It All Seemed Perfectly Normal to Me.
A Debutante Pleases Her Father
To please my father as well as myself, I became a debutante at several balls in 1960. Glamor and mystique attend the idea of making a debut into society. In fact, my father told me that when I was old enough, he would make sure I was presented at court to the Queen in London. Sadly for him, if not for me, the debutante balls of the court were canceled after the 1958 season.
By the 1950s, life was changing in American society. Things were becoming a lot more open and available to women. Women were able to do almost any job by then, and many of them were entering the workforce with the idea of having a career. Most of my friends were expecting to go to college and graduate. So, the idea of making a debut in order to find a husband was somewhat out of date. A lot of women went to college with the idea of earning their “Mrs.” degree. (a husband.) Only a few were debutantes, and the number was diminishing.
All my young life, I wanted to be a debutante when I was of age. After all, that was the way I was raised. The values I was shown went along with this idea: pretty clothes, elegant manners, and a handsome husband who would “take care of me,” once I had come out. This was all part of the plan, only it was a fairy tale told to me by my parents.
The world changed after World War II. We were at peace, but the Cold War presented other problems. There was always the possibility that we would not stay at peace. We were worried about nuclear war. This was a real threat, according to the papers, the politicians and the television. And it worried me. I wanted to grow up and get married before we were bombed into oblivion. We were seriously afraid of this happening. Russia was a threat, while China was not even on our radar.
It was my father who wanted to show me off. The best way to do this was to pay for a marvelous debut ball for me. Or even better, several different balls and parties. I was in a position to come out in other states as well as in Washington, D.C. Looking back, it may seem shallow and inane to make a debut. But at the time, it was deadly serious. I read about debs of the past and looked forward to being old enough to be “presented.” I was NOT a reluctant debutante. It sounded glamorous and lots of fun. I loved the preparation and I loved the balls, the dancing, the excitement, and being the star.
My father loved buying me clothes, and he took me to dressmakers in Italy, France, and New York. He was proud of my looks and pleased to have a bargaining chip in the game of eligible daughters. He had in mind marrying me off to a prince. Or, at the very least, he was hoping for a title or a great fortune for me. His idea of showing love was to buy presents. He was extremely generous. And selfishly, I loved it. Who wouldn’t? But, I was madly in love with Charley Matheson by the time I reached the right age to come out. We had been dating for nearly two years and I was not even slightly interested in looking at any other prospects.
I had many advantages. Marjory Merriweather Post was a great lady in Washington, D.C. A socialite, businesswoman, and philanthropist, she was a wonderful woman who had great confidence in herself and her abilities. She did not just inherit money. She made it. She ran her company, General Foods, through managers and being an active board member. Men paid attention to her. I admired her very much because she was intelligent and beautiful. She loved pretty clothes and fabulous jewelry. She was vital and interested in life. She did not seem to mind aging. It made her more powerful and, in many ways, more beautiful. She told my mother that she wanted to give me a dinner party or do something for my debut. What a great compliment. That never materialized because I had such a full schedule. So many balls to attend, and several were already planned especially for me.
Perle Mesta, the American diplomat, Washington socialite, and “hostess with the mostess’,” had already planned to give a ball for me at the Sulgrave Club. She got into the act early. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to fit in her ball. There were a lot of girls making their debuts in 1960, and many of them had private parties. Some came out only at the Washington Debutante Ball, while others had parents who wanted to give them a dance of their own. A dance was expensive, and so were the dinner parties given before the dances. There were teas, tea dances, and dinner parties and balls, even a few luncheons. There were many ways to bring out a young lady. Sometimes, it was the grandparents who had a party, and sometimes a friend who gave a party in honor of their friends’ daughter, as Perle Mesta did for me.
In reality, the number of parties at which I came out was rather “over the top”. But it was all fun to me. It was a marvelous romp and though the memories tend to blend together, there are little mental video clips that have stayed in my mind, to be brought to the surface and enjoyed when telling the stories of that year. And the photographs are such fun to see now. All those white kid gloves and pointy-toed shoes! How my feet ached after dancing at a tea dance, in the afternoon, going to a dinner party, and then a ball where the dancing was continuous until 1 or 2 in the morning. How young and strong we were! How impervious to lack of sleep and irregular meals. And those waist cinchers! When we look back at the tiny waists my children and grandchildren cannot believe they are real. They were real but I wore a “Merry Widow” ( a waist cincher) under those evening dresses every time.
My mother’s diaries for that year are in my possession and are fun to read. She wrote about me in her diary, “The world is her oyster if only she does not go into the shell too soon.”
Mother knew I was in love and not interested in looking further. But she also knew that if I had wanted to, I could have achieved significant social strides. I was not likely to do that if I married Charley. His family was friends with my parents. It was a perfect match in so many ways. Almost the boy next door, and I often thank Charley in my heart. We were happy together and that saved me from my father’s plans for marriage into great wealth or a title.
Especially after Charley moved me to the country, I thrived on it. My life has been marvelous and full but it has also been real. Not fake and not pretentious, but full of family and dogs and horses. There is hardly anything I would change about it. And my debut was part of the whole fabric. Next week this blog will take a look inside my debutante year.
Copyright©. 2023 Bonnie B. Matheson
4 thoughts on “It All Seemed Perfectly Normal to Me.”
Love this, Bonnie! Such great stories. I wish we still had waist clinchers…I could use one! Sending love,
I too made my debut in Palm Beach, New York and Vienna! It was such fun and Mrs. Post gave a dinner dance for me. Fond memories for sure.
Oh Bonnie! Thank you for being so real! Your debut party was my favorite. We stood in the receiving line in front of the Nixons who were so kind to us youngins! I remember the dress I wore! I remember the steel drum band ! It was a dream night for me. Much love !
Love seeing all those pictures!