Frankly My Dear, I Want To Come Home
Bestselling author Dorothea Benton Frank, one of Sullivan’s Island’s most famous daughters, doesn’t live here anymore. But she’s looking to change that. She invited SiP inside her new beach home, with which she hopes to lure her husband into an idyllic life by the sea. By Jennifer Tuohy. Photos by Steve Rosamilia.
It’s a simple word but a powerful one. For Dorothea Benton Frank, the pull toward home was so strong she became a New York Times bestselling author just, so she could return to hers. The need to go back, to return to a time or a place — often the Lowcountry — is a dominant theme in Frank’s novels. From her first, Sullivan’s Island, to her latest, All Summer Long and Same Beach, Next Year, her protagonists grapple with returning, be it to a shamble of a beach house, a long-lost first love or the place of their birth.
But don’t let this theme fool you into thinking you’re going to read a self-indulgent sob story when you pick up a Dottie Frank novel. It’s just the opposite. Frank’s writing is like the woman herself; vivacious, intelligent and above all, side-splittingly funny. Her wit is worthy of a stand-up comedy routine — but in its home on the pages of her novels her humor is free to run rampant, losing only her gorgeous Southern drawl in translation. Frank follows in the trope of all good Southern writers however, ruthlessly mining her own experiences for her stories, and like many of her characters, Frank didn’t see that home was where her heart needed to be until it was almost too late.
A Long Road Home
Her story started the moment she left Sullivan’s Island in 1969. Desperate to get away from what she saw as a suffocating place, she pursued a highly successful career in fashion retail — first in Atlanta, then San Francisco and finally New York. But when her mother, Dorothea Blanchard, passed away in 1992, her despair and the impending sale of the family home at 2424 Middle Street, drove her to a new career, one she hoped would provide her with the funds to buy that home.
As is often the case for the protagonists within her pages however, something rather important stood in her way — her husband. She had met investment banker Peter Richard Frank in New York, married him and settled down in Montclair, N.J., where she had two lovely children. “He told me if you want your mother’s house you need to go get off your fanny and buy it yourself,” she says. “‘Because I’m not going to spend my money to sit down there and listen to your crazy family tell the same stories over and over again.’”
Her solution, like any good Southern-bred girl, was to do exactly as she was told. Her first novel, Sullivan’s Island sold over a million copies and landed at #9 on The New York Times bestseller list. While she was too late to buy her mother’s house, she was able to buy herself a beach house, then upgrade that one, and today she is settling into perhaps one of the most spectacular homes on the island. “It’s a shame it’s sinking into the ocean,” she says. “Nothing wrong with it that eight billion dollars won’t fix.” But to her it’s perfect. “I leave this big mess of civilization in New Jersey and trickle down, until I finally get here to the tip of the island.”
A Million Dollar Money Pit
Built in 1850, Frank’s beach house is one of the oldest on the island. “It was used as a Civil War barracks, so they say it has ‘historic significance,’” Frank says, with a deep sigh. That historical significance has thrown up some roadblocks in her quest to remodel the house. “It wasn’t built as a barracks and I don’t know who slept here, it certainly wasn’t George Washington. Honestly, I think it’s been taken apart and added on to so many times that all the historic significance is gone. It’s a wooden house by the sea, it’s falling apart. It’s very sad really.”
She channeled her frustrations with the house, and with her husband’s refusal to move from New Jersey to Sullivan’s, into All Summer Long, published in paperback in May. Her heroine is a New York businesswoman and the husband are a dreamy academic who grew up on Sullivan’s Island. They made a deal that when he retired they would move to Sullivan’s, renovate a beach house and settle into life on the sleepy island. The parallels to Frank and her husband are not accidental. “I want to come back,” Frank says with passion. “But my husband’s got his fingernails in the asphalt at Newark airport. He continues to work and looks like he’s never going to stop. I’ve told him 5,000 times I do not want to be buried in New Jersey. I do not want my obituary to read ‘of Montclair, New Jersey.’ I want it to say, ‘of Sullivan’s Island.’ I tell him ‘I didn’t marry you to live in New Jersey for the rest of my life, so you’ve got to get me out of here.’”
She’s certainly created the most idyllic escape to lure him with, in the big white house at the tip of the island, where the container ships battle with the yachts for dominance, passing so close you feel like you could reach out and pluck them off the water. “The tour boat to Fort Sumter comes by every day on the hour and turns around at our house,” she says. “It’s so close I can hear the guide on the loudspeaker. One time he said, ‘That’s where all the rich people live.’ I shouted back, ‘Honey we aren’t rich anymore, we sunk all our money into this hellhole of a house!’”
Despite her claims that the remodel is just “lipstick on a pig,” the home is spectacular, and the view isn’t too shabby either. “We will never get tired of this place,” she says seriously. “And we will certainly never get tired of this view.” She has saltwater in her veins and sand stuck between her toes, and Sullivan’s Island always will be a part of her.
“When I come across that causeway somehow I’m a girl again. When I’m here I sleep better — simple things become extraordinarily exquisite,” she says. “Woody Wood [who also grew up on Sullivan’s] asked me if he’d missed anything by staying here on this island all his life. And my answer was no. He had not missed anything of real consequence. Everything you really value in this life is right here on this little sandbar.”
A Truth to Tell
Returning to something once lost may be the recurring theme of Frank’s work but exploring a truth that needs to be told is the purpose behind her writing. Speaking a truth about their own lives to her readers is one of the reasons Frank’s novels are so successful. She doesn’t sugarcoat life’s challenges, she tells it like it is, in all its gory, technicolor glory. Frank chews up and spits out tired stereotypes and reimagines that literary vision of the Southern woman as a downtrodden creature with a beautiful face but who’s a mess inside.
She brings us the new Southern woman and puts the steel firmly into her steel magnolias. Her female characters are strong and by the end of the book fully in control of their destinies. “I’ve concluded that my characters, particularly the protagonists, are really my bathroom mirror personality — it’s what you would say if you were not going to be penalized for it. Those crushing punishments of dismissal that you get in the South.”
“This society is still very much a patriarchy,” she says. “I like to think of myself as looking at the world today a little bit like Jane Austen did three hundred years ago. It was always tongue-in-cheek. In one way we sort of blew it with feminism, we set up ourselves up for something that’s almost impossible. How can you be a CEO, have five children, have a perfect home, a perfect second home, a husband who adores you, and have great sex three nights a week? It isn’t happening, honey.”
Honesty is tangible in the words on her pages, and that truth to be told often hits home hard. In her newest novel, Same Beach, Next Year, that truth is the danger of assumptions: How easy it is to make them, but how likely you are to be wrong. It also explores heritage — one-character returns to her mother’s homeland of Greece, a place she had pushed away from since her mother’s death, and rediscovers the importance of family, understanding where you are from and how that shapes who you are. “The first half of the book is about thinking one thing, the second half is thinking the other,” Frank says. “Things are not always what they seem.”
Same Beach, Next Year is inspired by Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, which follows the friendship of two couples. “I wanted to look at long-term friendships and how you save each other. If you’ve got a great friend who can help you solve a big problem that’s something to hang on to,” she says. Frank’s two couples meet each year at Wild Dunes on Isle of Palms. The story follows their intertwined relationships, including how the secret that two of them were once lovers finds its way out. “I first read Stegner 25 years ago and the story always stayed with me,” Frank says. “At this point in my life I’m looking back at what has mattered to me. That’s a legitimate message to other people: ‘Maybe you better pay attention to how you’re spending the rest of your time.’”
Heritage features strongly in Same Beach, Next Year, and delving into Frank’s is worthwhile. “Some woman has done my genealogy — I couldn’t care less,” Frank says. “Lots of people around here glide on their ancestors’ laurels — I’m not in that camp.” The research revealed that Frank’s family has been in Charleston for over 300 years. “Going back, back, back, there’s somebody who was in the original colony from The Mayflower,” she says.
Her father, William Oliver Benton, Jr., was born in Savannah, but his family settled in the Walterboro area in the 1700s, sometime before the American Revolution. Her mother, Dorothea, was part of the Blanchard clan and her grandmother a McInerny, two prominent Catholic families on the island. (“The Blanchards and McInernys have just been getting married too much, to each other!”)
Frank was born downtown and grew up on the island, “Like a little Geechee brat running around the island barefoot picking blackberries and wild palms and sliding down the hill fort on cardboard.” With such deep roots on the island perhaps it is surprising Frank has written 18 books but no memoir. “Never,” she says without hesitation. “Because if I start naming names there’ll be a lot of suicides in town.”
Frank plans to be back home for good within the year, and the addition of the first grandchild, due this summer to her daughter and son-in-law who live on Johns Island, will certainly hasten her return. It’s a return every islander who knows and loves “Dottie” will look forward to (after all, about half of them are related to her). She brings a wonderful sensibility to life here, along with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. “When I move back, I’m going to lead a movement for Sullivan’s Island to secede from the United States,” she says with a twinkle in her bright blue eyes. “There’ll be no dog rules, no guns allowed, and we’ll open the drawbridge once a week to go out for supplies. Other than that, we’re all going to live here in peace and quiet. A big love-in right here on Sullivan’s Island.”