Until the mid-90s, the newly rich attempted to assimilate by emulating the old families. They joined country clubs, sent their children to riding lessons and boarding schools, and set up foundations and family offices. But in the mid-1990s the nature of money began to change. The corporate raiders who clamored for inclusion were replaced by an infusion of tech millionaires who generally rejected traditions like the debutante ritual in favor of sweatpants and the latest robot.
In combination and in contrast with a rising entertainment culture emphasizing gratuitous displays of wealth, the new ultra-rich ushered in a drastically different model for the “upper class,” one that thoroughly changed the social order, making “old money” so insignificant that it was no longer even a target of satirists. Digby Baltzell, in his book The Protestant Establishment, showed 50 years ago how the WASP upper class was a caste that had lost its political and economic power because it was unwilling to accept worthy new members into its power structure.
But WASP culture did not wake up to its own obsolescence until its aesthetic power was no longer valued by society at large. By the early 1990s, it seemed like most WASPs would retire quietly to the country, destined for a slow disintegration, taking their rituals with them.
But it is often at the moment when a tradition might slip into the aether that it is championed most vociferously, and debutante presentations have steadily increased in popularity since the late 1990s. Though the debutante ritual has always had nostalgia for better days built into its structure, the differences between old and new money presentations in New York was clear in the 80s and early 90s. That difference is minimal today. Some people from old money families have figured out that they can discuss their money and are doing so enthusiastically.
Though the film itself lacked depth, Jamie Johnson’s 2003 documentary, Born Rich, embodies the moment in the early 2000s at which a discreet older culture and a flashier new culture began to meld. The film ostensibly seeks to explore the taboo about talking about one’s wealth, cleverly creating a venue in which to do so. Johnson features a publicity-seeking Ivanka Trump alongside some WASP mainstays, the latter of whom had apparently realized that now was the time to come out of hiding to embrace the new display culture, before all was lost, and they could no longer dine out on their social credentials.
Today, a debutante is more likely to be a New Russian than a daughter of the American Revolution. In New York, a few debutante presentations still survive as relics of the country club style or of nostalgia for debutante performance wherein girls nod to their parents that they will be taking on the mantle of upper- middle or upper-class power, and won’t be rocking any boats. That was the sort of ball where I would have made my debut. At that time, you wouldn’t have known the names of young women making debuts at the Mayflower Ball, or Junior Assemblies, or even the Infirmary, unless you were a committed reader of niche social magazines, or of colonial history.
At the Mayflower Society, there might be only one or two debutantes at the annual dinner in New York. I remember hearing from a friend that in the ’90s one of the debutantes showed up with a tattoo of a sinking Mayflower on her right shoulder, just visible above her white strapless dress. These establishment balls in New York are less significant each year. Attendance and interest are waning, and there are fewer photos in the press—media being the standard by which New York society measures and judges everything.Unlike a lot of deb parties, the International Ball was a business from the start.
Because of waning interest in the old upper rung, both the press and the potential debutantes, who want to use a debut to attract attention, have turned enthusiastically to a series of glitzy international parties, which take place in New York, London, and Paris. They are for openly ambitious families and receive multiple features each year in major magazines like Vogue, Town & Country, and Vanity Fair. These balls cater to the children of celebrities, the new superrich, and to any authentic aristocrats or blue-blooded Americans they can get to attend.
As businesses designed for profit, they secondarily raise money for charity. Their main aim is to generate press for their attendees. Performing a similar role to Julia Cutting, PR firms control and shape these parties, acting as vetting agents, and in some cases as procurers of the debutantes themselves.
The International Debutante Ball is unabashedly high profile. It was founded by the socialite Beatrice Joyce in 1954 and held in the week between Christmas and New Year every year until 2001, when it moved to a biennial schedule. Joyce had been a night owl, and was “a fan of the arty set/cafe society who hung around at the theater,” according to her niece, Margaret Hedberg, who now owns and runs the ball. “She was doing parties all the time by the time she was in her thirties, and was one of the first women in the career they used to call ‘special events.’”
Joyce was an unusual figure, according to her niece. At 5’2” and 350 lbs., she “had pointy fingernails and wore pink bows all over her clothes. Needless to say, in the New York of the 1950s, she stood out.” Because Joyce was obese at a time and in a milieu when that was rare, she was able to do things like “run around New York at night” in ways that “the thin women were not able to do,” according to Hedberg. After reading Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan’s autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, in which Vanderbilt Balsan describes her international friendships, Joyce saw an opportunity to start a ball with a similar spirit of international networking.
Unlike a lot of deb parties, the International Ball was a business from the start. Beatrice Joyce got seed money from Evyan Perfumes (makers of the famous White Shoulders, perfectly branded for debutantes) and the ball took off. Joyce was conscious of how her ball differed from others and promoted it as a mini-UN. This was a good strategy, as it allowed her to cannily bypass the strict social restrictions of the period. She said she wanted to introduce girls to people they didn’t already know, which no ball in the country was doing.
In the 80s, in the midst of the revival of all things grandiose, the International aired every year on the lovably down-market local New York TV channel WPIX, a station known primarily for airing an image of a blazing Yule log all day on Christmas. In Whit Stillman’s satirical film, Metropolitan, there is a scene during which his characters sit in a hotel room in evening dress, having returned from the more blue-blooded debutante parties, and watch the International on television. Later in the film, one of the main characters, Nick Smith, shows up with a smiling Texan deb and her military escort, her cheer flying in the face of the cadre of jaded upper-class New York debs, and Nick’s look of resignation a commentary on the passing of the old guard and blasé WASP culture.
While the ball thrived in the 80s boom years, it barely scraped by in the early 90s. As Hedberg shrewdly said to me, “It costs the same for the orchestra if one person is dancing or a thousand are.” When I asked Hedberg how she survived that low period, she said she did so due largely to the mothers who had debuted there, and who wanted to keep the tradition by presenting their daughters at the same ball. That, and the fact that the International has always been known as a more fun and relaxed ball, carried her through.
Some high-profile debs, like Julie Nixon Eisenhower, had added an air of respectability to the International. Europeans, who have always made up a large contingent, were less disenchanted than American teenagers and had an easier time ignoring politics in a country that wasn’t their own. Additionally, because it wasn’t a ball associated with the social establishment, it didn’t telegraph the kind of upper-class values that invited rebellion.
The debutantes who decide to come out at the International Ball do so to get press, or to get their family press, with the idea that they can use the event to insert themselves into a contemporary New York and international social scene, which is driven primarily by effective public relations. The modern debutante season, which is extending into more of the world’s major cities, is a thriving business, managed by professionals. Hedberg understands that the purpose of the debutante ball is now different than it was initially. “I don’t think anyone enters society through these balls. Maybe in Charleston or New Orleans.”Well-coached in what to say to the press, they gave the sort of friendly, meaningless answers that actresses give on the red carpet.
The goal now is “press,” which can then be used to propel a career of any kind. That doesn’t mean that girls or their families want people to know they’re seeking publicity. Like the 1920s debutantes who wandered in front of cameras as if aimlessly, any yearning for the spotlight needs to remain invisible. On the delicate subject of publicity, Mrs. Hedberg is sanguine. “We do some press,” she said. “We need to be known. Of course we don’t want any horrible press, but we are not the St. Cecilia Society. They are one thing, but we need to be known. If I send you an invitation and you’ve never heard of us, it doesn’t work. It helps us to be known a little bit as opposed to getting something weird in the mail from a person in New York.”
On the night of the 58th ball, I walked through the lobby of the Waldorf toward the Astor salon, passing many of that particular breed of hardy Midwestern tourist who can somehow wear shorts on a cold December day. People were flooding the lobby to see the guests arrive at the ball. Teenage boys stood with dropped jaws as young guests passed by in slinky evening dresses on their way to celebrate their friends’ debuts. This was no ball of old where rope lines protected guests and the whole hotel was rented out. Today, you could find yourself on a tourist’s Instagram page.
When I arrived at the Astor room, I was wrongly ushered by a publicist into the line for guests, a mistake on her part since I was technically press. I didn’t correct her, thinking I would hear more interesting conversations. When I saw the length of the line she put me in, I took a glass of champagne and edged myself forward. One thing you learn at these balls is to never get into a receiving line without a drink.
As we waited, I spoke with the people next to me, an elderly woman in a voluminous emerald green taffeta dress who attended each year the ball is held, despite no connection to the event. She was there to support the charity, she said, and to see the girls. “Why,” I asked? “I always come,” she simply said. Later, Hedberg told me that these people come every year “on their walkers. There are debutante groupies. Bless them all.”
The wait ended at a large, mirrored rectangular room, lined by the debutantes, who were arranged in front of the countries’ flags. The sizable American contingent was also arranged by state. You are meant to merely say hello, not to ask questions. The girls were sweet and polite. They smiled broadly, and introduced themselves over and over again saying their names and where they were from. Well-coached in what to say to the press, they gave the sort of friendly, meaningless answers that actresses give on the red carpet.
Do your shoes hurt? “Yes.” Why are you a debutante? “Because it’s tradition,” “I thought it would be fun.” But while actresses have lately waged a successful campaign to be asked about more than their clothing on the red carpet, the debutante’s role is largely a silent one, or at least one with few preapproved scripts.
Hedberg had a few explanations for why people wanted their daughters to debut at her ball: “The ball is eclectic. It is a mix. It tends to [attract] people who want to keep tradition alive and aspire to some old values. They want to honor their daughter as she passes into adulthood.” For some families, she said, it can be as simple as “getting the family out of jeans and into something glamorous. It’s a ball.” She says. “You want people there who like this sort of thing.” It costs families $16,000 to have their daughter presented. All but $2,000 of this fee is tax deductible, and that $2,000 accounts for the cost of a table for ten, plus the ticket for the debutante and her escort.
If the family takes a table alongside the dance floor, the cost goes up to $20,000, and the overage from the better table goes to the International Ball Foundation and, therefore, to the military charities (chief of which is the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Coast Guards’, Marines’ and Airmen’s Club of Manhattan) that the foundation supports. “If people want to donate more, I’d take it, but that never seems to happen.” Families also spend a lot of money on other expenses for the ball. A few of the dresses may cost as little as a few hundred dollars, but they can be priced into the tens of thousands of dollars, if ornate. Families also take on the expense of travel and hotel as well as the expenses of any guests. The military charities provide cover, and a tax write-off.Generally speaking, the debutantes don’t eat. They are told beforehand that you don’t want to be photographed with food in your mouth (true).
There are also several parties that lead up to the ball that are included in its overall cost. There’s a “Bachelor’s Brunch” where the girls meet and choose their escorts. It happens on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when people are in New York, or can travel there. Girls are required to invite their escorts themselves, and are instructed, because of escort shortages, to find out right away if a boy at the brunch is already taking his sister. Committee members also help to provide escorts, who tend to be brothers of debutantes and former debutantes. The boys also have to apply and be informally vetted, and tend to be similar as the girls, between 17 and 23.
There is also a mother-daughter luncheon before the ball, and a party the morning after, where the girls have an opportunity for a postmortem and to say goodbye to each other. Looking at these awkward daughters standing in a line, I felt protective. I learned how to please as a teenage girl, too, and this behavior was not totally unfamiliar to me, even if I was more at home with Stillman’s group of sarcastic teens. It had been a long time since I had been at a debutante ball and the age of the girls startled me, and made me think of how much this really is the first big party for many. Since the population still skews toward WASPs, most of these girls had not had a bat mitzvah.
After the receiving line disbanded, the partygoers spread out for a cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres. This serves not just to keep people from fainting, but also provides the press with a long period in which to take photos in a more natural setting. Generally speaking, the debutantes don’t eat. They are told beforehand that you don’t want to be photographed with food in your mouth (true). The girls who want publicity also give interviews under the watchful eyes of the event’s public relations firm.
While the people from Fairfield County Look magazine and Patrick McMullan Photographers (though not McMullan, a longtime event photographer) took endless photos, I spoke to the other reporters. Having been rushed ahead into the guest receiving line, I missed the PR directives and was curious to hear what they were. I learned that the press were told to “be nice to the girls.” This reminded me of family members telling me “don’t say anything arch, now.”
Earlier in the evening, I had spoken with the woman managing PR for the night, Christine Mortimer Biddle, a blueblood herself, doing something akin to what Julia Cutting did in the previous generation—putting her venerable name to use to earn money. Ms. Biddle and her business partner are known for producing successful charity events, due in large part to the fact that they are friends with, or can get access to, people who move within New York’s circles of power.
While the girls still milled about being photographed, Ms. Biddle looked on nervously, watching the crowd. Soon, I heard a swish of dresses and a collective intake of breath. Bill Cunningham, the now-deceased legendary photographer from the New York Times, had arrived. I will never forget the expressions of relief on the faces of the organizers when they saw him. Some of his photos ran in the next day’s paper. It wasn’t important that there was no story to accompany them; perhaps it was even better that there was not.
I asked girl after girl how she felt about being part of such an enduring ritual, and if they knew how and why it originated. Most did not know, but some were excited to learn they were part of something with a long history. Others barely spoke at all. A few described themselves as “philanthropists,” but others were more down-to-earth. The Texans were the most practiced. Most of them had already debuted many times in cities where the press cares.
I tried to talk to the one girl representing China, the country in the process of its own coal-fueled Gilded Age, complete with all the tropes—robber barons, corrupt officials, and pollution hanging low in rising cities. I was told she didn’t want any press, but I did manage to ask her why she was there. “To represent my country,” she said in halting English. I learned her father was a “government official.” With that, the door was closed.
After the lengthy photo-op was done, the debutantes were moved to an anteroom, where they awaited their official presentation. They sat on hotel chairs arranged schoolroom style, their voluminous dresses flowing over the chairs’ sides. Each chair had a number, which made remembering the order of presentation easier. I slipped into the room, sat next to a girl and introduced myself. I was lucky, as she happened to be from North Carolina, where my father’s family originates, and many relatives still live. I asked her if she knew any of my cousins—she only knew of us—but we began to talk. She knew quite a bit about the history of debutantes and had done a sociology paper on the topic “because nobody gets it right.”
“Nobody takes this seriously,” she told me, “and they should.” I agreed with her. “This is my third ball,” she said. She had also debuted in Charlotte, and at the National Debutante Cotillion, though interestingly not at the Terpsichorean Ball in Raleigh, North Carolina’s oldest ball, where some of my young cousins have come out. I asked her if her mother had been a deb, and she said no, that this was “new for my family.” When I asked her how she got there, her story was perfect.
She told me that when she was 16 in 2008, she and her family happened to be visiting New York and staying at the Waldorf while the ball was happening. They sneaked in and watched the girls from the balcony. Greatly affected by the princess dresses below her, she said, “Mom, I want to do this.” And so she did. For her being a debutante was a kind of achievement, conveying that she had attained the kind of beauty, poise, and status that she saw in the girls at the earlier ball.
Then it was time for guests to enter the ballroom. The iconic art deco room was hung with Christmas garlands, a mix of fir needles and 1950s style pink and red roses interspersed with thick gold ribbon. The Waldorf ballroom has the feel of an opera house because you can look down from boxes. When I entered the room, I felt the degree to which this would be a performance with the girls on stage. The lighting was theatrical, with spotlights directed at the stage. I was seated at one of three tables for press. The only way to describe the journalists at this party is jaded, as jaded as 25-year-old reporters can be. But they know the story they’re meant to produce, and they know they can’t write too far out of the lines, or they won’t be asked back.
There is a formula to covering these events, and the publicists rely on the press to reproduce it: the girls look beautiful and have Real-Life Interests. One might play tennis, another might be studying to be an electrical engineer. They’re all good students and none is at the ball to get married. Publicists feed journalists information and assume they will ask friendly questions. The debutante piece is an old chestnut—they are all exactly the same, and the reporters are there primarily as appendages to the photographers. It’s the pictures that matter.
While reporters talked around me, I thought to myself that parents were still paying a fee for an exchange: girls for press. It bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the old exchange, since young women are still on one side of the barter and parents are still trying to buy a future for their daughters. In some cases, they are trying to buy a place in society for themselves. Jerry Jones, billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys, a man not known for his manners, was there with his debutante granddaughters.
Even if there are too few dowagers with unimpeachable credentials and too few old families at this party to make it truly prestigious, most of the world doesn’t know or care. This party will appear glamorous and exclusive in the press. Those who like to deride the rich will have plenty of ammunition for that as well.
We next heard an announcement: it’s showtime. The announcer stated where the girl was from, her name, and then her parents’ names. The girls were introduced one by one, first alphabetically by country, and then alphabetically by US state. The debs and their escorts entered from an anteroom and walk down the center of the ballroom. Each couple was followed by a cadet, who carried the girl’s state or national flag. The debutante and her escort’s youth juxtaposed with a cadet in uniform gave the ceremony a strong sense of hierarchy that felt odd in modern life. Then the debutante walked down to the dais to theme music from her home state.The Texas dip had been a major topic of conversation and a publicist selling point all night. We were told, in hushed tones, that the girls practice for months.
If this sounds hokey and rather undignified, that’s because it is. Even the debutantes looked apologetic as they strolled to “New York, New York” or “Sweet Home, Alabama.” Everyone was now waiting for the debutantes from Texas. They make up the biggest, most aggressive contingent, not because they are the most enthusiastic, but because, as we saw in the San Antonio ball, they do the Texas dip curtsy. I was standing next to another reporter, who said to me, “I hope they don’t fall.” I think she meant the opposite.
Once the Texans reached the center of the stage they stopped and waited. During this interminable period I wondered if the debutante was thinking, “Am I really going to do this?” The Texas dip is high kitsch—almost like a Vegas magic trick. You can’t see the girl’s feet so it appears like she’s vanishing into a trap door, giving the entire thing an unintentionally comic element. What the girl has actually done, under her voluminous dress, is cross her legs, slowly bent her knees, and lowered herself onto her high heels. It is a feat. The whole move is designed to show no leg movement whatsoever, and involves complicated balance in order to absent all movement below the waist.
Just before she reaches the lowermost point of her bow, which would bring her head directly into her own lap, she tilts her head slightly to the left to avoid smearing her white dress with her copious makeup. The Texas dip had been a major topic of conversation and a publicist selling point all night. We were told, in hushed tones, that the girls practice for months. But the move is so difficult that only one girl executed the curtsy with any real ease. The rest look relieved when it was over.
One stumbled and fell, and was rescued by her escort, who became the hero of the night. The crowd cheered for her like the Americans we are. She blushed and left the stage as quickly as she could. I feel for her. It was painful to watch. Will Texas allow her to come home? At the same time, I couldn’t get the absurd nod to submissive sexuality in this move out of my head. I wished I were with John Waters.
The girls were “out” after the last debutante’s curtsy. The first dance was the ceremonial father-daughter dance. It was hard not to watch two tall sisters from the Netherlands who, not trusting the many official photographers to capture them well, had brought their own photographer. One danced with her father and the other with a designated stand-in, while the photographer circled them both making his own little quadrille.
After the father-daughter dance, the formality ended and the girls reverted to being the teenagers they were and started dancing in groups to Beyoncé, moving awkwardly in their bride-like dresses. When the party moved on to dancing Gangnam-style, I returned to a photographer I met earlier who had more lamentations for the demise of old money families than I’d ever heard from anyone actually in one. He wouldn’t have a conversation with me on the record, but warmed to me when we talked about Lester Lanin, whose namesake band was playing, though Lester himself had died a while ago.
I spoke in the codes he knows, joking with him about the Lester Lanin hat I still have somewhere. I can’t remember at what party I got the hat—it wasn’t at a debut—but they used to throw them into the crowds at the parties they played. Lanin played for a long time, so the hats could not really be exclusive, but they’re still a WASP relic. We reminisced about the times we saw Lanin conduct. The seduction of old days has to be one of the greatest seductions we have. This line of conversation is a stand-by at debutante parties. For me, acting as a reporter, it was highly useful, a way of playing both good and bad cop at once. He opined that the debutante ritual is dying out. I assured him it’s long dead but will never die and got an understanding high five in return.
Reprinted from The Season: A Social History of the Debutante by Kristen Richardson. Text copyright (c) 2019 by Kristen Richardson. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.