THE AGE OF THE DEBUTANTE; Newport in the 1930s, Part I

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The Waves, Ledge Road, Newport, designed by architect John Russell Pope.

Newport’s sense of place is so seemingly set in the character of the Gilded Age that the reputation of other historical chapters suffers. Such is the case of the exuberant Interwar Years when Newport embraced the promise of peace and prosperity and was arguably at its loveliest.

The Bellevue Avenue estate district was then largely built out and its villas, still fully-staffed, had begun to gain patina and improved collections; miles of uniform privet hedges shielded gardens and specimen trees reaching maturity; the old town stood intact along the harbor front; established golf, tennis and yachting events were joined in 1930 by the arrival of the J-boat class America’s Cup races; the 1929 opening of the Mt. Hope Bridge provided an easy automobile connection between Aquidneck Island and the mainland luring day excursionists; and the Old Guard arbiters, secure in established traditions, welcomed the arrival of new summer colonists with fortunes derived from automobiles, condensed soup, finance, grocery stores, oil, oleomargarine and utilities.

The Mt. Hope Bridge as it appeared in 1929, shortly after it opened to the public.

Leading architects, artists, designers, retailers and sportsmen gathered to meet the needs of the fashionable community.  Existing houses were renovated, new estates transformed the landscape and country life thrived at the Gentlemen’s farms of Middletown and Portsmouth.  Confident local collectors and patrons led by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Katherine Urquhart Warren and Martha Codman Karolik advocated both Modernist art and Americana.  Stark modernism co-existed with the neo-baroque in art, architecture and fashion.

With the impact of the Great Depression, social conscience spread in a variety of creative ways; from cottage industries to charity bazaars and fund-raising social events led by the wittily self-deprecating White Elephants balls.  The dramatic impact of the 1938 Hurricane was answered with zealous reconstruction.  It would be only the gathering clouds of war in Europe that in 1941 led to a new world order and drastically altered priorities for Newport.

Against this perfect backdrop we see a social phenomena know as the “Age of the Debutante” when some of Newport’s leading debutantes or “Glamour Girls” as they were known in the press were gracing society pages in this country and Europe.  Many of Newport’s debutantes had the same star power as leading actresses of today. Using the 1930’s scrapbooks of Elizabeth “Betty” Morris Smith, Aeriel Frazer Eweson, and Virginia French Pool as a primary resource, we try to capture the lifestyle of some of Newport’s leading debutantes.

“Glamour Girls” (from l. to r.) Elizabeth “Betty” Morris Smith, Aeriel Frazer Eweson, and Virginia French Pool.

One of the first widely publicized parties to set the pace of the post-war years was that given by Mr. & Mrs. John Aspegren at their cottage “Aspen Hall” at the corner of Bellevue and Ledge Road on September 2, 1922.

The Aspegren’s cottage, “Aspen Hall.”
Hundreds of workmen were involved over a period of three days getting all of the props ready for the big night.

In these nighttime photographs taken just before the arrival of the Aspegren’s guests we see the property decorated with over ten thousand electric light bulbs, a novelty in such mass for the time period, multiple trellised walkways lead past a fountain draped with live dancers  to tents with floral ceilings, strung with Chinese lanterns and set for a dance program by Michel Fokine Ballet and for a late night supper.

Beyond the trellised walkways at the edge of the property were large, tethered colored balloons and light formations in the form of sea monsters, and anchored just offshore was a barge bathed in spotlight from which a fireworks display was launched. Such evening revelry, costing then in excess of $20,000, became par for the course standards of inspiration for the ensuing decade of rich debutantes.

Shortly thereafter Mrs. J. Norman de Rham Whitehouse referenced the Aspegren party with one of the early debutante balls of the period in honor of her daughter Alice at her Price’s Neck estate “Sea Edge.”

The Whitehouse estate, “Sea Edge.”

The party is well remembered because Mrs. Whitehouse managed to have two US Navy warships anchored just off the property.  The illuminated warships provided a fantastic backdrop and kept their searchlights playing on the party until the last guests left at 4 a.m.

By 1930 the Age of the Debutante was in full swing.  Two of Newport’s most glamorous debutantes that season were best friends Doris Duke and Alletta (called Leta) Morris.  Here we see the girls on Bailey’s Beach in 1924 when they were 12 years old, six years before their debuts.

Doris and Leta down by the beach, 1924. Courtesy of Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, NC.

Leta was born Alletta Nathalie Lorillard Morris in 1912, the daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Lewis Gouverneur Morris. She was brought up with her sister Betty at “Malbone” (1849), a Gothic Revival manse in Newport by the architect Alexander Jackson Davis and at 1015 Park Avenue (at the southeast corner of 85th street) in New York.

L. to r.: Leta with her little sister Betty; Leta’s second home, 1015 Park Avenue.

Their friend Aeriel Frazer also grew up summering in Newport.  She was the daughter of Joseph Washington Frazer, a descendent of George Washington’s brother, and Lucille Frost, a leading Newport and New York society hostess.

Another set of sister friends was Virginia French and her sister Ellen Tuck French.  They were the daughters of Francis (Frank) French and Eleanor Livingston Burrill French.  The girls’ parents divorced when they were young and they were brought up largely by their mother at 660 Park Avenue in New York City and the family’s cottage on Cliff Terrace in Newport.  Ellen Tuck French would have the most publicized wedding of the era when she married John Jacob Astor VI in 1934.

L. to r.: Aeriel Frazer; Virginia French and her sister Ellen Tuck French.

As the girls matured boys and fashion entered the picture.  This is a page from Betty Morris’ scrapbook entitled her “Page of Beaus.”

When the girls reached the age of 18 they made their debuts to society; some would make two debuts, one in Newport and one in their home city in the autumn.  Most of the Newport circuit girls were from New York.  They, as debutantes, became popular fodder for the paparazzi just as movie stars would soon become but in the 1920s, and especially the ‘30s, paparazzi would descend on Newport each summer to photograph debutantes and other members of Newport society.  The girls were photographed constantly coming and going from Bailey’s Beach.

Bailey’s Beach, Newport, circa 1934.

During the 1920s and ’30s the parking lot for Bailey’s Beach was located on the opposite side of the street.  The beach was private, the parking lot was private but Ocean Avenue was not and that is where the paparazzi or “news hawks” as they were called would station themselves to catch their prey.

Entrance to Bailey’s Beach, circa 1933.
One of the glam shots of the era was this shot showing six of Newport’s leading debutantes (from l. to r.): Lesley Bogert, LeBrun Rhinelander, Virginia “V” French, Betty Brooke, Jane Pope, and Elizabeth (Betty) Morris.

Always photogenic, Leta was photographed almost daily coming and going from Bailey’s Beach (below, left).  In the summer of 1935 Betty Morris is seen wearing a very stylish hat, advertised at Bergdorf’s as essential for that summer season (below, center). Leta made her debut in 1930.  This photo of her appeared in the New York Times with caption reading “Miss Morris will be honored at a dinner party given in Newport on August 21 (below, right).

The article continued “guests will then move on to “Eagle’s Nest,” the summer cottage of the Jelkes where a dance starting at 10:30pm will be given in Leta’s honor for three hundred people.  The ever popular Meyer Davis Band will provide the music.” Doris Duke’s debut would be two days later on Saturday, August 23rd.

The year that Doris and Leta came out was 1930, it is important to remember that America was in the grips of the Great Depression but seemingly in Newport there were more dinners and dances than usual.  One of the big dinners that summer was given by Julia Berwind at “The Elms” on August 16th in honor of Doris Duke the weekend before her debut.

Doris Duke made two debuts in 1930.  Her first was in London where she was one of eight American debutantes to be presented at Buckingham Palace that season.

Doris would return to the States in June to prepare for her debut in Newport.  It was held at the family’s villa “Rough Point” beginning at 10:30 p.m. and lasting until dawn. The debut was organized by Miss Duke’s mother Nanaline Holt Inman Duke.

L. to r.: Doris Duke’s London debut; Miss Duke’s mother Nanaline Holt Inman Duke, seen in a paparazzi shot taken that summer in the parking lot at Bailey’s Beach.
“Rough Point,” the setting of Miss Duke’s debut in Newport.

The invitation noted “a small dance in honor of her daughter.” In actuality, three orchestras played for 600 people and at its conclusion Doris Duke led a conga line to the sea for a late night swim.

One of the more humiliating aspects of the coming out season was the ranking of the debutantes by such gossip columnists as Audacious. The gossip columnists would rank the debutantes as either “ABCD,” a grueling ordeal for the debutantes as one of the golden rules of the season as put forth by the columnists was to keep the C and D debutantes at a safe distance.

Luckily most of the debutantes were able to laugh at the situation as one sees many instances throughout the scrapbooks of Grade A debutantes attending dinners and dances by Grade D debutantes.  Luckily for Alletta, Audacious, considered New York’s snobbiest columnist, not only listed her as Grade A but also as a prestige debutante.

In his column he placed her photograph in large scale and separated it from the rest of the debutantes as a special feature (below, left). When Alletta arrived back in NYC in September of 1930 she began preparing for her New York debut (below, right).

Many of the city parties were held either at the home of the host & hostess or at socially acceptable hotels and clubs such as the Savoy Plaza, the Ritz Carlton, the Sherry-Netherland and the River Club. Leta made her city debut in December 1930, and despite all the press she received it was small and exclusive and held in the Morris’ townhouse at 1015 Park Avenue.  At one point in her scrapbook even the always-glamorous Leta wrote a caption accompanying two pages with at least 70 invitations: “too many dinners and dances — oh … how I am beginning to hate them.”

Stacks of Invitations to Debutante Dinners and Dances, 1930.

Luckily for Alletta it was off to Europe for a nine-month sojourn, a mini grand tour, and a finishing school L’Hermitage at Versailles seen here in a photo taken by Leta.

Just behind Leta on the debutante circuit was her younger sister Betty Morris (below, left). Her memory books are filled with adoring pictures of her older sister’s debutante and post debutante days.  A curious clipping recalls Leta’s participation, with Doris Duke, in a fashion show at the Newport Casino and more glamorous subsequent shoots for Bergdorf Goodman (below, right).

Betty, in turn, would soon pose for the camera like Leta, but was also known to give the popular press a run for their money.

L. to r.: Here we see Betty doing just that in a photo for the New York Herald Tribune; Betty was an athletic child, in a photograph of her at age 6 she has a ball in hand, ready for any game of sport but Betty’s true love was horses.

Here we see Betty going over a jump in New York Central Park for a horse show, she is second from the left …
… winning second prize in the “Old Buggy Class” at the Newport Horse Show in Portsmouth, RI in 1933 …
… and playing polo for the women’s team in upstate New York in 1933.

Betty debuted in 1933 and was feted in both Newport and New York.  This is one of her official debutante pictures.

Betty made her Newport debut with her close friend Ellen Tuck French, the daughter of Frank Ormond French and Mrs. Livingston French.  Their party was given by Mrs. Skirvin Adams and her sister; the famous Perle Mesta at “Beachmound” on Bellevue Avenue and Betty’s NYC debut was at the Pierre Hotel on November 18.

“Beachmound” on Bellevue Avenue.

The following summer Betty followed in Leta’s footsteps and did a modeling shoot on Easton’s Beach in Newport for Town & Country magazine with other post debs Louise Whitehouse and Tucky French.

Miss Betty Brooke.

Betty’s scrapbook includes clippings and anecdotes of her slightly younger contemporaries including Miss Betty Brooke who was a debutante of the 1934-35 season.  She was feted by Mr. & Mrs. Hamilton Rice at “Miramar.” The New York Times called the party a “Fairyland Dream.”

The ceiling of the ballroom was entirely concealed by a tent-like canopy of pale pink silk.  The room itself was lighted indirectly by pale amber bulbs concealed in huge decorative chandeliers of real flowers, chandeliers that were described by one newspaper as a “florist’s poem.”

Artificial moonlight bathed the formal gardens, an effect electricians worked for days perfecting by using concealed lighting in the trees and shrubbery, something that today we’re used to but in 1934 left the guests mesmerized.

Furthermore the cliffs were illuminated and the waves could be seen breaking on their rocky base. Mrs. Rice and Betty Brooke’s mother were both survivors of the sinking of the RMS Titanic and were on the same lifeboat (#4) on that fateful evening.

Miramar, the location of Betty Brooke’s “Fairyland Dream” debut.
The gardens at Miramar.

A few weeks later Betty’s friend Lesley Bogert (below, left) was presented by her parents to Newport society at the Bogert family summer cottage “Angelsea” at the end of Ruggles Avenue (below, right).  It was called the most expensive debutante party ever hosted in Newport.  Lesley was one of the few American debutantes of the 1934-35 season who had also been presented at Buckingham Palace in May to George V and Queen Mary.

According to the papers, the evening boasted theatrical performances on the grounds twinkling with tiny blue lights and Hawaiian musical bands strolled for the listening pleasure of guests who happened to wander away from the rollicking sounds of the Meyer Davis Orchestra (below, left), the band of choice amongst the Newport social set.

The Bogert dance began at 11 p.m., preceded by dozens of dinners; one of the largest was given by Adelaide Whitehouse (below, right) at her parents’ summer cottage “Stone Villa.”  The papers also said that hundreds of townspeople gathered around the Bogert estate that evening to watch the arrival of the guests and listen to the sounds of Meyer Davis.

The following season the two leading Newport debutantes were Jane Pope, the daughter of Mr. & Mrs. John Russell Pope and Aeriel Frazer the daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Washington Frazer.

Here is Jane and Aeriel arriving at Bailey’s Beach, circa 1935.

To be continued (Part II will appear later this week).

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