see, this got me nowhere in my research work on feminine charm. Instead of forging ahead, I was steadily forging backward—an embarrassing state of affairs, because I am stubborn in my thirst for knowledge (it’s my father in me coming out) and I like to feel that I am making headway when I set my foot down.
So I turned to life itself, and there I found that, while it is not a cut and dried prerequisite to feminine charm, it certainly helps a considerable amount if you have been born in the South—even if only in Maryland. You will find it true, I think, that many of our greatest female spellbinders are Southern or of Southern stock. They are all Scarlett O’Haras under their skins. That fair, false, fatal lady was no peculiarity of Civil War days. She flowered long before Grant took Richmond, and she has been avenging the Confederacy on Northern manhood ever since. The ranks of the New York theater, Social Register, and office buildings are overflowing with the you-all lassies who have made good because of their charm. The outstanding examples who are not authentic Dixie will be found, on close analysis, to have adopted the Southern woman’s attitude toward, and particularly her tactics with, the race of men.
When the Southern girl surrenders her virtue, it is generally for a sound, practical reason like matrimony, her name in lights on Broadway, or a block of U.S. Steel.
In the first place, the Southern belle is no sour-puss. You can hear her soft silver laughter tinkling all through the night in our better homes and boîtes de nuit. She knows better than to be too witty herself, but she will go off into merry peals of gentle hysterics at anything offered in the line of humor by her escort. She seldom swears or uses language that borders on the pornographic, but she encourages her gentleman friend to think he is a bit of a devil. I once sat through an evening at Twenty-One with a pretty authentic example, a blonde from Tennessee, who is known as an international charmer of high voltage. Every time her escort opened his trap, she rippled like a brook. Her voice soft, eyes dancing wickedly, dimples tempting, she would scarcely wait for him to get to the point of his story, so eagerly appreciative she was. “Oh, aren’t you terrible!” she would coo, and then beseech, us, “Isn’t he naughty? Isn’t he funny?” and trill on in apparently uncontrollable merriment. This had a very dampening effect on the rest of us, who might have thought he was funny, but not that funny, and who would have been caught stealing the silverware sooner than have said to a man, “Oh, aren’t you terrible!” However, it is worth recording that as we others sat there, getting paler with nausea by the second, her escort, seasoned man about town though he is, visibly swelled and bloomed with pleasure.
This was my first experience of the “Aren’t you terrible!—Aren’t you wonderful!” motif. Since then I have had occasion to note its repetition more times than I like to remember, always by Southern ladies and always with disheartening triumph. “Aren’t you terrible!” is said playfully and accompanied by a provocative laugh or a pretty pout. “Aren’t you wonderful!” is not always employed with such obvious bluntness. It is frequently camouflaged under the guise of asking the opinion of a superior male intellect. “Please tell me what you think of the French debt situation. You’re the only man who ever seems really to understand those things and to be able to make them clear to me.” This is the subtle way of saying, “I think you’re wonderful.” However, it must not be employed in the manner of a nitwit asking advice on questions too difficult for her own atrophied mental apparatus, but as an exceptionally intelligent woman seeking the opinion of a superlatively intelligent male whose word she respects and values. The Southern belle excels in this line of attack, whereas the Northerner will usually sacrifice all thoughts of personal gain in order to prove her own mental superiority.
The Southern belle does not make fun of herself or of her escort. Neither does she believe in homely honesty. When a gentleman asks you, “Is that a rumba they’re playing now?,” it does not add materially to your popularity to respond, “What’s the difference? You couldn’t dance it.” A Southern girl would say, “You’re such a marvelous leader, I could dance anything with you. Let’s try it”—even if it killed her. Though outwardly all froth and fragility, she is really welded of indestructible steel.
This is proved in her attitude toward sex. When I was at school, it was the Southern girls who would never speak to a boy again if he told a dirty joke, but would sit out in the gardens and neck all night at the spring proms. They were the girls who always pretended unawareness when boys rested hands upon their knees, and went right on chattering gaily and acting as if nothing untoward were under way, until their invulnerable instinct of self-preservation would prompt them to become suddenly so outrageously insulted at the proper moment that the boys would end up by parting with fraternity pins and making protestations of eternal love and honorable intentions—after which all would continue as before. By their speech and general attitude, you might have supposed that to them sex was just an inviting mystery; but deep in their blood lay a shrewd knowledge of the beguiling trickery which will shatter a man. Their external innocence was only the protecting sheath of an ancient coquetry whose emanations are deadly to the male.
When the Southern girl surrenders her virtue, it is generally for a sound, practical reason like matrimony, her name in lights on Broadway, or a block of U.S. Steel. Here in the North, however, contrary to fiction and hearsay, countless maidens are first undone for reasons as varied as they are, often, ludicrous. Many do it for pity—they feel sorry for the man. Others, a great many more, because they get themselves in a situation where, being young and inexperienced, they are simply too embarrassed to back out. In one case, the boy had promised the girl’s younger brother a ticket to the Army-Navy football game the next week, and she kept thinking how disappointed Davey would be if she made the boy mad and he didn’t send the ticket. Another Yankee maiden took her first love to the accompaniment of a poem by Langston Hughes, the last lines of which were something to the effect that “Youth is the time for careless weather. Later, lass, be wary.” Neither of the girls was an example of retarded mental development. It is just that books and plays are not true, and that the real underlying immediate causes of many dramatic personal events are somewhat less than heroic. Many a girl has retained her virtue because she didn’t have on her best underwear.
But to return to the solid South. Our Dixie belle knows how to surround herself with the paraphernalia of popularity. She never refers to her bad points, but manages to keep the man conscious of her good ones. On her own authority, she is irresistible to the boys and has to keep fighting them off, tooth and nail. She has never been promiscuous—mah goodness, no!—but can she help it if she’s so cute that every man who sees her breaks out with a violent attack of satyriasis? I know a woman in New York whose past lovers are like the cathedrals of France—she can’t quite remember which was which (was it Chartres which had the stained glass or Harry who couldn’t stand eggs?)—but who has managed to retain such a veneer of pristine, yet inviting, purity that each new man is made to feel that he, and he alone, is the first really to awaken her when she finally grants him her favor (referred to by some of her more malicious acquaintances as not so much a favor as a free circular). At present count, she has been thus awakened by so many Prince Charmings that you might almost think she could keep on her feet, but she always dozes off into innocence again when the next one is sighted rounding the corner. She is not Southern, but she has the Southern slant.
The next time you see a woman surrounded by a group of men at a party, you can rest assured that, ten to one, it’s the males barking up that old jasmine trail again.
Whereas I wouldn’t want to go so far as to call any individual Southern lady a gold-digger (not with the libel laws what they are), still it is very true that they are almost unduly appreciative of presents from the male sex. Men love to make them gifts because they are so charming when they receive them—just like children, all bubbling with excitement and affection. There was once a lady from Georgia who held a position in a New York publishing house. The male executives were always giving her presents. When they lagged in this habit, she was not above priming them a little. She would order a gardenia a day sent to herself at the office, and then, when the flower arrived, she would pick it up with a pretty show of curiosity and infectious pleasure. “Oh, look!” she would exclaim in great delight. “How perfectly lovely! Now who could have sent me that?” Once she bought herself a desk set and had her secretary measure the photograph of her dog to make sure the new frame would fit it. When the desk set arrived, all elegant tooled leather, she unwrapped it, as pleased as Punch. She was just like a grateful child as she undid inkwell, calendar, et al. When she came to the picture frame, she could hardly wait to take the dog’s picture out of the old frame and insert it in the new. “Isn’t that wonderful? Look, it just fits!” she marveled. In this and other ways, she gradually got across the idea that if the men in the office would like very, very much to please her, they, too, would send her presents and flowers. And they, too, did.
The Southern belle dresses the part. The severe chic of the North is not for her—no sleek hair, none of the Oxford grays or navy blues, or the mannish lines of impeccably tailored suits. She’ll be pretty, sweet maid, and let who will be chic. For it’s prettiness men like, and the Dixie moppets yearn to be not like Kay Francis but like Ginger Rogers when they grow up. They want plenty of curls, and lots of sweet, flower perfume; they like to dress in organdy, taffeta, and tulle, in pink, baby blue, and orchid; they love to be covered with ribbons, bows, and lace, to be up to their necks in ruffles. They don’t want the ridiculous new hats that irritate the men, but off-the-face bonnets, with escaping curls. They don’t want boleros and tunics and box coats that hide the figure; they want to show what they’ve got, in a refined way. And no one can teach them anything else. Once a certain New York woman went to the wedding of one of the Reynolds clan. In spite of a plethora of Dixie belles all bedecked and bedizened in feminine furbelows, the New Yorker, being not only chic but charming, garnered a great deal of the masculine attention. The belles, hurt and amazed, later gathered round her. “Oh, Mrs. ———!” they cooed. “How do you get all the men and everything? We know how to dress, but that’s all.”
The worth of a Southern accent is debatable. I think that most men find it rather delightful. But it is what stands behind it that really counts: the softness, the femininity, the beeline attack as made by a hummingbird. The next time you see a woman surrounded by a group of men at a party, you can rest assured that, ten to one, it’s the males barking up that old jasmine trail again. And when the ghost of Scarlett O’Hara walks abroad, a Northern girl may just as well pick up her dolls and go home.