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Dixie Carter: southern style.

She's unmistakably Southern. Not is that she sprinkles around such phrases as "nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockin' chairs," but you just know you're talking to a Southern lady when you're sitting with Dixie Carter during breaks from rehearsal of her popular CBS-TV series, "Designing Women."

She's a far cry from her character of Julia Sugarbaker, the brassy, sassy leader of the Atlanta foursome who together give new meaning to the word "designing." The women are delightfully portrayed by Carter, Delta Burke, Annie Potts, and Jean Smart. And though she left her hometown of McLemoresville, Tennessee, a long time ago for an acting-singing career in New York, the soft lilt of Mrs. Hal Holbrook's Southern accent is still there. Girlish and vivacious at 47, despite the disappointments of two earlier marriages and the immense task of raising her two daughters and building a career, she has that rare quality of listening to what you say and confiding her innermost thoughts in return.

i think Southern women are more romantic, in general," she says. "And I feel that Southern women are reared to take a great deal of time making themselves attractive. I never will let my husband look at me in a shower cap, for example, or a face mask, or anything like that. I don't want to be seen that way. And I don't find that kind of attention to appearance shallow or superficial. I think it's a very good idea to make life just as pleasant as we can as we go along through it. And I believe that's something that's indigenous to the South, perhaps."

Her soft brown eyes sparkle behind designer glasses, as she dissolves back to her idyllic childhood. "When I was a little girl, my mother, or whoever was helping her, would rub lotions on my sister and me so our skin would be soft. That's romantic, you know," she, says. "And I always wanted my hair to look just a certain way."

Yet she is well aware of the changing role of the Southern woman in today's society, and she delights in her definition. "I guess I'm a pretty good example of a Southern woman," she purrs, "in that I really take a great deal of pride in being feminine. I find my femininity, or girlishness, a valuable asset. My personal experience is that men like it too, and yet I don't intend to be held down or held back in any way. I want my voice heard when it matters to me. It's that combination of soft exterior and very firm interior. Not hard but strong."

So Dixie Carter is not too thrilled about the stereotypes of Southerners perpetuated by television. "None of us enjoys the idea that Southerners are stupid, bigoted, mean, and lazy," she says. "'Designing Women' is attempting to break up those stereotypes, the Dukes of Hazard' and Hee Haw' kind of thing. And our mail tells us we're accomplishing that to some degree." She admits that the show's snappy, biting dialogue may have alienated some of the male viewers, but she says that Linda BloodworthThomason, its creator, wrote the show that way, particularly the first season, just to capture the attention of the public. "Now the dialogue isn't quite as brusque; it's a little bit softer and it's amusing," she says. "It's more titillating than a turnoff."

Stridency or bitterness are not her favorite qualities. She had her fill of that before Hal Holbrook came along. "I think Southern women are taught to understand from the time they're very young that they must forgive. We just forgive and stay up above those occurrences that would pull us down. We don't carry that heavy weight around of all those accumulated grievances, sorrows, and affronts," she says. "And yes, stay soft and loving." "Those occurrences" in Carter's life included her two failed marriages and her interrupted career. It was the Southern philosophy that enabled her to cope with life's realities without rancor or bitterness, and that gave her the positive, happy outlook which makes her the multitalented performer she is today. "I came from a religious family," she says thoughtfully. "Young people today very often go out into the world and forget about how important that religious base is. So when my first two marriages went wrong, I had my family there to bolster me. Those kinds of loving, supporting people keep you from getting ugly and mean." She pauses and strokes her dark hair. "I think that fear is what promotes bad characteristics in people and makes them do pretty awful things sometimes. The less we are afraid, the more comfort we have from those around us, and the more decent, the more comforting we can be to other people. That's also a Southern attitude." Which perhaps explains Dixie Carter's extraordinary confession: "I love my first husband and my second husband in the same way that I did all along. I loved them then, I love them now. Isn't that funny?" First up, and the father of her two daughters, was a New York businessman, Arthur Carter, which meant she kept her name and monogrammed handkerchiefs even when the marriage ended seven years later. It seems he just couldn't get over the old "seven-year itch," which in his case had set in a lot earlier and wouldn't let go. So Dixie did. Those Carter girls, Rosalind Helen Virginia (Gigi) and Mary Dixie (all Southern ladies have double or triple names), are 19 and 18, respectively. They are enrolled in Harvard, majoring in English and literature. They hope to follow in the footsteps of their glamorous mother, whose stage career was burgeoning when they were born in New York. But Dixie Carter gave it all up during those seven years to raise her children, not knowing whether she'd ever be able to resume her career. "It was a visceral response, being married and having the babies, a nesting kind of thing that was very powerful," she says. "In my mind it wasn't collect to work and rear children; it wasn't something that we ever dreamed about doing."

She smiles and points to the watercolor pictures those current Harvard students painted in their first and second grades of school-Santa in a snowstorm, Christmas trees, and rabbits-that color the walls of her dressing room, along with pictures of them at various ages. "They're still babies to me and they always will be, although I revel in their beautiful maturity," she murmurs.

She feels Gigi and Mary Dixie knew she wanted them to go to an Ivy League school. "They're very fine students, very scholarly little children," she notes proudly, still not ready to believe they're grown-up ladies. And remembering she graduated valedictorian of her high-school class with a 98 percent grade average, she further notes, "I put my own ambition over onto them, without ever saying as much. But I never pushed them. I never made them do their homework. I never had to. They just did it. But I certainly know I'm having a terrific, vicarious thrill out of it." As to her credo in raising them: "I knew where they were nearly every minute. And I tried to make their home a place where they could have a real good time, where they could come with their friends. I've always wanted it to be fun for them to be with me, to enjoy my company. They've always supported me, always came where I was working." Her eyes are misty now, even behind the eyeglasses. "They'd be rooting for Mama," she goes on, "and I was always rooting for them. And I talked to them very honestly about my life; they knew all about the goings-on by the time they were four or five."

And how does she now evaluate her two Harvard students?

"My girls are ladies," she says, beaming. "They're ladies like young women used to be ladies. They know everything they should know, about what the pitfalls would be of having love affairs at their age. They know the dangers. They're grown now. I think they have real good judgment, real good sense, and a great sense of dignity and pride in themselves."

It's ironic that her own somewhat free-and-easy, unrestricted lifestyle as a striving young actress in New York, with two disillusioning marriages along the way, made her an even more conservative mother, fiercely protective of her offspring.

Has she discussed sex with her daughters?

"Yes, we've had those kinds of talks. But nothing salacious," she admits. "I never thought that off-color jokes were appropriate in front of them, the real strong curse words. I never would let my friends talk like that around them. But as far as knowing what was going on emotionally for me all the way through, they did. And I believe that's the reason they were never drawn towards going out and learning things with their own age group. They knew everything that adult life had to offer."

In a business in which one of the operating slogans is "out of sight, out of mind," picking up her career again after a seven-year marriage, at age 35 with two children, was the true test of Dixie Carter's Southern grit and determination.

The part of Brand Henderson in the soap opera "The Edge of Night" established her nationally, and she was back in business. Soap opera by day, award-winning theater roles at night. Then came the part of the brash copywriter in the TV series "On Our Own," and a real-life role as the wife of George Hearn, whom she acted with during her college days at the Front Street Theatre in Memphis, and who went on to become a Broadway superstar in Sweeney Todd and La Cage aux Folles.

That marriage ran only a year, and the breakup was painful and bitter. "He was wild and would get real jealous," she recalls. "We had these extremely romantic, poetic ideas about one another that just weren't real enough for the real world, because it was something very rare and very powerful." She is referring to the fairy tale aspect of their romance, starring together in Carousel, when they developed an "amazing relationship. I believed that it was a lifetime destiny that we had, so we were both heartbroken and devastated that we weren't able to make that union hold," she says. Dixie didn't think they'd ever be able to talk again, and though she hasn't seen him since her marriage to Holbrook, she acknowledges they were back together on and off for years and years and years and years and years. Not just the year that we were married." Which proves that old loves die hard sometimes. She even went to see Hearn's brilliant performance in La Cage.

It was the TV series "Out of the Blue" that moved her to Hollywood. Two other series, "Filthy Rich" and "Diff'rent Strokes," followed, plus endless guest-starring roles, and ... her third husband.

Of Hal Holbrook, whom she met when they costarred as husband and wife in the TV movie The Killing of Randy Webster, she remembers what her mother heard from her great-grandmother. "'In every marriage,' she would say with her wonderful accent," which Carter takes delight in imitating, "'there have to be two bears, bear and to forbear."' She credits this with the success of her marriage five years ago to the 65-year-old actor.

She adds that it helps that "Hal Holbrook is a saint. A saint," she

55 repeats, with an adoring look at his framed picture on the dressing room table. "I'm kind of an eccentric personality, and the erratic side of my nature, the part that tells everybody what to do, doesn't bother Hal. And I lived so much by myself that he can put up with my having difficulty giving up my privacy."

Dixie and Hal's romance spanned 3 1/2 years. But he had to "sloop" to conquer her. That translates into a 40foot ocean-going sloop. It took three voyages to the South Seas aboard his Yankee Tar to get rid of their third-time jitters and provide her with "one of the greatest experiences of my life."

Let her count the ways. "I've learned about life from Hal," she says, about patience, the endless patience he has, with his work, with his loved ones. And I've learned humility from him. Hal is a truly humble man. He is not vain or puffed up at all. And he surely could be."

How do their careers jibe? Do any conflicts arise?

"I'm very disciplined about my work, but I'm not the perfectionist that Hal is. It doesn't eat away at me. I've done so many things that were secondrate," she admits, laughing loudly, "but I've accepted that fact. But Hal has achieved a level of excellence that I never have. He's an actor of caliber that I'm not and I'm not ever going to be. Unless somebody gives me a chance to do those great Tennessee Williams women. Then maybe I'll be able to do something very fine."

Meanwhile, this thoroughly Tennesseean woman, who never depended on the kindness of strangers but persevered through pure ability and determination, takes her considerable emotions back to her first love, her singing career. She performs in such places as New York's Carlyle, where she is currently appearing, and other fashionable showcases for her superb talent. And at an age when the horizons of even the most bountiful lives seem to shrink, she looks at a future that seems unlimited.

On the other hand, Dixie says, "it would be fine with me if I don't work again until the next season of Designing Women.' I'd like to be with my girls and my husband and put my feet up and relax for a while."
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:costar of "Designing Women" television program
Author:Robbins, Fred
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Interview
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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