Dorothea Benton Frank really should be there, smiling, greeting readers, cracking jokes. The co-host of The Post and Courier's Book & Author Luncheon should be seated on the dais looking out into the big room full of a thousand fans.
But the beloved Lowcountry author died suddenly, and far too young, just a week before her 68th birthday on Sept. 2, after receiving a diagnosis of MDS, a bone marrow disorder.
Her loss cut deep for many loyal readers of her 20 novels. Luncheon organizers plan to pay her tribute, and among this event's featured authors is one of Frank's good friends, Cassandra King Conroy, whose new book is a memoir titled "Tell Me a Story" and whose written tribute to Frank can be found here.
In the weeks since Frank's death, others have expressed their sorrow and their appreciation. The Post and Courier asked King Conroy and several others who knew her well to share their thoughts.
One day in 1999, I was in my office at the College of Charleston and the phone rang.
"Bret," I heard through the receiver, and with that one drawled word there was no mistaking who it was: Judge Alex Sanders, president of the College. My boss. He was calling to tell me he’d met a lady who’d written a novel his friend Pat Conroy was endorsing, and now this lady had asked the judge to ask me if I would read her book for the same reason, too. She’d told him that Mr. Conroy and I were her favorite writers ever.
“Yes sir,” I’d said. How could I say no? And how to say no to a compliment like that?
The book, written by somebody named Dorothea Benton Frank, was a good one, set right here in the Lowcountry. A book called “Sullivan’s Island.” A funny book, and smart, and heartbreaking, and ultimately redemptive, and I blurbed it. Her first book. Her first best-seller.
Not long after, my wife Melanie and I would have lunch with Dottie and her daughter Victoria in Mount Pleasant. I’d learn what a storyteller she was, what a character, what a laughter, but especially what a storyteller.
Later still, our younger son Jacob and Victoria would become dear friends when they were both students at the College of Charleston, and Dottie and her husband Peter surrogate parents of a sort to Jacob while we were away for the three-year stretch we spent at Louisiana State University.
Later still, it would be at Dottie’s Sullivan’s Island house that the College’s new MFA program in creative writing got its official launch with Peter’s legendary cannon shot from the back yard, and Dottie’s legendary buffet dinner. A few months later, celebrating the program again with an oyster roast at her house, the students would spend the evening reading their work to each other, to be joined in the end by Dottie herself, who read, with great humility and trepidation, manuscript pages from the novel she was writing just then.
And later — last — I would receive first an email that said Dottie was ill, and then one that said she had passed.
One evening Melanie and I were out on the porch of Dottie’s house on Sullivan’s Island, celebrating her life with a great deal of other people. We stood watching the sunset over Charleston, the reds and purples and pinks intensifying with each second, and then, finally, turning blue.
And I thought: This is the end of the book I started 20 years ago. This is its closing. It was a good book, set right here in the Lowcountry. A funny book, and smart, and heartbreaking, and ultimately redemptive.
Dottie’s book. A best-seller.
Bret Lott is a novelist and professor at the College of Charleston.
Patti Callahan Henry
Dottie Frank was a bright light and a force of nature. So often she would say, “People just don’t dream big enough.” But Dottie did dream big enough and she encouraged all of us to do the same.
She’ll be remembered in public as an author, but for those who knew her personally, she is obviously so much more. I will remember her as a woman who gathered people together, as a friend who encouraged me to write better and bigger, and as a mother who fiercely loved her children. She was a grandmother who talked of little else but Teddy Spaghetti and was a storyteller of the greatest kind.
Dottie could take any day and turn it into an adventure, and then, later, into a laugh-out-loud story. Her mind was quick, her wit unparalleled and her sense of irony spot-on. There was a day when she had generously invited my son (who was at the College of Charleston at the time) to stay with her. She had to go out that next morning, and she left us alone in her house. Big mistake it turns out.
I cooked my son a bagel in her toaster oven and then accidentally didn’t turn it all the way off. A wicker basket sat atop that toaster oven and 15 minutes later we smelled smoke. My son ran into the kitchen, put out the fire and we stood stunned. I had nearly burned down Dot’s new Sullivan’s Island home. I felt sick with what might have happened.
When she returned home, I told her, “I almost burned down the house.” Instead of acting horrified, which she had every right to do now that her entire downstairs smelled like roasted wicker basket, she said, “Oh, damn, I wish you had and then I could have built what I wanted.”
Of course, that is not what she wished. It is just what she said to make us feel better. Because that is how Dorothea Benton Frank was: a woman who just made us feel better.
Patti Callahan Henry is the author of 15 books. Her latest novel is "The Favorite Daughter."
When I think of Dottie, I remember her beautiful smile and her wonderful sense of humor. Her larger-than-life personality lit up the room whenever she walked in. She immediately became everyone’s best friend.
Dottie and I met at her book event in my bookstore over 15 years ago. We instantly bonded over an evening of scotch and conversation. Following that event, she selected Litchfield Books to launch her new novel and book tour each May.
Not only was she a dear friend, she was a business associate I so admired and respected. She always gave 100 percent of herself and was so loved by all of those who looked forward to each new book. Her devotion to independent book stores and libraries made her a unique individual in the publishing world.
I will forever miss her presence in my life, and the month of May will never be the same. Without the funny and witty novels she gave us each summer, reading will never be the same for so many of us.
Vickie Crafton is owner of Litchfield Books on Pawley's Island.
“What if a developer bribed a congressman to sell Bull’s Island, and then he bought it for a golf resort?”
Dottie Frank asked me that 10 years ago. She was researching her latest novel, “Bulls Island.”
My response: “That couldn’t happen.” Then I thought, stranger things have happened in South Carolina, a lot stranger. (Like the topless golf course that was proposed in the middle of the Lewis Ocean Bay Wildlife Preserve.)
Within months, the Franks, Beaches and a few other friends, including historian Walter Edgar and his wife Nela, landed on the island with Capt. Chris Crolley.
It was a beautiful winter day. We marveled at phlegmatic alligators sunning themselves on the banks of Jack’s Pond and debated whether the infamous “Gatorzilla” could have really been 20 feet long. We admired herons and egrets stalking a potential meal, perilously close, we thought, to the gators. Walter interpreted the remains of the “Old Fort” for us. When I asked Dottie if she wanted to hike to the boneyard beach, she replied, “Not in these shoes, honey!”
Some people have perfect names. Dottie Frank was one. Sharp, to the point, and frank. And funny. No one who ever met Dottie thought otherwise.
I told her one time that she was the James Brown of the book world: the hardest working woman in literature. She said she was flattered, but it was true. She brought the world a quantum of pure energy and left it a cornucopia of joy.
Dana Beach is founder and former director of the Coastal Conservation League.
I met Dorothea Benton Frank around a crowded conference table 16 years ago. At the time she was shopping for a new publisher, and somehow the publishing matchmaking fairies decreed she would find her safe harbor with us.
When I think of Dottie now, I think of the very intense time every year (yes, every single year) when we would crash her novel. She would finish the rough draft of her book the first of March, and for the next week, the two of us would edit until we smiled over the draft. If this sounds intense, it was. It was like a hurricane (category 2 at least). And two months later a book would be in the stores.
I will miss the hurricane named Dottie. And I will remember her whenever I see a Palmetto tree bend at the mercy of the wind. Or a woman wearing three strands of pearls.
Carrie Feron is senior vice president of Morrow/Avon, imprints of HarperCollins.
Cassandra King Conroy
I could attempt to tell you how much Dottie meant to me, or how much I admired her vivacity, her charm, her great big generous heart. Instead I offer a simple story, long overdue in telling. My sister, Nancy, was a huge Dottie fan, and when she learned that Dottie would be speaking at a luncheon in Atlanta, two hours from her home in Alabama, she determined to go. It wouldn’t be easy; my sister had neuroendocrine cancer and wasn’t really up for the trip. Even though no one could go with her, she went alone, undeterred.
Nancy had met Dottie once before but didn’t expect to be remembered; if nothing else, the illness had taken a toll on her appearance since then. The luncheon was packed, and Nancy, not knowing any of the well-heeled Atlanta socialites there, took a seat at a table in the back. No one spoke to her.
After Dottie gave her usual hilarious speech, lunch was served. To the astonishment of the head table, Dottie stood up, plate in hand, and said, “Please excuse me, ladies. I just spotted a friend.” The room fell silent as she made her way to my sister’s table. “Nancy Jane!” she cried. “If I’d known you were coming, honey, I’d put you with me.” Instead of schmoozing with a roomful of wealthy fans, Dottie plopped down next to my wide-eyed sister and said, “Thanks for being here today.”
I regret never telling Dottie how much that act of kindness meant to me, so let me say it now: Thank you, dear friend, for being you.
Cassandra King Conroy is a novelist based in Beaufort. Her latest book is the memoir "Tell Me a Story: My Life with Pat Conroy."