"God love a debutante," breathed the young man Friday night, as a vision of satin and lace floated down the hallway toward him, pulling up her long white gloves as she swished by.
"Well someone surely does," said his companion, "and his name isn't God, either."
"Stick around," said the first fellow, unabashed, "because after the fathers finish dancing with their girls, I hear the cotillions turn into real swinging parties." He scratched at the collar of his stiff, cadet's dress blues. "And remember," he said, the youthful anticipation elevating his voice, "anyone in a white dress is fair game."
Debutantes bloom perennially; like daffodils, they are more resilient than one might expect, popping up year after year, in white tulle, and silk, and pearl-embroidered lace, to be presented, on the arms of fathers, to "society." Society being, in the words of a cotillion veteran, "the right people, you know, the nice people."
But society, even in a company town like Washington, rests in the eye of the beholder, and this weekend brought two debutante cotillions -- one already an institution, the other, the first cotillion of Washington's Armenian General Benevolent Union, just aching to be one; one group as secure in its standing as the sun is of morning, the other buoyed by the optimism that is the daughter of success.
"It's really a case of 'plus ca change, plus c'est le meme ,'" said Marshall Thompson, one of the legion of escorts of all ages at Friday nights's 31st annual National Debutante Cotillion and Thanksgiving Ball, a large and rather formal affair (long gloves required) presided over by Mary-Stuart Montague Price at the Washington Hilton. After 31 years, Price is something of a grande dame of the gracefully gregarious rite. "It's like, if this is the deb ball," said Thompson, "then it must be Thanksgiving. Nothing changes. Except the debutantes of course. Forty-three debutantes this year. That's our record, I believe."
Which was quite different from what was being said the next night in the intime splendor of the Shoreham Hotel's Palladium ballroom, where 250 of Washington's Armenian Americans gathered to toast 11 of their young women. The event, which many present referred to as a milestone for the community, was emceed by darkly handsome actor Mike Connors of "Mannix" fame.
"Ten or fifteen years ago, this would not have been possible for us," said Seth Momdjian, a U.S. representative to the U.N. during the Carter administration who said he had been promised his choice of ambassadorships had Carter been reelected. ("I had chosen Switzerland," he said with fathomless regret.)
"For us, an evening like this is many things," said Paul Garmivian, a political scientist turned real estate agent. "It is a sign, however old-fashioned, that we have arrived, and that we keep some of our heritage from falling into the melting pot."
He took a bite of his mouse Grand Marnier, a sip of coffee, lit a brown cigarette, then said, "But you must understand that our first loyalty is to our adopted country."
"This is like a bar mitzvah, really," said 16-year-old Sonya Krikorian. "It means that you're responsible in the eyes of the community, that you're ready to be treated as an adult.
"And, these are not our boyfriends," she added. "These are our escorts .
There are approximately 650,000 people of Armenian descent in the United States, about 3,000 of whom live in the Washington area.
This being the first cotillion of the Washington chapter there was no grande dame, per-se, though everyone found Mike Connors sufficiently grand.
"I am Armenian American," Connors said from the podium at one point, then let loose with an impressive volley of Armenian syllables.
"What did he say?" said a waiter. The answer came quickly from a little girl with crimped hair and a blue velvet jacket. "He said, 'I speak Armenian, but just a little,'" she said with withering disdain.
Connors shook hands with admirers during the reception, whirled a delirious debutante or two around the floor later on, and in general provided glamour to an evening that was high in excitement and long on ambition.
The 11 debutantes, daughters of local families all, remained out of sight during the reception, waiting, in their dresses of pale ivory and white. Having rehearsed the evening more than once, they were ready to take the big walk at 7 p.m. But first came dinner and ceremony, parental pride taking a back seat to ethnic pride.
"Four years ago I came to Washington with a man named Jimmy," Momdjian was saying up at the microphone. ("My name is Mike Connors, and I came to town with a man named Ronnie," boomed Connors moments later, to loud applause.)
Seated with their escorts at two round tables near the front of the room, the debutantes could be seen trading dark-eyed glances, raising eyebrows and acting, in general, like students being made to sit through a civics address.
Bishop Papken of the Armenian Orthodox church rose to deliver his benediction. ". . . Oh God, plant thy children like flowers. Their beauty is important, but more important is the beauty of your love."
The debutantes bowed their heads.
"Looking out here tonight," said Connors, "at all these beautiful sloe-eyed girls makes me wish I were 20 years younger, and single." The audience laughed. Loudly. "Thirty years younger?" said Connors.
As Connors recited hymned biographies for the 11 who emerged from behind the red curtain, Giacomo Porcelli, whose wife is Armenian, stood, smiling broadly, looking at his daughter, Karina, who clutched his arm, and exhibited the iridescent, somewhat dazed delight peculiar to debutantes on the big night.
"Tonight?" she said. "Tonight means that I am accepted into the Armenian community." And what is the Armenian community? "Anyone who is Armenian," she said.
The band struck up "Daddy's Little Girl," the fathers waltzed their daughters around the floor. And then the escorts, as is their sovereign duty at a cotillion, cut in and box-stepped it around and around the parquet square. a
"Oh my dear Lord," said a dismayed onlooker," they dance worse than the fathers."
"Sunrise, Sunset," gave way to high, sweet flute and the smoky twang of the oud as an Armenian ensemble took the stage. One by one, those seated nearby rose to do Armenian line dances. One by one, handkerchiefs came out of pockets, and were raised above heads. The lights dimmed. The candelabra on the head table shook and glowed.
Outside, Lora Keshishian, 16, a student at Holton Arms Academy, sat on a bench, pondering the evening, wondering if she should have accepted her invitation to come out after all. "Maybe I should have come forward. It was the first time, so I didn't know what to expect. Usually it's just the old people getting together doing Armenian dances. If I were in a Washington cotillion, I'd feel like a snob, but here, I think I'd feel proud."
"It's kind of like, dare I say," said Andy Hyde at the Thanksgiving ball, "the old-boy network. My mother likes to see her son in white tie and tails, so when this time of year comes around, my mother gives a call and says, 'Can you get my son in. . .'
"I'll be going to the Christmas cotillion as well, and I'll see a lot of kids that I've known since second grade. I run into them there, I run into them at the club. It's nice. Something like this," said Hyde, "prepares you for more general balls, later in life."
The lights in the ballroom at Mary-Stuart Montague Price's annual coming out party were dim by the end of the evening.
Ann Elise Goodwin, and Janice Rene Pakonen, both 21 and both post-post debs, from the ball of '78, sat next to one another, attired in red dresses that are worn by all post-post persons. "My little feet hurt," Goodwin exclaimed. "My dogs are just barking!
"I must say," she continued, "you certainly get to meet a lot of interesting people at this ball."
"Interesting is the word for it," said Pakonen, eyeing the man who had plopped himself down beside them.
Up on stage, Cinderella's coach had long been deserted for the wide, polished dance floor, where debutantes, their escorts ("Miss Price says that our objective must be to keep each girl dancing all night long -- make her feel like 10 guys are after her," said one) and all the rest of the party danced with an enthusiasm which, at least in contrast to their very elegant clothing, seemed borderline Dionysian.
"It was my knees that got me," moaned Jane Lee Best Wehland, of Elkridge, Md., as she emerged from the ball for a moment. "Flat-footed," she joked, then ran off again, trailing her escort behind her.
Gene Donati's orchestra, which has been a feature at the cotillion for years, played and played. Miss Price circulated, calling out to those she knew. "Well bless your heart!" she exclaimed repeatedly.
Charles M. Fairchild stood near his table, surveying the scene, a man who has seen two daughters through evenings just such as these in years past. "You know what the best part is?" he said. "It's that these girls get the exposure to a lot of nice boys, hand-selected boys. You know what I mean. It's good for the boys and good for the girls. In fact, one of my girls went on to marry one of the boys she met here. He asked for my blessing, and I said, 'Hey, I don't even know you!'" finished Fairchild with a big laugh.
The extensive buffet was cleared away, the dancing continued. Guests languished in their seats, talking, laughing, lighting and extinguishing cigarettes. It was 2 a.m. by then, the band still going strong. There were small after-parties planned for later. And luncheons and parties for the next two days, making "I haven't slept in days," the most oft-heard lament of the evening.
Dorian Delaney, 17, sat at a table, her escort nearby. "From the time the parties started, back in September I think, I've gotten a whole new wardrobe. I hope to go to the balls in New York, and the one in Austria. I'm not exactly sure how you go about it."
According to Price, it costs upwards of $1,800 to launch a girl properly at the Thanksgiving ball. This year she had "more girls than ever before, so she must be doing something right," said Hill Slowinski, an admirer of Price's, one of the legion in circulation.
And is it worth it? The rehearsals, the hassles, the receiving lines? Is the night in the sun worth the cost?
Well, said Sharron O'Neill, of Washington and Dallas, Tex., a debutante of 1979, "It's not that big a deal really. It's just nice to know that people can afford to live this way, and be treated this way. And it's fun. Before the '60s, everybody who was influential used to come out.
"I mean, you can't be treated like a princess all your life, but once in your life, well, I think you can."