The picture of a debutante being crowned was incorrectly captioned in Thursday's Style section. The picture was of Kimberly Holland and it was taken at the Zeta Phi Beta sorority cotillion in Silver Spring on Dec. 15.
Cotton-candy pink, everywhere. There, up in the blaze of ceiling lights. And there, in 100 tablecloths. And, look, in the roses and napkinss and the . . . but wait. The spotlight.
"Representing Cartersville, Ga.," booms the loudspeaker, "we are pleased to introduce [Gene Donati plays the Coronation March here] Miss Sarah Grace Davis, the daughter of the honorable Jefferson Lee Davis and Mrs. Davis . . ."
So here, in front of fake Greek columns, two sprinkling fountains and one white coach stored at Hargrove Displays during less auspicious occasions, is Sarah Grace Davis -- 20 years old, a sophomore at the University of Georgia, a girl who once cooked stuffed peppers for her boyfriend at the Old Alabama Road farm. But tonight: Sarah Grace Davis, debutante.
On her left arm is her father, the rich old Georgia judge who tells young ladies willing to listen, "Honey, I was born in a house where you could throw a cat through the walls." On her right arm is one of the long white gloves, holding a demure fan of orchids. A respectful half step behind her is "Mr. Joseph Green Brandon III," also known as Jody, hometown honey and future fiance. Stuffed pepper eater, too.
The debutante flashes sparkling teeth toward the 1,000 guests in the Washington Hilton's International Ballroom, then curtsies deeply, her knee nearly touching the stage. She feels, well, wonderful. Important. And grown-up. "A part of society," as she puts it.
Moments later, with 34 other debs in creamy white, she curtsies again, this time to floodlights and five sets of chimes. Finally, she is paraded around the room by her father.
("Really didn't know what to think of it," muttered Daddy afterward.)
And there was more, yards and yards of silk and organza more, to Mary-Stuart Montague Price's 30th annual National Debutante Cotillion and Thanksgiving Ball.
The first father-daughter waltz. Suite parties till dawn. Sweet kisses, then whispered hints beyond.
"Mary-Stuart," a terribly dignified and presumably blue-blooded gentleman once told her, "I have attended balls in Europe. I have attended balls at the White House. But I have never seen such an extravaganza as this."
Coming out is coming back. Young girls whose older sisters went to Altamont in Levis are now going, 10 years later, to Hiltons and Mayflowers in white tulle and chiffon. Balls that died natural deaths in the late '60s have been revived, brought to life by debutantes like Washingtonian Frederica Lauder of Trinity College, who says, unabashedly, "It's nice to get back into this thing of chivalry. You know, men opening doors and holding chairs for you."
And the balls that sputtered but never expired -- Mary-Stuart Montague Price's at the Washington Hilton, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Cotillion for black girls, the Holly Ball and Magnolia Christmas Cotillion for Virginia girls, the Grosvenor in New York, the St. Cecilia in Charleston and on and on and on -- are in good health now, fed by young girls eager to be officially -- and properly --presented.
"Presented?" squawks one young Washington woman, a Yale junior who turned her debut invitation down.
"Presented to what?"
To "Society," that omnipresent but nebulous term that gomes down to whatever a girl and her mother deem it to be.
To Anne Blair, the grande dame of Washington's "cave dweller" clan, Society is made up of those few families who have inhabited the Potomac hills for almost as long as the Indians. Her painstakingly understated Christmas Ball is thus not for those transients like senators' daughters.
Which is just as well, because those girls -- and any other girls belonging to well-to-do daddies from almost anywhere -- are accepted as Society by Mary-Stuart Montague Price.
But her ball, bear in mind, is not for the "Virginia group." And here things get a little complicated, what with the Arlington sect and the Holly Ball versus the Magnolia Christmas Cotillion and the rest of the bunch. But let's not get into it.
Then there's Washington black Society, which is loosely divided into mostly northern Virginia girls at the Alpha Kappa Alpha Cotillion, District girls at the Sigma Gamma Rho dance and the Zeta Phi Betas in Montgomery County, who crowned Springbrook High School student Kim Holland "Queen of the Ball" last month. And don't forget the Links, in Prince George's County.
"There's a different interest in it than there was maybe five years ago," says Mary Douglass, who helps run the Links' Cotillion.
This new interest isn't cheap. Price's Thanksgiving Ball costs $1,500 per girl. Blair's is somewhere in that ballpark. And if a debutante comes out at three balls, as one southerner did, the cost, including airfare, hotels and clothes can run higher than $18,000.
And now, enter the social critics to tell us why.
"They're simply returning to what comes naturally, which is to separate themselves from the lower orders," says Tom Wolfe, the journalist who christened the Me Generation. "The fact that it wasn't here for a few years is what's unusual."
"We've gone so long in pulling all traditions apart that there's a great yearning out there to pull some stability back," says Amitai Etzioni, the Columbia University sociologist. "So people go back to whatever behavior is appropriate for their class."
And from one debutante, whose parents tented their Newport lawn last summer with solid pink ("We're against striped ones -- we think they're carnivalish") comes this reasoning: "I don't feel guilty about it. If I have a big party, it doesn't mean I'm a selfish pig and have no sense of what's going on in the world."
The origins of this social ritual can be traced to prehistioric times. That's when author Stephen Birmingham claims eligible virgins were introduced, without the help of Gene Donati, to members of the tribe.
And among certain sects in africa, Birmingham adds, young girls are prepared for their village debuts by spending time in "fattening houses" where their bodies are anointed with butter and stuffed with food -- a custom that may recall Thanksgiving more than deb season.
During the 17th century in europe, young ladies were introduced with much pomp and circumstance at court. In the 20th century, Americans changed the courts to Palm Beach mansions and New York hotels, nonetheless keeping the pageantry and certainly the expense.
Legend has it, too, that a Houston debutante once decided that Houston wasn't enough and so had her guests flown to New Orleans for her party. Still another Texas deb party tale has big, beautiful buterflies fluttering from ceiling balloons at just the perfect moment. Only problem was, the butterflies were dead by that time.
And in 1938, chestnut-haired Brenda Diana Duff Frazier, dubbed by Life Magaine "The Girl of the Year," helped orchestrate one of the great social debuts of her time:
There it was, the wild crush at New York's Ritz-Carlton. Gladiolas, lilacs, California lichen moss, yellow chrysanthemums calla lilies. Elsa Maxwell and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt. Daily News photographers, artfully disguised, who skulked in and snapped everything. Champagne and Yale men and shimmering gold. In between, the dates with Howard Hughes, a trip to Bermuda, the offer from M-G-M.
Brenda Frazier has crow's feet and ex-husbands now, and today's debutante, if socially conscious, is also grade-conscious. Many insist that the parties are just parties, not marriage markets. A lot go to Ivy League schools. And nobody feels guilty. Give my deb party money to charity? But why?
"I don't think I can disavow my background, and I don't want to," says Catherine Dick, a sophomore at Harvard. "I mean, I like going to parties and to New York for the weekend."
Catherine is tall, with thick, wavy hair and a trust fund she thinks is tacky to talk about. Her father, C. Mathews Dick Jr. of the A.B. Dick Co. family, now makes chemical-carrying tankers. The family lives on P Street in Georgetown, has a farm in Virginia and a white sprawling beach house built in the 1860s at Newport.
Catharine went only to the best schools. National Cathedral in Washington, then Milton Academy in Massachusetts. And now Harvard, where she majors in political theory. In between, she reads Flaubert, Dickens and Fran Lebowitz. When she's in New York, she goes to Studio 54.
Last summer, she had 350 friends and an orchestra overlooking the Atlantic at Newport, and this Christmas, she came out again with the cave dwellers at Anne Blair's ball.
"I completely immersed myself in it," she says, explaining that she worked with her mother for a year on the arrangements for the Newport party. "I'm a little debutanted out, actually."
She scoffs at the idea of coming-out party as elegant staging for an "I'm-now-available-to-the-right-boys" party. "My party at Newport symbolized a lot of things to people," she admits. "But to me, it was just a lot of fun."
Then there's Gillian Evans, 17, who's coming out at the all-black Alpha Kappa Alpha Cotillion in march. Pretty and plump, she has light brown skin and a mother whose executive assistant job at HEW counts her among the rising number of black professionals in Washington.
Gillian also attends the predominantly white National Cathedral, rides horses in Brandywine, Md., skis in Vermont and plays tennis in the summers. She lives in a beige-brick townhouse on Capitol Hill and wants to be a psychiatrist.
As for the separation of black and white cotillions, Gillian leaves any social change to future debutantes. "Sometimes I think it's unfortunate that there's no crossover," she says, "but if that's the way it's going to be, that's the way it's going to be. It's for fun, and if there's pressure and if people are going to feel uncomfortable, then I suppose they should stay segregated."
She has a great love for the traditional. "I like to dress up," she says, "and being in a beautiful ball gown is going to be enjoyable. I've never done anything like this before."
Not all debutantes are as eager. "I basically feel sort of in space about it," says Krisztina Botond, a freshman at Connecticut College who debuted at Blair's Christmas Ball. "I just sort of let my mother take care of it. She sort of just tells me where to go and what to do."
Coming out is silly, others say, or impractical. Or for girls with frustrated stage mothers. "It wasn't something that was important to me," says a Washington woman who gave Blair's invitation a polite "no thank you" two years ago. This woman, like most others who had negative things to say, didn't want her name used.
"I just didn't see myself walking out in a long white dress," she says. "I think it was for a combination of two reasons. I was aware that it was going to be very expensive for my parents, and that concerned me. I couldn't see spending that amount of money on one night. And also, none of my friends were doing it."
This woman was part of the problem that Blair had in 1977, the first year she organized the old Washington Debutante Ball into the Washington Christmas Ball.
"It was really hard for us that first year to get a lot of people to do it," says Frederica Lauder, one of the 20 debs who did. "A lot of my sisters and my friends thought it was elitist."
Part of the first-year sales technique, however, was to emphasize to prospective girl that Blair's was a tasteful, well-done and certainly very private party. Coming out, that horribly antique term, had nothing to do with it. Oh, the girls would formally receive guests and each would wear white, but as one mother explains, "Well, you wouldn't put her in black."
"This is not a debutante ball," decrees Blair from her floral-patterned chair stationed near portraits of ancestors who date back father than the Blairs of Blair House. "So it is not a part of the resurgence. If there is one." She is white-haired and matronly, a longtime Georgetown inhabitant. She settles back into her chair.
"It would strike me as a deb ball," remarks Mary-Stuart Montague Price, ensconced in a plushy couch in her white and gilt-edged Chevy Chase home. "But they're not calling it that."
What they are calling it is quiet. A chance to see old friends. And certainly not a "big production" like Price's.
That last comment is from louisa Biddle, mother of Letitia, who came out at Blair's ball.She most definitely did not curtsey. "That would be," says her mother, "dreadful."
Perhaps to some, but not to the 1,000 young women Mary-Stuart Montague Price has brought out in the last 30 years. Called "Studie" by "her girls," this one-time social consultant has crisp blond hair, a voice that sounds like a mild case of laryngitis and the ability to charm the socks off any old Georgia judge she feels like. She loves telling you she's responsible for some 200 marriages in more than a quarter century of deb balls.
And the curtsy? She considers it marvelous.
So does Ruth Semb, chair of the Magnolia Christmas Cotilion held Dec. 29 at the Sheraton-Park. "I think it's absolutely beautiful," she says."As far as we're concerned, it's a curtsey to the room saying she's more or less making her bow into the adult world."
To curtsey or not to curtsey aside, both balls and others like them are remarkably similar in anatomy and planning through the process varies. Which brings us to: How to Throw Your Own Debutante Ball. Or, in the case of Blair, How to Throw Your Own Non-Debutante Ball.
First, you need mothers. Lots of them, prederably those who were debutantes themselves and yearn for the good old days. "Heavens, it was marvelous," says Louisa Biddle, who came out in Wilmington, Del."I danced all night and there were all sorts of divine boys. What more could you want out of life at 18?"
Mothers who were never debutantes themselves but wanted to be will also do just fine.
That's because they work very, very hard on the second but probably most important element in How to Throw a Debutante Ball. Which is the List. The right List.
But alas, the right list, like "Society," is an animal with different heads. to Blair, according to one mother who worked with her, the list is a compilation of enrollment records from private and predominantly WASPy schools like Maderia, National Catherdral, Sidwell-Friends and Foxcroft in Middleburg. She also checks records from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
Price's lists, on the other hand, come from social friends she keeps in touch with all over the country. She also attends the New York balls. and once there, gives her card to interested parents.
Proper lists in hand, we move on to element three. This is the secret committee (often made up of the original, Let's-have-a-debutante-ball mothers) which scrutinizes the long scrolls, decreeing who will and who won't be a debutante.
The criteria for this are vague. To listen to Blair, it's a pleasant little process in which 20 nice mothers get together and give their 20 nice daughters a lovely party. But there is also discreet lobbying in the form of phone calls, especially in the case of someone who may not be the most prime candidate.
Price explains her selection method this way: "We have 100 to 150 recommendations a year, and we really try to have no more than 35 to 38 girls. It really boils down to who you know."
Girls selected, we now move on to element number four, the boys. Nice boys. From good families. And lots of them, like five for every girl. (After all, it is their right.)
Again, the lists and committees. But this time, it's a slightly less selective process, since you're dealing with hundreds.Risky, you would think. What if one of those boys turned out to be dreadful?
"Dreadful?" responds Blair. "Well, he wouldn't be."
Price has elaborated on this selection process, advancing it to the form of rush party. In the summers, she has beer and wine get-togethers for prospective boys, usually young men of college age recommended and invited by those from previous years.
There are about 40 of them per party, with 10 or so girls thrown in to serve as testers for the boys' social graces.
A sure way to be cut after the party is to drink too much. "An automatic drop," rules Price. Another way is to leave a girl standing in the middle of the dance floor. "That person would probably not be invited back," says Kenny Kraft, chairman of this group of boys called the Floor Committee. "He certainly would be talked to."
And would they ever, ever consider someone who had been, say, kicked out of prep school?" "Oh, sure, says Kraft. "If the person is nice."
Among this group are the escorts, those boys who serve as the formal dates for debutantes who don't bring their own. Price does all the matchmaking, selecting partners on the basis of common interests (some girls will ask for law students; others want midshipmen) and height. Yes, height. "It looks better for the pictures," explains Kraft.
All the boys, once chosen, are given strict instructions on proper behavior.
Again, no excessive drinking. White tie and tails. The proper method for managing a receiving line. And a stern reminder to dance with all the girls, even those you believe only a mother could love.
"Some of them may be more beautiful than others," Kraft tells them, "but we expect this of you. We don't want to see any girl, attractive or unattractive, sitting alone."
Now, finally, element number five: Publicity.
The Zeta Phi Beta sorority sent out press releases on its fourth annual Cotillion held Dec. 15, and Price prints a thick booklet complete with glossy black and white photos of all her debs. She also sends out short biographies of her girls, complete with detailed descriptions of their ball gowns.
Dorian Lee DuBose of Washington, for instance, wore an "empire white moire silk taffeta, cap sleeves and square-cut neckline lined with lace ruffles and seed pearls." Alexandra Gigg of North Carolina wore "white e silk-faced satin and budded silk Venice lace featuring a sweetheart neckline of lace . . ." You get the idea.
"The purpose?" says the mother of a New Orleans debutante who came out at Price's ball. "Now that's a good question. To me, it seems important to meet people from other parts of the country. I just think it's broadening."
From a Washington debutante of 20 years ago: "I don't think about it very often. I sort of refuse to dwell on it. You had a whirl and you went from party to party and you met lots of boys. It seemed very convenient. At that time, I didn't think it was silly. I thought it was normal."
"Necessary?" says Price. "It really isn't. It's like the whipped cream on top of the cake. You don't have to have it, but it certainly enhances the taste."
And from Beatrice Joyce, who runs New York's International Debutante Ball: "The debutante tradition has survived because the girls really have fun and like meeting a lot of new boys."
But even Joyce agrees that some changes should be made. "I think the coming-out age should be dropped from 18 to 16 because girls are much more sophisticated at 16 now.
After all, what else is there (as in the particular case of the father who spent $18,000 on three deb balls) when you've already given your daughter a trip to Europe, a car upon high school graduation and promise of a seven-bedroom house upon marriage?
"At 18," says Joyce simply, "they've simply had everything."