A Grandson Remembers a Grande Dame

Every time my grandmother entered a room, she just assumed everyone there was absolutely thrilled to see her. And they were. For a shy kid like me when I was growing up, this was a revelation. She once told me, “Life is a theater; unfortunately, not everyone knows how to act.” Boy, did she know how to act. An Alabama belle with a biting wit, Oatsie Charles could warm even the coldest of shoulders. But she didn’t care who you were or where you came from. You could be a literal prince or a pauper; the question was, were you interesting? (Or good looking—she was a terrible flirt.) Her Southern charm and devilish smile let her get away with saying things that most wouldn’t dream of articulating. And she would look at you in a way that made you feel like the only person in a room full of people.

As a photographer, I would name her my first and greatest muse. Even now, I try and approach all my subjects with the same grace and elegance with which my grandmother approached her life. If my photos are at all irreverent or whimsical, it’s because of her. And if you ever run into me out and about, just know I’m assuming you’re thrilled to see me. 

Nick’s grandmother Oatsie in front of the family’s Newport home, “Land’s End,” in the 1950s.
Oatsie with Nick’s grandfather, Thomas Leiter, in the 1940s.