Steppin’ in Society, Part I

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The calm before the storm that never came. Saturday, 7:35 PM. Photo: JH.

Monday, August 23, 2021. Henri, the Atlantic hurricane was here over the weekend with rain and winds from Saturday afternoon onwards into this morning. It was supposed to hit out East head on, although by the time it arrived its status had been reduced to Tropical Storm.

Some areas of New England had massive amounts of rain and winds. In the city it just rained and rained. The temps dropped comfortably into the low 70s and the weatherman reported that the Air Quality was excellent. Otherwise it was a very quiet weekend in New York. Lovely.

Today we are running the first of two parts of a “history” of American Society (part II to be published on tomorrow’s Diary) from the end of the 19th century to today, that I wrote for the current August issue of Quest magazine for its annual Quest 400 theme.

Sounds simplistic, but I was inspired by the Cole Porter lyric of a song “Ridin’ High” written for Ethel Merman in the 1936 Broadway musical Red, Hot, And Blue! Porter was himself a sophisticated member of the international social sets, and frequently commented about their lives and their relationship to social fashions in his clever lyrics.

Jimmy Durante, Ethel Merman, and Bob Hope in the original (1936) broadway production of Red, Hot, And Blue!

What do I care, if Mrs. Harrison Williams 
Is the best-dressed woman in town.
What do I care if Countess Barbara Hutton
Has a Rolls-Royce built for each gown.
Why should I get the vapors
When I read in the papers
That Mrs. Simpson dined behind the throne?
I’ve got a cute king of my own.

— Cole Porter, “Ridin’ High”

The ladies Mr Porter was writing about in his lyrics from the 1936 musical Red, Hot and Blue were actual Socialites of their day. In fact, they were the original “socialites,” those for whom the word was coined. Not necessarily Social Register-ites, because often they didn’t have the “right” family background to have got in the book in the first place. But they were rich girls who lived fabled (and sometimes fast) lives.

A portrait of the Mrs. Astor by Carolus-Duran, 1890, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mrs. Astor would stand in front of it when receiving guests.

Back in the Mrs. Astor’s day — only a couple of decades after her, those same girls would have been considered “nouveau” if that, or vixens manipulating the lives of vulnerable rich men. It was a highly competitive world to succeed in, one which required a large personal fortune or a husband possessing the same.

Mrs. Harrison Williams — Mona  to her friends — later Mona, Countess Bismarck, had five husbands. She was at the time married to one of the world’s richest men, a utility magnate with a fortune before the 1929 Stock Market Crash estimated at $700 million (or more than $100 billion in today’s currency). She and her husband when in New York lived in the house on 94th and Fifth (still standing) built by the architectural team of Delano & Aldrich for Willard Straight and Dorothy Payne Whitney, and in Palm Beach and Bayville, Long Island.

The Willard D. Straight House on the corner of 94th and Fifth Avenue.

Barbara Hutton, known in the press and to the public as the “Poor Little Rich Girl” was the Woolworth five and dime heiress who in the late 1920s inherited about a half billion (in today’s currency) when she was a child after her mother committed suicide. Hutton later owned houses all over the world, built to her specifications — including Winfield House in London which she later gifted the US government, and which became the official American Ambassador’s residence. Famous for her extravagance and multitude of husbands, she was an object of fascination and resentment by the public and the press.

Barbara Hutton wearing her famous Maire Antoinette pearl necklace and the ‘Pacha’ diamond ring, weighing 38.19 cts. Photographed by by Horst, New York, 1939.

Hutton and Mona Williams were only two of the clamoring crowd who populated the social scene of those times of the Roaring Twenties and Depression 1930s. The term “socialite” was a code word invented about 1928 by Briton Hadden, Henry Luce’s  Yale classmate and partner in their invention of Time magazine. The word meant “rich,” and maybe a little racy for ordinary folk.

That era was the beginning of the “Café Society,” a new term coined in 1915 by a newspaper columnist Maury Paul writing under the nom de plume Cholly Knickerbocker for the Hearst papers’ New York Journal-American, which by its presence became the world of “Cafe Society” in the tabloidal press. It meant play, not work in what was then essentially still a Puritanical society. They were ostensibly the “leisure class” — a new term then from a book The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, an American sociologist and economist.

“Society” was a reference to Veblen’s “leisure class,” a term to describe ladies and gentlemen who didn’t have to work for a living. They were the new generation, heirs of the last of the Victorians where people lived off the “fat of the land,” namely their land of banks and stocks and bonds.

Countess Mona von Bismarck.

Brit Hadden was a journalist (which Henry Luce was not) who invented the Timestyle. The term “socialite” was breezy and smart-alecky, reflecting the “who cares” economic euphoria America was swimming in in the late 1920s. Hadden was the writer and creative wit on the new magazine Time. Unfortunately he died of a bacterial infection suddenly a week after his thirtieth birthday in 1928. His name was dropped from the masthead by his partner Luce and he was forgotten as if he’d never existed.

The brand new automotive age was in full swing; the country — or those who had the time and the money — was getting out and about drinking bootleg liquor and bathtub gin, or for those who could afford it, the real stuff hustled in by boat from Europe and Canada. It was “Prohibition” in name (and law) only because people were boozing everywhere and flaunting it (breaking the law), and even killing themselves with it (the beginning of drunk driving). In Manhattan, the flappers and the jazz babies written about by F. Scott Fitzgerald were dressed to kill, out on the town, hitting the “speakeasy” of which there were more than 3,000 all over the boroughs of New York celebrating their new freedom, dancing, and drinking up a storm.

These socialites were the coolest — a word not yet in the vernacular — of the pack who had the time and money. They frequented first the speakeasies and then after the Repeal of Prohibition in 1933, nightclubs like the Stork and El Morocco. Elmo’s customers dressed up for the occasion — women in evening gowns and jewels and men in black tie or white tie and tails. They mingled with Wall Street bankers, Broadway theatre people and movie stars who aped their style, adding dash and glamour.

Alice Clifford, Dick Hall, Sarah Jane Sanford, and Winkie Brooks at El Morocco, 1936. Photograph by Jerome Zerbe, Copyright © Yale University
C.Z. Guest at El Morocco, photographed by Jerome Zerbe.

Jerome Zerbe, a handsome young man, and another Yale graduate (like Cole Porter), was from a prosperous family in Ohio, then the industrial center of the country. Zerbe came to New York after college to make his way in life. Already an aficionado of the still new photographer’s camera, he was already a devotee of budding socialite life.

Dressed appropriately in black tie or white, he went out every night with his camera to a new post-Prohibition nightclub on East 54th Street called El Morocco. Befriending the owner, John Perona, he devoted his hours there  taking photos of the “socialites” partying, and selling them to the newspapers. Those photos of the patrons were a sensation in the tabloids, something ordinary working Americans had never seen before. They not only made El Morocco famous but they created a lifelong career for Zerbe.

Marlene Dietrich at El Morocco. Photographs by Jerome Zerbe, Copyright © Yale University

Zerbe’s enterprising work with the camera were the beginning of what today remains the popular habit of garnering publicity for nightclubs and a wide variety of social activities. He himself became a popular figure in the nightlife of the New York social world and shortly thereafter in Hollywood, with a career that continued for the next four decades.

Unlike the paparazzi who followed, Zerbe becam friend and traveler with the socialites and movie stars he photographed. Later in his career his photographic interest was mainly in permanently un-peopled still life such as architecture and its interiors. (He was also credited with inventing the vodka martini, post-Prohibition of course.)

Rudy Vallee mixing drinks for John Perona and Judy Stewart at El Morocco, 1938. Photographs by Jerome Zerbe, Copyright © Yale University

A good many of the new “socialites” were newly rich not listed in the Social Register, then the established social bible of the first half of the 20th century which would eliminate people from their pages because of their nightlife, or their marriages and divorces. But the nouveau riche mainly imitated the manners if not the mores of the Old Guard, except they flashed their wealth around publicly.

Brenda Diana Duff Frazier Photographed by Horst P. Horst, circa 1938.

A socialite was an American — or South American (not European) which still had its nobility and active monarchies. These “new” socialites lived up on Park Avenue or on Fifth, or on the North Shore of Long Island, or both. They did not live on Central Park West, or the East Village (which until the 1970s was called the Lower East Side), or Park Slope. Which would explain why Elmo’s (popular name for El Morocco) was on East 54th Street and the Stork on East 53rd.

The Stock Market Crash of 1929, followed by the Great Depression (and the lifting of Prohibition) did not affect their nightlife. Many of the most successful speakeasies became the watering holes of the elite and the newly named Café Society and another new phenomenon, the gossip columnist — the most famous being a former vaudevillian Walter Winchell who in his prime, syndicated, had more than 30 million readers a day. Very young women still in their teens like Brenda Frazier and Gloria Vanderbilt came into the spotlight with national publicity that made them famous across the world.

By the late 1930s, there were also those girls from Boston, the Cushing Sisters, Minnie, Betsey and Barbara — always known as Babe (the youngest). Their father Dr. Harvey Cushing was not rich or social but he was a “household name,” revered and esteemed by the public as America’s first brain surgeon. His daughters’ real status, however, pursued and promoted by their mother Kate Cushing, put them at the top of the social world. All three married twice to famous and rich Americans.

A Jerome Zerbe photograph of Miss Barbara Cushing, late 1930s, seated next to Hugh Chisolm, Jr.

The middle sister Betsey married in 1930 to James Roosevelt whose father Franklin D. became President two years later. That marriage produced two daughters, then a divorce and a second marriage to John Hay (“Jock”) Whitney, one of America’s wealthiest men. The eldest daughter Minnie was first the mistress and then the (second) wife of Vincent Astor, and the youngest, Barbara (always known as Babe), married the blueblood Stanley Mortimer whom she later divorced and married William Paley, the broadcasting tycoon (CBS).

The wedding day of Babe Cushing Mortimer to William Paley, July 23, 1947. Standing: Mr. and Mrs. Henry Mortimer, Minnie and Vincent Astor, Bill Paley, Babe, Jock Whitney and Betsey Whitney. Sitting: Kate Roosevelt, Tony Mortimer, Katherine Cushing, Amanda Mortimer, and Sara Roosevelt.

The Second World War changed everything, creating a more dynamic and broader “society” here in New York, and attracting the war-torn European royals and aristos. The country had finally come out of the Depression by the post-war 1940s when the boom in American industry more wisely distributed the wealth. The mass popularity of radio had brought Americans coast-to-coast together. The airplane shortened travel time and the “socialite” began to associate with the upperclasses of Europe and South America who were often amused and charmed by the rich Americans.

Women like Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton spread their wealth among men they married from distant shores, with their alliances lighting up headlines in the same way movie stars’ romances did. Hutton and Duke even married the same man — Porfirio Rubirosa — a Dominican “diplomat” who was famous for his astounding priapic prowess, said to be beyond compare. Neither heiress remained married for very long to the Dominican playboy, who in an earlier age of society would have been referred to as a gigolo. He was evidently appreciated for his “prowess” as both women sent him off with buckets of cash, cars, and airplanes as an homage to his personal “asset.”

Porfirio Rubirosa, with with Zsa Zsa Gabor, holding a hand-powered projectile weapon, circa 1954.

Part II, coming tomorrow …

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