Scarlett's in therapy, Tara's a condo



IT USED to be easy, being a Southern Belle. All you had to do was know the rules and follow them. Between Charleston and Tuscaloosa were probably half a million rules, all unwritten, laying down the law about everything from what kind of bonnet you'd wear to your christening to how you'd be laid out in your casket.

In between, you'd better stay away from colored nail polish and ** ankle bracelets, or you risked being cast out into the outer darkness of tackiness where people walked around with cigarettes and put dark meat in their chicken salad.

In her first book, "The Southern Belle Primer," Maryln Schwartz handily delineated that half-forgotten world with such wit that I read it hysterically, doubled over, and sent a copy to my mama. Here, the belles spot each other in a crowd, scream, kiss and check out each other's hair and shoes while reminiscing.

Ms. Schwartz provided the fodder for recollection, with such advice as that given by a South Carolina grandmother: "My dear, this is something you must always remember. Your bosom can be fake. Your smile can be fake, and your hair color can be fake. But your pearls and your silver must always be real."

Part of the charm of "The Southern Belle Primer" was its reassuring tone. Those times did exist. Bubbas and belles were almost as outrageous as we remember them. So where are they now?

Ms. Schwartz tackles that question in her new book, "New Times in the Old South, Or Why Scarlett's in Therapy and Tara's Going Condo."

We confirm certain nasty suspicions: Bubba has indeed traded in his gun rack for a graduate degree and his beer for designer water. Bubba isn't Bubba anymore. He's Buddy. In the same surreal New South landscape, we also meet Shannon from California, a venture capitalist. "She has plenty to do, even though she wasn't asked to join the Junior Auxiliary. Instead she did something bold: She became a Rotarian. Shannon may not be Old South, but she's still a force to be reckoned with. Her pearls are fake, but her money is real."

Then there's Kenneth from Connecticut, who complained bitterly about his transfer south. "Kenneth was told he'd have a hard time breaking into old-line Southern society, but that just wasn't the case. Shortly after he arrived, three prominent, native-born city fathers got indicted for savings-and-loan fraud. Kenneth could pick any civic and philanthropic organization he wanted to join (as long as his company was willing to be corporate sponsor.)"

Now Kenneth is married to Mary Ashley, whom he met at the Magnolia Charity Ball. "Mary Ashley calls him Kenny. He calls her at least five times a day."

So what happened to our heroine, the Southern Belle? Different things. One of the most popular belles in Houston is a cross-dresser. A bevy of belles dressed in antebellum hoop shirts was recently spotted at a Republican convention, handing out condoms. They belong to a group called Southern Belles for Safer Sex.

And, Ms. Schwartz reminds us, many belles live in places like New York and Los Angeles. They have traded their batons for Gucci briefcases. One recent belle-graduate of Harvard said she joined a therapy group. "The first thing the therapist asked me was, 'Are you here because you're depressed?' I said, 'Not at all -- I'm here because I'm Southern.' " Scarlett's in therapy now.

Nevertheless, random flashes of the old persona emerge. Southern women still love beauty pageants, big hair, and charity league cookbooks. They still love entertaining, "with a lot of take-out from the Jitney Jungle."

They sometimes wear Christmas sweatshirts with real lights on them. And they never let the caterer put dark meat in the chicken salad.

Jean Christopher Spaugh is a belle in Lawrenceville, Ga.

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