AT HOME WITH REESE WITHERSPOON:
inside her private world
She’s an award-winning actress, an acclaimed producer and an entrepreneur, but at her roots Reese Witherspoon remains a proud Southern Belle. In this exclusive extract from her book Whiskey in a Teacup she talks love, life and why she’ll never wear sweatpants on a plane.
In my late 20s, I found myself facing some hard choices. I’d enjoyed a great deal of success in movies, but personally, I was at a crossroads. I didn’t know where I was going to nd the strength to pick a path. One particularly rough day, I found myself looking out at a room full of men who were asking me about a decision that needed to be made. One of them said: “How do you want to handle this?” I paused to think. Then suddenly a light went on. I sat up straight, lifted my chin, and said, “Well, I’m a lady, and I’m going to handle it like a lady.” Where did that voice come from? I wondered.
I’d never said those words out loud before. (Men in that room told me they’d never heard anyone say them before, either!) But in my voice that day, I heard all the women I knew growing up in the south – women for whom being a southern lady was a source of con dence and strength in times of trial and a source of joy in good times.
On that day, I especially heard the voice of my grandmother Dorothea. Dorothea was smart, ambitious and brave. She had a degree in education from Tennessee Tech and a master’s from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, one of the rst such degrees ever earned there by a woman. A rm believer in women’s rights and civil rights,
Dorothea had a brilliant academic mind and she dreamed of travelling the world. But because of the times, she found her choices limited and ended up becoming a rst-grade teacher at a local school. She never did get to see the world as she’d hoped.
Still, she maintained exquisite poise throughout her life, opposed injustice wherever she found it, and commanded everyone’s esteem and attention – especially mine. She was at once tough and beautiful. She could make you feel in nitely welcome but also let you know when you’d pushed her too far. She was impeccably mannered, but she loved to see a whole mess of neighbours, their kids and random pets tearing across the lawn. To me, she was the epitome of southern womanhood.
Dorothea always said that it was a combination of beauty and strength that made southern women “whiskey in a teacup”. We may be delicate and ornamental on the outside, she said, but inside we’re strong and ery. Our famous hospitality isn’t martyrdom; it’s modelling. True southern women treat everyone the way we want to be treated: with grace and respect – no matter where they come from or how different from you they may be. Dorothea taught me to never abide cruelty or injustice. The Golden Rule, she said, applies to everyone.
When I was a little girl in pigtails and Coke-bottle glasses, listening to Dolly Parton cassette tapes and watching 90210 and Designing Women, I imagined that when I one day left the South, I would see the world and do important things.
When I told a teacher that I aspired to be the rst woman president, she said, “I’ll be the rst one to vote for you, Reesey!”
Well, I didn’t become president
(nor, alas, did I achieve another early goal: marrying Willie Nelson), but
I did become president of a production company that makes movies and TV shows with strong female characters. And I have travelled all around the world, to places I never dreamed I’d go. In a lot of ways, I’m living out my grandmother’s dreams. She couldn’t do so many of the things I get to do, so I don’t take these opportunities for granted for one second. And I do everything I can to make sure those opportunities and more are there for my daughter and for other young women.
Hot roller s, re d lipstick an d st eel magnolias
Like a lot of women in the South,
I love dressing up. I launched my clothing company, Draper James, because no one else seemed to be making the sorts of affordable, simple, pretty dresses I like to wear day to day. Also, I didn’t really see anybody talking much about southern women or appreciating their sense of style.
That said, if you went back to my elementary-school class and told them I’d become involved in the fashion world in any way, shape, or form, they’d laugh you out of the room. I discovered fashion late. When I was growing up, my mum was a nurse and had neither the time nor the temperament for fashion. And I think she liked seeing me have the freedom to run wild outside with the boys.
That meant that I grew up as a tomboy, wearing my brother’s hand-me-down shirts and tube socks. I was not exactly fashion-forward.
Well, my grandma Dorothea had something to say about that. Day to day, my mother’s nonchalance reigned, but twice a year, my grandmother would step in and take me shopping
at the fancy, family-owned department stores down on Fourth Avenue in Nashville. We would make a day of it, and she would let me pick out three out ts, including a “Christmas dress” and a “spring dress”, often in dainty prints and pastels, with puffed sleeves and smocking. (It would always look great with the orchid or gardenia corsages my dad would get for me, my mum and my grandmother to wear for Mother’s Day and to Easter parties.) We also bought matching saddle shoes or Mary Janes.
Shopping with Dorothea was a thrill. I came away with perfect, elegant new clothes, and the stores were such a pleasure to shop in. In the weeks leading up to Easter, one department store, called McClure’s, displayed real live bunny rabbits you could pet. During Christmas, it had a model train and served spiced tea and hot chocolate. But I loved those shopping trips most of all because they meant time learning from Dorothea.
Dorothea said that presenting yourself well is a way to show others you care about them. My grandmother did the work of teaching me about clothes and taking me shopping, so she expected me to be dressed appropriately when we went out to see a show. And if you’re a little girl going to The Nutcracker or the symphony with your grandmother, you’d best put on some white tights and white Mary Janes. To this day, I have the voice of my grandma in my head. If I’m going to the theatre and am tempted to wear jeans, there she is, saying, “But it’s the theatre.” And I change.
Poor Dorothea would not be happy to see how many people travel in athleticwear these days. “You don’t wear sweatpants on an aeroplane,” she used to say. “It’s a privilege to y. Make sure you wear a nice out t.” I guess she is why I have a real mental block about wearing workout wear all day long. I just don’t do it. I think you gotta get up, you gotta work out and then you gotta get dressed in a real, proper out t by 10 o’clock in the morning.
I would never judge anyone for doing otherwise. But if I did it myself, I just know my grandmother would haunt me with that line she always said, “Only wear sweatpants when you’re supposed to be sweating.”
The family ta ble
These days, I feel as though I can barely sit still for 10 minutes without getting antsy. A lot of friends my age have the same issue: we’re always looking at our watches halfway through a play or staring impatiently at the clock when we’re waiting in line at the bank.
What’s going on with us? I used to be able to wait, or make it through a whole movie without wanting to check my phone or run around the block. For a while, I thought I was just getting older and battier, but now I think it’s due to some combination of our faster pace of life, the onslaught of technology, and the feeling that there’s so much to do that there’s no time to waste.
Family dinner is my only salvation from this af iction. We put all the devices away. I put some hot food on the table. We say grace. It’s really important to me for us to appreciate that we have very blessed lives and should be grateful every second of the day for all of our blessings. Grace is a time to raise the kids’ awareness that we must take care of others who are not as fortunate and to remind them to think of the big picture. For as long as we’re at the table, the rest of the world melts away. My kids love it when I make simple one-pot meals such as chilli or pot roast. Or noodles with ground turkey and vegetables. Sometimes I’ll go all out and do fried chicken and sides.
After saying grace, as we eat, we’ll each talk about our day’s highlights. It’s our little ve-year-old, Tennessee’s, favourite thing to do. Some people I know call this dinner game “Roses and Thorns”: you have to say the best thing (the rose) of your day and the worst thing (the thorn). It’s a good way to get out of the “How was school?” “Fine” rut.
Also over dinner, we might play a guessing game where one of us thinks of an animal and the others have to ask questions about where it lives. It’s a really good game with little kids. And they get excited because it feels very grown-up and sophisticated to be playing a game with people of all ages. Each person can ask only one question about the animal to try to gure it out. My middle child thinks of things that are so hard that nobody can guess them. But it’s really sweet to see the ve-year-old trying to gure it out, so serious: “Is it … an elephant? Is it … a kitten?”
Deacon: “Close. It’s a North American marmot.”
When Jim and the kids and I are sitting there eating and laughing, I often ash back to family meals with my grandparents, which we’d often eat out on the screened-in porch, complete with soundtrack of the screen door’s spring stretching followed by the whapping sound the door made as it slammed. Adults would sip drinks on the porch before dinner and watch the sun go down as the kids played outside, lling jars with re ies. I like to think my kids will look back on our dinners this way, how we talked and laughed together over plates of good, lling food – but even more ful lling conversation.
My grandparents loved our stories, hanging on every word and detail. We felt appreciated and important, as though our opinions mattered. My mother laughed loudest at all my jokes – so I always blame her for making me become an actor.
She egged me on, which made me feel even bolder. Her laugh gave me courage. She has the best laugh in the world.
Whisky in a Teacup by Reese Witherspoon, published by Simon & Schuster, RRP $45, available from October 1, 2018.
Reese credits her grandmother Dorothea (above) with instilling many of her most enduring life lessons.