Designing Some Sassy Women

Editor’s Note: Celebrity Death Watch is not a real game. It is not designed for wagering, competing or high-fiving. And in all honesty, it isn’t “fun.” It is simply a method of providing us a sideways look at national and international news and gives us, the participants, reason and incentive to research and remember those notables who pass and either to prove/disprove the “theory of three.” Without it, we wouldn’t be as versed in current events as we are. So get off your high horse, and don’t judge.


Sometimes participants in Celebrity Death Watch step back and say, “We can’t count this one.” Our reasons range from “I’ve never heard of him,” to “I thought we stopped counting inventors/reality TV stars/parents of sports figures/whatever.”

And rarely — very rarely — we choose not to count someone because the celebrity deserves to stand alone and not be just a number in a series of three (because there’s always three). I don’t care what you say, but Dixie Carter is a stand-alone. When I read about her death Saturday, I walked into the kitchen and announced to anyone who would listen, “Well, Dixie Carter died,” and I walked out. She was not to be grouped with the Polish president or the Munchkin coroner from Wizard of Oz. It was not up for debate.

How could you not love this show? It was all shoulder pads, hair, jewelry and sass. Julia was the type of character who could wear a red suit and not look like the side of a barn.

Blame it on geography.

Any woman with even a little bit of South in her wanted to be Julia Sugarbaker, even if for just a moment — particularly if that moment involved telling someone off with a clever one-liner that rendered the other party completely speechless. The applause from a live studio audience was a nice touch, too. Julia Sugarbaker was unabashedly Southern and feminine without being . . . crazy.

Designing Women ended in 1993, sharing Monday nights with Murphy Brown. It was among the shows (like the much-too-short-lived Evening Shade) we still refer to around here as “created by those friends of Bill Clinton.” Say what you want, but this little slice of television history was chock full of good programming–the sort of TV where dialogue was crafted and scripts were written and nobody gave a rip about reality. The women were sassy, the story lines were simple yet clever, and I didn’t yet have any kids to tell, “Can you kids pipe down and go to bed?! Mama wants to watch some TV!”

And at the heart of this era of television magic was Julia Sugarbaker. She would say things like, “Have you all just COMPLETELY lost your minds?” with perfect timing and sincerity. She could tell off a politician or chauvinist with an eloquent roll of biting verbiage, always while wearing a strand of pearls and sporting the stature of a Marine sergeant. She could even tell off her closest friends (she once called Charlene a “big ol’ donkey Girl Scout,” which remains one of my favorite quotes) without hurting her feelings. She had the ability to walk into a room and sort of . . . scare everyone. Not like in a frightening sort of scare, but an intimidating sort of scare that put everyone on notice, that she was not stupid and that she was watching and listening and taking notes and was fully prepared to call you out. I liked that.

I realize that Dixie Carter and Julia Sugarbaker were not the same person, but I also believe that Dixie Carter didn’t have to do a lot of acting on the Designing Women set. It was all too natural.

A few years ago, she appeared on the Salvation Army commercials that aired in the dead of night. As she described her dad’s service in the Army during World War II, you wanted to hit the arm of the chair and say, “Well, that’s IT. Not only am I going to acquire a charitable gift annuity to support the Salvation Army, I am going to feed steaming hot coffee and donuts to soldiers. Because Dixie Carter said I should. And it’s the right thing to do.”

From The New York Times:

Although Ms. Carter long ago moved to California for her television career, she and Mr. Holbrook also kept a home in McLemoresville (Tennessee). In 1999, she told The Palm Beach Post that she treasured the courtesy and kindness she found in Tennessee, a welcome contrast to the backstabbing and sniping of Hollywood.

“Of course in the South we talk about people, too,” she said. “But if you end your comments with ‘Bless her heart,’ you’re off the hook.”