From Catastrophe to Success!

From Catastrophe to Success!

On the night of my debutante ball, Richard Nixon, who was Vice President, and his wife, Pat, came over early with their two adolescent daughters, Julie and Tricia. They wanted to see the tent and the decorations before the extraordinary debutante party my parents gave for me at Underoak, our beautiful estate. Walter Sharon, the florist, was there, too, working on the flowers. Ridgewells Caterers were setting up for the breakfast to be served later. The “A 1 Tent Company” had brought tents down from New York. They were pink, which is NOT my color. Those tents were exceptional and costly but turned out to be useful as well as lovely. The weather had been fine. But earlier that day a storm was predicted for the evening. 

Charley Matheson, Bonnie Buchanan, Ruth Buchanan, Pat, and Dick Nixon

At about 9:30 p.m., dark clouds appeared over the house, so dark they were visible even at night. High winds approaching 60 mph and a lot of rain, lightning, and thunder and sheets of rain began to wreck the decorations, the dance floor, and the tents. The paths lined with plants and flowers that had been created leading to the pool were flooded with water. The elaborate rose trees blew over. The smaller tent under which the orchestra was going to play filled with water and almost collapsed. Everything was compromised. It was a catastrophe. There were little lakes of water everywhere. (Not puddles) The tablecloths were wet, chairs had turned over, and pots of pink-dyed gardenias spilled on the ground. The clear acrylic sides of the tent had protected some but not all of the tables and the decorations. It was a mess. It was a disaster.

Of course, when they arrived the Nixons saw the near wreck of the tent and tumbled- over gardenia plants; it was awful. But everyone working there, caterers, security people, tent people, and waiters all pitched in to help my parents put things back together.
Mercifully, I never saw this debacle. I was, blissfully unaware of any of these problems. I was lying on my back, resting on a bed in the first-floor guest room. I had just had my makeup professionally done. My parents did not want me to go to a dinner party before my dance. No one wanted to risk my fabulous dress or tire me out in any way. So, I was fresh, rested, and ready for the first guests to arrive. My boyfriend, Charley, arrived early, along with several boys who were designated to be on the “Floor Committee.” They each wore a red sash across their shirts which showed under their tuxedo jackets. They looked official and very handsome.

Decorations by the pool before the storm

By the time I was dressed and went down to the tents, the mess was mostly cleaned up. They had to dry chairs with towels, change some tablecloths and set things back neatly. Someone had put a small oriental rug down on the ground where my parents and I were going to be standing in the receiving line. The ground was so wet, it would have turned into a muddy quagmire.

Mother feared that no one would come, but she thought the best thing to do was to go and get dressed. She said they needed to be ready just in case anybody actually came to the party. She was frightened that the storm was so severe that people would decide to stay home instead of going out in the horrible weather.

Mrs Hetzle, Robert E. Freer and me

But, they did come. Mrs. Hetzel, who was the arbiter of protocol for the girls making their debuts that season, came early, with the list of debutantes and invited guests. Part of her job was to keep anyone from “crashing” the party. Also, she or an assistant was empowered to judge if any of the guests became unruly. If so, they would be asked to leave.

The Nixons had left to take Tricia and Julie home. They returned later and were waiting in the receiving line along with all the other guests. Friends who were near them said how kind and accommodating they were to the young people who wanted to say hello to the Vice President and his wife.

My mother and father were remarkably calm in my presence, but I read her diary recently describing that night. It tells me they were both highly stressed and feared the party would be a failure. They were wrong. Mother said she “never saw so many people in one place!” Of course, that was an exaggeration.

My father was the Chief of Protocol and my parents were very “social”. It was a sought-after invitation. The people who were invited came. There were a few people who came even though they were not invited. We had plans in place to avoid problems. There were Pinkerton men (private detectives) and plainclothes police strategically placed throughout the grounds and in various rooms of the house. There were valuables throughout the house, jewelry, paintings, and different objets d’art. It was not unusual for a family to hire security for a large private party. But they were also there because the Vice President was a guest. The party was VERY secure for that time in our history. But nothing like it would be in today’s world. There was a guest list. The ushers were supposed to see to it that no one crashed the party, yet several people did. Those who came without an invitation were dressed appropriately and were well-behaved. They wanted to blend in. There were no “incidents” with unruly people.

My parents had hired a professional to decorate the tents and enhance the area around the swimming pool. In this, I had little input. For instance, they used a lot of pink-dyed flowers, especially pink gardenias. I love the scent of gardenias, but pink has never been my color. Looking back, I realize they could have used another color. No one asked me. They just assumed that pink would suit me. I could have insisted on turquoise blue decorations. But I did not. I was only interested in my dress and the fun of having a ball given just for me. It seemed unimportant to make a fuss about the decorations or almost any arrangements for this party. I performed well that night, smiling from ear to ear and enjoying being the center of attention. In her diary, Mother wrote about me at my high school graduation, a couple of weeks before, “Bonnie has the most amazing ‘stage presence’ I have ever seen. She was so much more poised and at ease than the others walking into the school auditorium and while onstage.” I knew how to do that. I had been doing it for years. To me, it was all part of the “job” of being a debutante and the daughter of an Ambassador.

Charley and me dancing

I knew what I was supposed to do and how I was supposed to look. It was easy for me. I had been practicing since I was 11 years old when I watched Queen Elizabeth’s coronation parade. It seemed like fun to act like a princess, even though I was just a regular American girl. My luck in being born into a happy family blessed with wealth, health, and a certain amount of wisdom was my reward.

Ever since living in Europe and seeing the results, the ravages, the senseless destruction of war, I felt blessed to be an American. More than that, I felt that my life must be a reward for some awful thing that happened to me in a previous life. That was my way of rationalizing my good fortune. I was aware of how blessed we all were. I never felt guilty for my luck because I knew it was just that: Luck.  I had nothing to do with it and could not claim credit for any of it. But I could be grateful. And I was always grateful for being born into my family.  

Me, Charley and Myer Davis

In spite of the rain, the tent looked fabulous. The decorations were marvelous. There were large birdcages filled with flowers and fake birds at the top of the tent poles. The swimming pool was enhanced with pink gardenias in floating arrangements. People were able to be outside the tent from time to time. However, most of the time, it rained. REALLY rained. So much for all that decorating of the pool house and the yard. I did not care or even feel regret. The music was great, playing songs of that era. The orchestra leader, Meyer Davis, wrote a song, especially for me. The title was “Bonnie, the Future is for You.” It has a great melody; I still have some of the sheet music, which has my photograph on the cover. Who doesn’t like the idea of a song written just for them? We loved Meyer Davis who was favored by the “old guard”. Dancing over and over with many young men energized me. And of course, I danced most of all with my boyfriend Charley Matheson. I love to dance still!

Charley liked these parties as much as I did. The boys especially, liked them because, in 1960, no one “carded” the boys to see if they were of official age to drink. Most of these boys were teenagers, though there were some in their twenties. Charley was still 18 and would turn 19 in August. But he and his friends went to the open bar and ordered bourbon. For the most part, there were no problems with drunk driving or arrests. It was a different time. In those days a policeman might pull over a young man who was speeding and discover he had too much to drink. I know of several instances where the policemen either followed the boy home or gave him a ride home in the police car.

Cassie, Dick, Chrarlie H, and me dancing to Pedrito Altieri

All the guests clearly enjoyed themselves that night. Many Ambassadors were there and some other government officials besides the Vice President. The dance floor was crowded all evening. Old and young alike kept swaying to the music. And breakfast was served at midnight. Meyer Davis played until 12:30 a.m., and then we brought out our surprise, and he was a great hit. Pedrito Altieri and his steel band came on and played for an hour. Then Meyer Davis played again until 2:30. Finally, Pedrito played until dawn lit the sky.  They played island songs, and we did the Limbo as best we could. Our bodies did not flex in the same way the island girls’ did but we tried.
My gorgeous dress made by the Italian designer “Fontana” was extremely tight. Though its skirt was full it was not as easy to move around in it once we started trying to do the “Limbo”. I wore it for the first few hours of my party. For the later part of the evening, I changed into a dress of white chiffon with a narrow waist and a very full short cocktail-length skirt. The straps were solid, and the zipper was strong to ensure against mishaps while dancing dangerously fast and hard and doing the limbo to the best of my ability. Dancing until the sky brightened up and the night faded away was exhausting but so much fun! Unlike so many stories about girls who hated “coming out”, it was my dream come true.

I was in love with Charley and enjoying going to other dances during this season for debutantes. For about the first two weeks of June, there were dances every night, even on weeknights, We were out every night, dressed in evening clothes and dancing, and enjoying ourselves. I was thrilled to the challenge of that night of my ball. Being the center of attention was exciting and fulfilling for me. When it was over the memory stayed with me as a very special event in a year filled with special evenings. My parents gave me a gift that helped build my confidence in my ability to act the part. After all so much of my life involved “acting” as all diplomats and their families know. But the over the top quality of the party did not embarrass me. Instead it filled me with gratitude.

Copyright©. 2023 Bonnie B. Matheson

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