Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Ball

Looking south along Fifth Avenue. 8:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Late Wednesday night in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, 27 young women of distinction from the United States and abroad made their bow to society at the 56th annual International Debutante Ball. The young women represented England, Sweden and ten American states. Due to canceled flights Scotland, France and San Antonio, Texas, could not attend.

The Ball was founded in 1954 as a charity by Beatrice Dinsmore Joyce, a New York socialite who loved planning parties and pageants. Miss Joyce had been inspired by “The Glitter and the Gold,” the autobiography published that year by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, the former Duchess of Marlborough, whose own mother brought her out in Europe so that she would meet and marry a prince or titled aristocrat. Which is exactly what happened.

In her book, Madame Balsan wrote about her own coming out in 1894 which took place in London and required much travel (by steamship) from New York to London, then to Paris (for another ball), then back to London, and then to New York. It was an exhausting experience that lasted many weeks. By the mid-1950s travel and access had grown much simpler and Miss Joyce realized it was feasible to have a debutante ball with an international cast in New York in one night’s event.
The first ball was held that same year and soon became an annual event that is a highlight of the winter social season. 56years later, hundreds of young women from all over the United States and Europe have been presented at the Ball, including both daughters of President Nixon, Julie and Tricia, as well as grand-daughters of President Eisenhower (Barbara Eisenhower made her debut the same year as her future sister-in-law Julie Nixon), as well as the 18-year-old Vera Wang, Jackie Astor, a great-granddaughter of the Mrs. Astor; Marion Louise Hosford, the daughter of MaryLou (Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt) Whitney and Madeline Cerise Cuomo, daughter of New York’s governor at the time, Mario Cuomo, and sister of our new governor, Andrew Cuomo.

Traditionally each debutante is presented to the ball accompanied by two escorts – a young man in white tie and an assigned member from either the Navy, the Coast Guard, the Air Force or West Point Military Academy, who carries the flag of the country or state the debutante represents.
From the beginning, the colors pink -- for femininity, and silver -- for elegance, have been the décor, and -- from the first -- music has been provided by Lester Lanin and his orchestra playing appropriate tunes for each debutante as she is introduced to hundreds of guests who contribute to the Ball’s beneficiaries. This year, the girl from California was introduced to the strains of The Beachboys’ “California Girl,” where the girl from Connecticut made her bow while the orchestra played “Yankee Doodle.”

The International Debutante Ball Foundation was created to stage the ball and to raise funds for charity. Today the Foundation supports numerous charities including The Soldiers’, Sailors’, Marines', Coast Guard and Airmen’s Club, which benefited from this year’s affair. The Club is a home away from home for the military and their families. Its mission is to promote the general welfare of Servicemen and Servicewomen (and their families) of the US and its allies and to maintain clubhouses and other facilities for their use. The club also serves the NYPD, the NYFD and E.M.S. personnel.
Among this year’s Debutantes were: Representing England -- Talitha Piggott, whose great-great grandfather, Sir Francis Taylor Piggott, was Chief Justice of Hong Kong and Mauritius. Miss Piggott’s great-grandfather, Francis Gilderoy Piggott D.S.O., was Special Advisor to Japanese Emperor Hirohito. Miss Piggott’s grandfather, General Francis Claude Piggott D.S.O., was Director of British Military Intelligence.

Representing Florida -- Gabriella Arrien, a great granddaughter of Prime Minister Dr. Julio A. Guitiérrez and a granddaughter of Prime Minister and Acting President Dr. Mario R. Guitiérrez of Bolivia. Representing Arkansas -- Olivia Laine Tyson, granddaughter of Donald J. Tyson, Chairman Emeritus of Tyson Foods Inc. Representing New York was Hadley Marie Nagel, a student at Johns Hopkins University and Hodson Trust Scholar.  Miss Nagel has been called the “Youngest Lobbyist on Capital Hill” for her crusade for, and founding of Americans for Madison, an organization urging Congress to pass a bill calling for the federal government to fund a monument in James Madison’s honor.  Also representing New York -- Grace Elisabeth Quick, whose father, Mr. Peter Quick, is former President of the American Stock Exchange. Representing Connecticut, Katherine Anne Bontecou DuVal, granddaughter of the late Virginia Senator Clive DuVal, II. Representing Texas -- Meredith Bess Mosbacher, granddaughter of the late Robert A. Mosbacher, Sr., Secretary of Commerce under President George H.W. Bush.  Meredith’s father, Robert A. Mosbacher, Jr., was President and CEO of Mosbacher Energy Company. Other girls representing Texas were Claire Susan Crenshaw of Austin, the daughter of Mr. Ben Crenshaw, the professional golfer who has won two Masters Tournaments and in 2003 was inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame, and Olivia Lauren Flores, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. James C. Flores. Mr. Flores is Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Plains Exploration & Production Company.
Ivan Obolensky, who is the chairman and CEO of the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Coast Guard and Airmen’s Club, was emcee of the evening. Mr. Obolensky, son of a Russian Prince Serge Obolensky and Alice Astor, sister of Vincent Astor, addressed the crowd of several hundred and remarked:

“It has come to my attention that one of our debutantes has had a lot of press. Think this is hot stuff. Fantastic! She had an ancestor sign the Declaration of Independence? Well, so did I. Stand up if you had an ancestor sign the Declaration of Independence. Stand up. Represent America!”

No one, however, rose from the tables at the command. Mr. Obolensky was referring to debutante Hadley Nagel, who was profiled in advance of the ball by George Gurley in the New York Times, in which it was revealed that Ms. Nagel had one up on Mr. Obolensky: she traces her lineage to not one but two signers of the document.

The Johns Hopkins sophomore was wearing the same cream-colored dress that her mother, Susan Nagel (branded her “de facto publicist” by the Times), had worn at her own debut. She had chosen to debut at this ball because of the diversity and exposure to other cultures. This year’s winter weather severely limited that diversity, as we have seen.
Mr. Obolensky then introduced the 28 debutantes, ranging in age from 17 to 21, who took their bows.

Many believe the Texas girls stole the show with their “Texas dip”: a gravity-defying curtsy that drew whoops and applause from their fellow Texans. Debutantes from Texas and other Southern states outnumbered everyone else this year.

Beatrice Joyce died in 1983 and her niece Margaret Stewart Hedberg inherited ownership of the franchise. At the time, Mrs. Hedberg was living in Hartford where her husband was Chief Curator of the Wadsworth Atheneum. Mrs. Hedberg had attended her first International Ball at the wide-eyed, tender age of 13. By age 15 she was assisting her aunt (“I was my aunt’s legs” she told a reporter). In 1963 she made her bow at the Ball. Since that time she has missed only two balls. When she took over, she commuted from Connecticut during the season. At that time her son Stewart was two years old. This year Stewart Hedberg was one the escorts for Gabriella Arrien.
Katherine Campbell Truglio and Samuel Robinson
Katherine Campbell Truglio
Gabriella Arrien and Stewart Hedberg
The debutante tradition dates back centuries in one form or another, although in the 1960s with the major social transitions occurring in this country, and for awhile there, it began to lose a lot of its popularity. Indeed, Margaret Hedberg is of that generation and understood the waning interest personally.

However, her subsequent enthusiasm has been buoyed by the same changing times. Young women today, she observes “want to take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way.” She adds, “Young well-educated women want to experience all life has to offer, from career, to family to the opportunity of meeting wonderful young people from all over the world.”

To those women participating in last Wednesday’s International Debutante Ball, it was indeed a fantastic experience, as well as an amazing celebration of the holiday season. And it was a great party – they were still dancing and the evening rang down at 2 a.m.
Enter your email address below to subscribe to NYSD's newsletter. It's free!

Comments? Contact DPC here.