To the best of my recollection, this is the ninth column that I have devoted this spring and summer to books with either an Aiken or South Carolina connection. Most of the previous volumes were novels, some offering a blend of fact and fiction. Thanks to a recommendation from local resident and children’s book author Jan Waugh, I am pleased to add a fairly recent memoir to the collection.
Originally published in 2011 but reissued just last year, “Embers of Childhood” is subtitled “Growing Up a Whitney.” Why should that fact be of consequence to local residents, one might ask? The answer lies in the fact that the author Flora Miller Biddle is the great-granddaughter of William Collins Whitney, who had much to do with shaping the character of our fair city.
Along with Thomas Hitchcock, Whitney is credited with having established Aiken as a winter playground for some of our country’s wealthiest families. He was instrumental in creating various equestrian spaces, including a training track, polo field and, most importantly, the 2,000 acres of woods in the heart of our city. Whitney also had a hand in founding the court tennis facility on Newberry Street, and he was responsible for building what Biddle herself claims is the “biggest house in Aiken": Joye Cottage.
The author’s memories of growing up in a cocoon of privilege informs most of the book. Chapter Four, titled “At Joye Cottage,” is particularly evocative because the personal experiences described undoubtedly mirror those of other wealthy seasonal migrants who made the annual trip from their Northern estates to the “cottages” on Aiken’s Southside, all in an effort to while away the winter in leisure pursuits. Biddle writes of being driven by the family chauffeur from the Whitney home on Long Island to Penn Station in New York City where the “throng of adults, children, dachshunds, and canaries” were loaded into the “drawing rooms and compartments” of Pullman cars for the train trip to Aiken. The horses had special accommodations of their own.
Upon their eventual arrival at Joye Cottage, the English butler Herbert would organize a “bevy of maids and strong young houseboys” to make sure that the Whitney family, their traveling attendants and baggage were properly settled in the more than 60 rooms that make up the sprawling domestic complex. This was an annual fixture of Biddle’s childhood in the 1930s, and she claims that “employment boomed in Aiken during the Great Depression” principally because care and feeding of the wealthy provided work for countless local residents.
How did Flora Biddle spend the nine months that the family was resident in Aiken each year? When she was not attending classes – the former squash court of the Whitney estate was set aside as a day school for the children of winter colonists– Flora Biddle learned to master the pastimes of the adults in her social set: horseback riding and formation drills in Hitchcock Woods, dove shooting in Barnwell and duck shooting on the Intracoastal Waterway near Charleston. She was too young as yet for the adult flirtations, often with other married partners, and the “extended cocktail hours before lunch and dinner.”
Although some of the book’s chapters lack coherence – the author often veers off from the principal focus – there are frequent passages of vivid recollection, wherein Biddle is able to summon up a host of compelling detail. I was particularly drawn to those sections that offered new information – at least information that was new to me – such as the author’s recollection of a sudden phone call from a 23-year-old John F. Kennedy, wanting to know if he could use the pool at Joye Cottage while on a brief visit to Aiken in 1941.
Equally interesting – at least to me – is the revelation that Biddle herself had her portrait painted in watercolor by Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who is best known for her likeness of Franklin Roosevelt, left unfinished at the time of his cerebral hemorrhage in 1945. The Russian-American artist’s portrait of Flora Biddle is among many images that dot this lavishly illustrated book.
The author’s connection to Joye Cottage dates from the 1930s to the '70s. Her time spent in Aiken becoming less and less frequent as she got older. The final chapter is reserved for a return to the home of her childhood in 2001 when she asked permission of its subsequent owners, Steven Naifeh and Greg Smith, to see how the house had fared over time. Although she wrote that she admired the current interior design, marked by “gleaming white walls and spare furnishings,” Biddle confessed that she missed the “Victorian excess” that was characteristic of the living spaces during generations of Whitney family usage. “The aesthetic of purity doesn’t suit what I know is the disorder of life,” she asserts at the end of the book, her comments colored no doubt by a personal sense of loss. “Time passing. People passing. Everything passing.”