Q&A: A Conversation With Charlene Bry, Ladue's First Chronicler
Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
Charlene Bry’s new book, Ladue Found, is already in its second printing, and it’s little wonder. The nation’s 28th-wealthiest city packs a lot of secrets, customs, and history into its 8.6 square miles. Bry (pronounced “bree”) introduces Madam Mae Traynor, who ran a brothel behind a white picket fence at 6 Town and Country Drive, and a slave “owned”—in the parlance of the time—by Thomas McKnight, Joseph, who claimed he was the son of Thomas Jefferson. Then there were the Roma, or gypsies, who camped annually at the creek just south of German Boulevard. Locales include the County Fair, held back when Busch’s Grove was a stagecoach stop, and the Bridlespur Hunt Club, near where Plaza Frontenac is now. And she writes about people she calls “the crème of the crop,” a perfect mixed metaphor for farmland that now holds estates like 3 Apple Tree Lane, modeled after the Rothschild chateau outside Paris. Bry married into Ladue and saw it fresh; over the years, she marveled at the serenity and grace of its ways. “How could no one have written a book on Ladue in 150 years?” she asks. “It had to be done.”
You paint an idyllic picture of childhood in Ladue. What was your childhood like?
My early neighborhood was St. Louis city, Blackstone Avenue. From my house to my cousin’s house was three feet, and across the street was an outdoor movie theater, and my brother would walk me there on Friday nights. It cost three hangers and a Coke bottle to get in. Easton Avenue was like walking in New York City—there were all kinds of people, and grocery stores with flies, and the coal man would come by in a black plume, and the iceman on a wagon. It was such a rich, rich environment.
You met Richie Bry at a party—was it love at first sight?
No, not for me. I don’t think it was for him, either. It was the ’60s, and I guess I had on fishnet stockings; that might have been an attraction! He called me for a date, and the first person I called said, “Definitely do not go out with him.” He didn’t think Richie was ready to settle down.
Well, he proposed to you not long after, in one of the huts at Busch’s Grove. You went from drinking sloe gin fizzes to sipping Scotch—any other adjustments?
Oh, everything was new. I had to watch—oh, she’s using that fork, I will too. And where your dinner roll went, and how to write thank-you notes. I don’t think I really got Ladue until I moved here. I knew it was a gorgeous place; I remember thinking how green it was. I’d dated another boy from Ladue, and I remember the butler coming in with 10 steaks, and me asking why, because there were only four of us. Totally the most inappropriate thing to say! It was a totally different lifestyle. But you get used to it.
Did people accept you readily?
They were so polite. They made me feel at home. We went to a party at the country club, and Richie introduced me to some people, and five minutes later, people came up, and they all knew my name. They take the time out to say, “Oh, and what is Richie’s girlfriend’s name?” And Pris McDonnell clearly knew that I didn’t know that many people, and we talked for half an hour. I didn’t realize I should have said, “Pris, I know you have other people to talk to.” She was so interesting, and so beautiful, and so much fun to talk to. So they accepted me into society, even though I was from a whole different universe. Although a lot of people just thought I was from out of town.
You were pretty frank about your origins, though.
I’ve always been really upfront. They would say Mary I. [Institute], and I would say, “Oh, I went to U. City!” I was proud of it.
How did you start to get involved?
Well, Bunny Armstrong—Mrs. Ford Armstrong, I mean, although she was Wallace then—she asked me to be on the women’s committee for the Art Museum, and then you are working with the top people in the city. And then—I don’t know what made her do it—she asked me to be the head of the Van Gogh Ball. It was like running a business!
Were you ever bored, not working?
Well, we then moved to Barnes Road, the most magnificent house in the world. I learned how to play golf, how to play bridge, how to play tennis. But for some reason, my U. City training—there was a principal there, a Mr. Baker. “You can do anything!” he drummed into your head. There was no housewife talk at all. So I broke up my tennis game and my bridge game and went back to school, to Washington University. I took a journalism course, and when I walked into a newsroom, I knew I belonged there.
You wound up working at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat—was your husband OK with that?
No, I had to ask him if I could go to work, and he asked my mother, and she said, “If you don’t let her do it, you’ll be sorry. She may do it anyway, and then where will you be?”
Why are wealthy places often more peaceful than poor ones? A horror of raucous noise? Or less density?
Well, you have 5-acre lots—that’s what Ladue’s all about, having property. That’s why people came to the country. St. Louis Country Club, too—golf became the rage in the early 1900s, and the city didn’t have room for that. The whole attitude about life had changed: Leisure time became very important. Well, not important, but acceptable, let’s put it that way. You didn’t have to live to work, work, work.
So the other country clubs followed?
Yes, although the Log [Cabin Club] and the Bogey Club were called private clubs, and St. Louis Country Club is called “the country club,” which is kind of a nuance.
What would happen if a Ladue resident started behaving badly, throwing loud, out-of-control parties?
People would complain, and the police would be right on it. There have been restraints even on good families. That’s something Ladue does very well. It happened at my house! My son had a party while we were out of town. When we got back, I was calling the police about something completely different for the Ladue News, and he said, “That was some party your son had.” Richie had cleaned up; I had no idea. The officer said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” I said, “Don’t be sorry, you did the right thing.” He said, “No, I’m sorry I told on him!”
Ladue’s famous for the cute nicknames—aren’t people self-conscious about them?
No, they don’t even think about it. They just think it’s a normal thing. You learn them, and the problem is, when you are writing them a note, you want to write Bunny, Muffy, Rusty, but you have to try to remember their proper name. I think the nicknames are adorable. I think it makes Ladue Ladue. All the insiders have the nicknames.
When did you start to feel like an insider?
Well, I’m an insider-outsider. I am a journalist who also loves to play bridge, golf, and tennis; I think they’re all fascinating hobbies. And I admire all the charity work—I’ve done my share. But if I didn’t have my writing, I would feel something was missing inside of me.
Research must’ve been fun—you even found out about Peter Albert Ladue, supposedly the town’s namesake.
He was a Damon Runyon character. I found lots more about him, but some of it wasn’t printable. He did buy the land; that was a smart move. Ladue was actually named for the road to his land, not for him.
Were there moments of class tension back in the half-rural days?
Not really. They may not have married each other, but they went to the same schools, and they were welcome in each other’s houses. And the transition happened fairly quickly.
St. Louis Country Club sounds like one of the few Ladue institutions that acknowledged Prohibition.
Well, that’s in their minutes. Sounds like they tried, but it may not have worked. The funny story is the Busch’s Grove one. [A trapdoor in the ladies’ room covered a cistern filled with 20 cases of bootleg whiskey. When a waiter squealed, the owner placed $300 on the counter for the inspector, explaining he was a “collector,” then hastily divided his stock among loyal customers for safekeeping.]
Clara Bell, a belle from Kentucky said to have held the first “cocktail party,” also threw a Baby Ball where swaddled guests carried bottles filled with libations. Freud would have had a field day…
I feel like I’ve actually seen a picture of that party, but maybe I’m just imagining it! It was the party of the year. She was a master party-giver.
Is throwing parties a lost art?
Oh no, no, no. See those orchids? [She gestures to an arrangement on her counter, sent the previous week.] That’s what you got before you even went to the party. Then you had lobster for dinner. No, the art is not lost. But I do think there were more parties five or 10 years ago.
Due to the economy? You say the Depression years passed lightly over Ladue—what about today’s woes?
I think Country Day [School, now part of MICDS] went through some belt-tightening during the Depression, and houses got smaller. But it wasn’t like selling apples in the street. Unfortunately, people had blinders on, and they didn’t even understand, because they were living in these nice homes. I’m sure there were people who got crushed in the market, but these people had family money rather than a business collapse. You do hear people talking about economic problems, here and everywhere. Every time the market’s down, people lose money. But that’s not the only conversation.
It couldn’t be; money gets boring quickly.
And that’s the other thing about people in Ladue—they are great conversationalists. They’ve usually read the latest book; they’ve seen War Horse in London; they’ve been to Africa and have a safari to talk about. They’re great storytellers. It’s not gossiping; they really know the art of conversation. I’ve never heard anyone in Ladue talk about what TV shows they watch.
Residents once gave employees small houses in “Little Ladue,” off Price Road. Who lives there now?
Those houses that were the fairground, years ago—some of the crème lives there, too. People downsize when their children move away. Many of those houses are beautiful; they just don’t have as much property. I haven’t heard it called Little Ladue in a long time.
You say men would go to Busch’s Grove, then stop by Madam Mae Traynor’s brothel, where family knew to find them. Were residents really OK with this?
I guess people didn’t think that much about it. No one really tried to stop it. I couldn’t find anything about it in the newspaper.
Would the late Mayor Edith Spink have liked having her legacy marked by an “Edie’s Mulch Site” plaque?
Oh yes, I think so! She was very involved with the Ladue Garden Club and thought this would be very important for Ladue. And she deserved it. There’s a stack of papers, all the time and effort she put into that. And it’s an amazing mulch site. Nationally, it’s known as one of the better ones.
Your son, Richie Bry Jr., launched the Ladue News when he was in college—why?
He picked up a paper in L.A. and knew it would be great in Ladue. And when niche audiences became so important, we were five years ahead!
You took over the Ladue News when things at the Globe got shaky?
Richie Jr. said, “Mom, you should run this paper.” He was the only one with confidence in me!
And now your daughter’s running Town & Style, so I gather you’ve switched your allegiance?
I’m very much for family-owned enterprises. I think it’s important for the community to have people who live here and know the people.
You’ve now lived in Ladue your entire adult life. How would you characterize it?
Like Greta Garbo. People in Ladue don’t really want anything new or different. They like it the way it is.