In light of all the current crises affecting Americans, who would believe that during the fall and winter season the tradition of holding debutante balls still continues in major cities? Yet look how many of us loved immersing in the pageantry of Downton Abbey. The practice of presenting marriageable daughters to eligible young men from prosperous families dates back to Babylonian times.* Though most modern young women find the deb scene old-fashioned and elitist, the privileged young ladies and their beaux who still participate in these elegant festivities become stars for a time; their pictures even appear in newspapers such as The New York Times. [They come from all over the world; check out the video here.]
In the depths of the Depression in 1930s Manhattan, debutantes were not only popular, they were a source of fascination to many people who struggled with a new grim economic reality. As it turned out, learning her way around this narrow social world would one day provide Jane Hall’s ticket to literary success.
Rose and Randolph Hicks were eager for Jane to marry well as their savings had been decimated by the Wall Street crash. It was clear that Jane was not likely to find a financially secure mate at her all-scholarship art school, The Cooper Union. So the Hickses teamed up with the parents of one of Jane’s former classmates, Margaret Gregory. “Muggy” and Jane would “come out” together in the fall 1933 season at a tea dances in New York and in Virginia.
When she heard the plans, Jane was thrilled. She’d had a “grand old time” that spring tempered only by the memories that haunted her on April 28 (the seventh anniversary of her father’s death), and on May 12 as she lit a candle for her late mother at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church on Park Avenue. For the first time in her life she was popular with boys. But Jane saw her dates as pals; she took none of them seriously and that was dispiriting to those who fell hard for her. Nevertheless, on evenings and weekends, they all had plenty of fun. When they were not at parties, they danced to the sound of big bands, tried out restaurants in Greenwich Village and Coney Island, went to the theater, or drove around the city with the top down on snazzy convertibles. The most popular pastime was the movies, some of which (such as those starring Mae West), were quite risqué in the years before 1934 when the Hollywood Production Code was strictly enforced.
For some of Jane’s crowd the big news in early April was “Beer is back!” At least 3.2% beer was (though the legal age in New York was 21). Always wary of alcohol as her mother had been, Jane now acknowledged that Prohibition, which would not officially end until 5:32 p.m. on December 5, 1933, was an “asinine law.” Although Jane rarely tried alcohol, abstention was never the case with her dates. At a beer party at 535 Park Avenue, one of the boy’s fathers bet them five dollars each that “they couldn’t drink a soup plate of warm beer with a teaspoon. They all won.”
As Jane prepared to spend the summer in Virginia, having just made it through her first year of art school, she hoped she would be productive despite the many distractions of her new social life. Would this serious young author and artist who once had such strong career ambitions be seduced by the revelry that awaited her in the summer and fall of 1933? She recorded it all in her diary and in a “Debutante Yearbook” that she kept between October 1933 and April 1934.
*For a useful survey of this age-old tradition see Karal Ann Marling, Debutante: Rites and Regalia of American Debdom (2004).