Of course I don’t believe in “Society” – any more than you do.
Everyone is part of society – in general and in specific instances. There is not a reader who is not a member of some very exclusive society: a society which has rigidly applied rules of entrance, a society which is formed by choice or circumstance, a society which is unfair in that it excludes somebody else on some basis.
These ostensibly simple rules imply many more, and subtler, regulations. Going on a coffee break with a group is a tremendous social contract, as full of pitfalls and irritations as walking through poison ivy at night.
Aw, come on, you say. . .what the hell are you doing? A coffee break isn’t High Society. It’s just a coffee break. No big deal. Even God is declared to have some who stand at His right hand.
The point of all this is just to show that there’s nothing unique or ominous about the fact that Dallas has what is commonly termed “Society.” Dallas not only has society (if I may drop the up-per case), but pays a great deal of atten-tion to it. Too much attention, some say. Others would like to see more of it. Some people give costly parties and hire professionals to see to the guest list; they send champagne to society writers, and have been known to hire genealo-gists to “discover” a coat-of-arms some-where in their past. Trying to get into society. Eventually, if their bank ac-counts and their marriages hold out, they may make it. Social climbing, the very phrase, implies upward progress. Today’s social climber is tomorrow’s grande dame. With patience. It is ironic, therefore, to recognize the simple truth: those who are not in society define it. Society is what others say it is, not what society says about itself. That’s why so many segments try frantically to get their names and faces into public print – to be accepted, not by the social peer group, but by the great unwashed. Haven’t you ever wondered how all those Dallas names stand each other, going to the same parties, seeing the same faces, hearing the same voices night after night after day? Simple, darling. . .they’re doing it for us.
Society, the Hg-h form, changes from city to city, even within a state as unified in most things as Texas is. For instance, Houston high society is based more on money – admittedly super-big-money – than on bloodlines or breeding. San Antonio, on the other hand, tends to elevate history and the family more than do most places. In some West Texas towns (no place is too small to have its society) only the cat-tlemen and landowners can be classed as the elite; in other places, oil sets the social pace. There are even Texas societies for which religion is a determining factor in status; and retired generals, presidents (national) and ambassadors nearly always throw social luster on the crowd. In Dallas, blood (and bank loans) will tell-also transistors, computers, and Friends in High Places. Nowhere, you will notice, does intellect or academic acclaim score very much. Society is honest in that respect. One might say that within the framework of its rather tawdry set of loyalties there is no sham. Dallas society loves doers – people who make it in competition. The president of Southern Methodist University is seldom given entree to Dallas soci-ety; a golfer who shoots a consistent 70 has a much better chance. If he wants in. Dallas society, like most creatures, likes them what likes it. That’s why everyone may laugh behind the social climbers’ backs, but society loves them. Without social climbers, society wouldn’t know where it stood.
Some people take it for granted that money is the key and the only key to getting into Dallas society. Not so. Money is always a factor – you start with money – but some of the wealthiest people in town, past and present, have discovered money isn’t enough. On the other hand, losing your money is finis. Dallas society, being new insofar as bloodlines and traditions are involved, doesn’t want anyone who can’t participate on a contributing basis. This doesn’t mean that everyone in Dallas society is Dallas-rich, or that everyone in Dallas who is Dallas-rich wants in Dallas society. I know of two families, for instance, which are wealthy beyond arithmetic of whom society sees little or nothing. There are other families whose Dallas roots go back nearly to John Neely Bryan’s cabin who are not part of the social select: some because the select doesn’t value their heritage, and some because they don’t value the select. If there is one answer, one key – maybe not the total answer but a good working thesis – it is: obey the rules. If you won’t, or can’t, play the games by Dallas rules, you’ll never make it.
Realizing, of course, there’s nothing enlightening or virtue-making about the “getting-in” process. A large segment of Dallas society is bigoted to the point of deceit, making public declarations of equality it refuses to honor in private. For openers, there are no Jewish members at Dallas Country Club, North-wood, or Brook Hollow. Not even Stanley Marcus, who is at the pinnacle of social status everywhere else. No Jewish girl has made her Idlewild debut in Dallas, although one was asked in recent years and refused, it is reported. This does not mean there are no Jews in Dallas society. There are plenty, and always have been – Dallas owing quite a lot of its social dash and polish to its early Jewish families. Dallas Jews also have a high society of their own, if it can be put that way. The Columbian Country Club, which does not exclude non-Jews but is known as “the Jewish country club,” goes back farther in Dallas history for its origin than any other. Not only that, it serves the best food in Dallas County. On the femme side, the Junior League has been punctured but not penetrated, the organization having apparently established a not-so-flexible Jewish quota system. Equally rare are Jewish members of the Dallas Woman’s Club, as might be inferred.
Blacks fare far worse than do other outsiders in Dallas society, despite a few attempts to broaden social horizons. Some black men attended the Calyx ball (by invitation) last year, and one Dallas socialite, seeing them, exclaimed, “Why are the waiters sitting down having drinks?” Dallas Country Club once aborted a tennis tournament when it was discovered that Arthur Ashe was to play. Brook Hollow, one victim alleges, has terminated memberships when attempts were made to bring in black guests. These particular restrictions against blacks, if not Jews, seem destined to stick for quite a while. One fairly young club member once said, when asked if black members were a possibility someday, “Not in my lifetime.” Whether he was making a pledge or reflecting a reality, it’s not an improbable timetable. Of course, some high court may overturn certain club restrictions someday, somehow, but if such a ruling were to be based on some residency situation, Dallas Country Club might escape. Despite its name, it’s wholly within the city limits of Highland Park.
The blacks, too, have their own form of high society, the girls make their annual debut through the Cotillion-Idle-wild club, an incidence of name-association which galls hell out of some (white) people. The newspapers give the black debutantes sizable picture space and a write-up, but nothing to match the lavish overkill of stories done on the white debutantes. The chicano debutantes get about the same newspaper space as do the blacks – although society (white, Anglo) isn’t quite as closed to Dallas chicanos as to Dallas blacks. Lack of big money may keep more chicanos from Anglo social high-life than do racial restrictions.
Having brought up the subject – why do the Dallas newspapers spend so much space on society; nobody else does it. Well, that’s not true. Lots of other newspapers do it. Even the New York Times does it. . .but the question remains, why so strong in Dallas? (Or maybe it’s that when the Times drops names they hit with such a powerful clang.) The Dallas newspapers say the public is interested. “Our readers want it; it’s the best read thing in the paper,” a society writer tells me. Could it be true? Even if it has some basis, one doubts the urgency of the annual print orgasm of the deb season – both papers giving life stories, dreams and ambitions, weekly schedules, parties, family background, hobbies, amusements, and social theories of the girls. One has to suspect an editor or publisher wants to look good in the eyes of his or her social peer group. I have never known a newspaper publisher who wasn’t socially ambitious, just as I have never known one who wasn’t mortally afraid of society women. On the other hand, in fairness to newspaper publishers, they automatically assume a position near the top of any social ladder without having to try that hard.
Dallas society, like that of every city save Washington, D.C., is controlled by women. In fact, the social rolls are studded with powerful women whose husbands aren’t involved to any extent. The history of Dallas society would also show a number of very strong female leaders who had no husbands at all. On the other hand, the fact that a woman’s husband is powerful, famous, or fawned over by Dallas society is no indication of that wife’s status. Again, more by choice than from exclusion.
Schooling is another area where Dallas’ frontier inheritance shoves tradition aside, when social elevation or rank are concerned. It doesn’t help to have an Ivy League husband, and attendance at one of the Seven Sisters colleges is a neutral factor in the scorekeeping. Hard-minded women (read: overeducat-ed) find the going tough. And girls who come to Dallas thinking an Eastern fin-ishing school will become their bridge over troubled waters hastily acquire some other social virtues to go with it. Attendance at Hockaday helps, but mainly because of the other girls you met if you went there. The right sororities at the University of Texas (in Austin. . .where else?) may be the best educational background a Dallas social climber can have. Southern Methodist University is safe academic soil, too – although strangely enough, few of the faculty or administrative big-shots can be part of the inner social circle: intellectual stature, as noted, not being one of Dallas society’s weaknesses. And as much as Dallas seems to adore the pro sports, the players themselves fill marginal roles in social occasions; good names for certain parties or weekends, but not permanent citizens. Another social phenomenon is observable if one ponders the fate(s) of corporation heads transferred to Dallas. At one time the presidency or chairmanship of a major firm sent the newcomer straight to the top without passing “Go.” Today, these persons have to show an interest and serve an apprenticeship before being given the freedom of the city. Even top new officers of Neiman-Marcus must dampen their New York criteria if they want to be invited out to the best places.
But remember, we define society, notthose who, theoretically, are in it.Okay?