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

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The wedding of John Jacob Astor and Ellen Tuck French.  The couple was married in Newport’s historic Trinity Church on June 30, 1934.

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.  Jane Pope’s debut took place at “The Waves,” designed by Miss Pope’s father, architect John Russell Pope (who also designed her party).

The theme of the evening was floral, rose petals carpeted the pathways and ballroom floor of a temporary tent structure set up on the oceanfront grounds.  Chandeliers designed by Pope for the tent were hung with wild flowers, and wildflower bouquets were strewn about the ballroom.

L. to r.: Leading Newport debutantes Jane Pope and Aeriel Frazer; According to The New York Herald, Miss Pope’s “party startled Newport.”

At the end of the evening the younger set walked down to Bailey’s Beach for a late night swim which turned into a skinny dipping session leading The New York Herald to release a photo of Miss Pope with the caption “her party startled Newport.” In reality, it was remembered by attendees as Newport’s best debutante party of the age.

The site of Jane Pope’s debut, “The Waves.”

Aeriel’s debut took place on August 14th that same summer at the Newport Country Club amidst a setting of silver and white. Designed by decorator Schuyler Parsons, the theme was a garden illuminated by moonlight. The ballroom was decorated with thousands of silvered leaves suspended on strings dangling from the center of the ceiling.  The supper tables were set up on the terrace overlooking the golf course under the light of a full moon.

Postcard view of the Newport Country Club, circa 1930.
The ballroom at the Newport Country Club.

Despite all of the glamour, the girls’ scrapbooks also recorded some of the setbacks of life as a well-publicized debutante or socialite.  During the 1936 season two of Newport’s debutantes became extortion targets. One was Miss Lucy Saunders of 120 East 61st Street whose family was renting the Isaac Bell House on Bellevue Avenue.

Mrs. Edward V. Hartford, Tucky Astor, and Lucy Saunders.

The other was Miss Eleanor Young of 720 Park Avenue whose parents were one of the richest couples in America.  They were renting “Beechwood,” the Astor estate on Bellevue Avenue before later buying “Fairholme” on Ruggles Avenue.  Two weeks after her debut had been splashed across papers nationwide, Miss Young received a letter in the mail instructing that $50,000.00 in cash be left in a locker at Grand Central Station or else her life would be in danger.

Miss Lucy Saunders received a similar letter addressed to her parents stating, “Lucy’s life is in danger.  You must pay $30,000.00 if you would save her.” Both girls were guarded in their Newport homes while government agents tracked down the extortionist.  Two weeks later the extortionist was caught and readily confessed.

Eleanor “Cookie” Young (left) and Lucy Saunders (right) were both targets of extortion and received death threats.

Nor was the jeunesse dorée set immune from tragedy. In examining the scrapbooks, frequent mention is made of the tragic death of Miss Mary Pope, the elder daughter of Mr. & Mrs. John Russell Pope, at the age of 17 on Old Beach Road when the new car she was driving collided with another — killing her instantly.

Mary Pope is in the portrait on the left; her sister Jane Pope is on the right.

Finally the lack of privacy caused by celebrity could at times be debilitating; particularly affected by this were the young Mr. & Mrs. John Jacob Astor and Doris Duke who were barraged and sometimes manhandled by the press when appearing in public. A famous headline of 1935 was “Astors to Dodge Mob by Home Christening.” The article began “to avoid the mob of 3,000 spectators who marred their Newport wedding in 1934, Mr. & Mrs. John Jacob Astor will christen their son at their Newport home “Chetwode” on August 20th.”

Doris Duke photographed by the paparazzi.
J.J. Astor and Tucky French Astor with son William.
“Chetwode,” the Newport home of Mr. & Mrs. John Jacob Astor.

After the debuts were over, the young ladies were still covered voraciously in the press — the next phase was the party scene and eventually marriage.  Before their evening engagements many of the young ladies would have their make-up done at Helena Rubinstein’s on Bellevue Avenue.

Helena Rubinstein, Bellevue Avenue, Newport.

Then on to Newport’s most sought after soirees, one of which was the White Elephant Ball given every Labor Day weekend. The first White Elephant costume ball was held at the Newport summer cottage of A&P heiress Mrs. Edward V. Hartford, “Seaverge,” at the end of Bellevue Avenue.

The White Elephants ball invitation, Newport, 1932.
Seaverge, Bellevue Avenue, Newport.

The following year it was given by the Burden’s at “Fairlawn.” The party was a great success that year but the Burdens were outraged when they discovered that a prankster partygoer had flushed a gold toiletry set down a toilet.  From then on the party was held in the public venue of the Newport Country Club.

Fairlawn, Bellevue Avenue, Newport.

Here we see a photograph from Town & Country magazine of Leta dressed to attend the ball at the Burdens’.  Leta and her friends Penelope Winslow, Adelaide Whitehouse and Marie Saunders designed and made their costumes themselves and attended very appropriately as White Elephants.

Of all the debutantes of the 1930s Doris Duke was the most frequently mentioned in the press both pre and post debutante. As a child she was often referred to as “The Richest Girl in the World” and as an adult who she was dating was always a hot topic.  Right after her debut, she was rumored to be dating Phil Plant of Newport whose mother Mrs. William Hayward occupied “Clarendon Court.” He had just divorced actress Constance Bennett.

L. to r.: “The Richest Girl in the World” and “The Golden Boy of the Great Depression.”

But it was Jimmy Cromwell, known in the press at times as “The Golden Boy of the Great Depression” who would eventually conquer Doris’s heart.  His mother Eva Stotesbury owned one of the legendary villas of Palm Beach, “El Mirasol,” and Jimmy spent a lot of time there. Doris and Leta would visit Palm Beach staying at “The Breakers.”

Postcard view of El Mirasol, Palm Beach.

In a candid letter written on “El Mirasol” stationary, Cromwell writes Leta the line: “I’ll get her yet God damn.” He did succeed.  Jimmy Cromwell and Doris were married on February 13, 1935.

Doris who had grown to detest the press insisted on a simple wedding held in the library of her mother Nanaline’s city residence at 1 East 78th Street with only a few friends including her mother and mother-in-law Eva Stotesbury and a justice of the peace.

1 East 78 Street.

The wedding was a contrast to Leta’s more traditional nuptials that took place only two weeks earlier at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan when she married sportsman Byrnes MacDonald. Here we see the young couple in a photograph taken at a costume party a few months before their wedding. The wedding itself though was small, scaled back by the death of Leta’s mother six weeks before the scheduled event.

The wedding that generated the most press coverage during the Age of the Debutante was that of Jack Astor and Ellen Tuck French, known as “Tucky,” both  summer residents of Newport.  Astor lived at the family’s “Beechwood” on Bellevue and  French on Cliff Terrace.

Lesley Bogert and sisters Tucky and Virginia French.

Jack Astor was one of the most eligible bachelors in the social set.  He was first linked with Brunie Rhinelander of Newport in a clipping from the New York Journal in July of 1933.  The beautiful LeBrun, known as “Brunie,” was also that summer being escorted by Viscount Duncannon, a houseguest of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II of “The Breakers”.

L. to r.: Jack Astor and his mother Madeleine Force Astor Dick Fiermonte; The Astor-Rhinelander romance as presented in the New York Journal.

In reality, the 21-year-old heir to the Astor fortune appears to have been smitten with the dynamic Miss Eileen Gillespie of Newport and New York to whom he had proposed at the close of the 1933 season.  She had just turned 18.  The wedding was set for February 6, 1934 at St. Thomas Church in New York but was cancelled by Miss Gillespie in a move that shocked the social world and most of America as it was covered in the papers for months.

L. to r.: Eileen Gillespie & Jack Astor, 1933; Tucky French on her Wedding Day.

Soon thereafter John Jacob Astor married Miss Ellen Tuck French.  The couple was married in Newport’s historic Trinity Church on June 30, 1934.  According to press accounts of the day, thousands of people gathered around the church to watch the wedding and forty policemen were placed on duty to hold the spectators back.

The Astor-French wedding at Trinity Church.

Due to the crowds, the bride would keep the groom waiting at the altar and the groom himself would have to abandon his car and walk part of the way to the church.  The wedding made front-page news, often referring to the couple as “America’s Royal Couple.”

Speaking of royal alliances, there were rumors in the press that King Zog of Albania had sent an emissary to see Nanaline Duke around the time of the Astor/French wedding to chat about the possibility of Doris becoming the Queen of his cash-starved country.

Lesley Bogert of “Anglesea” in Newport was simultaneously being courted by Prince George of Russia, a great-grandson of Czar Nicholas I. Ironically she began receiving flowers from the prince shortly after her debut had been called “Newport’s Most Costly” in papers nationwide. One paper reported “In the Spring, Prince Sends Lesley Posies.” Lesley declined the Prince’s offer leading gossip columnist Cholly Knickerbocker to gripe “Oh How Times Have Changed” referencing the Gilded Age race of American heiresses to marry into the European aristocracy. Lesley eventually married Frank Taylor whose family owned “The Glen” in Portsmouth, RI.

L. to r.: Prince George of Russia at Bailey’s Beach, Newport; Newspaper clipping: “Prince Sends Lesley Posies.”

Marian Snowden & Leta Morris at Bailey’s Beach, Newport.

One marriage in the period between a European prince and a Newport debutante that did take place was actually an elopement and contrary to the wishes of the bride’s mother.  The couple was Miss Marian Snowden of “Twin Oaks” on Oakwood Terrace in Newport and Prince Rospigliosi of Rome.

Widely covered in the press, the bride’s parents had been feverishly trying to prevent the marriage of their daughter to the Prince. Marian Snowden however escaped the hotel where she was staying with her family while on the Riviera and joined the prince in Rome where they were secretly married in the Rospigliosi Chapel.

A picture of Miss Snowden (seen here with Leta Morris at Bailey’s Beach) was published in a New York newspaper reading “May be Princess Now, Oil Heiress Marian Snowden and Prince Rospigliosi are believed to have been secretly wed in Rome while desperate Snowden parents and police search for the missing American heiress.”

Another article read “Prince Rospigliosi, Marian Snowden Elope, Wed in Italy.”  A few months after the wedding when things had settled down, friends ( including Betty Morris) received formal announcement of the de facto marriage.

Snowden-Rospigliosi marriage announcement.

Meanwhile some debutantes managed to be married quietly and elegantly like Betty Morris who was married to Harold Carhart, Jr. of 876 Park Avenue and Locust Valley. They were married on June 30, 1937 at St. Anne’s Chapel in the Bronx at the corner of 140th Street and St. Anne’s Avenue in a church built by the bride’s great-granduncle, Gouverneur Morris, in 1841.

Elizabeth “Betty” Morris’ wedding photograph.

Newport’s most star-studded wedding during the interwar years was likely that of Aeriel Frazer to the Honorable Michael Strutt. Cholly Knickerbocker was the first to announce the news in the New York Journal. The article began: “One of Newport’s Prettiest Glamour Girls is destined to have her name in Burke’s Peerage!”

The groom, Michael Strutt, was the son of Lord Belper and the Countess of Rosebery.  He graduated from Oxford University and his sister Lavinia had recently married the Duke of Norfolk.  Aeriel and Michael Strutt were married on July 15, 1939 at St. Augustine’s Church in Newport.

Postcard view of St. Augustine’s Church, Newport.

Like the Astor-French wedding, over a thousand people gathered outside of the church. Many of them were there to see Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. whose wife Mary Lee was a bridesmaid.  The guest list was a who’s who of American and International high society.

Well wishers at the marriage of Aeriel Frazer, 1939.

When Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. arrived, alighting from his silver Rolls Royce, he turned his personal movie camera on the crowd.

In this photo of Aeriel entering the church on her father’s arm, throngs of people and the police escort illustrate the mass fascination with celebrity.

In a subsequent photo we see Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the receiving line greeting the new Mr. & Mrs. Strutt.

Times were changing though and the carefree interwar years were coming to a close.  Europe was about to enter war with Germany, 1939, the year of Aeriel’s wedding marked the beginning of World War II.  The girl’s scrapbook’s end with three marriages, two of which were also cousins. Eileen Gillespie, the daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Lawrence Lewis Gillespie of Newport and New York and her cousin, Noreen Stonor, the daughter of Lord & Lady Camoys of Stonor Park, Henley-on-Thames and Newport. Eileen Gillespie, who had been engaged to J.J. Astor in 1933-34, married John J. Slocum at the Gillespie townhouse at 11 East 89th Street on December 26, 1940.

The wedding reception of Eileen Gillespie & John J. Slocum, NYC, 1940.

The next marriage was that of her cousin Noreen Stonor to John R. Drexel, III that took place just two weeks later on January 11, 1941 at St James Church on Madison at 71st.  John Drexel, III, like John J. Astor, was referred to often in the papers as a young bachelor multimillionaire. A reception followed at the Pierre Hotel. Here we see the bride and groom cutting the cake and Noreen Drexel in her wedding dress with its nine-foot train.

L. to r.: John & Noreen Drexel at their wedding reception; Noreen Drexel in her wedding dress.

The last of the Newport “Glamour Girls” to celebrate her wedding during the period was Virginia Middleton French, sister of Tucky Astor. Virginia French married William Force Dick, J.J. Astor’s younger half brother; hence the two French sisters, Tucky and Virginia, married brothers. Virginia married William on December 18, 1941 at Trinity Church in Newport.  Here we see Virginia French entering the church with her father, some of her glamour girl bridesmaids and one of the reception toasts.

Virginia French entering Trinity Church, Newport, 1941.
Bridesmaids at Virginia French’s wedding.
Reception toasts at Virginia French’s wedding.

Tensions were mounting however on the global scene. Pearl Harbor had taken place only a little over a week before Virginia French’s wedding and America officially entered WWII on December 8th, 1941. After World War II the American public’s consuming interest in Society waned.

The nation’s imagination was to be captured by new heroes, media celebrities and the never as attainable quest for the great American dream.

Click here for THE AGE OF THE DEBUTANTE; Newport in the 1930s, Part 1.

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