A Debutante’s Diary, Part I: 1919-1920

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Deauville, 1920. On the terrace at La Potiniere Café, two of Philadelphia's poised debutantes, Ellen Glendinning, left, and her sister Mary Glendinning, right, wait for the champagne to flow. The sisters express the sophisticated nonchalance acquired during the time women were evolving from Gibson Girls into Jazz Age flappers. Their parents, financier Col. Robert Glendinning, second from left, and former deb Elizabeth "Bessie" Rodman Carpenter Glendinning, second from right, maintain a vigilant presence.

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 ThayerPauline DencklaRosamond Lancaster, Gertrude ConawayMary NorrisSara DolanKathleen 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.

A photograph of Ellen Glendinning following the announcement of her engagement to Persi Frazer III, May 1920.

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’ girlsRhoda BrookeMarina and Fanny WisterPolly and Peggy ThayerCarolyn 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

Ellen Glendinning, far right standing, has the honor of holding Patrie, the donkey. Left to right, Gertrude Conaway, Anita Evans, Sara Dolan, Mary Norris, Liza Norris, and Pauline Bell. In 1934, Gertrude Conaway married Harold Sterling Vanderbilt.

25 August 1919
“A night at the theater …”

The Fortune Hunter, cast of characters and scenes. “Too diverting …”

1 September 1919

Ellen Glendinning. Photo by Bachrach.

21 November 1919
HRH Prince of Wales Reception
New York

” … the right kind of impression.”

Invitation. Rodman Wanamaker reception in honor of the Prince of Wales.
Newspaper column. Ellen and Mary Glendinning’s invitation to the Prince of Wales reception. “It isn’t every girl who will be able to say …”

November 1919
Prince of Wales reception

Newspaper article. Ellen and Mary Glendinning at the Prince of Wales reception, ” … eager to meet the Prince.”

11 December 1919
Brilliant throng at Charity Ball

Newspaper article. Charity Ball, 1919.

11 December 1919

Rosamond “Rose” Lancaster and Mary Brown Warburton. “Unusually elaborate … display of magnificence.” After Rose Lancaster’s marriage to Barclay “Buzzy” Warburton Jr. ended in a 1926 divorce, she married W. K. Vanderbilt.

18 January 1920

Newspaper article. Ellen and Mary Glendinning’s debut party announced.

23 January 1920
Invitation to the Ball

Ellen and Mary Glendinning’s Ball commemorating the 143rd Anniversary of the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton.
Newspaper article. “Hundreds of flags add to brilliance of debutantes’ ball.”

22 January 1920

Newspaper article. Fifi Widener’s latest romance causes her parties to be postponed.
” … and then two weeks later, Fi does this …”

1 February 1920
Fifi Widener – Carter Leidy elopement

Newspaper article. Widener-Leidy marriage. Scandal! But no one seemed surprised.

5 February 1920

Newspaper article. The Widener – Leidy elopement causes a sensation in the Quaker City.
Newspaper article. Poem dedicated to the Widener – Leidy marriage. ” … we’re headed for the summer air of giddy old Palm Beach.”

12 April 1920

Newspaper article. First photograph of Mrs. Carter Randolph Leidy.

14 April 1920

Newspaper article. James Cromwell – Delphine Dodge engagement announced. “A Palm beach romance.”

17 April 1920

Pauline Denckla – Le Grand Cannon wedding invitation.
Newspaper photograph. Pauline Denckla (Mrs. Le Grand) Cannon. More than 35 years later, Kay Denckla and Ellen Glendinning both married Lucius Ordway.

9 May 1920

Newspaper photograph.Mary Norris, Ellen Glendinning, Paul Bell, and Mary Glendinning.

22 May 1920
Glendinning – Frazer engagement

Newspaper article. Frazer-Glendinning engagement announced. The article explains Persi Frazer’s complicated family situation following his parent’s divorce. Following his mother’s death, he and his two sisters inherited a trust fund.
Newspaper photograph. A photograph of Ellen Glendinning following the announcement of her engagement to Persi Frazer III.
Newspaper article. The Glendinning – Frazer engagement stories explained the unusual situation surrounding Persi III’s circumstances. His father Persifor Frazer II had remarried someone, an actress, from out-of-state and the legality of that marriage was questioned, according to court papers. Thus, he was “chaperoned” by his uncles Edward Lowber Welsh and Charles Newbold Welsh. Persi’s maternal grandfather John Lowber Welsh was often described among, if not the, richest man in Pennsylvania.

7 June 1920

“A wedding of social importance …”

Newspaper article. Brockie – Mason wedding. Agnes Morgan Brockie was the daughter of Standard Oil heir W. G. Warden.

8 July 1920

Newspaper article. Ellen Glendinning and Persi Frazer with Fifi and Carter Leidy “passing the summer” in Newport.

11 July 1920

Newspaper article. Narragansett. “Very good picture pet! Fi & Carter.” Persi Frazer and Ellen Glendinning.

May 1920

Ellen Glendinning and Persifor Frazer III.

Newspaper article. Glendinning – Frazer article.

10 June 1920

Newspaper article. Dolan-Wells engagement.

18 June 1920

J. Willis Martin party for Ellen Glendinning at the Rabbit Club.

11 July 1920

Newspaper article. Philadelphia sister debs Emily Pierson and Suzanne Pierson, “prominent among Newport’s younger set.”

July 1920

Ellen Glendinning and her fiancé Persifor Frazer III, again behind the wheel of his sports car.

20 July 1920
New York

Ziegfeld Follies Danse de Follies show card. The Glendinnings arrive in New York to board the LeHavre for France.

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.

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