The Magazine

Bill Frist's New South

The revenge of the patricians.

Jan 27, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 19 • By DAVID BROOKS
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Yards like these require boulevard-sized driveways. It's not even fair to call them driveways. They have so many graceful curves, guest parking areas, and scenic view pullouts near the topiary highlights it's more accurate to call them Multi-Time-Zone Lexus Glideways. You expect to see signs halfway up--"Last Gas Station Before House"--and of course few of these autoroutes are made from a surface as mundane as blacktop. Instead the residents of Belle Meade seem to prefer cobblestones or a mahogany-colored gravel that looks like it's been individually chiseled and distressed by ancient Burmese craftsmen. If Corian made driveways, the Belle Meaders would lap them up and it would look as if they had turnpike-width kitchen counters stretching up through their front gates.

Not all that long ago, the old-money residents of Belle Meade dominated Nashville. Their institutions--the Belle Meade Country Club, the annual Swan Ball, the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust--were the city's power centers. From the 1960s through the early 1980s, a secret society called Watauga made many of the important decisions about city life. As it's since been described by Nashville journalist Bruce Dobie, Watauga comprised the CEOs of the town's banks and businesses, and a few selected others such as Jack Massey who built Kentucky Fried Chicken and then, with Bill's older brother Tommy, built the Hospital Corporation of America. They recruited mayoral candidates, gave them money, and organized the business community's efforts to recruit companies to the city and shape growth.

In most northern cities, the WASP aristocracy, if it exists, is basically irrelevant. New York and Philadelphia are no longer dominated by Episcopalian blue bloods with honking accents. But in Nashville the old Belle Meade elite is diminished but still cohesive and important. It is diminished because the old financial institutions have been bought up by national firms. Now health care is the booming sector in Nashville's economy, along with private prisons and music. No group like Watauga exists, nor could it.

But Bill Frist's neighborhood is not all that different from when he grew up there. The Belle Meade Country Club still has so many elitist connotations that politicians are wise to resign their memberships before running for office. The Swan Ball is still the highlight of the social season; even meetings to plan the event are listed in the local paper. Both of Tennessee's senators attend the neighborhood Presbyterian church. There's a local society magazine, NFocus, which every month carries party photos of members of the same families--Ingrams, Armisteads, and so on--at white tie galas and deb balls.

There is also still the community service ethos. What litigators are to billable hours, Belle Meade women are to charity. Every night, it seems, there is a profusion of charity balls, events, and fundraisers. There are events for AIDS sufferers, the homeless, ill children, and arts organizations beyond counting, which send great billowing gusts of noblesse oblige blowing through ballrooms, country clubs, and hotel conference rooms, leaving behind six-figure drifts.

Many mothers need to hire full-time nannies so as to free their hours for planning these events. Local school children collect pennies to give to the poor. As soon as Bill Frist's brother Tommy made the family fortune with HCA, he built a wildly successful arts center downtown. Nor does the neighborhood neglect political giving. Over the past two elections, more money has been donated to campaigns in Belle Meade and its adjoining zip code than in any other area of the country.

Most impressively, young Belle Meaders are still raised to be ladies and gentlemen--in this part of the country, the word gentleman still has a distinct meaning and is used unironically. The Frist family is not old money. Senator Frist's father, Thomas Frist Sr., came to Nashville as a good old-fashioned country doctor. He soon became doctor to the governors and the Belle Meade elite, while remaining a traveling doctor for the rural poor. In 1997, when he was 89 and approaching death, he wrote a letter to his great-grandchildren summarizing his philosophy of life. It's a straightforward, simple creed that captures the character-building ethos of the area: