Pat Conroy’s Lowcountry
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I was always your best subject, son. Your career took a nose dive after The Great Santini came out.
Colonel Donald Conroy to his son Pat
Though born in Georgia, no other person is as closely associated with the South Carolina Lowcountry as author Pat Conroy. After moving around as a child in a military family, he began high school in Beaufort.
His painful teen years there formed the basis of his first novel, a brutal portrait of his domineering Marine pilot father, Colonel Donald Conroy, a.k.a., Colonel Bull Meecham of The Great Santini (1976). Many scenes from the 1979 film adaptation were filmed at the famous “Tidalholm,” or Edgar Fripp House (1 Laurens St.) in Beaufort. (The house was also front and center in The Big Chill.)
Conroy’s pattern of thinly veiled autobiography actually began with his first book, the self-published The Boo, a tribute to a teacher at The Citadel in Charleston while Conroy was still a student there.
His second work, The Water is Wide (1972), is a chronicle of his experiences teaching in a one-room African American school on Daufuskie Island. Though ostensibly a straightforward, first-person journalistic effort, Conroy changed the location to the fictional Yamacraw Island, supposedly to protect its fragile culture from curious outsiders.
The 1974 film adaptation starring Jon Voight was titled Conrack after the way his students mispronounced his name. You can visit that same two-room school today on Daufuskie. Known as the Mary Field School, the building is now a local community center.
Conroy also wrote the forward to the cookbook Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way: Smokin’ Joe Butter Beans, Ol’ ’Fuskie Fried Crab Rice, Sticky-Bush Blackberry Dumpling, and Other Sea Island Favorites, by Daufuskie native and current Savannah resident Sallie Ann Robinson.
Conroy would go on in 1980 to publish The Lords of Discipline, a reading of his real-life experience with the often-savage environment faced by cadets at [node"56010 link The Citadel] — though Conroy would change the name, calling it the Carolina Military Institute. Still, when it came time to make a film adaptation in 1983, The Citadel refused to allow it to be shot there. So the “Carolina Military Institute” was filmed in England instead!
For many of his fans, Conroy’s The Prince of Tides is his ultimate homage to the Lowcountry. Surely, the 1991 film version starring Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte — shot on location and awash in gorgeous shots of the Beaufort River marsh — did much to implant an idyllic image of the area to audiences around the world. According to local legend, Streisand originally didn’t intend to make the film in Beaufort, but a behind-the-scenes lobbying effort allegedly coordinated by Conroy himself, and including a stay at the Rhett House Inn, convinced her.
The Bay Street Inn (601 Bay St.) in Beaufort was seen in the film, as was the football field at the old Beaufort High School. The beach scenes were shot on nearby Fripp Island. Interestingly, some scenes set in a Manhattan apartment were actually shot within the old Beaufort Arsenal (713 Craven St.), now a museum. Similarly, the Beaufort Naval Hospital doubled as New York’s Bellevue.
Despite the many personal tribulations he faced in the area, Conroy has never given up on the Lowcountry and still makes his home there with his family on Fripp Island. As for the “Great Santini” himself, you can visit the final resting place of Colonel Conroy in the Beaufort National Cemetery — Section 62, Grave 182.
© Jim Morekis from Moon South Carolina, 4th Edition