Thursday, January 20, 2011

Debutantes then and now, Part I

18-year-old Brenda Diana Duff Frazier at the Infirmary Ball, December 1938.
This past holiday season last month in New York also highlighted the longtime annual tradition of the debutante, young women making their “bows” in society. Interest in the ritual has waxed and waned over the past half century. Its purpose has been modified by the liberations but it has hardly gone out of style.

Thanks to George Gurley, writing in the New York Times, about a pretty Johns-Hopkins undergrad from New York named Hadley Nagel, it was a lively topic of conversation at dinners and dances and elsewhere. Ms. Nagel was making her debut at the 56th annual International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf and George’s reportage gave it a substance and an import that many have long felt that it lacked.

Ms. Nagel’s interview assured us that the assumed demise of the debutante ball is premature. For the simple reason that it serves an important purpose, especially nowadays when young women are interested in establishing themselves for their chosen paths, the workplace, and anything else that might be desirable.

Hadley Nagel with her father Jon Nagel at the 56th International Debutante Ball.
Ms. Nagel has no shortage of certainty and self-confidence, and apparently has no illusions about her privilege and its advantages. Being a debutante at the dawn of the second decade of the 21st century is far from old-fashioned for her. If anything, it’s brilliant self-marketing. Tinsley Mortimer and Paris Hilton come to mind, although neither gained attention as debutantes.

Ms. Nagel is bright and openly ambitious as are many who “make it” it this world of society and privilege and the corridors of power. She also has a mother who supports or enourages and promotes. Susan Nagel, a published author-historian, is playing a classic mother’s role in this tradition.

Ambition is desirable for getting ahead in life. However, the word, for many women, implies (and often rightly) Joan Crawford’s personality on the movie screen. Although there are worse in real life.

She is a graduate of Nightingale-Bamford, a private girl’s school here in the city. She is a writer, a singer (coloratura soprano), and carrying a double-major (international relations and history). She’s pretty too.

While reading it, I was thinking how debutante image has never been an intellectual one. Until this girl came along. The closest Hadley Nagel gets to that “old” spoiled debutante image is, again Gurley’s reportage, the intimation by some that the character of Serena van der Woodsen on “Gossip Girl" is a lightly veiled (minus the “promiscuity and drugs”) version of Ms. Nagel. Given that the character was created by the writer around the time Hadley Nagel had just arrived in the world, that’s a stretch.

Debutante balls in the days of yore
went out about the same time John and Jacqueline Kennedy moved into the White House in 1961. Jackie Kennedy had been a debutante in New York in the 1947-48 season. When the longtime Democratic Roman Catholic bachelor senator from Massachusetts decided to marry and take his political career and his father’s wishes seriously – he made a brilliant move in pursuing Miss Bouvier with his wit and Irish charm. No doubt his father’s immense fortune garnished the offering. Jackie was Roman Catholic also, which would have pleased his mother Rose Kennedy; plus she was “society” and looked it. Whatever it was, Mr. Husted was replaced.

Mrs. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the former Jacqueline Lee Bouvier.
Ironically, despite the worldwide fame that she acquired, the write-ups on the parties and balls and committees that Jacqueline Bouvier served on and attended in the winter of 1947-48 never spotlighted the very pretty young woman with the wide dazzling smile.

She was not a stand out debutante, like women such as Brenda Frazier or Barbara Hutton who came before her, nor was that probably even on her mind. Her name found its way into the New York Times as a volunteer or committee member, but there were no interviews asking her what she thought of her future. Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was like her contemporaries – going through the motions of preparing herself for a future in a “society.” In fact, it wouldn’t have occurred to an editor or a journalist to even ask her.

In late January 1952,
in the wedding section of the New York Times, it was announced that Jacqueline Lee Bouvier had become engaged to John G. W. Husted Jr. Besides listing the schools the girl attended (Chapin, Miss Porter’s, Vassar, Sorbonne), it stated that she was “a debutante of the 1947 season.” (Mr. Husted was a graduate of St. Paul’s and Yale).

That bit of background was an important part of a young woman’s life: a badge, a stamp of approval for the groom’s reputation. Miss Bouvier’s betrothal was the ultimate for a debutante: Mission Accomplished. Although, fate in the form of Jack Kennedy stepped in and the girl’s life took a different course.

The world of Jacqueline Bouvier, the world of debutantes, as it were, began changing when the boys (and girls – but mainly boys) came home from the war in Europe. Their own children, the first post-War/post-Depression babies, the so-called Boomers, would be brought up with other ideas, including Civil Rights and Women’s Lib. The children of this generation would complete that change.

In the Times interview with Hadley Nagel there was no indication that marriage, motherhood or homemaking were priorities in young woman’s objectives. Ms. Nagel is equipping herself for bigger things and could just as likely be running a corporation or a government, rather than planning a dinner or managing a house.

The traditional idea of presenting a young woman to society dates back further than the 14-year-old Cleopatra being prepared to take the throne of Egypt. The ritual had a specific and practical use: finding husbands. A lot was riding on it: those who didn’t succeed often became governesses or nuns. Or spinsters.

The Duchess of Marlborough, the former Consuelo Vanderbilt.
Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, the first of the famously celebrated debutantes of the last century, writing in her memoir The Glitter and the Gold (Harper & Brothers, 1954), referred to her “coming out” in London and Paris as exhausting. It lasted weeks, with the trans-Atlantic voyages, trips from London to Paris for fittings; followed by all the social events including the actual debut (which took place in London where Americans went to gain prestige).

Her mother, Alva Vanderbilt’s plan was to find the girl a husband – preferably a king, a prince or a very high ranking duke. The objective was achieved when the girl was introduced to the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Charles Spencer-Churchill whom she was forced to marry, at age 18, much to her great chagrin.

The Glitter and the Gold is the classic drama of a domineering social-climbing mother. Alva Vanderbilt never questioned her own ambitions for her daughter. She felt the girl’s future was none of the girl’s business. Many years later, after Consuelo had divorced the duke and married Jacques Balsan – with whom she lived happily for the rest of his life – Alva confided that her early demands had been unfair. Alva by then had become a leading suffragette/then feminist activist. Ironically, by then Consuelo had remarried happily and was living as an American woman of great independent wealth. She admitted that her mother’s ambition, had provided a very interesting and privileged life.

The generation following Consuelo Vanderbilt ushered in the Roaring 20s, the Jazz Age, Prohibition, the Stock Market Crash and Barbara Woolworth Hutton. The only child of Edna Woolworth – one of three daughters of F. W. Woolworth, founder of the five-and-dime chain – Barbara’s mother committed suicide when the girl was five years old. (The child discovered her mother’s body.) Her father, Franklyn Hutton (brother of EH Hutton) had been divorced from her mother.

The child went to live with relatives (including her cousin Dina Merrill). Not surprisingly little Barbara was withdrawn and introverted. Like her friend and contemporary, Doris Duke, she was also one of the richest girls in the world.

Woolworth heiress and Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton on the eve of her 18th birthday coming out party at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. The extravagance of the party led to the tabloid press to dub her Rich Bitch.
In 1930, on her 18th birthday, Barbara was given a coming out party at the Ritz Carlton Hotel (demolished in 1951, the Ritz-Calrton was the fashionable hotel for society to hold their large private parties and balls). It was the party of the year for New York. Maurice Chevalier and Rudy Vallee, two of the biggest singing stars of the day entertained. The guestlist carried all the big names of society including Vanderbilts, Astors and Rockefellers. The flowers alone were said to have cost $50,000 or hundreds of thousands in today’s currency.

The market crash – which occurred a year before in late October 1929 – had caused a great dislocation for business and for working people, but the Great Depression as the period later became known, was not yet apparent. By late 1930, many believed the stock market was recovering. In fact it rose substantially in that year. However, the New York press had a field day covering Barbara Hutton’s lavish debut.

The upshot was very negative for Barbara, already known as the Poor Little Rich Girl. Fifty thousand bucks on flowers while their people didn’t have 50 cents a day to feed themselves? They gave her a new name: Rich Bitch. The young girl was a complete innocent, but the public perception was harsh – similar to that of Lindsay Lohan today. So bad was the publicity that she was sent to Europe to get away from the clawing press.

When Barbara turned 21, in 1933, as the world was really entering the depths of the Great Depression, she came into her inheritance (which her father had very successfully increased by 100% since inheriting): about $45 million (approximately a billion in today’s dollars).

That year, still in Europe, she married her first husband, Alexis Mdivani (a self-style prince, one of three brothers from the country of Georgia, famously known as the Marrying Mdivanis, and connoisseurs of rich women).

Barbara Hutton with her third husband, Cary Grant.
She had six husbands after the prince whom she divorced less than two years later – an abusive German count who gave her a son an only child, Lance Reventlow; then seven years later Cary Grant with whom she lived in Hollywood – that lasted a little less than 3 years. Then another prince, Igor Troubetzkoy (4 years); then Domincan playboy Porfirio Rubirosa (4 minutes – just kidding; a couple of months). Then a German baron, von Cramm (4 years), and finally a Vietnamese prince, Pierre Raymond Doan (2 years).

It was a vagabond life for the little girl whose mother left her so traumatically at age 5, a life suffused with entourages, travel trunks of possessions, “social” entertainments; drinking, drugging, moving, traveling, building, selling, marrying, divorcing, and moving, moving, moving. The face tells the story. Terminal ennui for the Poor Little Rich Girl.

Barbara had what a longtime friend John Galliher called “inconsequential generosity.” She lived extravagantly and grandly in large residences in Europe, Morocco, Mexico, New York, Paris, etc. She showered her husbands with huge, expensive gifts (Rubirosa got a string of polo ponies and an airliner in his brief marital foray with Barbara). She was a major collector of precious jewels buying frequently and without concern of cost. Her “generosity,” Galliher explained, was expressed when anybody admired something she owned. If they liked it or thought it was beautiful, inevitably she’d take it off and give it to them.

When she died, at age 66 – living at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills – she was said to have had less than $3,000 in her bank account, and a great many of her million dollar jewel pieces were gone.

Brenda Frazier on the cover of Life.
Eight years after Barbara Hutton made her debut at the Ritz-Carlton, in 1938, as the nation had begun to raise itself out of the depths of the financial debacle of the 1930s, another young heiress, Brenda Frazier was introduced to the world of society (and the press) in the same ballroom of the Ritz.

Frazier was a stunner and she would soon become the debutante of the century -- as the New York Times declared, “the most glamorous, black-haired, gardenia-skinned, ruby-lipped debutante who ever wore a strapless dress.”

Brenda’s mother, Mrs. Frederick Watriss, born Brenda Williams-Taylor, was the child of a woman with great pretensions toward society. The grandmother kept a portrait of Hitler given to her by the Nazi dictator and no amount of history prevented her from prominently displaying it in her house. “It made very little difference to my grandmother whether a man was a beast or a hero, as long he as he was a head of state,” Brenda later recalled. The grandparents – grandfather was a knighted Canadian diplomat – lived between New York and Ottawa.

The first Brenda -- Brenda's mother, after whom she was named -- was presented to society at Buckingham Palace during the reign of Edward VII. Encouraged by her mother, the young woman developed a taste for society in New York. Despite her background, her social connections went unpublicized until her beautiful daughter, came of age.

Her mother and father had divorced when she was four years old, and her mother remarried twice. Growing up in New York, she attended Chapin and then Miss Porter’s in Farmington. Her father died a few years later, leaving his young daughter a little over $4 million (or more than $50 million in today’s currency). Frank Duff Frazier had been a commodities trader and made most of his fortune in relatively short time by cornering the Western wheat market in the early 1930s.

Brenda Frazier featured in an advertisement for Studebaker.
The emergence of Brenda Frazier, debutante, glamour girl millionaire, was what today would be called a major marketing event. She was as famous as Paris Hilton today. Like Hilton, the girl developed a yen for the nightlife in New York in her early teenage years. By the time she was 15, Maury Paul, writing the Cholly Knickerbocker society column for the Journal-American, predicted that she would become famous when she made her debut.

She created the white powdered look for her face contrasting the red of her lipstick and making her dark brown hair look black. The strapless gown, again creating a new look, became her signature. Her coming out party – she made bows at several – turned into one big long night at El Morocco. Soon she was not only on the cover of Life, but in Walter Winchell’s column in the Hearst papers, as well as magazine ads for soaps, cars (although she couldn’t drive) and cigarettes. Her fame surprised her more than anybody. “I don’t deserve this. I haven’t done anything at all; I’m just a debutante,” she remarked confounded.

On the night of her official bow, she’d come down with flu and her legs were swollen painfully from edema. Begging her mother to cancel the party was ineffective. The show went on, and it was later reported that Brenda went with it: she danced all night with the party winding down at six the following morning.

Fame brought her dates with Howard Hughes, among others, but the results of her spectacular “debut” were slow in materializing.

“Unless I married well, the whole year (of coming out) would have passed in vain,” Frazier later said, adding, “I was bred and trained to be married, run a household, give parties, and rear daughters to have their own debuts and sons to dance with a new generation of debutantes.”

Tomorrow: Part II.
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