Mr. Chatterbox - September 2009

By Robert Plunket Photography by Barbara Banks September 1, 2009

Sometimes I get the uneasy feeling that I’m turning into Barney Frank. It’s not that I’m smarter than the other congressmen; I’ve just been around longer. All the others have retired or lost elections or ended up in jail, but I’m still here. I started young and never lost my job. Or, as we say in Sarasota these days, never lost my job yet.

Back when I started writing a gossip/social column 25 years ago, the field was dominated by Helen Griffith, although there was a new young whippersnapper named Marjorie North who was causing a lot of comment. Also in the field: Carol Cheek, Pat Schlesinger, Jane Baldwin and Sally Traeger, plus a long list of others who are quickly being lost to history. My competition has always been female, and age is not a problem. Even after Helen started wearing her clothes inside out, she was still considered in her prime. It’s the perfect job for an old lady, and dementia may actually be a plus.

In Sarasota we have rules about writing gossip about society. The city is too small to bring up controversies or make enemies. Consequently, a typical Sarasota column contains a lot of elephants in the room. A person will be mentioned, but the main reason everybody knows that name will be tactfully ignored.

And these days, with the unprecedented air of crisis, loss, deceit and social realignment, making a judgment call on who to write about and what to say gets harder and harder.

 The old guard is fading fast, and when the economy comes back there will be a new guard running things, including social life. That Vinyl Fest that was such a surprise hit back in July will become the wave of the future. And what’s in it for me? I started getting Twitter and Facebook reports about what a fabulous success that festival was and my blood ran cold.

What could I possibly do for that crowd? Chaperone?

Fortunately, my competition seems to be taking everything in stride. In fact, we’re very lucky to have just the right group of columnists to lead us into the New Sarasota. Plus, they’re certainly not old women. OK, Molly Schechter is getting up there. She may even be over 60. But such energy. Not for nothing is her e-mail moniker aerobicgramma—or wait a minute. Maybe it’s bionicgramma . . .

Molly is one of those columnists who fit perfectly into the world she writes about. She’s been on the social scene for years and has served on every committee and is a personal friend of just about everybody whose name appears in a social column. When Emily Walsh Parry had to quit doing social coverage for the Longboat Observer (her father, Matt, the publisher, is making her sell ads so she can learn the business), Molly was the perfect replacement, one reason being she’s an excellent photographer. Now she’s still at every party, but instead of a designer gown she’s got her “work uniform” on—a black outfit with pants and a camera around her neck, looking very Annie Leibovitz.

The thing I like best about Molly is that she’s the perfect party companion. If you find her at your table, you know you’re going to have a ball. She’s full not just of gossip but of insightful gossip, wittily presented. Yes, she does a lot of event coverage, but my favorite stuff of hers is the items and stories in her weekly column, called “Black Tie and Tales.”

Molly had a career in advertising until she moved to Sarasota about 10 years ago and started getting involved in Designing Women Boutique and the Season of Sculpture (by the way, she loves the sailor). She began writing a fitness column for the Observer, then branched out to cover real estate and restaurants. But when Emily was kicked upstairs and she was offered the gossip job, she was flabbergasted. “I was replacing someone who was 40 years younger,” she marvels.

Exercising my prerogative as a gossip columnist, I asked Molly if she was dating anyone, and she said she was but wouldn’t say who. I do know that she has a dog named Rosko and that she takes her two grandsons to Bob Evans for breakfast every Saturday morning. And that she’s a crucial part of the Observer’s voluminous coverage of party after party, page after page. “People in this town take their social coverage very seriously,” she says in a tone of respect and awe.

They take it so seriously that over at Scene Magazine you can actually pay for it. It’s no secret that you can negotiate editorial coverage there and that for a certain fee, you can even appear on the cover. Some media people in town look down on this, but not me. I think it’s a stroke of genius and have often tried to emulate them, but have been told in no uncertain terms that if I mention one more person in exchange for a gift certificate or a case of beer, it will be the last time I pull that little trick.

I’m sure Debbi Benedict doesn’t charge people to be in her column in Scene. She’s much too smart for that. Many is the time we’ve thought of hiring her over here, but now the competition has beaten us to it and she’s comfortably ensconced and building a power base, as all good columnists do. Debbi's background is the Junior League form of social life—well-to-do women who have been doing good deeds for generations and whose parties and lifestyles revel in tradition and class. Manners count with Debbi, but class can come in many forms, and Debbi’s current role model is Michelle Obama.

Debbi is a careful observer, and there is no one in town who knows more about Sarasota’s social establishment and its rituals and customs. She knows what they wear (St. John), where they vacation (North Carolina), where they play tennis (the Field Club). She also has a Martha Stewart side to her. She likes to instruct and explain. She’s even working on a book: Mrs. Benedict’s Guide to Having a Perfectly Civilized Life. “It’s all about gracious living,” she explains. “How to be happy and gay, in the old sense of the word.”

And then there’s the wild card on the Sarasota social scene: Heather Dunhill. She took over Marjorie North’s column in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in January and is gradually turning it into a template for the New Sarasota. It’s got the old guard, but it also has all those kids and what they are up to. Heather is young enough to have a stiletto heel in each camp. She respects her elders, but her heart is with the younger set. She’s always reminded me of one of the girls on Sex and the City: smart, sophisticated, but vulnerable underneath, and she looks sensational in black leggings. And she has the most amazing eyes—icy blue, like those sled dogs up in Alaska.

At this point in my career I wish I could slow down a little, stopping now and then to smell the roses and serve on boards and be honored at civic banquets and such. But I realize that this is not to be. Social coverage in Sarasota is just too important, and I, like Barney Frank, must rise to the occasion. He’s vowed to get us through the financial crisis, and I, in a similar spirit, make this vow to you: I will fight for more pictures, more names in bold face, more promotional events, better auction items and fewer cash bars. If need be, we’ll get a bailout. After all, social life in Sarasota is just too big to fail.

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