Women in white gowns, with escorts in white tie and cadets in full regalia floated down the Plaza Ballroom onto the stage, as one beautiful girl after another was presented at the 68th International Debutante Ball. Make no mistake, even for today’s modern women, in a certain set, coming out is as coveted and popular as ever. The phenomenon has crested, unscathed, above societal upheaval, subtly reinventing its purpose while retaining tradition and grandeur.
This upscale coming of age ritual began during Henry VIII’s Reformation. Suddenly, the convents — once the solution for unmarried daughters who, by law, inherited nothing — were gone. All daughters, now, had to be suitably married off. The idea: put a girl discovering men in a ballroom with acceptable bachelors — chances are, she won’t run away, a la Downton Abbey, with the chauffeur. The charitable component was added in 1768, for Queen Charlotte’s children’s hospital.
The International Debutante Ball primarily benefits the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Marines,’ Cost Guard and Airmen’s Club. That helped bring Julia Irene Kauffman, Honorary Chairman with Mrs. David R. Hamilton, into the tent. She and The Muriel McBrien Kauffman Family Foundation (her late mother’s) are Grand Sponsors of the Ball.
“My mother’s first husband was in the Royal Canadian Air Force and died in World War II when my mother was only 21,” Kauffman told us. “Her brother was also a Canadian in the Queens Own Rifle in World War II in Europe. Mr. Kauffman, my step/adopted father was in the US Navy in World War II. My mother took an interest in the Debutante Ball mostly for the charity, with which my family has been involved for 40 years. I follow her mission.
“Another reason I support it — and you may think this is silly — but, young people today have not had the education in the manners and niceties that make a civilization. I think it’s very healthy for our society to teach young people how to write thank you notes, be presented to people, and enjoy getting dressed up and acting like young ladies and gentlemen.”
Kaufmann has had three daughters and one granddaughter presented. There’s one more to go.
Take a look behind the gala pomp and circumstance and you will find a time capsule of the qualities and aspirations prized by young ladies of the day. It shows the history of women.
This year’s International Debutantes are honors students, achievers with professional goals, young philanthropists and athletes. They’re no longer searching for a husband, they’re networking for themselves. And behind each is a mother who has given her all and a family celebrating a milestone. Most are career moms raising independent daughters. Still, they melt when they see their child in a white ball gown. Shopping for it, a treasured mother/daughter experience to remember.
“Everything is new and evolving,” said Kelli Ford, whose daughter Electra Wallace Ford represented New York and Texas. “That’s great, but tradition adds heart and meaning. For the grandmothers and mothers who came out, it was so special to see it executed the same way. For me, it was also great to have Lester Lanin and his orchestra, good as ever. When I was a little older than Electra, I told my girls, he played at the parties I went to in New York.”
“It was the best night!” Electra chimed in. “All the girls had their moment to feel valued in the spotlight, as they were presented.” Then, it’s really party time. “Everyone’s really nervous before, but, with all that behind us, we could really celebrate.”
Electra is an accomplished equestrian, and an animal lover, who goes the distance with their care. (The family has eight dogs.) She sees fashion as her future, growing the fashion blog she had for six years into “a social media platform where people can post and shop in one place.”
Kelli instilled that work ethic, taking her daughters on buying trips for her design firm, Kirsten Kelly LLC. and, in Electra’s case, putting her to work on social media one summer.
“My husband and I believe you have to have a sense of purpose and identity, a reason to get up every morning instead of just to get your nails done and go have lunch. It’s important to strive for goals. And one goal begets another. You have to find your own self, beyond being a couple.”
Medicine is Lindsay Smith’s (Connecticut) passion. She’s a summa cum laude neuroscience major on the pre med track at the University of Texas. The ball is a family affair. Mom, Victoria Smith, grandmother and nieces all came out. And they all came to support Lindsay.
“My own ball was a magical evening,” Victoria told me. “My father passed away shortly after that. I’ll always remember him helping me get dressed and our big family celebration. And I’ve kept in touch with many of the women I met.” Victoria went on to be a book editor at Time Warner and an advertising production manager for Tiffany.
Maribel Lieberman, who created the worldwide brand, MarieBelle chocolates, liked the idea of giving daughter Angelina a new group of International friends. “Angelina has visited so many countries with us since she was little,” Maribel told me. “And I grew up in Honduras, where coming out is a tradition.”
At 17, Angelina already helms her own charity for teenage mental health, overseeing a staff of 120. It started with a Brown summer school (she will attend in the fall), assignment that she made real.
“I started a mental health nonprofit,” Angelina told me, “to help teenagers find successful resources for doctors, psychologists and advocates for mental health. I have also been passionate about making my prep school more inclusive.”
Angelina was also purposeful about the dress. “She has her own style,” Maribel said, “classic and simple. She told me ‘Mama, I’m going to choose.’ And she knew right away. I got her a white dress, a great party and got to take her home when it was over!”
As with the original balls held around the English court, there is even a tie to the current King and Queen of England at this one. Julia Kauffman has spent much time alone with Charles and Camilla, in Buckingham Palace, Highgrove, Dumfries and Birkhall, thanks, in part, to her support of his causes. “When my mother died and I was in the foundation business, every year, I sent a little donation to Prince Charles’ charity,” Kauffman told me. “He began inviting me to this and that, but I was busy building my performing arts center (The Kauffman Performing Arts Center in Kansas City).”
Finally, after helping sponsor a visitor center at The Castle of Mey, the Queen Mother’s home in Northern Scotland, she made it over the pond.
Last October, Kauffman dined alone with King Charles at Birkhall. “He arrived wearing his Gordon’s kilt,” she said. “Everything on my plate he had grown himself. The venison was the best I’ve ever had in my life. We talked about his many grandfather clocks and renovations. We looked at his latest watercolors that hadn’t even been framed yet. I usually ask him questions about the jewelry, who’s wearing which tiara. Let’s put it this way, what doesn’t he know!
“Remembering that conversation, one night at a dinner for eight at Dumfries house, the King put me on his right and Hugh Roberts, who wrote The Queens Diamonds, on my right. He does very sweet and thoughtful things like that. He’s also generous to a fault with Christmas presents, handwritten cards and thank you notes. Once, as I was leaving, he gave me a bottle of perfume made from the flowers at Highgrove that is not even on the shelves yet.”
And Camilla? “I’ve met her about seven times. She’s very beautiful in person and really tiny, about 5’ 2”. The camera doesn’t do her justice. She’s good company, friendly and down to earth. I think they make a wonderful couple.”
Andrew Parker Bowles? “I saw him at the Göring Hotel at the Castle of Mey cocktail party and — I mean it — he took my breath away from across the room. He is still that handsome!”
Julia credits the stepfather who adopted her, Ewing Kauffman, the self made founder of Marion Pharmaceuticals and later, the Kansas City Royals, for her work ethic and commitment to philanthropy. She was 16, two years after losing her biological father, when her mother married him. “He put me to work immediately, driving the van on Saturdays for the younger boys to deliver, doing junk mail in the plant. He made me work my way up. No fancy summers. Summer school — even if you didn’t need it — and afternoons in the plant.
“Later, he put my children to work handing out baseball souvenirs at Halloween. He thought they should learn to give instead of only receive.
When he was dying, she cried, “Daddy, Daddy, what will I do without you?” “You’ll be fine,” he assured her. “You graduated from the Ewing Marion Kauffman School of Business!”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Julia joined forces with International Deb Ball General Chairman Margaret Hedberg. She inherited the Ball from her childless aunt, Beatrice Dinsmore Joyce, who founded it in 1954.
Hedberg, too, had lost her father when she was young. “When I was 11 my mother and her sister decided to move in together,” Margaret told me, “so I had to work a lot of these debutante balls as a kid. In those days, you had to do what they told you. My mother was basically spoiling me rotten, but my aunt was much more practical. She would get me summer jobs. I think she would give them the money! I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but as I look back, she was really wonderful to me. She gave me discipline and responsibility. She wouldn’t let me lie around but got me out and gave me character. And she was fun. We got along very well towards the end of her life. That’s why I took over the ball.”
Like Julia, Margaret has a down-to-earth way about her. The ball? “I try to do the best I can,” she says. “I want them to have a happy memory.”
This year’s debutantes:
Representing BELGIUM – Mlle. Rose Laurent Josi, daughter of M. & Mme. Jean-Louis Laurent Josi, Brussels; Representing ENGLAND – Arabella Francesca Pierson Sainty, daughter of Guy Stair Sainty & Elizabeth Frost, London and Washington, D.C.; Representing FRANCE – Mlle. Marie de Jouffroy d’ Abbans, daughter of M. & Mme. Marc de Jouffroy d’Abbans, Paris and Mlle. Blanche Darcy de Moltke Huitfeldt, daughter of M. & Mme. Pierre Darcy de Moltke Huitfeld, Paris; Representing IRAN – Miss Farah Alexandra Hamzavi Haskin, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Timothy D. Haskin, Tehran and New York; Representing SCOTLAND –Miss Sophie Drummond-Herdman, daughter of Mr. Giles Herdman & The Hon. Mrs. Drummond-Herdman of Megginch Castle, Errol, Perthshire and Miss Violet Drummond of Megginch, daughter of The Honorable Mr. & Mrs John Drummond of Megginich, Megginch Castle, Errol, Perthshire; Representing GREECE – Miss Callista du Repaire, daughter of Count & Countess Guilhem du Repaire, Paris and Athens; Representing ARIZONA – Miss Katherine Maclean Getz, Paradise Valley, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. George Fulmer Getz and Miss Cristina Jane Glascock, Paradise Valley, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Bonsal Hays Glascock, Paradise Valley; Representing CONNECTICUT – Miss Lindsay Hopkins Smith, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Gregory C. Smith, Darien; Representing FLORIDA – Miss Maria Suzanne Knasel, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Kevin Knasel, Naples; Representing NEW YORK – Miss Electra Wallace Ford, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Gerald J. Ford, New York and Dallas and Miss Angela Lieberman, daughter of the late Jacques Lieberman & Mrs. Maribel Lieberman, New York and Miss Mason Norton Santomero, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Camillo M. Santomero III., Bedford; Representing TEXAS – Miss Lucille Lagow Callewart, daughter of Dr. & Mrs. Craig C. Callewart & Mrs. Shannon Wilson Callewart, Dallas, Miss Tucker Abigail Garrison, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Daniel A. Garrison, Austin, Miss Bramlette Margaret Labatt, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Frederick Bramlette Labatt, San Antonio, Miss Arabella Montgomery McFarland, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Andrew Roberts McFarland, Houston, Miss Alexis Madison McKee, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Danny McKee, Fort Worth, Miss Michaela Elizabeth McTee, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Charles Dewey McTee, San Antonio, Miss Paris de Chantal Smith, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Perry Rowan Smith, Jr., Houston.
Photographs by Elaine and Chichi Ubina.