The Debutante

For most of the twentieth century, Society with a capital “S” consisted of very specific and recognizable segments of the population. There was blue-blood Society which was defined by real or fantasized genealogy; Café Society, which introduced the concept of celebrity as aristocrat and was often looked down on (or purported to be looked down on) by those in the first category; International Society, which included nobility and the titled, both genuine and faux; Big City Society; Small City Society; and just about any other kind of Society imaginable. There were those born into Society, those who married into it or aspired to it, those who lied about it and certainly those who really could not have cared less about it. There were even those who despised it. No matter. It was still there, still very much something with which to be reckoned.

“Society” existed then (and continues to exist in mutated forms today) because people like to regard themselves as special and set apart in whatever way seems easiest, most natural, and most flattering to them. It was an easily identifiable and categorized way of being special and it had an almost universal allure. Movie audiences during the depression watched the high jinks or dramas affecting characters played by William Powell, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Myrna Loy, and Robert Montgomery with real fascination. The works of S. N. Behrman and Philip Barry played to sold-out audiences. It was largely fairy tale stuff, but the message was believable and, given the right circumstances, the fairy tale could become reality. Sure, in My Man Godfrey, the homeless man who becomes a butler really was a gentleman, but he was ostensibly a poor, unappreciated guy and it all worked out in the end. And Ginger Rogers’s Kitty Foyle proved once and for all that a decent working girl could even beat the blue bloods on their own turf. Cinderella may not get to go to the ball (in this case a Philadelphia Assembly), but she does elope with a prince (maybe not the one she first thought of) to live happily ever after.

Anna Glen Butler, born in 1917 in New York into a world rich with Dutch and English antecedents, was very much a part of blue-blooded Society. She was related to the Carters and Randolphs of Virginia as well as to the duPont and Marshall Field families. And in July of 1937, like other girls of similar background, she was a debutante. She was presented in London at the Court of St. James to the recently crowned King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

More than sixty years later, Anna Glen looked back on that experience.

Elderly, heavy set, pretty, and impeccably coiffed, the widow of Alexander O. Vietor (Yale historian and curator of maps from 1943 to 1978) loved to talk. She loved to talk so much that sometimes, at board meetings and such, she was known to talk herself to sleep and her gentle snoring would then take up where her words had stopped. Sometimes the talk was tiresome but often it was fascinating.

Relaxing by a blazing fire in her sprawling Park Avenue apartment, she talked and talked and talked about the past.

“When I was very young, transatlantic travel wasn’t wonderful at all,” she began, smiling at the memory.

“By the mid-thirties, things had improved a little, but in the twenties it was still pretty bad. We had upper and lower berths. I was up above and Miss McKenzie, the nurse, was below. We had to go to a bath steward to take a bath. There were only salt-water baths—they didn’t have fresh water. And as for eating anything! Well, the family wouldn’t have touched most things after the first day because there wasn’t refrigeration or anything like that. You couldn’t eat fish; milk was usually sour before you made it to Europe. There was nothing really glamorous about it. According to hearsay, the Titanic was more glamorous, but it probably wasn’t. There was no refrigeration, no telephones, nothing frozen, no real messages—very little communication with the outside world. If you sent a wireless, it cost a great deal of money. There was no entertainment except bingo and horse races, no movies and certainly no stage shows. There was one concert—for the seaman’s charities.

“These difficulties not withstanding, in my youth I did spend much time abroad. But I was eventually presented at court as a result of old New York.

“My mother belonged to several fuddy-duddy societies of old ladies, and one of them was the Monday Sewing Club founded in the late 1800s. They lunched and hemmed diapers for the Children’s Aid Society—at least they sewed a few stitches and paid someone to finish them. Anyway, Mrs. James Roosevelt, mother of the president, was a member and a close family friend. She said to my mother, ‘Of course, Anna Glen must be presented at court!’

“My mother demurred, ‘We hadn’t considered that.’

“And Mrs. Roosevelt said, ‘Nonsense! I’ll call Franklin and tell him.’ One thing about Franklin, he was a real mama’s boy. Mummy told him I was to be put on the list of presentations and onto the list of presentations I went.”

One wonders how many others would think of Franklin Roosevelt, America’s longest reigning president, as a “mama’s boy?” But in any case, off went Anna Glen, a young American girl, to be presented to the king and queen of England.

“We embarked as planned, armed with a letter describing the rules and regulations concerning court etiquette and dress. Once in London, my white satin dress was made with the fitter applying a tape measure to make sure the décolleté was not too low. The train, which hung separately from the shoulders, had to trail a prescribed distance on the floor. The same with the tulle veil, whose official length seemed to hit the middle of the rear end, so sitting was difficult. I also had to make certain I did not dislodge the three feathers on my head. The feather fan was purchased and all was ready.

“The next step was going to a studio to learn about the curtsy. There was a large room with two chairs representing the two thrones. I had to walk around and around this room with a book on my head, a train and a fan, and make a deep court curtsy in front of the first chair, incline my head, move the fan to my left side and, being careful not to step on the train, rise gracefully, take three steps sideways, and repeat the process for the second chair. After that I would take twenty steps sideways to the door, which in the Palace, would be a series of rooms. After graduating from this, I went to tea at the American embassy with the ambassadress and demonstrated my prowess along with the fourteen other Americans, showing that I would not disgrace the United States. None of this was taken lightly.

“At night I went to deb parties, most of them in private houses, and met other debutantes. Deb parties were very different from New York. The girls were still accompanied by mothers, chaperones, or maids. They sat with her in a parlor and boys stopped to request dances noted on cards. If no boys came, the girls continued all evening in their seats—shades of Jane Austen, and really cruel. The loss of men in World War I made for many fewer boys, and many were out in the colonies. However, I had a great time at the parties because I was an American: no mother, no chaperone, no maid. A chauffeur hired for the season took me everywhere—real freedom compared to the other girls.

“Finally the big night: July 1, 1937. The first court of King George after the coronation, and what turned out to be the last formal, feather-and-fans court ever.

“My parents had a good friend, Sir Vivian Gabriel, and when they told him I was to be presented he said that he would take charge of me. He came to pick me up all decked out in knee britches, much gold braid, a large hat with white feathers, and a black rod. The red carpet was laid out for me and the manager at Claridge’s escorted me to the car. Sir Vivian and I had hardly anything to say. I could barely understand him as he was a ‘hot-potato-in-the-mouth’ type of Englishman and, from my point of view, a real octogenarian.

“We drove through the palace gates to the entrance, greeted by a fanfare of trumpets—beefeaters at every turn—and went upstairs to the Throne Entrance Room where Sir Vivian seated me and left. The Throne Room seats are reserved for special presentations: diplomats, high government officials, and special guests. It was fascinating to watch these groups, a representation of the Empire: India, Africa, the world over. I was nervous and worrying about the train.

Because I was in the Throne Room, I got to see all the diplomatic presentations. Among them was von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s ambassador, and when he got to the king and queen he made a Nazi salute!

“I was horrified. In America we’d followed the specter of war quite closely and when I suddenly saw his hand go up like that—well, you can imagine.

“But there was no reaction in the Throne Room. It was typically British, stiff upper lip; not a soul said a thing.”

Looking back on that moment and still a little surprised at the ostensible lack of reaction, Anna Glen paused briefly and then added, “Afterwards, the London Times did say that people were quite shocked. They said that the salute was outrageous—that it was a local affair that could be done in Germany but certainly not in the Court of St. James! But that was afterwards, the day after.”

Then the evening proceeded more predictably.

“With this great silver mace, the Lord Chamberlain hit the floor three times and called out the name of each debutante and suddenly it was my name, Miss Anna Glenn Butler of the United States of America. And there I was walking along the length of the Throne Room and through the entire routine! I remember well the lovely smile of the queen’s face as I bowed my head to her. I finally reached the door and joined the line where we had a long wait while others were presented. At last, with a big fanfare of trumpets, the royal family walked down between the rows of people and we all did bobbing curtsies as they passed. Then all the debutantes and unaccompanied adults were instructed to proceed to buffet rooms downstairs, but suddenly Sir Vivian appeared and took me into the Royal Supper Room.

There were several galleries and all the guests stood at long tables set with china, glass, and silver. We were served by footmen in knee britches and powdered wigs. Only the royal family was seated. I had the Egyptian ambassador on one side of me and Sir Vivian on the other side. Both were tiny, so I felt like a huge American Amazon.

“We had a sumptuous dinner with much wine and champagne and then the Royal Family left. I followed others to the car entrance and fortunately found my car. My chauffeur was worried about my late appearance, as the majority had long since left. At the hotel, the manager was still waiting up for me. I rushed to my parents’ room, where they were waiting to hear every detail—including those shocking ones about von Ribbentrop. Pretty heady stuff for a girl my age—all of nineteen!”

Issue Twenty Two