It takes a superhuman level of superiority to write that your inaugural Charleston coffee table book is “the first modern book which tells the story of this remarkable gem of a place through the people who make it special.” I was willing to suspend my disbelief of that statement long enough to finish reading Charleston: A Good Life and I’ve come to one conclusion: After consuming author Ned Brown’s 187 pages of photo essays on local captains of industry, politicians, and naked women — with only a nod to slavery tucked halfway through the book — Brown’s Charleston: A Good Life is a first. It’s the first wildly arrogant book on this city I’ve read in a while.
A little background. Ned Brown is a former political consultant, contributor to Charleston Social Diary, and one-time bit player on Southern Charm. You might think that would be enough for one man, but it turns out that Brown has always had a fascination with American photographer Slim Aarons, his book A Place in the Sun specifically. I mention this because it’s the work of the preeminent 1960s photographer of “pleasure and privilege” — a role Aarons himself described as “photographing attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places” — that Brown aspires to with Charleston: A Good Life.
Well, with one caveat: “Today, just having money — and showing it off with ‘stuff’ — is not laudable or interesting,” Brown writes.
Instead, Brown suggests, that his goal was to publish a “selective tour of ‘interesting people,’ doing interesting things, in a wonderful place.” People like former Mayor Joseph P. Riley, philanthropist Anita Zucker, painter Jonathan Green, Evening Post Industries Chairman Pierre Manigault, and many more. And that would all be well and good if Brown had achieved that with Charleston: A Good Life. Instead, the heavy tome is a series of dishy, name-dropper essays filled with attaboy back pats highlighting a playboy lifestyle only a select few in this city enjoy — see: fox hunting at Middleton Place, sailing with “Turnover Turner,” Ted Turner’s son, and schmoozing at the Kiawah Island Motoring Retreat.
To bring his 50-plus subjects to life, Brown hired local photographer Ben Gately Williams. If I’m being honest, that was my original draw to the book. Williams is an exceptionally talented photographer whose work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Garden & Gun, and the New York Times magazine. At the very least, I’d hoped Williams’ photos would save Brown’s folly. Alas, they don’t. For some reason, Brown or Williams decided to treat the photos with some kind of dirty film filter. The gimmick makes half of the images look like someone sneezed Cheeto dust on them.
So without much in the way of images, we’re left with Brown’s words and, boy, does he let them fly. In one essay, Brown dishes on how air conditioning transformed Charleston’s piazza life (you know, because every Charlestonian since the dawn of time has lived in a house with a piazza). Illustrated with a photo of “interior designer and vintage Rolls-Royce/Bentley judge” Merrill Benfield, Brown writes that “on many a summer night, it was the only place to sleep comfortably.” In another essay, Brown explains how far Charleston has come from its good ol’ boy roots with a spread on three female business leaders whose businesses he does not name. The good news? According to Brown the old boys network is gone. “All that has changed,” Brown writes, then follows up the essay with a two-page spread of the women topless. And then there’s a bizarre story on Mark Sanford. Brown waxes poetic about the former governor’s Coosaw Plantation and how inexplicably, “the sharks and kids swimming off the dock seem to coexist peacefully.”
But the most jaw-dropping aside is in the back of the book where Brown pairs a photo of kids heading to Cotillion class with a diss of their teacher. To paraphrase, Brown says that the teacher, “Miss Em,” was mad when he and Williams showed up to write about and photograph the class. “I found Miss Em’s criticism strange and ironic for two reasons: apparently she doesn’t realize that moms attending Cotillion sessions post numerous pictures of Cotillion classes on social media, and second, Miss Em’s own daughter married into a family with its fair share of scandal (social and financial) over the past decade.” Ah, so living Charleston: The Good Life means tossing in a casual F-you to a dance teacher. (Cool, cool, cool. I’ll remember that when I pitch my memoir, Too Tall To Tap, the tragic tale of my misspent years attempting to become the next Ginger Rogers.)
This is all to say, had Charleston: A Good Life been self-published, I could forgive the self-indulgent navel gazing, the grainy photos, even the gratuitous naked women. But incredibly it is not. Arcade Publishing put this book out which leads me to suspect that Brown has a high ranking friend at Arcade or the company’s coffee table book department has reached a desperate new low. Either way, Charleston: A Good Life will cost you $85 — a price only a person living in Brown’s Charleston fantasy bubble would be willing to pay for it.