This February was “a nail-biting time” for Georgetown County’s Library Director, Dwight McInvaill. After 40 years of laborious research and interviews, organizing hundreds of family letters and photographs, and finally putting ink to paper, he found himself finally waiting for the first copies of his first book to arrive, hot off the presses.
As if 40 years hadn’t been long enough to wait, he found himself waiting some more as the Tennessee plant where the book was published was temporarily closed due to COVID-19. Then, a week later, it closed again due to ice and snow. The new arrival date was set for Feb. 24, less than a week before the book is to officially hit the shelves and just three days before McInvaill’s first book signing in Charleston.
McInvaill was handling the delay with remarkable calm, all things considered.
Titled “Alice: Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Charleston Renaissance Artist,” the book tells the story of a woman McInvaill remembers as something of a third grandmother to him as he was growing up in Charleston. She was a close friend to his parents, Harry and Talulah, and wrote them more than 400 personal letters during the years of World War II and the following decade. It is these letters that were the primary inspiration for McInvaill’s writing.
“There are hundreds of these beautiful letters, in which she writes about her art and her views on life,” McInvaill said. “She was a leader of the artistic and cultural revival in Charleston now known as the Charleston Renaissance. She really helped bring Charleston back to life, so to speak.”
McInvaill compares Charleston at that time to something akin to Silicon Valley for artists of all types.
“They were all creating, side by side,” he said. “It was this continuing, bubbling interchange of creativity.”
It was in this environment that Smith and her set introduced Sunday teas, a weekly event during which she and other artists would open their studios to the public to share their passion. They would serve teas, cookies and various Southern specialties. The blue laws of the day guaranteed there would be no sales during the events – but sales weren’t the purpose of the teas anyway. They were strictly about art appreciation.
“They drew in quite a crowd; an international crowd, in fact,” McInvaill said. “People came from as far away as China.”
McInvaill was just 23 when he decided to write a book about Smith, a woman who had a lasting impact on him and the way he would see the world as an adult. He approached Smith’s family and they were supportive, but asked him to wait, so he did. But he started then with the planning process – gathering materials and recollections, which he would add to over the next four decades. Among the items he collected were details about Smith’s friends and visitors, who would leave calling cards at her home at 69 Church St., one of the most beautiful of the city’s many historic homes.
“People in that etiquette-conscious age would leave their cards on a silver tray when they came to visit her,” McInvaill recalled. “Among her visitors were some of the most elite in the country.”
President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughters, for example, were frequent visitors to Smith, as were the then head of the National Geographic Society and his wife.
Smith came from a distinguished family. Her ancestors helped build Charleston, dating back to the early planting days. The McInvaills were not of the same social stature, but Smith didn’t care about such things.
“When I was growing up, due to a variety of circumstances, my family was not well off economically,” McInvaill recalled. “But because of our deep friendship with her, [Smith] left my family a large collection of her watercolors when she died in 1958, so I grew up in basically an art gallery and really took that for granted. I thought everybody had beautiful paintings on the walls. It was a wonderful way to grow up.”
Smith was known for her incredible Lowcountry scenes, which depicted the area as it was at the time, before development came. “Myrtle Beach was a gorgeous locale with marshes and rows upon rows of sand dunes, high pine trees in a broad sky and beaches that stretched on forever,” McInvaill recalled.
The McInvaill family became acquainted with Smith during the World War II. McInvaill’s father was in the Navy and got to know Smith through his best friend, a fellow soldier fellow soldier at the Charleston Naval Base who was engaged to be married to Smith’s niece. The association got Harry McInvaill an invitation to dine with Smith and her sister. Harry shared some of the poetry he had written and the sisters were taken with him, sparking a lifelong friendship. They were so close, that when Harry proposed to his future wife, Talulah, it was at 69 Church St., and when he was shipped to the Pacific, Talulah stayed with Smith, who taught her watercolor lessons.
When Harry was decommissioned in 1946 and made his way back to Charleston, Smith opened social doors for the family that allowed them to buy “the Pink House,” where they partnered with Smith as art dealers for about a decade before Harry’s growing family led him back to the military, where he could earn a larger income.
It’s the latter part of Smith’s life and the letters she wrote to his parents that McInvaill’s book initially focused on. He went from research and planning to writing about 12 years ago.
“It had to be done in the evenings and on the weekends, because of course I have a full-tie job, and one that demands not just 40 hours a week, but often 60 hours a week to do it well,” McInvaill said. “Sometimes I would just do a paragraph and work on that for a day.”
It wasn’t until he showed early drafts to friends that the book expanded to encompass Smith’s early life. It was then he picked up a pair of co-authors: Smith’s great-niece Ann Gowd Tinker and great-great-niece Caroline Tinker Palmer. They helped bring Smith’s voice to the first part of the book with records their family had, including Smith’s reminiscences. They arranged the selection within the framework McInvaill had already created, and the final work was born.
Events celebrating the book’s launch are scheduled to take place across the Lowcountry throughout this year, including talks, signings and art exhibits, in Charleston, Florence and other locales. A Moveable Feast is also planned at Kimbel’s at Wachesaw on April 30. Tickets are available classatpawleys.com. A past lecture McInvaill gave on Smith at the Georgetown County Library is also available to view on the library’s YouTube Channel.
McInvaill’s book is an 11x11-inch coffee table book and will sell for $60 with all proceeds benefiting the Middleton Place Foundation and its educational programming. Copies are available for sell at shop.MiddletonPlace.org or your local book store. McInvaill encourages those interested in a copy of the book to buy from and show support for independent book sellers where possible.