Patricia Altschul, 78, Is the Dowager Countess of ‘Southern Charm’

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CreditHunter McRae for The New York Times

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The first glimpse viewers had of Patricia Altschul on “Southern Charm,” a Bravo reality show about the lives of the rich and reckless in Charleston, was consistent with all of her future on-screen appearances.

A martini glass in her hand, and hair arranged in what her friend André Leon Talley describes as “Veronica Lake-style coiffure,” Mrs. Altschul enters her son’s bedroom to complain about his guitar-playing.

“My head is vibrating,” Mrs. Altschul says. “I could feel it in my teeth.”

“It’s rock n’ roll, Mom,” responds Whitney Sudler-Smith, her 40-something-year-old offspring and the creator and executive producer of the show. Mrs. Altschul goes on to express her distaste at the “trail of women” Mr. Sudler-Smith brings through her house, a historic property in downtown Charleston that she bought for $ 4.8 million in 2008. Mr. Sudler-Smith offers a solution: “a stabbin’ cabin” in town.

“Is that, like, gangster talk or something?” Mrs. Altschul asks.

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Since “Southern Charm” premiered in 2014, Mrs. Altschul, 78, has emerged as a tart-tongued matriarch doing the work of a Greek chorus for a cast in which half the members can barely figure out how to get out of bed before noon (and once there, how to proceed without a beer).

“It’s been like learning a new language,” Mrs. Altschul said of her interactions with other members of the ensemble, most of whom are several decades younger than she is.

She was seated on a couch in her mansion wearing a breezy pink caftan decorated with flamingos and fringe, a piece from her upcoming ready-to-wear line. Mrs. Altschul has also capitalized on her sudden fame by writing a memoir-slash-advice-guide called “The Art of Southern Charm” and creating a company that prints images of pets onto caftans, blankets, pillow cases, pajamas, yoga mats and towels.

Nearby, Michael Kelcourse, 65, Mrs. Altschul’s butler of 15 years and a scene stealer on the show, hovered with a tray of still and sparkling waters. Mrs. Altschul hired Mr. Kelcourse soon after his previous employer died in 2004. Worried that someone else would get to him first, she dropped decorum and called immediately.

“I don’t think she’d even been buried yet, had she?” Mrs. Altschul said.

“Or cremated,” Mr. Kelcourse corrected.

“Her body wasn’t cold,” Mrs. Altschul said. “Best decision I ever made.”

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CreditHunter McRae for The New York Times

Reflecting on new concepts that “Southern Charm” has exposed her to, Mrs. Altschul described a recent episode of the show, in which several of the women explained to her a rhyming expression that refers to photos of male genitalia that often arrive unsolicited via dating apps or Instagram.

“As it turned out, I was the only one getting them out of the group,” Mrs. Altschul said. “I was impressed, too, when I heard they didn’t get any. They said, ‘Are they old men?’ And I said, ‘No, some of them are, like, 19 years old.’”

Before “Southern Charm” premiered, Mrs. Altschul was a known name in society circles in New York and Washington D.C. She taught art history at George Washington University in the ’60s and ’70s and was a private dealer of late 19th-century American art in the ’80s.

Mrs. Altschul married her first husband, Lon Smith, when she was 20 years old. Mr. Smith is Whitney’s father. Her second husband was Edward Stitt Fleming, the founder of the Psychiatric Institutes of America, with whom Mrs. Altschul spent a year and a half traveling on a yacht. She disembarked from the yacht and the marriage around the same time.

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Mrs. Altschul moved to New York in the late ’90s after marrying her third husband, Arthur Altschul. Mr. Altschul, who died in 2002, was an investment banker, art collector and philanthropist. Whether a fourth husband is on the horizon is unclear. “I don’t know if I’m ready to settle down just yet,” Mrs. Altschul said.

In New York, the Altschuls had lived in Southerly, an eight-bedroom mansion on Long Island with rose gardens, a swimming pool and a servants’ wing, and an apartment on Fifth Avenue that overlooked the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mrs. Altschul appeared regularly in society stories in publications like W Magazine, Vogue and The New York Sun, and in Bill Cunningham’s columns.

Mr. Talley, a contributing editor to Vogue, recalled riding together to the Met Gala in 2005. “Pat wore a vintage Chanel, strapless couture dress, with a skirt so wide, when we got in the sedan car, she couldn’t see over her skirt,” Mr. Talley wrote in an email. “The dress had a crinoline, well crinolines. I suppose the skirt suggested to her something very Scarlett O’Hara.” Mr. Talley wrote that he thinks Mrs. Altschul sees something of herself in the “Gone With the Wind” heroine.

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Certainly, she has always been proud of her Southern roots.

Fifteen years ago, Mrs. Altschul hired a genealogist to help trace her family tree. In her office hang certificates of membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group that works to preserve Confederate history and to honor Confederate soldiers, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, a group for descendants of Revolutionary War soldiers. Across the hall, amid a dozen or so family photos is one of her grandfather, who was a brigadier general in the Confederate Army.

After showing a photo of her mother, Mrs. Altschul said that she didn’t know until she was 40 that her mother had been divorced before meeting her father, a surgeon and diplomat. “It was a big reveal,” she said. “But my father’s family was much more upset about the fact that she was a Yankee than a divorcée.”

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CreditHunter McRae for The New York Times
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CreditHunter McRae for The New York Times

Mrs. Altschul does not know much about her mother’s first husband. Her mother told Mrs. Altschul that she left him after four months. “He was controlling, and she told me that he raised his voice to her,” she said. “That was it. Out the door. I tell these young girls who put up with stuff: My mother always said to me, ‘This man raised his voice to me and that was it.’”

When dating men, she said, women should worry less about how they appear and more about the person across from them. “He should be proving himself to her,” she said. “Her main concern should be, ‘Is he good enough for me?’”

Some of Mrs. Altschul’s points of view may seem out of touch, especially when she uses terms like “shameless strumpet” or “whore of Babylon.” But her commentary can also be incisive and funny, sparking roundups of her zingers across the internet.

“Her sense of humor can be somewhat cutting,” said Georgette Mosbacher, the ambassador to Poland and a friend of Mrs. Altschul’s, in a phone call from her residence in Warsaw. “That’s part of her charm, too.”

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CreditHunter McRae for The New York Times

During a three-course lunch of she-crab soup, cheese souffles and éclairs at her house, Mrs. Altschul elaborated on her dinner menus and eating habits.

“For sophisticated New Yorkers, I give them fried chicken, collard greens, all the Southern stuff,” she said. “When Whitney is in town, there’s a vegetarian chef who makes all kinds of strange things that taste good.” Mrs. Altschul said she tried being a vegetarian and lasted a week. What broke her? “Bacon,” she said.

In a 2001 New York Times article about one of Mrs. Altschul’s Christmas celebrations, one partygoer observed that though guests wore couture, the snacks of choice were more easygoing: pigs in blankets and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

“She’s not one to live a very structured life,” Ms. Mosbacher said. “It may look like that, but that’s not who she is.”

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CreditHunter McRae for The New York Times
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CreditHunter McRae for The New York Times

There is also a sense, whether real or manufactured by the show’s producers, that Mrs. Altschul is able to evolve her views. In early seasons of the show, she positioned herself on the side of Thomas Ravenel, a former state treasurer for South Carolina who was charged with cocaine distribution and was sentenced to 10 months in jail several years before the show filmed, and who fathered two children with another “Southern Charm” cast member, Kathryn Dennis. Mrs. Altschul expressed her strong dislike of Ms. Dennis and once said of Mr. Ravenel: “He has more than paid for it.”

Later on, when most of the cast began to take Ms. Dennis’s side over Mr. Ravenel’s, Mrs. Altschul did, too. Known for throwing dinner parties just for men (to avoid drama, she said) Mrs. Altschul hosted a gathering of women this season. “It’s the #MeToo movement,” she explained on camera. “I should get with the program. I’m going to have a girls’ dinner.”

Last year, multiple women accused Mr. Ravenel of sexual assault, and he was arrested on suspicion of assault and battery in the second degree. Ms. Dennis has since filed a petition in court to modify her custody arrangement with Mr. Ravenel. The day before Mrs. Altschul sat for this interview, she had spent hours in a court deposition for the case, something she noted several times, with hints of restrained exasperation. Asked to elaborate, Mrs. Altschul said, “Legally, I can’t make a comment because this is ongoing. My hands are tied.” She added: “I’d like to say a lot.”

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