Friday, January 21, 2011

Debutantes then and now, Part II

Brenda Diana Duff Frazier at the Infirmary Ball, December 1938.
Finally, three years after her coming out, in 1941, Brenda Frazier, the world’s most famous debutante married John “Shipwreck” Kelly.

Kelly, eleven years older than his bride, was a tall, handsome All-American track and football star from Kentucky. He played halfback in the NFL and five seasons in the 1930s, for the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers football club (which he later owned with Dan Topping, and reorganized as the Baltimore Colts). A charming, charismatic personality, a frequent habitué of “21” and El Morocco, he was the darling of the social set and was said to be unfazed by it, although his social pals became his security blanket.

10-year-old Brenda with her grandmother and mother.
Brenda Frazier on the cover of Life.
Their wedding, in contrast to Brenda’s coming out parties, was tiny, taking place in her mother’s apartment at the Ritz-Carlton in the presence of immediate family and 20 guests. T. Suffern (Tommy) Tailer, socialite golfer, was best man, and the bride, attended only by a flower girl, Miss Helen Alexander, given away in marriage by her stepbrother Frederick Watriss.

After the wedding there was a reception in the hotel for 200 including Doris Duke, Molly Hudson (Mrs. Alfred Gwynne) Vanderbilt, Jock Whitney and Creighton Webb, known in his day as the “grand old man of society.”

The couple honeymooned in San Francisco and settled down in New York in an apartment off Sutton Place (currently the residence of Tina Brown and Sir Harold Evans). Their only child, Mary Victoria, was born the following year.

The star-studded lives of both newlyweds had its limits, and their wedding also marked the peak of their personal success and popularity. This did not bode well for either. “Shipwreck” Kelly’s athletic career had brought him all kinds of accolades from supporters and fans, including mentoring by rich bankers and business tycoons.

But his off-field business ventures never had the success or the sensational turns he experienced as an athlete. His business prowess was unsteady. His greatest achievements had come in youth, and distintegrated thereafter into memories hailed most enthusiastically at cocktail parties or long martini lunches at “21.”

By 1950, according to Frazier’s biographer Gioia Diliberto, the marriage was over, although they were not divorced until 1956. The world’s most celebrated debutante was no longer in the circle of interest. The crowd had moved on and she was alone, isolated by her defunct fame. She got involved in two volatile relationships, particularly one with jet-setter Count Pietro Mele, a wealthy Italian, a man given to unpredictable mood swings. After one especially volatile public scene, the couple broke up. A week later Brenda was admitted to a hospital for treatment of a severe nervous breakdown. After recovery she attempted suicide and failed.

In 1957, Brenda married a man named Robert Chatfield-Taylor at her house in Harwichport on Cape Cod. She later told friends that she knew the marriage was a mistake from the outset, and five years later they would divorce. Soon after she was hospitalized for more than a month. Drugs and alcohol had moved in. Over the next three decades, she made made 30 more attempts – all unsuccessful – to end her life.

In December 1963, Life magazine which had made her famous with a cover 25 years before, re-visited the famous debutante. The attention buoyed her briefly and she appeared several times on television talk shows decrying the emptiness of her former celebrated life. Those televised moments, however, were appearance of stability in the woman’s life. For the next three decades, Brenda Diana Duff Frazier Kelly Chatfield-Taylor, would be in and out of hospitals treated for chronic pain, alcoholism, and habitual drug use. In February 1982, she entered a hospital complaining of chronic ailments. She was finally diagnosed with inoperable bone cancer. Three months later, on May 2, 1982, she died.

In December 1963, Life magazine which had made her famous with a cover 25 years before, re-visited the famous debutante.
Recalling her mother’s life, Brenda’s daughter Victoria said: “I’m guessing, but I’d say my mother didn’t care whether she lived or died. She was depressed. If she died, she died. If she came to, she came to.”
Ten years after Brenda Frazier made her debut at the Infirmary Ball, in 1948, a year after Jacqueline Bouvier made her bow, a pretty blonde named Joanne Connelley made hers at the same annual ball.

A little girl from New Jersey, blonde, very blonde with large, piercing blue eyes; an "extraordinarily middleclass" girl according to one who knew her then, Joanne Connelley was shy around the "adults," although she was sure of herself when it came to getting a reaction from the opposite sex. Especially the "adults." After puberty, "pretty" became "beautiful," and eventually "gorgeous" — the kind of looks ambitious girls in those days would kill for. She was, so it seemed, not so ambitious on the face of it. Dutiful, respectful, obedient, even compliant. Nice girls were. Or so it seemed.

The mother was another story. The mother had been a one-time (but never forgetting) debutante, Margaret Dorner, who as a young girl married a handsome Irish-American named Jack Connelley. Mr. Connelley, like his wife, was not in the Social Register, but he got around.

Their child, the angel, Joanne, was born in 1931, just after the bottom dropped out of the stock market. The Connelley fortunes were tanking too. A few years later, the couple divorced. Margaret remarried – a guy named Huntington Watts, right out of the New York Social Register. Little Joanne, however, remained the focus of her mother’s dreams.

She stood out. At least her mother thought so. The luminescent beauty, a kind of untouchable charisma that some people seem to have and at the same time are unaware of. Her mother was aware for her. She would be brought up to expect the best, and she would have it.

After her mother’s marriage to Mr. Watts, Joanne was placed in a convent school on Long Island, and then Miss Beard's in Orange, New Jersey. However, Margaret's marriage failed. By the mid-1940s, Watts had faded away, and Margaret, working in an exclusive Upper East Side dress shop, was eking out a living to keep the precious child in private school.

By mid-teens, the child was developing into a lady. Petite, well-formed, and buxom, the hair naturally golden blonde. There was a kind of feverish mistiness to her hazel eyes, the kind that boys read as sex. The temptress was a virgin. Someone else might see sadness, or anger. Then when she smiled, the sun beamed, gone were all hints of darkness.

By age seventeen, a very young woman in Joanne Connelley's world had only a handful of choices. College, if she could afford it (which she could not). Or a job, meaning a menial one for the glass ceiling was very low. Or she could get married, perhaps the most legitimate pursuit in the minds of most women. A rich man was a very good idea.

New York City in 1948 was the center of the world. The country had emerged from the war unharmed. The Depression had turned into the greatest boom in modern history, bustling at all hours of the day and night.

There were thousands of clubs throughout the town, as well as in all the big hotels like the Plaza, the Pierre, the Ambassador, the Savoy-Plaza, the St. Regis, the Waldorf. It was a great big town of working class neighborhoods, manufacturing and office districts and avenues for the rich. There were seven daily newspapers (or was it nine?). There was no television.
Five other New York debutantes from 1948: Cornelia Duryea, Cynthia Cogswell, Joan Lloyd, Grace Dyer, and Sarah Pell.
Everybody read the papers, often two or three, everyday. Republicans got the Trib in the morning and the Telegram in the afternoon. The Times went to the liberals and the hoi polloi read the News and the Mirror in the morning and the Post and the Journal in the afternoon.

All the papers had their star columnists. The biggest was Walter Winchell. Then came Dorothy Kilgallen, and Cholly Knickerbocker, the latter being a nom de plume for a column called the Smart Set, in the Journal.

They all wrote about society, starting with Barbara Hutton whose coming out party startled the nation. Then Brenda Frazier. Then Cary Latimer, Mimi Baker and Cobina Wright, Jr. They were glamour girls, beautiful and presumably rich. A dream come true. This was how Margaret Watts saw her Joanne.

Joanne Connelley on cover of Life.
A social debut was step one. Margaret didn't have a dime, but there were ways. She had access to clothes. The Infirmary Ball was a bargain. The girls paid $50 to bring one escort and $10 for each additional escort.

On the evening of December 20, 1948, Joanne Connelley was presented with 124 other girls to society at the annual Debutante Cotillion Ball, benefiting the New York Infirmary. The Infirmary Ball was (and still is) prestigious, with girls from the best old New York families.

Within weeks she was hitting El Morocco and the Stork, smiling her smile behind a glass of champagne, dancing the rhumba with the South American millionaires.

In mid-January 1949, her face was on the cover of Life. "One of the prettiest of this year's crop of debutantes," pronounced the editors. By the springtime, her name and/or her face were in one or all of the papers every morning. Screen tests were offered, (and taken — she flunked). And marriage proposals. Suitor number four won.

He was Robert Sweeny Jr., a lanky California born millionaire, R.A.F. hero, and one-time (1937) British amateur golf champion. Tall, dark and handsome, Sweeny was already famous for his affairs with Barbara Hutton (to whom he'd been engaged), and Lady Sylvia Ashley, famous herself as widow of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and former wife of Clark Gable. Sweeny and Connelley made a beautiful couple out of Town & Country. Or, city slicker and country bumpkin.

He was also twice her age.

They began spending time in Palm Beach. A daughter was born the following year in 1950. Two years later a second. Father played golf; the young mother sat around bored, drinking with her older society women friends.

Drinking became part of her daily regimen. She was a young drunk, in a world where they were all ages. She developed the classic vanity syndrome of worrying about her weight, hindering the situation with diet pills. They took off weight and gave you energy; a miracle! That, with a couple glasses of gin, and you could be on another planet. Sleeping pills could bring you back to the satin sheets for a nap.

A very bored Joanne Connelley Sweeny (later Ortiz-Patino) at a ball in Palm Beach in 1952.
In short time, the Sweeny marriage was over. In 1954, naming Porfirio Rubirosa as the other man, and getting custody of their daughters, he divorced her.

The year before in Switzerland, she had met Jaime Ortiz-Patino, known to his friends as Jimmy Ortiz, a member of the Bolivian tin mining family, and only two years older than she. By the time her divorce from Sweeny came through, she had accepted Ortiz' proposal to marry.

The now ex-Mrs. Sweeny was traveling in the same orbit as Elsa Maxwell, the Windsors, Maria Callas, Mona Bismarck, Aristotle Onassis, Aly Khan and Rita Hayworth. Pleasant, although without wit, her fame in America had crossed the Atlantic.

The night before the wedding something went wrong. Joanne wanted to back out. Mother's pressure was applied. Daughter was in no position to back out. She'd left the Sweeny marriage without a sous. The couple was married in Margaret Watts' Paris apartment. They headed to Capri for the honeymoon.

One day, seven weeks after the "I do's," Jimmy Ortiz returned to their villa to find his bride on the bedroom floor, unconscious. Sleeping pills.

A long and messy divorce followed. Three years later in 1957, she was given a $100,000 cash settlement. And allowed to keep her jewels (a few million in today’s dollars).

Late in the morning of June 31, 1957, however, two weeks into Joanne Connelley's new life, a maid entered her bedroom and found her "unconscious and pale, breathing heavily." Panicked, she called for Margaret Watts. The young beauty was taken to the hospital. But not in time. Wrapped in a bathrobe, still wearing the $100,000 diamond Jimmy Ortiz had given her, Joanne Connelley had died of a heart attack. She was 27 years old.

"She was the beauty with the miseries," wrote Dorothy Kilgallen in her best sob sister prose. "She had the brilliant smile for the photographers and the terrible tears when the bedroom door was closed. She was equipped for nothing more than posing and taking orders. You couldn't really feel sorry for her."

Anne McDonnell (Mrs. Henry) Ford II, Anne Ford, Charlotte Ford, and Henry Ford II.
Anne and Charlotte Ford.
The great era of the debutante had a dazzling finale in America in 1959 when Charlotte Ford came out at a party given by her parents in Grosse Pointe. It was covered in the national press, in Time and Newsweek. The whole world read about it. Mainly because was reported to have cost $500,000, which would be like $15 million for today.

Charlotte’s sister Anne came out at another dazzler the following year, but the press reaction was a little lower key: a kind of been there, done that.

Charlotte’s famous party catapulted her into celebrity-dom so that she was almost as famous as her automotive heir father, Henry Ford II. Although later in life she and her sister had multiple marriages like so many of their contemporaries, neither had a taste for the fast life (Charlotte has never had a drink) or the wild side. As they matured, besides parenting their children, they devoted themselves to their friends and their philanthropies. Neither had been led to expect (or desire) anything more from a coming out party than the party itself. So there were no personally ambitious mothers and there were no disappointments.

After the assassination of John Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy’s life changed, as did fashion and culture changed dramatically and decisively. The Viet Nam War’s effect on the national dialogue killed the concept of elite girls coming out, along with a lot of other concepts. From ’64 onwards through the '70s and the liberation movements, the hippie movement, debutante and their parties were either non-existent or dullsville.

In the first decade of the 21st century, I’ve seen their public image rise somewhat. This year the International Debutante Cotillion held its 56th annual ball with several hundred attending the black tie/white tie gala at the Waldorf-Astoria just three days before Christmas Eve.

Young women today, however, have different role models than their antecedents. They expect to advance themselves through education and careers, rather than marriage. They often want fulltime careers besides, or as well as, motherhood.

They also live in a world where the word “marketing,” as much as education, is a key to accomplishment and achievement. The word debutante, aside from its social intimations, is, as it always was, an “opportunity,” but now it is for the experience of meeting people, of going out into the world, of gathering. And so it remains the ritualistic tradition that it always was. What has changed is the world, changed to suit the debutante, the young woman of tomorrow.

Click here for Part I
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