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A Wedding in Mrs. Whaley’s Charleston Garden

By Alexandra Macon | Photography by 

Olivia Rae James

Cator Sparks, the editor in chief of, and Paul Davis Saylors, the man behind The Gentleman Gardner, met in typical southern fashion—at a cocktail party. “One of my favorite people in Charleston is Rhett Outten of the beloved local boutique jewelry store, Croghan’s Jewel Box,” says Cator. Rhett took Cator under her wing when he arrived in Charleston and promptly invited him to a party at her family home on Broad Street, the Prioleau-Miles house, to celebrate some friends of hers who had moved back from New York.

“I accepted with glee,” remembers Cator. “I biked there and entered as the party was in full swing. Lights were glowing and booze was flowing. Rhett grabbed my arm and toured me around the house introducing me to all sorts of fun people. And then, the moment I turned from inhaling a deviled egg, I saw a handsome young blond haired man in deep discussion between the parlor doors and stopped in my tracks. I was transfixed, but tried not to look too stalkerish. I moseyed closer and heard him talking about the Charleston Renaissance. Wait. He is handsome, well dressed, clearly southern, and a history buff? I had to learn more. I introduced myself to the group and can’t remember what we talked about, but I listened intently to him and everyone else faded into the walls.”

The man under observation was of course Paul, who had accompanied his friend Tom to the party that evening. “Over the years I have tagged along with Tom to quite a few events,” explains Paul. “Anyway, he called me up, and we high stepped it from his place to Broad Street. As I walked in, I heard a burst of laughter in one of the parlors and thought to myself: I’ve never heard that laugh at a party before, who is that? I was chatting with local historian Harlan Greene about Porgy and Bess, Catfish Row, and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner when I noticed the same guy peering in and listening to our conversation. Then, he jumped in to say a few words. He was very dapper. I thought to myself: ‘Well-groomed. Nice shoes. Who is this?’ Then, he laughed. Sold!”

When it was time to say goodbye, Cator bid Paul farewell, wandered out to his bike, and peddled off in a fog of excitement and Champagne. “I didn’t get his number, but I hoped we’d see each other again,” he remembers. “The next morning while walking my dog Fergus I received a Facebook message.”

Cator wasted no time in responding and quickly invited Paul to his house for cocktails that evening. The date went off without a hitch—the two had endless things in common and cleared a bottle or two just getting to know each other. “The night turned into the weekend, which turned into weeks on end, and here we are today,” says Cator. “Thank you Rhett!”

Cator wanted to propose to Paul early on in their relationship. “I wrote out our wedding guest list after our first weekend together,” he jokes. “But of course, I knew I had to wait. After we’d been together for about a year and a half and moved in together, people started asking if marriage was the next step.”

Their relationship turned a corner after Cator had an operation to fix his deviated septum. He woke up from surgery to find Paul at the foot of his bed, calm and smiling. “I started crying and kept crying most of the evening and night,” admits Cator. “Partly because of the excruciating pain but also because of his attention to me—he was incredibly loving and nurturing. All weekend I just thought about going to Croghan’s, to find the perfect ring. It gave me something to look forward to.”

After walking Fergus in White Point Gardens on Monday morning, Cator set out for King Street and Croghan’s. “I could barely talk from the surgery, but I asked Kathleen if I could dig around in the vintage jewelry cabinet,” says Cator. She opened it up and let him loose.

“I happened upon a Carnelian ring engraved with a young Spartan gazing back over his shield. Paul and I love classical design, and Carnelian is one of my favorite stones. I pulled it out and slipped it on. The perfect fit. I couldn’t believe it. Paul and I have same ring size, so I took a picture of it and strolled out with Fergus in tow—my mind jumbled with thoughts and excitement.”

Once he got home, Cator emailed Rhett to fill her in on what he’d found. She called as soon as she received the message saying, “I know you can’t talk because of your surgery, but I will do all of the talking!” She confirmed that the ring Cator had selected was the right choice. “We talked about engraving, and she cooed about how happy she was for both of us,” says Cator. “It was very special. She later texted me a photo of the ring in a dark green leather box. She explained that it was one that her precious late mother, Mary Ramsey, bought in England and that she only had a few left for special clients. Her mother is an icon in Charleston and for Paul and me to have something from Mrs. Ramsey took the specialness to another level.”

Cator decided to propose on the weekend he and Paul’s parents were set to meet. “I decided on Saturday night, the last night of the weekend together. I would invite some close friends over to meet the parents and do the deed,” says Cator. “I asked Rhett to engrave the date on the inside of the ring.”

That morning, Paul was at work in a garden, and his parents were running around town, so Cator took his mom to Croghan’s to have some of her jewelry fixed. Rhett invited Cator’s mother upstairs to see the rest of the Croghan’s event space, and while there, she opened a bottle of Champagne. Once they were all seated and toasting, Cator pulled out the ring and showed it to his mom. “I teared up telling her the news,” he remembers. “It was such a special time with two women who mean a great deal to me.”

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur for Cator as he prepared for the party. “Paul got home, people arrived, I poured too many cups of punch for myself and when the last guest had darkened the door, I rang a bell and silenced the crowd,” he remembers. “I’ll never forget what I said, possibly because I had rehearsed it so much in my mind . . .

“ . . . I just want to thank everyone for coming over tonight to meet our parents. It has been a successful weekend, and it goes to show Republicans and Democrats can get along! They could show Washington a thing or two. Let’s raise a glass to our parents. And there is one more thing I want to say, Paul Davis Saylors, I’ve been looking for you for a long time. I never thought I would meet someone who loved old houses, old books, and old people as much as I do. Will you marry me?”

Paul had his hand out, finger extended, before Cator even got on my knee. “I never heard a ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” jokes Cator. “So I said, ‘I assume this is a yes?’ ” Paul deadpanned, “Well, duh!” With that, the crowd went wild. People crying, laughing, and hugging. “It was awesome, it was perfect, it was so special,” says Cator. “Our friend Leigh Magar ran out to her car and got her tambourine, and we all did a happy dance in the garden as the sun set.”

Charleston is a busy town, and Cator and Paul took the city’s calendar into account when planning their wedding. “We wanted it to be after graduation at the College of Charleston but before The Spoleto Festival,” says Cator.

As head horticulturist at Mrs. Whaley’s Garden in the heart of downtown Charleston Paul hoped it was somewhere he and Cator might be able to get married. “The day after I proposed, Paul went to work and told the garden’s owners the good news,” says Cator. “He heard Charles, one of the home owners, shouting from down the hall, ‘They should get married in the garden!’ While it was something we had wondered about, this made us think it really might be a possibility. So, we brought lunch to Charles and his wife Marty and formally asked them if we could indeed use the garden for the ceremony. It was a magical meeting where we all discussed openly the meaning of love and marriage, and thankfully they were delighted to host.”

Cator proposed on April 11th, and by April 13th he was on a plane, headed out of town for two weeks of work on the West Coast. “Paul met up with me in Los Angeles, and we sallied up to the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel for martinis one evening,” says Cator. “It was there in the fog of Plymouth gin and the pianists delightful tunes that I suggested we have our suits made by my old friend Alex Wilcox and his witty and wonderful wife Betty, who own Lord Willy’s.”

The couple went for their first fitting in January, had the second one in March, and then the suits were shipped to them in May. “They are things of beauty!” says Cator. Paul’s is a three-piece French blue light wool with grosgrain trim around the blazer, while Cator’s is a three-piece navy suit with a light blue windowpane check.

Cator and Paul always felt pretty confident that it wouldn’t rain on their wedding day. “So needless to say, we were pleased when it didn’t,” laughs Cator. “Our amazing friend and photographer Oliva Rae James drove us to the house several hours before the ceremony so we could take family photos and relax. It was so surreal gazing out the French doors that overlook the garden and watching all of our friends and family come in. We had our two Scottish Terriers, Fergus and Gareth (we rescued Gareth together to give Fergus a partner too!), with us, and they knew something was up. At 5:30 p.m. sharp, Miss Lynette of the Plantation Singers started singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ and we opened the side door, headed down to the garden with Fergus and Gareth trailing behind, and people parted. We made it up to the altar where our Reverend and friend John Zahl was waiting for us. We kept it short but meaningful. We both wrote our own vows and ended up each quoting Paul’s favorite poem, W.H. Auden’s ‘Stop all the Clocks.’ It’s meant for funerals, but it has a greater meaning for us.” Marty, whose mother created the garden, recited one of her favorite parts of her mother’s book, Mrs. Whaley and her Charleston Garden.

After the couple kissed, the newlyweds walked back down the aisle and out to Church Street while the Plantation singers sang “Oh Happy Day.” There, they waited for the rest of their guests to walk up to Society Hall to “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Cocktail hour commenced with passed tomato pie tartlet, duck confit canapé, mini caprese stack, Bloody Mary shrimp pipettes, and smoked BBQ pork hors d’oeuvres from Salt House Catering. There was a large table of southern antipasto set up for the duration and then stations of shrimp and grits, short ribs, and mac and cheese opened up. There were a variety of small and large cakes for dessert, all from Sugar Bake Shop.

After dinner, Tay McNabb, better known as Party Dad, DJed and had everyone on the dance floor. The highlight being his ode to Prince, and then fifteen tambourines we brought out for the crowd. The evening ended with a Second Line band. “They tooted us out the door and to a pedi-cab,” says Cator. “We were whisked away to The Restoration Hotel. Our friend Cory is the Creative Director there, and he made sure we had a part of the rooftop sectioned off for our guests with several bottles of bubbles. While it was totally delightful, we were famished and worn out so we were there for about an hour before we high tailed it home to get ready for the Sunday brunch chez nous.”