In this quieter social month of January when the action for the rich, the chic and the shameless, is down South be it FLA or the Caribbean, we’re going to give our minds a break and show you something to put them at ease. One treasure is the life work for a Philadelphia-born woman Ellen Glendinning Frazer Ordway.
Born in the first decade of the 20th century and coming of age as a debutante in the second, Ms. Frazer took up a new – for its time – hobby: picture-taking or what became officially “photography.” She achieved this by photographing her entire life. Literally a visual memoir.
Forget Andy Warhol, beginning around about 1920, Ellen used her camera the way a writer uses his or her pen: she photographed it. This treasure, the photo files which run all the way to the last year of her life (early 1970s) was discovered and brought to light by our distinguished contributor Augustus Mayhew, a curator of 20th century Art and Architecture.
Today we are running the first part of what would become Ellen’s life achievement: “A Debutante’s Diary, Part I – 1919-1920.” Looking at the black and white images of young women (late teens) of what was then Society, examples of the fashion of the era. These were young women of privilege but they were also entering maturity as the world was beginning to change markedly and forever for all women. In the meantime, there were rules to know and to follow, although there were varying degrees of feminism budding in the mix. Ellen Glendinning found hers, as very young woman, through the lens of a camera. — DPC
With the nation’s bravest home from trench warfare along the Western Front, Philadelphia’s coveted debutantes were once again paraded into the social spotlight. Among the backlog, “a crop of buds enough to fill a baseball park,” were Ellen Glendinning and Mary Glendinning, and their Main Line friends, including Fifi Widener, Peggy Thayer, Pauline Denckla, Rosamond Lancaster, Gertrude Conaway, Mary Norris, Sara Dolan, Kathleen Ritter, and Eleanor Robb.
“The world was tired of being perplexed,” wrote Nancy Wynne in her column “Just Gossip about People” that appeared regularly in Philadelphia’s Evening Public Ledger. Wynne took note of every chemise and shimmy during the first fall teas, the opera gala, and the whirlwind of curtsies during the non-stop big rush — holiday dinner-dance debut parties. In the spring, if all went according to plan, the debs’ engagement parties and weddings were announced.
In Philadelphia, once invitations were sent out to the list of eligible bachelors kept by Mrs. J. Edward McMullan and Mrs. Wirt L. Thompson, it was time to dust-off Lady Jephson’s book Advice to Debutantes: Letters to a Debutante, first published in 1905. Lady Jephson’s expertise embraced the ethics of dress, on country house visiting, and the difference between wit and humor. “Be good and cultivate charm,” she wrote, as she warned of the danger from smartness and a sharp tongue.
After being discontinued for two years, in deference to the ongoing First World War, the Glendinning girls’ and their class of debutantes revived enthusiasm for the tradition. During a previous year, “Debutantes shock Rich Matrons” read a newspaper headline. Eva Stotesbury and a gaggle of prominent matrons were shocked by Philadelphia debs’ late hours and their dances. Stotesbury said if the debs danced in Washington the way they presented themselves in Philadelphia, their parties would have been raided and they would have been arrested by the authorities rather than stumble on suitable husbands. Further, she said debs needed “beauty sleep” not flask-driven all-nighters.
And while none of the post-war fetes could equal the hunt-themed coming-out party staged in 1916 with live horses on the roof of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, the Glendinnings’ debut brought out many of Philadelphia’s most influential clans. In explaining Philadelphia’s closely-knit families, Wynne wrote, “… Evelyn and Mary Page, the Wurts’ girls, Rhoda Brooke, Marina and Fanny Wister, Polly and Peggy Thayer, Carolyn Barclay, and Celestine Warder are all mixed up in some kind of cousindom.”
During the past three years, several readers have asked questions about Ellen Glendinning Ordway’s family before the Glendinnings arrived on Palm Beach which was when my Resort Life saga started following their lives, as posted on the 9 March 2011 issue of the New York Social Diary. Here are a few glimpses from the hundreds of pages comprising Ellen Glendinning’s album of memories between 1919 and 1921 — her coming-out, engagement, travel, marriage, and the birth of her first-born. While some of the commercial photographs remain intact, the small format images, a number of them smaller than two-by-threes, have degraded. Now, nearly a century-old, the newspaper articles have also faded.
Nevertheless, The Great War is over and the Roaring Twenties is underway.
29-31 May 1919
Debutantes at Devon Horse Show
25 August 1919
“A night at the theater …”
1 September 1919
21 November 1919
HRH Prince of Wales Reception
” … the right kind of impression.”
Prince of Wales reception
11 December 1919
Brilliant throng at Charity Ball
11 December 1919
18 January 1920
23 January 1920
Invitation to the Ball
22 January 1920
1 February 1920
Fifi Widener – Carter Leidy elopement
5 February 1920
12 April 1920
14 April 1920
17 April 1920
9 May 1920
22 May 1920
Glendinning – Frazer engagement
7 June 1920
“A wedding of social importance …”
8 July 1920
11 July 1920
10 June 1920
18 June 1920
11 July 1920
20 July 1920
Next: A Debutante’s Diary, Part II: Deauville + The Wedding + The Honeymoon + Persifor IV.
Ellen Glendinning Ordway Photographs courtesy of Collection of Lucius Ordway Frazer.