Society of Yore
Athens Historian Volume IV (1999)
by Lamar Rutherford Lipscomb
Taken from The Think Tank, June 3, 1943.
Commencement in Athens, Georgia, the home of the state university, was the brilliant social season. The best silver, the historic old family china, the Venetian lace tablecloth, the monogram doilies were then much in evidence.
But in all Athens no one else could give the sparkling, successful dinner parties as those of Anne Barrett Phinizy. Mrs. Ferdinand Phinizy to those who knew her at a distance. To Douglas, her butler and driver, and the other servants, she was Miss Anne; to me, a young girl of 14, she was Lady Anne, for this queenly woman was my ideal. Her beautiful philosophy of life, her sunny disposition, brought a harbinger of happiness.
Her home was a social Mecca. No one in Athens ever, before or since, rivaled her royal dinner parties. The first four-course dinner I ever attended was when she entertained the “Big Shots” of the University [of Georgia] Trustees.
All the town knew Miss Anne was getting ready for some big “to- do.” Behind the Madeira vines across the street where I lived with my aunt, I sat wondering if I ever would get to one of those dinners!
Just as I was dreaming of it, tall, stout Douglas, possessing the urbanity of a Chesterfield, came with a note. “Missie, Miss Anne tole me to bring back an answer. She say somebody is coming from Augusta she wants you to meet, her nephew Mr. Willie Barrett.”
With a fluttering heart I accepted my first dinner party.
Smart dinners in Athens commenced at 8:00 p.m. I began to get ready in the morning. Hair to curl, organdy to smooth out, mullein- leaves to gather to rub my cheeks – in those days no cosmetics – and to refresh my memory with familiar quotations from famous authors.
The young freshman nephew called at half-past seven. That was awful, I thought, too soon. So we talked behind the Madeira vines, and walked slowly down the long brick walk flanked on both sides with magnolias radiant in the bloom.
My eyes popped, when I entered the dining room, the big one on the left where only high dignitaries and distinguished guests were honored. Lady Anne graciously placed us up near her at the end of the table. The governor, chairman of the University [of Georgia] trustees, sat on her right.
I tried to look as if I had been entertained there often, but a kind of embarrassment crept through me that brought on a “fluttering frustration” when I looked at the array of knives on the right and a row of forks on the left, three wine glasses that shone like a summer rainbow. What was I to do about drinking wine with my family so bitterly opposed?
It was a warm, moonlight night in August. The south wind blew the fragrance of the magnolias through the windows. It mingled with the perfume I had sprayed on the blue ribbon bow in my hair. Guiltily I remembered that my aunt had said it was vulgar for one so young to perfume herself.
Toasts were being drunk to Lady Anne. Excitedly, feeling the occasion demanded it, I put aside my family’s prejudices and sipped the champagne. It was my initiation into the social world. After that sip I became a grown young lady.
The dinner was a triumph of culinary art. White wine with the fish, red wine with the meats and champagne with the dessert, and an orange frozen rum punch for the entré.
Lady Anne, with her usual savoir faire, proposed a toast to her young friend, accompanying her nephew. A distinguished gentleman from Augusta added, “And may this bud of love fanned by summer’s ripening breath, prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.”
After the second sip of champagne, I gave my second hiccough. Embarrassed, I dropped my handkerchief. As I reached to pick it up, the nephew got it first and with a smile he put the perfumed bit of lace in his pocket. We both blushed.
Getting down to the champagne with the dessert, the chairman of the board would not stop talking. I could see old Douglas through the crack of the door getting restless to serve the next course. There sat Lady Anne, composed, trying to look interested. I had often heard her say, “Vulgar to hurry.” Her social laws were like the Medes and Persians, unchangeable. No butler must remove the dishes until the story was ended. Her big ostrich fan waved the signal.
After dinner was over I folded my napkin, forgetting I had been told never to do it but to put it carelessly by my plate at the left.
Coffee was served to the ladies in the big parlor across from the dining room. The men sat out on that long veranda to discuss politics and elections. In a little amber glass, the thick cordial was brought – the first I had ever seen. It looked much like hair tonic; and, as I was just getting over my last hiccough, I dared not to venture.
The tall and graceful Lady Anne moved among her guests with that expression on her face that she was well pleased with the success of “The Dinner of the Commencement Season,” as the papers the next day called it.
In those days Athens had its social classifications. To be rich, would not give you a passport into its best society. To be cultured, educated and distinguished in some profession was the first requisite.
Old Taylor’s Livery Stables were for weeks ahead getting extra saddle and buggy horses for the commencement belles and beaux.
In Athens social calls were made in the mornings. In the afternoons after the unfailing siesta, the girls were dated for buggy rides. A test of a girl’s popularity was the number of buggy rides she would take with the young law students and seniors. There never seemed enough horses for the freshmen and sophomores.
The Summer had gone and the Autumn leaves were rustling on a quiet afternoon when I went over to tell Lady Anne “goodbye;” for I was leaving for Vienna to study music and languages.
Two years later on my return I stopped in New York to buy a wedding trousseau; for I had become engaged, not to Lady Anne’s nephew, who was still in college, but to a young district attorney in Washington, D.C.
Arriving in Athens, my family went into raptures over the handmade trousseau and insisted it be sent over for Miss Anne to see. The following week Douglas brought over a note from Lady Anne which read: “I want you to take your last bath in my new bath tub.”
In those days a luxurious bath room was an oddity. Few people had bath rooms at all, but Mrs. Ferdinand Phinizy’s was worthy of great praise. I accepted with alacrity.
The night of my wedding, I crossed the street and was welcomed by Lady Anne. When I entered the bath room, soft shaded rose lights shone on the pink chemise and satin slippers and the rose embroidered dressing gown. And in the bath tub of tepid water, tube roses floated.
As my thoughts linger on these happy days of yore I recall the Grand Lady of Athens, Georgia, whose social charms had so captivated her town.
[Anne S. Barrett Phinizy died October 20, 1924 at the age of 91. She was the second wife of Ferdinand Phinizy and is buried beside her husband in the Phinizy lot on East Hill of the Oconee Hill Cemetery, Athens, Georgia.]
This article was contributed by Laura Ann (Mrs. Robert) Segrest, granddaughter of Mrs. Ferdinand Phinizy. It originally appeared in a semi-monthly magazine called “The Think Tank,” edited by Mildred Seydell and published in Atlanta, Georgia, from September 1941 through June 1948. Copies of this magazine may be found in the periodicals collections of the University of Georgia Library and the Emory University Library, call number AN13.A7 T443.