If you're to believe the party poopers, Savannah society is a notoriously hard nut to crack.
They'll tell you this city's ruling class is a rarefied bunch, their rosters of splendiferous holiday galas, opulent charity balls and swank oyster roasts an impenetrable cloister for most of us peons. To make the invitation lists, your relatives either stepped off the ship with General Oglethorpe or you're dripping in enough new money to allow the tacit overlook of your origins, dahlin'.
Those of us who arrived with the dust of other places on our bourgeois heels can forget the exclusive supper club invitations and gin-and-tonics at the Yacht Club. But like the great sage Groucho Marx, there will always be those who don't give a flying fig about being a member of any club that would have them as a member.
Why waste time trying to climb the wrought-iron gates of high society when you can forge your own?
"Savannah can be whatever you make it, honey," counsels Alexandra Trujillo de Taylor, who operates independently of any prescribed social circle snobbery.
The dazzling downtown doyenne has been cultivating guest lists for almost 20 years, her parties so legendary that invitations are coveted by even the most cerulean of bluebloods. But it's not your stock portfolio or who your daddy is that counts.
"I've always thought such things were absurd!" exclaims Taylor. "I've always wanted to meet everybody. Who cares about backgrounds? The most important thing is, are you interesting?"
Well, are ya, punk? My own appeal was put to the test last week after receiving a printed invitation via snail mail for Taylor's quarterly tea party.
I RSVP'd quickly as proper party etiquette dictates, and also because I've heard that La Taylor is appalled by the proliferation of what she refers to as mannures — "modern day manners meets manure." The common Savannah practice of not responding to a party request until the last minute gets a tsk-tsk and a Sharpie through your name next time.
Though this consummate hostess doesn't feel beholden to any staid Southern conventions, her airs are no less aristocratic. She even rocks her own title: The Duchess of State, bestowed upon her when she regularly hosted parties for the Savannah Philharmonic at her single gal apartment on State Street back in the late 1990s.
With a passionate flick of a bangled wrist, she clarifies that those fêtes were not for symphony patrons but exclusively for the musicians, "to give something back for their incredible talent."
"Where I'm from, we pay homage to the artist," she sniffs. "Besides, with the musicians, it's instant black tie!"
Raised in Mexico City in a traditional household where formality ruled ("You didn't come out of the bedroom until you were fully dressed"), she learned to let her hair down in the deep South while spending her summers with her uncle Fernando, who had defected to Chattanooga to become a hairdresser. She visited a sister in Savannah and was reminded of the circuitos of Mexico by its green squares and slow pace, and so decided to adopt the myth and mystery of the Garden as her own.
The Duchess dialed back her nightlife and moved a few blocks uptown after she married her Duke, Daniel, ten years ago, but she's far from given up her inclinations to entertain.
The invitation for the tea party — emblazoned with Her Royal Highness' own crest — commanded that winter hats were de rigeur. Wearing a hand-felted wool bowler my mother brought me back from Estonia (really), I knock on a jet black double door on a block of meticulously restored Victorians and languishing tear-downs. I'm greeted by the Duchess herself, resplendent in a cream-colored Chanel dress and matching ostrich feather pillbox hat.
"Dios mio, what a fetching chapeau!" she declares as she kisses both of my cheeks. "Vene, niña, come meet everyone."
She styles these teas straight out of her Mexican childhood, when her mother and her friends played cards and gossiped until the men came home from work. Though she and the Duke host their own supper club for couples, these afternoons are for women only, plus "a sprinkling of the gays." (Adorable SCAD fashion student Antonio Tombari was exempted from headgear but required to wear a bowtie.)
Some guests she's known for years, like Christy Cook, who the Duchess once charmed into throwing a small cocktail party at the mansion Christy used to own on Gaston Street — for 250 of her closest friends.
Others, like 20-something stylist and make-up artist Lady Katherine Taylor, she met yesterday.
"Isn't she gorgeous?" exclaims the Duchess when I inquire about the lovely girl posed on the leather loveseat attired in a purple crushed velvet coat and Amy Winehouse eyeliner. "I just picked her up at Habersham Antiques. She was wearing a full-on opera chignon at two in the afternoon! I had to know her."
Present most always is her dear friend Lily Lewin, as blond and lissome as the Duchess is stately and brunette. Lily, an accomplished photographer, is married to Dr. Lucas Lewin, a Southcoast physician and honest-to-God count from Madrid, which makes her an honest-to-Goddess countess. It is pure charm to hear the Duchess and La Condesa cooing to each other in Spanish — a Castilian version of AbFab's Patsy and Eddy, only sober.
However, the mejores amigas admit to some alpha female sparking when they first met.
"We were like two tarantulas in a box," giggles the Duchess.
"Now I'm the only one who can talk back to her and not lose my head," deadpans La Condesa.
Verdad, the Duchess' temper is as legendary as her parties. She might be inclusive, tolerant and welcoming of the eccentric, but doesn't mean that there aren't rules: First and foremost, follow the dress code. Also, no cell phones at the table. And unless you want the Sharpie through your name, do not ever, EVER, go in the kitchen.
"It is where the magic happens, niña. Don't ruin it!" she warns as she blocks the doorway. She explains later that in Mexico, guests do not mix with the help, though she stresses that her beloved longtime housekeeper, Bartola, is part of the family.
As for the sumptuous spread, the Duchess cooks it herself: Smoked salmon with dill sauce, lemony orzo, and from a lustrous tureen, the secret tomato soup recipe from SoHo South Café, bequeathed by a former chef with the oath that it would never be revealed.
For dessert, there are four kinds of loose tea in delicate pots and a homemade pear tart, courtesy of La Condesa. Everything is served in the shell pink dining room on fine china, an always-rotating collection that inspires the Duchess to design her parties "from the plate up."
Her signature aesthetic is eclectic elegance meets high drama, spilling over into the other rooms of la casa: She and the Duke have commissioned enormous portraits of themselves by local artists, most notably the royal pose above the mantle by Alexandro Santana and another by Jason Zaloudik in the upstairs bedroom-turned-dressing room, refurbished to accommodate her Highness' fabulous wardrobe.
In her spare time, Alex (as some are brave enough to address her) lends her interior design talents to others and keeps a booth at Habersham Antiques to repurpose her clients' cast-offs. On the Duchess of State blog, she documents her latest projects and outrage at los mannures, and has occasionally been known to dish deliciously on some of our small-town scandals. She also relentlessly promotes her favorite people (we first met when she suggested I write about chocolatier Adam Turoni the minute he opened on Broughton Street last year), and those who benefit from such sponsorship affectionately call her their Mexican Fairy Godmother.
Perhaps this is the future of Savannah society, self-defined in its glamour and generosity, unburdened by any dusty pretensions. As far as the exclusive codes of the mythical Old Savannah gentry go, they don't intimidate the Duchess in the least.
"I don't even know what that tastes like. Tell me something new. If not, move it along," she dismisses with a wave.
My afternoon in the Duchess' court ended too soon, and I can only hope my Estonian chapeau and relentless questions were deemed captivating enough to be invited back. At the very least, it's motivation to keep my mannures under control.
Which reminds me: If you'll excuse me, I have a thank you note to write.