John Zeigler, Charleston poet-philanthropist, dies at 103

John A. Zeigler Jr., one of Charleston’s most important cultural ambassadors whose love of poetry and support for the arts defined his public life, died Friday. He was 103.

Zeigler, a longtime member of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, was perhaps best known for operating The Book Basement, an independent bookstore that occupied the first floor of his family home at 9 College St. It opened in 1946 and closed in 1971 after the College of Charleston acquired the property.

The store quickly became a cultural center for the literary set, and over the years, many important writers passed through, including Langston Hughes and Maurice Sendak.

“It was an oasis,” said Harlan Greene, a friend who first met Zeigler in the 1970s. “It was open to all.”

Metropolitan Opera broadcasts played on the radio. And all kinds of people stopped by, Greene said.

Zeigler’s life was steeped in the arts from the beginning. He attended The Citadel, where he founded the literary magazine The Shako, and he participated in the Dock Street Theatre playwriting competition run by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. He came to know writers of the Charleston Renaissance, including Josephine Pinckney, John Bennett, Katherine Drayton, Mayrant Simons and Laura Bragg.

In 1940, Zeigler met his life partner, Edwin Peacock, thanks to a friend of writer Carson McCullers, with whom Peacock was acquainted. Soon after they joined the armed forces. Zeigler served as a radioman during World War II.

After the war, they returned to Charleston and opened the bookstore. They joined the NAACP and served on the city’s Interracial Committee. They also quietly combatted prevailing attitudes toward homosexuality, according to Ziegler’s nephew William Potter.

Ziegler began writing poetry in earnest after the book store closed, and he and Peacock continued to host a wide circle of friends and guests from around the world. He also began to invest in the stock market, with a special emphasis on utilities, Green said.

After Peacock’s death in 1989, Zeigler became an ardent philanthropist, endowing 15 music scholarships at the College of Charleston, supporting the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, Spoleto Festival USA and other groups.

Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina’s poet laureate, said she saw Zeigler at many Poetry Society events where he was treated as the beloved elder statesman. He was especially pleased when, a few years ago, she introduced him to the poet Billy Collins.

And his generosity was famous. Frequently he gave her books of poetry autographed by the authors, as a simple gesture of friendship, she said.

“He was a very charming man, with a world of knowledge,” Wentworth said.

Zeigler received numerous awards and recognitions for his arts patronage, including the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award in 2013.

He is survived by 11 nephews and nieces and their many children. No funeral is planned because Zeigler donated his body to the Medical University of South Carolina. A memorial is scheduled for 3 p.m. Oct. 17 in the Simons Center Recital Hall at the College of Charleston, 54 St. Philip St.