Monday, January 10, 2011

Joanne Connelley, Part I

She was a pretty little girl from New Jersey, blonde, very blonde with large and piercing blue eyes; an "extraordinarily middleclass" girl according to one who knew her then. Shy around the "adults," 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 Social Register, but he got around.

The child, the angel, Joanne, was born in 1931, just after the bottom had dropped out of the American stock market. The Connelley fortunes were tanking too. A few years later they divorced. The promise and the dream had vaporized. Margaret, now a young woman with child, re-married a man right out of the Social Register, and became Mrs. Huntington Watts. She was back on track.

Joanne had already become the embodiment of Margaret's dreams. She was a very special child, an angel. 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.

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 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.

"At 21, she had gone from being a beautiful pawn to an expensive accessory ..."She was not bright. She was pleasant — girls her age found her fun, rather than threatening. The personality was docile and willing to please. Which boys would read as sex also.

The person she wanted most to please was Mother. Mother was her spirit, her guiding light, and her nemesis. Mother had plans.

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.

Five debutantes from the Infirmary Ball where Joanne Connelley made her fateful debut. Left to right: Cornelia Duryea, Cynthia Cogswell, Joan Lloyd, Grace Dyer, and Sarah Pell.
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.

A ride up Fifth Avenue (which was then two-way) gave everybody a chance to gape at the dozens of old mansions still occupied and yet to be razed by the wrecker's ball. The piers along the West Side were teeming with luxury steamships from all over the world. There were seven daily newspapers (or was it nine?). There was no television. Everybody read the papers, often two or three. Republicans got the The Herald-Tribune 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 and read the Post and the Journal in the afternoon.

All the papers had their star columnists who kept the public tantalized with the inside on society and the Hollywood stars. The biggest was Walter Winchell in the Mirror in the morning. Dorothy Kilgallen, and Cholly Knickerbocker, the latter being a nom de plume for a column called the Smart Set, in the Journal in the afternoon.

They all wrote about society, the Times and the Trib being the stuffy ones. Society girls, starting with Barbara Hutton whose coming out party in 1930 startled the nation with its cost ($52,000), were popular fodder for readers. In the late '30s, raven-haired, debutante Brenda Frazier became as famous as Shirley Temple. Then there was Gloria Vanderbilt. And 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.
Brenda Diana Duff Frazier at the Infirmary Ball, December 1938.
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. For Joanne Connelley, it was her mother's ride to the end of the rainbow. And her ride to freedom from her mother.

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. As well as the boys. A debut was also still part of the ritual of becoming a woman in society. A girl might marry a boy she met at her coming out.

And so it was. The Connelley girl was a stunner, reported Winchell, Kilgallen and Cholly Knickerbocker. This was no accident; but Margaret Watts' knowing the ways. Just a few weeks earlier, in late November, she introduced her daughter to a hungry and enterprising young press agent named Ted Howard. Howard was always on the lookout for a Joanne — a beautiful girl who looks good in clubs, which attracts men with money, and more publicity, etc. There were all kinds of possibilities. She could be the next Brenda Frazier. Every flack's dream was to find the next Brenda Frazier.

Within weeks she was hitting El Morocco and the Stork almost nightly, smiling her smile behind a glass of champagne, dancing the rhumba with the South American millionaires. The girls riding the subway home from work read about her, almost smelling the perfume, hearing the music and thinking: How wonderful to be her!

It was all so swift and so smooth that any girl might think it always happened like this. Joanne Connelley did. In mid-January 1949, her face was on the cover of LIFE, the biggest selling magazine in America. "One of the prettiest of this year's crop of debutantes," pronounced the editors. A Ted Howard/Margaret Watts coup! The cover of LIFE was national fame itself. Photo editors across the country feasted their eyes on the girl's fresh loveliness.

Captioning her with the words "debutante" and "society" they began to run her picture as often as it was provided. By the springtime, her name and/or her face were in one or all of the papers every morning. Movie scouts saw it too. Screen tests were offered, (and taken — she flunked). And marriage proposals. Suitor number four won.
Robert Sweeny Jr., and Joanne Connelley, 1949.
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.

"She Was The Beauty With the Miseries ... brilliant smile for the photographers and the terrible tears when the bedroom door was closed ...After the wedding, Mother quit the dress shop and moved to Paris, and the couple moved to Palm Beach.

Palm Beach was then, fifty years ago, little more than a village, which its part time residents still often reached by private railroad car or yacht. It was the Old Guard, a haven for Wasp snobbery. Black people left the island before dark. Roman Catholics and the Our Crowd Jewish families were tolerated -- as well as having participated in the creation of it all -- and by the 40s were beginning to intermarry.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor reigned over the "the season" with their annual stay at the villa of railroad executive Robert Young and his wife Anita. Phippses, Fords, DuPonts and Vanderbilts were the names that filled the captions in the Shiny Sheet. It was a town of a month of Sundays, big drinkers, big rocks, a town of too many people with too much time and too much money.

Nevertheless, this was also the prize that mothers like Margaret Watts (and press agents) prayed for. As well as their daughters.

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