By Jennifer Tuohy, The Island Eye News Contributing Editor
In life and in words, Dorothea Benton Frank told it like it was. The New York Times best-selling author never shied from the hard truths, nor missed an opportunity to extol her beloved Lowcountry, while pointing out its many flaws. Dottie, as she was called by those lucky enough to know her, was a force of nature, and her passing on Monday, Sept. 2, just days before Hurricane Dorian swept into Charleston, feels like one of nature’s more cruel ironies.
Born in Charleston and raised on Sullivan’s Island, Frank lived in Montclair, New Jersey, where she raised her two children with her husband, Peter. However, she was intent on returning home and had recently started renovations on a historic home on the island’s Middle Street. Her untimely death at 67, from an aggressive form of cancer, is all the more tragic as she was so close to realizing her dream of coming home for good.
“I want to come back,” Frank told The Island Eye News in 2017, during one of the many interviews she gave to her hometown newspaper. “But my husband’s got his fingernails in the asphalt at Newark airport. He continues to work and looks like he’s never going to stop.
“I’ve told him 5,000 times I do not want to be buried in New Jersey. I do not want my obituary to read ‘of Montclair, New Jersey.’ I want it to say ‘of Sullivan’s Island’.”
Frank’s love for Sullivan’s Island was a driving force behind her hugely successful writing career. She wrote 20 books; the first, “Sullivan’s Island,” sold a million copies and landed at Number nine on the New York Times best-seller list. Her last book, “Queen Bee,” released this summer and also set on Sullivan’s Island, made it to Number 2 – her highest ever.
Her mother’s death and the subsequent sale of the family home inspired her to write that first novel; she wanted to earn enough money to buy it herself. While she never did buy that house, her success as an author did bring her back to her beloved Sullivan’s.
“When I come across that causeway, somehow I’m a girl again,” she said. “When I’m here I sleep better – simple things become extraordinarily exquisite. There’s no greater joy I’ve ever known that the comfort and joy of belonging to this island.
“Woody Wood once asked me if he’d missed anything by staying here on this island all his life. And my answer was, No. He had not missed anything of real consequence. Everything you really value in this life is right here on this little sandbar.”
Frank’s mother, Dorothea Blanchard, married William Oliver Benton, Jr and their children were raised on Sullivan’s. Frank grew up “Like a little Geechee brat running around the island barefoot picking blackberries and wild palms and sliding down the hill fort on cardboard,” she told Island Eye News. We once asked her why she’d written so many books, but no memoir. “Never,” she said without hesitation. “Because if I start naming names there’ll be a lot of suicides in town.”
Frank leaves behind her husband, Peter, two children, Victoria and William, and a grandson, Teddy, as well as a huge hole in her hometown.
But she also leaves us all with a literary legacy, a body of work which is like the woman herself; vivacious, intelligent, sidesplittingly funny, and scathingly insightful. Labelled “beach reads” and “female fiction,” her work goes much deeper than those genres imply. Frank once compared her perspective to that of Jane Austen’s. “This society is still very much a patriarchy,” she said. “I like to think of myself as looking at the world today a little bit like Jane Austen did 300 years ago.”
As Austen did, Frank put a critical eye on the society she was raised in, chewing up and spitting out tired stereotypes and re-imagining the literary vision of the Southern woman. “I’ve come to the conclusion that my characters, particularly the protagonists, are really my bathroom mirror personality— they say what you would say if you were not going to be penalized for it.”
We just want to say that you will be greatly missed Miss Dottie, of Sullivan’s Island.
A memorial service will be held for Dorothea Benton Frank at Grace Church Cathedral, beginning at 2 p.m., Saturday, September 14, with a reception following in Hannahan Hall. All are welcome.