Marion Oates Charles
1919 – 2018
She remembered life’s adventures beginning in her grandfather’s library as a young girl in Montgomery, Alabama, where she was allowed to read any book from the shelves that stretched to the high ceiling. For Marion Oates Leiter Charles, the treasure of books was the opening to a lifetime of curiosity about people and the wonders of the world. Almost a century of adventure came to an end in Newport this month. Oatsie, as she was affectionately called, is remembered for a life of charm, style and wit as well as the loyalty and love she showed to her family and countless friends. They included presidents and diplomats, writers and spies, fashion designers and artists.
It all began in Alabama on Sept. 29, 1919. Marion Saffold Oates was born into a prominent Alabama family. Her grandfather, Col. William C. Oates, was a confederate officer who served as Alabama’s governor. She attended Miss Margaret Booth’s School before shipping out for boarding school in Belgium and Germany. At a convent school in Bavaria in the 1930s, Oatsie was asked to carry secret letters back to America from the Catholic Church about the pressure on the clergy from the Nazis.
She returned to the United States as war was looming in Europe and moved with her mother and stepfather to New York. There, she was among a celebrated wave of debutantes in 1938. In typical fashion, a family friend from Alabama showed Oatsie the ropes in Manhattan _ it was the notorious Hollywood starlet Tallulah Bankhead. In New York, Oatsie met Tommy Leiter, whom she married in 1942 and who shared her sense of fun and humor. Not long after, he joined the war effort, while Oatsie moved to his home in Washington, D.C. She called the years in Washington during the war the best of her life. She remembered it as a time of intrigue, when she socialized with a diplomatic and spy set that included the writer Roald Dahl and the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.
After the war, the Leiters befriended Ian Fleming in Jamaica. When she heard that he had spurned a friend of hers, she confronted him, calling the spy novelist a “cad.” “He looked at me and said: ‘Mrs. Leiter you’re indeed right. Shall we have a drink on it?’” she recalled. It was exactly the kind of blunt, witty exchange that she loved and endeared her to those who shared that spirit.
Oatsie later helped boost Fleming’s career by introducing him to Jack Kennedy, who she knew from Newport. When the president named the British novelist as a favorite writer in a Life Magazine interview, it helped launch James Bond into the American consciousness. It was during the Kennedy administration, after the death of Tommy Leiter that Oatsie became famous as a hostess. She was part of the “Georgetown set” that included America’s elite politicians, bureaucrats and journalists, who steered American policy at the height of the Cold War.
In 1968, she married Robert Charles, who was an assistant secretary of the Air Force. The dinner parties in their house at the top of Georgetown were among the most coveted invitations in town. It was one of the first stops for Nancy Reagan, who arrived after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. Though Oatsie was a lifelong Democrat, the two became fast friends. In her later years, Oatsie moved more of her life to Newport, where she poured her attention to detail into decor and her celebrated garden. Oatsie died peacefully next to stacks of books at her house on Ledge Road that she called “The Whim” in the spirit of her whimsical life.
She served as the president of the board of the Newport Restoration Foundation, trustee of the Doris Duke Charitable Trust, the Redwood Library, and the Phillips Collection in Washington. She was a member of the Spouting Rock Beach Club, the Clambake Club and the Newport Country Club. She leaves behind her daughter, Victoria Mele; three grandchildren, Desmond Butler, Tyssen Butler and Nicholas Mele; and eight great-grandchildren.
The family plans a memorial service in Newport in June. In lieu of flowers, they request donations be made to the Newport Restoration Foundation, 51 Touro Street, Newport, RI 02840.