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Southern Ladies & Gentlemen

Southern Ladies & Gentlemen

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by Florence King

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Looking for guidance in understanding the ways and means of Southern culture? Look no further. Florence King's celebrated field guide to the land below the Mason-Dixon Line is now blissfully back in print, just in time for the Clinton era. The Failed Souther Lady's classic primer on Dixie manners captures such storied types as the Southern Woman (frigid,


Looking for guidance in understanding the ways and means of Southern culture? Look no further. Florence King's celebrated field guide to the land below the Mason-Dixon Line is now blissfully back in print, just in time for the Clinton era. The Failed Souther Lady's classic primer on Dixie manners captures such storied types as the Southern Woman (frigid, passionate, sweet, bitchy, and scatterbrained--all at the same time), the Self-Rejuvenating Virgin, and the Good Ole Boy in all his coats and stripes. (The Clinton questions--is he a G.O.B. or isn't he?--Miss king covers in her hilarious new Afterword.) No one has ever made more sharp, scathing, affectionate, real sense out of the land of the endless Civil War than Florence King in these razor-edged pages.

Editorial Reviews

Chattanooga Times
This is the best book ever written about the South. . . .And on top of that it's delectably funny.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
First published in 1975, King's long spoof of Southerners and all they hold dear comes across as brittle and occasionally arch.

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St. Martin's Press
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Southern Ladies and Gentlemen

By Florence King

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1993 Florence King
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-1625-1


"Build a Fence Around the South and You'd Have One Big Madhouse"

or: The Tip of the Iceberg

I have good reason to know that the only way to understand Southerners fully is to be one. When I was in graduate school at the University of Mississippi, I found myself party to a drunken kidnapping and ended up in a rowboat in the middle of a lake at 2:00 A.M. with an hysterical Southern belle who kept hissing: "Kill him, Wade, kill him!"

Suddenly I wondered: How did I get into this? What am I doing here? How was it possible that a sane young woman like myself could merge so effortlessly into a situation that bizarre?

The answer came to me just as suddenly. I was not sane, I was a Southerner. It is interesting to speculate on the moment when a child first realizes that he or she is a Southerner. No one ever actually tells him he is one, but something always occurs at a very tender age that helps fix it in his mind. The moment of truth tends to arrive in a burst of comprehension, following an incident in which an important truth suddenly becomes perfectly clear despite the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever. Once a child successfully negotiates this psychological legerdemain and snatches chaos from the jaws of logic, he wins his crossed cavalry sabers.

My red-letter moment occurred in the Year Eight of Franklin D. Roosevelt as I stood in front of the candy counter at Woolworth's. The sign on the counter read: TAR BABIES 20¢ LB. Inside the bin was a mountain of little licorice candies shaped like black children. Everyone privately called them "nigger babies," but my grandmother had taught me that using the word "nigger" was one of those things no lady could do and still remain a lady. Granny wouldn't even say "tar." And so, to avoid hurting the feelings of the blacks who were standing up at the end of the segregated lunch counter where she was seated, she swiveled around on her stool and called out to me:

"Do you want some babies to eat in the movies?"

As the blacks looked up and stared at her, everything fell into place. Granny was an arch-segregationist with perfect manners; it's all right to segregate people as long as you don't hurt their feelings. Furthermore it is much better to be known as a white cannibal than as white trash who uses words like "nigger," because to a Southerner it is faux pas, not sins, that matter in this world.

I bought a nickel bag of tar babies, and Granny and I went off to the movies. The film was H. Rider Haggard's She, which I assumed would be a newsreel about Mrs. Roosevelt. (I had grown up hearing: "It's not his fault, she made him do it. She got them all stirred up, she thinks they're just as good as she is.") I sat through the film waiting for the First Lady to appear. Finally, when the withered old woman died in the snows of Tibet, I asked Granny: "Is that Mrs. Roosevelt?"

She snorted and said: "Would that it were."

For the second time that day, I heard the click of regional identity in my brain. Now I understood how it was possible for my family to worship FDR despite all the things he had done during his administrations that enraged them. They had used Southern logic to "straighten everything out just fine." It was very simple: Credit Franklin, better known as He, for all the things you like, and blame Eleanor, better known as She or "that woman," for all the things you don't like. This way, He was cleared, She was castigated, and We were happy.

Once my regionalism was launched, there was no stopping the stockpile of Southern contradiction that built up in my mind. As we emerged from the movie, Granny was busy making a grocery list and did not notice that I was still eating tar babies. But suddenly she turned, looked down, and gave me the Southern woman's all-powerful silent reproach known as "freezing." This is a look that needs no words. It is an exercise in pained hauteur and courageous endurance topped off with flaring nostrils and a stiffening just this side of rigor mortis. Despite my tender age, I knew instantly what it meant without being told: Ladies don't eat on the street. Granny did not have to tell me why, because my burgeoning Southern instincts told me: It looked trashy.

I already knew that ladies did not smoke on the street. My mother, who smoked five packs of Lucky Strike Greens a day, was always announcing an oncoming nicotine fit with a fluttery moan, an unfinished gesture toward her handbag, and her favorite dire pronouncement: "If I don't have a cigarette, I'm goin' to fall down dead." Yet as much as she loved tobacco, I had never seen her smoke on the street. I had seen her shake on the street and I had heard her become incoherent on the street, but she had never smoked alfresco because it looked trashy.

No one ever told me what "trashy" meant, but I never asked because I can't remember ever not knowing. As any Southerner can verify, the definition of trashy is trashy.

Granny and I went to the Fourteenth Street arcade market after the show. It took us nearly an hour to make our way down the sawdust-covered main aisle — Granny had to stop and "pass the time of day" with everyone she knew, which was just about everyone in the market. She sailed in, a two-hundred-pound neighborhood chatelaine in a lace bertha, bifocals, and a ten-year-old Empress Eugénie hat tilted at a rakish angle.

Instantly, the air was thick with her Tidewater Virginia drawl and those view halloos worthy of John Peel that she emitted every time she saw a friend. Traffic in the aisle was soon backed up to the Bundles for Britain booth beside the front door, but Granny talked on, the spotted veil on her hat fluttering like an ensign in a high wind.

"Oh, look, there's Miz Whitmore! OOO-HOO! Miz Whitmore! You come right over here this very minute! I haven't seen you since the fall of Rome!"

She meant two Saturdays ago, but I suddenly understood the principle behind the Southern internal time clock. Granny, a genealogy buff, was sunk like a Wasp dinosaur in the muck of prehistory, in love with any bygone age she could lay her hands on.

Another regional click: What is past is perfect.

After Granny had finished making her gracious way down the aisle, we bought a "mess" of pickled pigs' feet, a "mess" of oysters in the shell, and a "mess" of Maryland soft-shell crabs. Then, laden down with enough unfit edibles to make us stagger, we stopped by the kosher deli for a "mess" of bagels, which Granny persisted in calling doughnuts.

"How do, Mr. Silverman! How in the world are you? Law, I haven't seen you since the Age of Pericles!"

"But you were here day before yesterday, Mrs. Ruding," Mr. Silverman pointed out. I looked at him strangely, realizing for the first time that he never picked up on Granny's figures of speech.

"Let me have a mess of your wonderful doughnuts, please, sir."

Again, he looked puzzled.

"How many?"

"Twelve," said Granny.

It was not the first time I had heard these two confuse each other, but now I gave some hard thought to their communication problem. How could anyone not know what a "mess" was? Everybody knew that it meant a dozen or a pound, unless, of course, it meant a bushel or a peck, or, in the country, a truckload. My maturing Southern mind conceived a clear, concise picture of a "mess." It was a neatly arranged and properly weighed collection of anything edible. If it was more than the usual unspecified amount, it was a "nice mess."

It was to be many years before I realized how Mr. Silverman must have felt. Day after day, he had to stand in his hospital-clean store and listen to Southerners order a mess of his beautiful, ritually slaughtered, and rabbinically approved foods.

It has been said that when two Greeks meet they will start a restaurant, two Germans will start an army, and two Englishmen will start a silence. It is not necessary for two Southerners to meet in order to start something because we have taken a little nervous problem called schizophrenia and raised it to the level of a high art. When one-half of a Southerner meets the other half, the result is folie à deux.

It is this simple fact that Yankees always miss.

The best-known Yankee who missed it was that nineteenth-century traveler, Frederick Law Olmstead. Judging from his journals, his mind was blown soon after he set foot across the Mason-Dixon line.

A much more recent casualty was one Dr. Jonathan Latham of Boston, who wanted to win the Pulitzer prize in regional studies.

It all began on a Southbound plane, in which Dr. Latham was contentedly sipping a Scotch-on-the-rocks as he planned his scholarly attack on bourbon country. He was headed for a small city in Dixie, armed with an attaché case filled with three-by-five cards, which no Yankee sociologist can live without, and a heavily underlined copy of The Mind of the South, by Wilbur J. Cash, which no Yankee sociologist can live with — because, after all, Cash was himself a Southerner and therefore incapable of cool objectivity, that quality which alone can solve the mystery of Southern psychology.

Dr. Latham, a wholehearted believer in the infallibility of the scientific method, was firmly convinced that his frequency charts and cluster-grouping graphs would triumph over the Southern penchant for irrational behavior and contradictory thought processes. He knew his forthcoming book about the South would be a brilliant success because he intended, with the aid of the objectivity for which he was deservedly famous, to drive the spike of logic through the opaque mist of contradiction and paradox that floats like a vapor over every Southerner's head.

Warmed by this pleasant thought, Latham took out his copy of Gone with the Wind and reread his favorite part, marked with one of his red plastic find-it-fast markers, about the second Mrs. Calvert, the Yankee governess who had married a widower-planter.

Mrs. Calvert seemed ready to weep. She had somehow made a blunder. She was always blundering. She just couldn't understand Southerners, for all that she had lived in Georgia twenty years. She never knew what to say to her stepchildren and, no matter what she said or did, they were always so exquisitely polite to her. Silently she vowed she would go North to her own people, taking her children with her, and leave these puzzling, stiff-necked strangers.

An amused smile played over Dr. Latham's mouth. He took out his slim gold pencil to make more marginal notes — a favorite activity of his — on the already crowded page. "Nonsense!" he wrote. He was not going to let the South upset him. ...

The first thing that upset him was the political confusion that fills the polling booth in which the solitary Southern voter acts out his problems in multiple personality with the blithe confidence that characterizes Dixie's true child.

Latham discovered that the typical Southerner:

— Brags about what a conservative he is and then votes for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

— Or brags about what an isolationist he is and then votes for Richard Nixon.

— Or brags about what a populist he is and then votes for Barry Goldwater.

— Or brags about what an aristocrat he is and then votes for George Wallace.

— And is able to say with a straight face that he sees nothing peculiar about any of the above.

Next, Dr. Latham encountered Southern political morality in a typical tavern called Johnny's Cash 'n' Carry. He went there for the purpose of observing and taking notes, but when he took out his slim gold pencil and a three-by-five card, a potbellied beer drinker demanded in a hostile drawl: "Are you a member of the press?" Suddenly the paranoia in the air was so thick that it could have been cut with the knives Latham saw sticking out of several back pockets — which inspired him to pretend that he was merely writing down the phone number of a girl he had met. The angry man relaxed immediately and grinned.

"We fellas got to git our nooky," he said genially. "You like football?"

Latham felt that this was somehow a non sequitur.

The man invited him to join the group at the bar. Latham himself soon felt awash with beer, but there was nothing else to drink unless he wanted to travel thirty miles to a "wet" town. Wet? He was already beer-logged enough to sink the Titanic merely by stepping aboard; what could be wetter? But no, his companions said, this was a "dry" county. It all had to do with something called "local option," which meant, they explained, that anybody can do what he damn pleases as long as an election is held first.

"Local option is kinda like states' rights," one of them elucidated. "Only it ain't as much fun."

Latham stared at him. States' rights was fun?

Before long, they were waxing nostalgic about the good old days, when there had been no hard liquor at all and their beloved state had been empowered to collect a Black Market Tax from the bootleggers.

"A what?" Latham asked.

"Why, shore. Used to be, there weren't no legal hooch a-tall, so the bootleggers was makin' all this money, see? Waal, you got to have tax money to run a state, so the legislature passed the Black Market Tax on hooch so the state could git tax money from the bootleggers."

"You mean it was actually on the statute books?"

"'Course it was," said Latham's informant. "You got to make it legal."

"But the legislature had also passed a law saying liquor was illegal!"

"Thass right. They had to please the Baptists," said the man, with a shrug that seemed to say he had now made everything clear.

Latham persisted.

"Didn't the Baptists object to the passage of the Black Market Liquor Tax?"

The men seemed too surprised to speak for a moment, but then one of them explained.

"Waal, don'tcha see? The Baptists and the bootleggers have always been hand in glove 'round here. Neither of 'em wanted anybody to drink legal hooch. It was bad for both their businesses, you might say. They was both afraid that the state would go legally wet, so they got together and pushed this bill through the legislature."

Latham shook his head in disbelief.

"Didn't anybody feel a sense of ... of conflict?" he finally asked.

"Waal, I reckon the legislator who was both a bootlegger and a Baptist deacon had a right good laugh when he collected bribes from both sides."

The next revelation came to Latham during Homecoming Week at the state university. The sexual identity that Southern men drew from football boggled his mind. They could talk and think of nothing else but The Game, and although they were all planning bacchanal weekends with women, they got very anal with each other. There was a great deal of butt-slapping and goosing. It was all accompanied by detailed descriptions of their potency with women, of course, but it upset Latham nonetheless. Other American men weren't like this ... were they?

The Homecoming Queen, a waxily ladylike creature with a perpetual sweet smile who reminded him somehow of Pat Nixon, made a speech in which she announced that her body was a temple and that she did not believe in premarital sex. When a reporter asked her what man she admired most, she replied, "Jesus." As Latham studied her, he knew with slow but certain recognition that she was the ideal wife/daughter for an American politician to drag out and plant on a platform while he made a speech to the assembled multitudes. Despite Women's Liberation, or perhaps because of it, there was still something about a woman who reeked of Pathood that soothed American voters everywhere and made them feel that all would be well if they elected a man whose wife could cross her ankles, say the proper thing, and keep a locked Wasp smile on her face.

Latham wondered: Had the Southern Homecoming Queen represented an image of women that non-Southern Americans of both sexes still secretly favored?


Excerpted from Southern Ladies and Gentlemen by Florence King. Copyright © 1993 Florence King. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Florence King is the author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, With Charity Toward None, and other books. Though she still lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Washington-fed yuppies may yet drive her father into the hills.

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Southern Ladies and Gentlemen 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
nikki1CO More than 1 year ago
If you are a southerner or have lived for any time in the south, this is an interesting read. The book is a bit dated, because even the south has progressed. but it describes well the interaction between men & women, the outdated values & how society views & trains each gender to react to the other. I had read this book about 20 years ago, re read it, it was better the first time around
MACarterVA More than 1 year ago
Reminds us Southerners of the importance of roots, and explains quite a lot to outside observers. Florence King is, of course, masterful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I cannot remember when book has caused me to laugh as often or as loudly as this. Possibly it is because I had o.ne of the described as a roommate for a mercifully short time.. So I understand the frustration of the unwary Northerner. I think you may very well like this book as well.