A Woman Named Catharine

Savannah Morning News column

April 19, 2015


There was a time, well into her daughter Nell’s recent battle with brain cancer, that Catharine Varnedoe retreated to her studio, stared at a close-up photograph of a caged tiger and realized they were both asking the same questions.

“I could see it in his face,” she said of the tiger from the Atlanta Zoo. “We were both wondering, ‘Where am I? Why am I here? What can I do about it.’”

So Catharine, whose daughter died a few months later, started to paint the tiger, up close and personal, with all the pain and anguish she imagined he was feeling and she knew she was feeling. The act of painting helped.

“There’s just something so positive about the process,” said Catharine, who studied with Lamar Dodd at the University of Georgia. “The same thing is true about teaching art. It really helped me when Nell was sick. My students went through it all with me.”

Catharine’s oil paintings, mostly landscapes, will be hanging in a one-woman for a month at the Downstairs Gallery at 19 W. Gordon Street.

Catharine has been dancing around art, teaching, family and Savannah most of her life, starting with the unusual spelling of her first name. In her family, it goes back generations, she says, back to the days of yellow fever in 1876. She can’t even count the number of women who share the spelling.

But she’s also a storyteller, not unlike her husband Gordon, known for his Batman persona and his generous personality. Their lives have crisscrossed since the day they met at a Yacht Club party. Catharine delights in talking about her grandmother, Lucy Barrow McIntire, who in 1997 was named a Georgia Woman of Distinction.

In the 1950s, Miss Lucy, as she was known, and six other women she handpicked spearheaded the drive to save many historic buildings in downtown Savannah. Lucy helped found the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. She was the first president of the Junior League. She wrote a play that was produced in New York. She wrote poetry.

“I adored her,” Catharine said. “I spent a lot of time with her. When my mother was too sick I’d stay with her on 41st street. We would do theatricals. Once we performed her version of ‘Mid-Summer Night’s Dream’ on the tennis court at Wormsloe. In her house we’d curl up in her bed and listen to ‘Gangbusters’ on the radio.”

Lucy and Gordon’s mother, Lila Train Varnedoe, who got a masters degree in creative writing from Smith College, were friends. Lucy called Lila her fourth daughter.

When Catharine was 6 she moved with her parents to New York City, where she went to a school named after Walt Whitman. At age 7 she had her first boyfriend, Joe DiMaggio’s son. He had red hair like her mother, Catharine said. While in New York Nell’s sister Cornelia McIntire Rivers, would do babysitting duties.

“She was a writer on the Perry Como show,” Catharine said. “And she wrote a radio quiz show so she’d have to look up facts at the public library.” Cornelia was married to Walter Rivers, Johnny Mercer’s first cousin and a bigwig at Capitol records.

Cornelia was also an artist. She worked for Portraits Inc. That’s how a portrait of a 7-year-old Catharine landed in The New Yorker.

“They used it for an ad for Portraits Inc,” she said.

That reminded Catharine of the time when Nell, who at12 decided her mother needed a promotion, so she gathered some of her drawings and sent them to The New Yorker suggesting they use one of them on the cover. They wrote back thanks but no thanks. Nell was outraged. Catharine was over the moon.

Cornelia entertained a whole slew of people, often to play bridge, Peggy Lee and pop singer Jo Stafford among them. Once when Stafford, a pop singer in the forties and fifties, came over Cornelia bribed Catharine’s best behavior with an autograph, “except it meant nothing to me,” Catharine said. “When she signed her name I said, ‘but this is just a piece of paper.’”

When her mother became too ill, Catharine would return to Savannah. For years she slipped in and out of both worlds.  In Savannah she went to the Pape School – now Savannah Country Day. That’s where she met Gordon’s sister, Comer.

“Both our grandparents had six children,” sad Catharine, where she taught art. “Somewhere along the line they hoped we would get together.”

When they finally did marry they newlyweds headed for California – not what the family was hoping for, Catharine said. They stayed 18 years.

“Our girls were not happy about moving back to Savannah,” Catharine said, “but I tried to tell them that in a town like Savannah people would love you when you were born until the day you died. There’s a continuity here that you don’t find everywhere.”

A little later on Catharine amended that.

“After Nell got sick and moved in with us, she, Gordon and I had two and a half close, fabulous years together. Nell never lost it. She took care of us.”

Some ink on Sandy West and my book

Hats off to Atlanta Mag for the great cover story, “Secrets of the Georgia Coast,” which placed Sandy West at No. 15. Great shot of her leaning against the limb of a live oak tree on Ossabaw Island wearing a pair of her trademark Keds, one foot crossing the other. (I kinda liked the last line, too: “For more on West read Jane Fishman’s new book, ‘The Woman Who Saved An Island'”). Coming in at No. 23 (and a full page) was Ossabaw itself.