Mr. Chatterbox - March 2009

By Robert Plunket Photography by Rebecca Baxter March 1, 2009


Where is Marjorie now that we need her?

Oh, Heather Dunhill is doing a fine job, and I admire the volume and variety of coverage she’s giving us in her Herald-Tribune society column. But I miss the hand-holding Marjorie would have offered us as we go through this crisis. Some of the biggest names in town—what am I saying, the biggest names in town—are being dragged through the mud on charges that would have seemed inconceivable just several months ago. And don’t even mention the Art Nadel mess.

It’s just not the same Sarasota anymore.

Remember our January issue, where we listed the 10 turning points of the past 30 years? We ended with some lame statement about how the future would be different. Well, we should have ended with Marjorie’s retirement party, which occurred on Jan. 6. Everything was fine, relatively. All the players you’re currently reading about in the newspaper were there, and the general atmosphere was a big lovefest.

Then, a week later, everything changed. Now that party couldn’t happen the way it did. It was the last gasp of a Sarasota that no longer exists.

And Marjorie was its scribe, or, for those of you who saw Tale of Two Cities, its Madame Defarge. She explained it all to us, told us who was who, who was important and who was even more important, and showed us how it all fit together.

It was a self-contained world, and at its core were about 400 people. What

they had in common was they had all been around forever. They socialized, they’d run the town’s nonprofits, and with each other’s help, they’d prospered.

Good luck getting them all in the same room again.

I knew there was something special about Marjorie that first time I read her. Well, maybe not the first time—the first time all I saw was a society column in a small town in Florida. How interesting could that be? It was, by definition, the ragtag hem of journalism, considered by most journalists themselves as not even journalism.

But I kept reading it. It got more and more interesting. The people started to come alive, and so did the town. They did such interesting things, they seemed so accomplished. And Marjorie had the instincts of a tour guide. She’d point things out. She’d tell you what mattered. She’d come up with the perfect detail, the illuminating aperçu that described things perfectly.

I don’t know what reaction this would prompt in a normal person, but my reaction was: What about me? How do I get in her column? She should be writing about me. Which is, of course, another way of saying "I want to be a player. I want to participate in the life of Sarasota, and do it in such a way that my accomplishments will be recognized. I want some of those illuminating aperçus focused on me."

My whole career in Sarasota stems from that moment.

I first got to know Marjorie during the first AIDS benefit in 1987. She was not on the committee, because she just didn’t serve on committees (and very wisely, I might add). But she was there every step of the way. That is when I first learned of her great gift for judging public opinion. She could always figure out exactly what people were thinking and how to use this knowledge to further your goals. She knew, both from instinct and experience, what Sarasota would accept and what it wouldn’t.

Marjorie’s career fell neatly into two equal sections. The first lasted up until her marriage to Bill Hirons in 1995. During this period she was a single mother (except for a short second marriage in the late ’80s), and she was very much the working woman concerned with social issues. She had problems covering the debutantes, and she would publicly chide people who did foolish things or insulted Sarasota. Who can forget that wonderful moment when she dissed Peter Duchin for some stupid remarks he made, or the column where she took on the town’s medical establishments for ignoring the AIDS crisis? And there are several other incidents where she did what could be the most effective thing—not write about them at all. Her silence could be deafening. (I can think of several occasions where she worked behind the scenes to right what she thought was a wrong, but I’m saving those for the book.)

Bill Hirons’ speech was the best part of Marjorie’s farewell party. It was short and simple and heartfelt. He recounted their first meeting, at the famous party given by Elisabeth Gonye, where they found themselves sitting next to each other and started talking and haven’t stopped since.

Marjorie’s writing and concerns changed after she married Bill. Sarasota can be tough on single women. They lack the social symmetry of having a husband, and they can be a little hard to fit in. Now, as Mrs. Hirons, Marjorie was in her prime. Her focus became more her family and her friends, and her columns became more loving and mellow.

Some people have said that Marjorie became one of the people she wrote about, and to a certain degree this was true. But it was a good thing. It completed her journey. And when she retired on Jan. 6, 2009, she had reached a peak of power and prestige and respect that has been accorded few if any in the town’s history. It was warm and fuzzy, it was nostalgic, and it brought a tear to your eye.

It was also the end of an era. About a week later, Art Nadel—who was sitting right behind me at the party—disappeared and set into motion a chain of bad news that continues, and will continue, well into the future. Now we don’t know who to trust, or who’s teetering on the brink, or how much money anybody has. How innocent that night seems now.

It would be interesting to see how Marjorie would handle the situation. In general she never wrote about scandal. Would she make an exception in this case? No one knows better than she the people involved, and this time those illuminating aperçus would have the impact of a klieg light.

But of course all this was in the future on the night of Jan. 6. I remember, as the event went on and the sea of warm nostalgia enveloped everyone, my thoughts went back to the first time I read her column and all the things that have happened since. And the conclusion I came to?

Marjorie didn’t write about me nearly enough.


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