Monday, October 4, 2021. A warm and sunny early Autumn weekend in New York.
I spent Saturday afternoon continuing to edit my overloaded bookshelves. It’s a ponderous exercise because I’m attached to my books the way some of us are attached to family photo albums. Sentiment flourishes, and I find myself unable to let go of many. Among my souvenirs was a book for which I wrote the introduction — Debutantes: When Glamour Was Born by Diana Oswald (Rizzoli publishers).
Although its importance no longer exists, the “debutante” was still a sacrosanct tradition when I was a young man of college age, celebrated in New York and surrounding environs, and other major American cities as well as in France and England mid-20th century.
Perusing the book’s stories, I was reminded of a debut a little girl from New Jersey named Joanne Connelley who came out at the Infirmary Ball here in New York in 1948. Her debut marked the height of the tradition, as the 17-year-old made the cover of LIFE, the most widely circulated and influential weekly magazine in America. The cover brought her brief international fame and fortune overnight, for what would become a star-crossed life.
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. Hers was a luminescent beauty, a kind of untouchable charisma that some people seem to have and at the same time are unaware of. Joanne’s mother was aware for her. She would be brought up to expect the best, and she would have it.
She was placed in a convent school on Long Island, and then Miss Beard’s in Orange, New Jersey. However, in the meantime, Margaret’s second 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 her 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. But then when she smiled, the sun was beaming, 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 Joanne wanted most to please was Mother. Mother was her spirit, her guiding light. And her nemesis. Mother had big 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 then very low. Or she could get married, perhaps the most legitimate pursuit in the minds of most women. And marriage to 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, with the city 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 also a great big town of working class neighborhoods, manufacturing lofts 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 arriving daily 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 everyday. 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 Daily News and the Mirror and then read the Post and the Journal in the afternoon.
All the papers had their syndicated columnists who kept the public tantalized with the inside on society and the Hollywood stars. The biggest was Walter Winchell (30 million readers syndicated daily) 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, were in the Journal-American 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 — about $4 million in today’s dollars), 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 coming of age. 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’s future.
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 mainly 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. Walter Winchell reported that the Connelley girl was a stunner, Kilgallen and Cholly Knickerbocker concurred. 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 Joanne 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 to work read about her the next morning, 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 of that year, 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.
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. aas well as a former wife of Clark Gable. Sweeny and Connelley made a beautiful couple straight out of Town & Country magazine.
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 …To some observers After the wedding, Mother quit the dress shop and moved to Paris, and the newlyweds moved to Palm Beach.
Palm Beach was then, fifty years ago, little more than a village, which its part time residents still often arrived 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 seriously 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. Vanderbilts, 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 did their daughters.
For the 19-year-old new arrival on the party circuit, Joanne Connelley, toast of the New York gossip columnists, Palm Beach was like the Morning After. Mr. Sweeny played golf, while Mrs. Sweeny sat around — pool or the bridge table — with women often twice, sometimes three times, her age.
Many were rich, many were worldly, even European. Many of her new social peers were used to the life of utter leisure. They had been brought up with nothing to do but amuse themselves. Palm Beach then, with all that time and all that money in the balmy sea air, was like Peyton Place for the rich.
In 1950, Joanne gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Sharon. Two years later came a second, Brenda. As it was with a lot of her Palm Beach pals, motherhood made few demands on her. Soon she was bored, and probably boring. Who was she anyway, and how could she know? Cinderella was now a girl with too much time and too much money.
Drinking became part of her daily regimen. Nobody really noticed. She was a young drunk, in a world where they were all ages. She developed the classic vanity syndrome of worrying about her weight. The situation was further hindered by 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.
She was in the proverbial danger zone. She began to lose interest in her husband, who had long before lost interest in her. She fell into the “guidance” of Dominican diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa, international playboy/lover of so many famous blonde (and rich) women such as Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke (both of whom he married) and Zsa Zsa Gabor. He was famous among his set for the size of his equipment, which was often said to be in at least a semi-state of preparedness at all times.
At 21 Joanne Connelley, only four years out of boarding school uniforms, had gone from being a beautiful pawn to an expensive accessory. And then high maintenance.
In short time, the Sweeny marriage was over. There were more men in Joanne’s life and none of them her husband. In 1954, naming Rubirosa as the other man, and getting custody of their daughters, Bob Sweeny divorced her.
He had no choice. She had already flown the coop. 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.
Europe in the mid-1950s was still climbing out of the ravages of the War, but it was the exciting place to be. The now ex-Mrs. Sweeny was traveling in the same orbit as Elsa Maxwell, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Maria Callas, Mona, the Countess von Bismarck, Aristotle Onassis, Aly Khan and Rita Hayworth. Pleasant, although without wit, her fame in America had crossed the Atlantic. And, she was now marrying a Patino. She was destiny’s child.
Years later, she was remembered by the people who knew her then only for her looks. “She was like a well-decorated cake,” recalled Lady Sarah Spencer-Churchill, eldest daughter of the 10th Duke of Marlborough and granddaughter of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan: “good to look at, but nothing of substance.”
The Ortiz-Patino engagement came with $250,000 in jewelry (or about $5 million in today’s purchasing power). The night before the wedding, however, something went wrong. Whatever it was that upset her, Joanne wanted to back out. There was a scene. Mother’s pressure was applied. Daughter was in no position to back out. She’d left the Sweeny marriage without a sous. Do, or die.
The marriage was performed in Margaret Watts‘ Paris apartment. The newlyweds headed to Capri for the honeymoon. Almost immediately, sordid rumors about them began spreading.
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.
When she recovered, she suddenly departed, with her money and her jewels. Ortiz frantically searched for her. He finally found her in a dingy penzione in Naples, limp and dank and barely conscious. Pills.
Taken to Rome for treatment, she fled from her husband again. This time to Lausanne. Then Paris. Then London, then back to Rome. She was a twenty-five year old girl, willful, helpless, and in the classic addictive mode, heading for her bottom.
Now destitute except for money Sweeny would send her, she was taken in by the American reporter Mike Stern. There she gave Stern the story of her marital dilemma, married to a Patino. A marriage, she said, of abuse and brutality. The poor Cinderella, defiled by her prince. Perfect tabloid headlines. Stern sold the story to a magazine. Ortiz sued. Stern was fined, and Joanne was held in contempt, for not showing up in court.
In 1954, Jaime Ortiz-Patino filed for divorce from Joanne Connelley on grounds of desertion. In the suit he referred to his wife as a “worthless woman who did everything for money.” She drank too much, she took too many drugs. And he wanted his jewelry back.
But the docile little middle-class girl from New Jersey wasn’t giving up so easily. She still had a mother. And Margaret Watts was thinking of their future: hers and her daughter’s. They fought back with suits in France, Switzerland, and England.
Mr. Ortiz-Patino, Joanne Connelley countered in her suit, was a “drug-sodden wife beater” who abused her so that she “lay down to die.”
The divorce suit lasted longer than the romance and the marriage combined. The stress and pressure of it put Joanne’s life on hold. Now she really did have a drug problem. There was Dexedrine to wake her up, diet pills to slim her down and speed her along, and more sleeping pills to take it all away. All in the name of keeping up appearances. Not to mention that the baby fat that she obsessed about at 21 had become a matter of fact at 25.
She settled with her mother in a remote, rented house in Neuchatel, Switzerland. Very occasionally she traveled to Paris and St. Moritz. She was not a recluse, but she was already out of the picture.
In mid-June 1957, three years after the marriage ceremony that she tried to avoid that night in Paris, the lawsuits were finally settled. The golden girl of 1949 got approximately $100,000 in cash. She also got to keep the jewels. The total was a few million in today’s dollars.
The results were said to have left her optimistic once again. She would start over. She wrote to Ted Howard in New York and told him of her plans. She wanted to get a screen test, to get the “build-up” again. After all, it hadn’t been that long, she was still the kid on the cover of LIFE. A very young Norma Desmond, with a serious prescription drug addiction.
Late in the morning of June 31, 1957, 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. Fearing the worst, Margaret Watts called a priest for the last rites. Then they rushed the young beauty 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.
The cause of death was listed as a heart attack. She was 26 years old. Although from that snowy December night at the Infirmary Ball in New York when the sun shone on her, only eight short years had passed, but itt turned out to be one long suicide trip.
Her passing was reported in Time, Newsweek and all the American papers. “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.”
She was, in the words of Reinaldo Herrera, who as a very young man knew her at her zenith, “one of those incandescent people whose life is very intense and short-lived.”
A friend remembered her as “a kind girl with a vivid interest in people and things. All she needed was a man who could really lead her.” But in the end, all she had was Mother, with whom she was holed up in a remote villa in the Alps.
Few, if any, really mourned her passing. She had been the meal ticket for her mother. To her own children, she was the mother they would never have. To her husbands she was dispensable, disposable, and to the press, another pretty picture gone up in the flames of celebrity. To herself, what was left?