SOCIETY Keeping Up With the Stollenwercks

A deb party may swell beyond her ego, but rarely beyond her father’s.

This is, as I am frequently re-minded by some ne’er-do-well, a free country. A sometimes not-altogether humble country, but, alas, a free one. And, I guess, in the immense design of things, that is why we have debs. Because we’re allowed to. That, and because lots of Americans have great big piles of hundred-dollar bills cluttering up bank vaults, and debs (as opposed to debts) are as good a way as any to help those institutions with the nasty problem of too much cash.

But beyond our constitutional entitlement it is curious, given several decades of social adjustment, counterculture, and, particularly, feminism, why the rather slender phenomenon of the debutante still exists. It is also curious why successful people, like, oh, say, the owners of large car dealerships and such, spend lots and lots of money on their daughters’ debuts.

The original raison d’etre for debs was marriage, and history submits to us that the inaugural debutantes were probably Babylonian. Once a year, those Babylonians who had marriageable daughters trundled such daughters to a fountain or a garden where a horde of men (not necessarily bachelors) could conveniently ogle them. Then a public crier, no doubt working on some sizable commission from the parents, made the girls stand in line, backs straight, boobs out, and one by one, he sold the lot of them. The most comely (and probably the sturdiest, for these were the days of manual labor) were peddled first, Sotheby-style, for a superlative sum, until only the ugly ones were left. The less-than-aesthetically-agreeable ones were then, well, practically given away, K mart-style. The merchandise was tendered on but one condition: the new owners must marry their respective purchases. Tacky, but effective.

The modern-day presentation ceremony is said to have begun in Britain, where young ladies about to enter polite society were brought before the Queen. However, the British nixed the whole deb concept in 1958 when the Queen, no doubt restraining a dreadful yawn, basically said forget it.

In the late 1800s, as gunslinging Texas horse thieves and Indian killers turned to more pedestrian and more profitable activities like cattle rustling and oil baroning, Texans ended up with an unaccustomed amount of loot on hand and began aspiring to social activities similar to those back East. In 1884 a group of ambitious cowboys, hungry for a little pretense, organized the Idlewild Club to present young women to growing Dallas society.

Becoming a Dallas deb takes recognized family standing, sound financial rating, and proper schooling. And, although Idlewilders claim their selection criteria are secret, let’s face one fact: since most Texans came here just ahead of a posse, background (at least, distant background) can’t be at the top of their list. Opportunity-monger, statement-maker, and former Idlewild president DeWitt Ray III once said to the New York Times Magazine: “We’re always looking for somebody who has something to offer Dallas, whether civically, socially, or politically. We don’t seek out the debs just for the frivolity of having a party but to make a statement for the city.” Clap, clap.

Our most famous Texas debs include bubble-thin sophisticate and pottery-lover Mimi Martin, whose debut took up more than a page in Time magazine in 1981, and one-time snake charmer and car dealership owner Brooke Stollenwerck, whose debut-a three ring circus, literally-took up the Dallas Convention Center in 1976.

Sometimes a debutante party swells beyond the ego of the deb, but rarely beyond the ego of her father, and one of the most notorious galas was the 1906 Mary Astor Paul fete, where 10,000 Brazilian butterflies, suspended from the ceiling in a gossamer prison, were to float down and flutter among the unsuspecting partiers at midnight. Instead the insects succumbed to heat exhaustion and plummeted to the floor, creating therapy-resolved chaos among the revelers.

Recently, I had a somewhat less exotic but no less interesting opportunity to experience the marvel of debuting. My adventure began in Laredo where my sister-in-law was making her first debut; multiple-city debuts are highly regarded in the South. Shenanigans in the border town included a preview soiree, an across-the-Rio Grande after-party at a quasi-American dance club, and assorted tomfoolery throughout the night concluding, the next day, with a bleary-eyed parade and a reckless hunt for decent food. In attendance were zany Kennedy-family double and Texas State Senator Chet Edwards and various members of the Laredo aristocracy, no oxymoron intended. Some months later, for my sister-in-law’s second debut, it was off to New York for the International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf Astoria.

The bash began with a receiving line so long that party officials had to ask the riffraff to go have a drink so family members could give congratulatory Xs and Os to respective relations. My wife and I were some of the last to squeak in. Because of the riotous knot of well-wishing kin, hellos were limited to a veritable eternity. Five seconds.

The receiving line festivities were cut short, as the debs were faint from politeness. Apparently, they had to be fed. As my wife and I were being prodded out we offered my sister-in-law obligatory deb civilities and then my wife-Texan that she is-shot a discreet but applaudable yee haa! to the rest of the girls in line-all Texans. Then we scooted out to the dance floor.

So, why in heck do we have debs? E.D. Hirsch Jr., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil don’t even mention the dubious but venerable institution of debuting in The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. But Beatrice Joyce, social innovator, founder, and president of New York’s International Debutante Ball, hit the nail on the head when she said “I really don’t think it is a social thing. It’ sjust something to do-just a way of getting together.” Well, I guess so.

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