Over bourbon whiskey and sugar cubes, theater star Tallulah Bankhead — who, like Mrs. Charles, had Alabama roots — counseled her on the techniques of sex and the expectations of the bridal bedroom on the eve of her wedding. “She taught me the facts of life,” Mrs. Charles said years later in an interview for photographer Bruce Weber’s “All-American” arts journal series.
A paragon of hostesses to the powerful and influential, she was the last survivor of a Washington quintet that included Susan Mary Alsop, Evangeline Bruce, Pamela Harriman and Katharine Graham, the last a Georgetown neighbor of Mrs. Charles on R Street NW and the onetime publisher of The Washington Post.
Mrs. Charles served on the board of directors of the charitable foundation of tobacco heiress Doris Duke, a Newport neighbor. She was a frequent luncheon companion of first lady Nancy Reagan, fashion designer Bill Blass and authors Truman Capote and Gore Vidal.
Mrs. Charles was a tart-tongued Southerner, born into wealth and status, and she married into more wealth and status, with multiple homes and multiple servants. She had one daughter. But, she told Women’s Wear Daily, “I never changed a diaper. Never.” Later generations left her wondering, “How can young people do it all without help?”
According to her grandson, Desmond Butler, she died of chronic kidney disease at her home in Newport, the historic seaside vacation capital of the nation’s business and financial elite, where 70-room houses were routinely referred to as “cottages.”
“Newport is a place where you go to be naughty,” Mrs. Charles was widely quoted as having said. She lived for years in the Newport mansion that once belonged to Edith Wharton, the novelist of the moneyed class of American aristocracy. Several years ago, she turned the main house over to her daughter and moved into a remodeled garage on the estate. It was an eight-car garage.
Marion Saffold Oates was born on Sept. 29, 1919, in Montgomery, Ala. Her grandfather, William C. Oates, was a colonel in the Confederate army during the Civil War. At Gettysburg in 1863, he led a failed assault on Little Round Top that helped turn the tide of the battle in the Union’s favor. A year later, he lost his right arm in fighting near Petersburg, Va. After the war, he served seven terms in Congress and then was Alabama’s governor from 1894 to 1896. He then practiced law with his son, Mrs. Charles’s father.
She was raised from birth to be a society hostess and attended the Margaret Booth School for girls in Montgomery, where her distaste for math, she said, provoked no concern. “I was told I didn’t have to take mathematics because I’d never need them,” she recalled to author Bob Colacello for the “All-American” interview.
She went to a boarding school in Brussels and then to an all-girls Catholic school in Bavaria after the Nazis rose to power in Germany. There was a picture of Hitler in every classroom, but the image was turned to face the wall. Whenever a Nazi officer visited, the school bell was rung in a special way, and one of the girls would turn the picture around.
Back in the United States, she settled in New York, where she was a debutante at a lavish ball covered by Life magazine. She was a brunette with captivating brown eyes that were sometimes referred to by friends as “high beams.”
In 1942, she married Thomas Leiter, the grandson of a Chicago real estate and retail baron and the son of a businessman who once tried to corner the U.S. wheat market. They lived in Washington in what was said to have been “a most glorious apartment” built inside what had been the horse stables of the Leiter family mansion near Dupont Circle.
During World War II, she made a passing acquaintance of Fleming, the future author of the James Bond British spy novels. They met again in Jamaica in the winter of 1949 during the social season there.
“I’d gone to a party, and a great friend of mine was very much in love with Ian, or thought she was,” she recounted to a Fleming website. “And he was treating her in the most atrocious way. And with the arrogance of youth, I walked up to Mr. Fleming when I was introduced to him and said, ‘Mr. Fleming, I consider you’re a cad.’
“And he looked at me and said, ‘Mrs. Leiter, you’re indeed right. Shall we have a drink on it?’ ”
She said she was taken aback by his charm, and they became friends. When Fleming published his first Bond novel, “Casino Royale,” in 1953, he partially named the CIA agent, Felix Leiter, after her husband.
Through neighbors in Newport, the socially prominent Auchincloss family, she became friendly with then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his wife, Jacqueline. In 1954, when the future president was hospitalized after having had back surgery, he phoned her.
“Oates, I’m sick,” the Fleming website quoted Kennedy as having said. “Have you got anything to read?” She sent him a copy of “Casino Royale,” which he loved. A few years later, she was encouraged to bring Fleming, then visiting Washington, to the Kennedy house for dinner.
A year later, after Kennedy’s inauguration, Life magazine published a story on the president’s reading habits, reporting, “He has a weakness for detective stories, especially those of the British author Ian Fleming and his fictitious undercover man, James Bond.”
There was an immediate spike in sales of Fleming’s Bond novels in the United States.
Her marriage to Leiter ended in divorce. In 1968, she married Robert H. Charles, an assistant secretary of the Air Force. He died in 2000.
Mrs. Charles’s survivors include her daughter, Victoria Leiter Mele of Newport; three grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
In 2007, Mrs. Charles sold her home on R Street in Georgetown for $7 million and moved full time to Newport. At a luncheon there not long after, she offered a glass of wine to a journalist. He declined, saying he was working.
“You mean you can’t drink and work?” she said. “Thank God I never had to work.”
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