Deciding whether to make a debut has never been one of the great burning issues of our time. Only a minute fraction of the population ever participated in the social ritual, even at the crest of its popularity about 15 years ago when mass debut parties enjoyed an unprecedented burst of popularity and produced debbies by the gross. Nevertheless, the coming-out parties the very rich and powerful gave for their 18-year-old offspring were regarded as very hot stuff by outsiders as well as participants.
Then came the protest era and radical chic. Society kids, while rarely -- if ever -- directly involved in the Vietman War and civil rights, were part of a generation in revolt. Whatever their personal convictions, contemporaries on their college campuses were demonstrating in the streets rather than standing around in ballrooms. By the end of the '60s, coming out parties had become highly suspect, another obsolete relic of an irrelevant establishment past in the class with Cadillac Eldorados rattling down the road to the junk heap.
The Old Guard, meanwhile, often was adamant. Daughters or grand-daughters may have been reluctant and young men scornful, but the show, by God, went on.
Of the dwindling number of girls who continued to take part in the traditional rite of passage, many were closet debutantes who gave the impression of being pushed rather than coming out under their own steam. The young women became almost defensive about admitting that they enjoyed the parties and the clothes, the stag lines and the adulation, the music and the flowers. Debuts were losing their magic and glamor. As a social force, they had the life expectancy of Greek letter societies, proms, splashy traditional weddings and basic black and pearls.
But something curious happened on the way to the burial. Like those other once vaunted institutions, the debut survived the shock waves of attack. Now, it is even showing signs of rallying. A little peaked, a little shaky, but on its feet and ready to put on the white kid gloves to answer the bell of the recent holiday season.
Elise Paschen, a 19-year-oil English major at Harvard, had not one but two formal debuts in December. She was one of the 21 young women presented at the most prestigious of the mass presentations, the Passavant Debutante Cotillion on Dec. 22 in the Grand Ballroom of the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago. The next night, her parents gave a dance in her honor at the Racquet Club. And she looked forward to going to all the other parties for other girls as well.
Like generations back as far as the eye can see, Elise Paschen is the scion of a prominent family. Her father is Henry D. "Buzzy" Paschen Jr., contracting executive. Her mother is the former Maria Tallchief, once a world-cele-brated prima ballerina and now a major matron in Chicago cultural concerns.
At the same time, Elise Apschen is quite literally a new breed of debutante. On her mother's side she is a descendant of American Indians. And that makes her unusual, because debutantes who do the cotillion and dance in the Racquet Club always have been if not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, then white Anglo-Saxon Catholics.
An achiever, Elise Paschen made an impressive academic and extra-curricular record as a high school student at the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago before continuing in much the same style at Harvard. She already has decided that she wants to become a journalist when she finishes her education. She is, in short, a capable young woman of great expectations who has the considerable advantages of money, social connections and clout behind her.
Inevitably the question is, why a debut? "My feelings have changed a lot," she says, "When it was first brought up I was very much against it, but now I'm an advocate. I was career oriented and I thought that there wasn't a place for it in my life. In high school I could balance my social life and other things. I always thought that once I got to college I would focus in and try to become an academic star, stay in the library and learn and learn and learn. That's what I did the first semester.
"I worked very hard on my courses and I also went out for a million and one other things -- the soccer team, the choral society, the newspaper. I got the lead in 'The tempest.' One of my dreams was being in a Shakespeare play."
Soon, the superfreshman learned that something had to give. "I didn't go out at all because I thought it was a waste of time. I was thrust into a very ambitious upward driving environment where everybody was out for themselves and I became an introvert that was part of that team. Finally, I stepped back and looked at myself. My life was not balanced, and I wasn't very happy. I decided that, if they asked me, I'd really love to come out because I needed a social life in Chicago at least."
Despite her resolutions, she didn't attend all the June debutante parties. Most of her time was spent putting out one edition of a newsletter for the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, and at a summenr poetry seminar at Aspen, Colo. "There were these really Garsby-ish parties in the beginning, which I really regret missing. I went to one and it was fantastic. I've never seen anything like it in my life. And there I was working during all the others, which was stupid of me."
Her month in Washington, however, was "fantastic," too. "I'm one-quarter American Indian, and I didn't know anything about Indians so I really wanted to learn. I've always thought that the thing they need is education so they can make money and become integrated into our society. They I came to realize that they have a whole different philosophy than we do. Just because we think expansion and upward mobility is the perfect way of life doesn't mean tht they think that way at all. I had just never thought that they shouldn't be pushed into our standards."
Friends and acquaintances have criticized her for her decision to come out. And she's heard many sister debutantes copmplain that their families forced them into participationg in the season. "I must admit I don't believe it that much," she says. "I think that if they are honest and really didn't want to come out, they wouldn't."