DEBUTANTE

The Story of Brenda Frazier

By Gioia Diliberto

Knopf. 331 pp. $19.95

Herewith yet another entry in the poor-little-rich-girl sweepstakes, the umpteenth story of a woman whose beauty, wealth and social prominence failed to bring her happiness and who died, as they always do in these stories, alone and alcoholic. In their essentials these tales are all the same -- read one, you've read them all -- yet each has its own drama; we are drawn to them not merely because they offer glimpses of a remote and glamorous world, but because they provide the comforting reminder that for the rich as for the poor, in the end it is ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

The poor little rich girl in Gioia Diliberto's skillfully narrated tale is Brenda Frazier, who in the autumn of 1938 appeared on the cover of Life magazine and was nationally celebrated as debutante of the year, if not indeed the century. As Diliberto is at pains to point out, that is all Frazier did: She came out, into what passes in New York for polite society. It was an accomplishment of utterly no weight -- "I haven't done anything at all," Frazier once said. "I'm just a debutante" -- yet it made her famous and, as it always goes in stories such as this, burdened her for the remainder of her sad, pointless life.

She was the daughter of a feckless, alcoholic father and an ambitious, vulgar mother; this, too, is part of the standard story. In time her parents separated and divorced, which allowed her mother to direct all of her considerable energies to the management of little Brenda's prospects. The girl herself did not especially like to be the center of attention, but her mother pushed her into it and insisted she remain there. All of the consequences were entirely predictable.

Frazier seems not to have been without intelligence and charm, but her natural gifts were subordinated to the development of artificial ones. Her looks, which were pleasant but not striking, were falsified by cosmetics and clothing; her manner, which was friendly but not effusive, became the idle prattle of cafe' society:

"This was the world Brenda moved in. It was a world of childish pranks, massive egos, too much alcohol, too little sleep. It was a world with lots of chatter, but little worthwhile conversation; lots of romancing, but little love. On any given night at the Stork Club and El Morocco, you might find Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, the Duke of Windsor, Irving Berlin, Cary Grant. All would be photographed, all would be written up. Yet the celebrity whose light shone brightest of all in that nighttime world was Brenda Frazier, then an 18-year-old girl."

There are no surprises in the rest of the story. Her own awareness of the emptiness of her fame did nothing to help Frazier cope with it, and in time she came to accept it as a fact of her life. She married twice; she had one daughter, a stillborn son, a miscarriage and an abortion. She made numerous attempts to kill herself; all were unsuccessful, but in any event she was doing the job the slow way, with alcohol and drugs and an anorexic eating pattern.

By the 1950s Frazier was described in the press as a has-been, "living on a diet of slimming pills, sleeping pills and pills for exhaustion," but it seems never to have occurred to anyone that she had never been anything -- except a debutante -- to begin with. She died in 1982, of inoperable bone cancer, at the age of 60; that she lived so long is, in light of the quality of her life, something of a miracle.

It's a sad story, though it is difficult to work up as much pity as one might like for a woman who had too little strength of character to order her own life and therefore placed her fate in the hands of others, few of whom seem to have cared much for her. Diliberto is among these few; her book is sympathetic, straightforward and unexploitive. Its only shortcoming is that she relies, to an inordinate degree, on evidence and judgments presented by Frazier's unnamed psychiatrist; the propriety of his testimony is perhaps a matter of individual judgment, but it seems to me a deviation from, if not a violation of, professional ethics, even if the patient is now dead.

But this is a question of the psychiatrist's ethics, not Diliberto's. She has resisted the temptation to write a sensational book about a life that in actuality was not really all that sensational, and has instead told a cautionary tale about the price that meaningless celebrity ultimately exacts. Inasmuch as we now inhabit an age in which such celebrity is almost the only kind there is, the moral of her tale commands our attention.