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Secret Sharing: Debutantes Coming Out in the American South

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 18, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 6-25 | 10.1353/scu.2012.0046

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

My husband is determined that we don't give away all the rituals.

—Kitty McEaddy, mother of five Charleston debutantes

I don't know what people would do without deb season.

—Margaret Lee McEaddy, one of the five

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What leads contemporary women to draw firm social boundaries, protected by the rites of a sorority or the rituals of coming out, for the sole apparent reason of inviting some people in and excluding others? What accounts for the survival of various debutante societies throughout the South and beyond? St. Cecilia debutante, 2012.

The grand staircase fronting the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston leads to large, wooden, locked double doors and instructions to ring the bell for service. The summons brings a face between the doors and, in a moment that recalls the Wizard's brushing off Dorothy through a similar aperture, the question "May I help you?" faintly discourages a reply. Inside, other assistants hustle to retrieve documents from the unseen depths where archives are stored. I pay my five-dollar non-member's fee and ask to see any documents pertaining to the St. Cecilia Society, a Charleston musical society established in 1762, which became, sometime in the nineteenth century, perhaps the most exclusive and mysterious of all debutante societies in America.

My wait is brief. A smiling assistant, having warmed to my curiosity, has unearthed a scrapbook belonging to a Miss Mary de Merrell of 129 Tradd Street, Charleston. As I respectfully leaf through the fragile pages that chronicle Miss de Merrell's coming out on 23 December 1943, I find a newspaper photo of her and her cohort of seventeen debs, dated 9 January 1944, posed elegantly for the occasion. Mary de Merrell has penciled an arrow above herself, atop which she has written "me." At last, I have burrowed through layers of secrecy to the private record of one war-time St. Cecilia debutante—an excavation that, just moments before and over long months, I'd thought was impossible.

Mary Pinckney de Merrell Brady obviously prepared this scrapbook for archival purposes, having inscribed her married name and address in the front, dated June 1999, and having added notes throughout in the same hand, with the same pen. A newspaper photo of eleven mothers—nearly all hatted and in fox furs—records their meeting in early November 1943 about the upcoming festivities. Yet the reportage is everywhere inflected with personal touches. Lined notebook pages with contact phone numbers for the other debutantes and for such helpful people as "caterers" also list "presents given me," including flowers ("mums") and jewelry ("chain topax [sic] necklace"). Mostly, there are traces of parties, parties, parties! Hand-written and printed invitations line the rag pages, each bearing Mary's note that it was "answered." Every newspaper clipping dutifully reports who attended the punch bowl at whose residence. Mary kept a list of days and nights already reserved for parties, a list of what she wore to each party, and a list of her dates, as well as their heights ("I was 5' 7" barefoot!" she inserts). Next to one of those dates, Lt. Ned Brady, she has added, parenthetically, "whom I married!" Here, before me, are both infectious girlish excitement over a brimming social life and twilight nostalgia for days gone by. It is the single glimpse into the inner world of St. Cecilia that, as an outsider, I have been able to catch.

Like a number of women who didn't themselves debut, I'm intrigued by women who have. Growing up in Ohio, I was never aware of debutante societies, although I partook in sororities, which thrived in my high school and at my university. Later, as a graduate student in the Ivy League, I encountered some of the same elitist separatism that characterizes contemporary debutante society. Today, still no stranger to exclusivity, I teach at a highly selective private college given to occasional bouts of self-ascribed superiority. In the case of schools, selectivity can be defended at least partly on the basis of merit. But what leads contemporary women to draw firm social boundaries, protected by the rites of a sorority or the rituals...



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