The Golden Age of Dallas Society

Every “smart set” has its own Golden Age – a half-mythical era in which the parties were more fun, the entertainment more lavish, the scandal more titillating than at any other time. So the French recall the Belle Epoque, the English still tattle about Jennie Churchill and what went on on the Prince of Wales’ yacht, and Bostonians are still as interested in tales of Mrs. Jack Gardner as in the masterpieces in her Fenway palazzo.

The well of nostalgia does not run so deep in Dallas, but if there is a Golden Age for Dallas society, it probably is the post-war years of the Forties. Not that Dallas in the Forties was anything like Paris in the Nineties. The population was a mere 350,000, Miss Hockaday’s School for Girls was the liveliest spot on Greenville Avenue, Neiman-Marcus really was a specialty store and it took six hours, with a couple of stops, to get to New York on American Airlines.

Before the war, there had been fabulous debutante parties, like the one in 1939 Elsa Maxwell had been engaged to do for Camilla Davis where at midnight guests changed from their white ties and ballgowns to crepe paper costumes and elaborate masks for a surprise Bal Masque. But the extravaganzas designed by Joe Lambert in the Forties were stunners, too: he hung crystal chandeliers and thousands of bunches of grapes for Nancy Ann Smith in 1946, and filled the Crystal Ballroom of the Baker Hotel with poinsettias for Peggy Black in 1948. There were other galas besides the coming-out parties. The Jake Hamons gave now-legendary costume balls (once with real elephants), D.H. Byrd watered and fed hundreds of his closest friends – visiting for the Texas-OU game – at his “country place,” and the eccentric Cosette Faust Newton entertained on the bow of her backyard ship, the S.S. Miramar, in Highland Park.

It was the era of the private club and the brown bag. In 1947, the Cipango Club was opened by Eddie Zimmerman and quickly became society’s most popular spot. It offered mixed drinks, dancing, good food, classy entertainment, and the added guilty pleasure of gambling upstairs. Other lively spots were the Mural Room at the Baker Hotel and the Century Room at the Adolphus, where you could dance to the music of Freddy Martin, Harry James and Henry Busse, and listen to the seductive sounds of the lady in the sarong, Dorothy Lamour. The casual spots were Abe’s Colony Club, with its off-beat, racy shows; Pappy’s Showland, just to the west across the Commerce Street Bridge; and LouAnn’s, out on Greenville.

The most celebrated restaurant of the Golden Age was La Vieille Varsovie – The Old Warsaw – then on Cedar Springs. It was opened in 1949 by Stan-islaw and Janina Slawik in a tiny, remodeled Mexican cafe, with borrowed money, two refugee chefs, and six stewards who had jumped ship in New York. Here, under the tutelage of Slawik, a suave and handsome former diplomat, Dallas learned to appreciate duck, veal, escargots, and imported wines. The menu was in French, primarily to encourage patrons to allow the waiters to describe the preparation of the various dishes and to prevent the embarrassment of the unknown. It was a comfortable place for executives, socialites, and foreign visitors, and the Slawiks helped sophisticate the palate and manners of a city barely 100 years old.

Another institution that helped teach Dallas style was Neiman-Marcus. Customers had learned early to rely on the advice of Mrs. Neiman, Mr. Herbert and, later, Mr. Stanley. The saleswomen, too, were oracles of good taste. “It’s out of stock” or “It doesn’t come in your size” were phrases rarely heard. And a major event was the annual Fashion Exposition where the “N-M Prophetics” were solemnly announced and paraded, and fashion greats such as Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, James Galanos, Elizabeth Arden, Coco Chanel, and Grace Kelly were presented awards before the large, black-tied crowds. Neiman’s had a sense of humor, too. In 1957, when it was celebrating its 50th anniversary and honoring Chanel, N-M staged a fashion show at Eddie Marcus’ Black Mark Farm. The models were elegant, tranquilized Black Angus heifers, and such styles as the “fur on fur on fur” and the “mid-calf look were introduced. Chanel’s look, too, was parodied when a lovely, long-legged cow was led out of the barn wearing only ropes and ropes of pearls.

The Golden Age is gone. Dallas hasbecome a metropolis and people havescattered to the suburbs. The big partieshave grown bigger, and perhaps morelavish, but also more private. But theinfluence of the past lingers in the goodrestaurants staffed by men trained bythe Slawiks and the boutiques run byformer Neiman-Marcus people. And asthe city grows, so does the legend of theGolden Age.

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