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How's Bayou? You say 'deh-boo' and I say 'day-bue'

Hand-tinted invitation for the first dance

No matter how they pronounced it, New Orleans debutantes in 1933 were all atwitter about a new little secret.

The cracked leather binder, the size of a good novel, that I discovered among my deceased mother-in-law’s belongings, was an I-P Loose Leaf, No. 2708, patented -- the label proudly declared -- on December 20, 1904, by the Irving-Pitt MFG. CO. of Kansas City, MO.

Boasting unique “Duraflex Binding,” this stalwart item no doubt flew off the shelves of A.W Hyatt Stationery, “Office Outfitters, Printers, Black Book Makers and Lithographers,” in downtown New Orleans.

Nothing but the best for Mildred Porteous, president of an ever-so-special, newly-formed and decidedly haute monde, club for Uptown demoiselles. After all, her father was head of Western Union – in those days a powerhouse company -- in New Orleans; and you wouldn’t want just any old thing lying next to the silver platter for calling cards on the console in the entrance hall of No. 552 Walnut St., overlooking Audubon Park.

The tattered first page, with its unevenly-impressed manual typewriter letters, declares this to be the by laws of The Debutante Club of New Orleans, Louisiana and continues, “This organization shall be known as The Debutantes’ Club.” But, with the s and the apostrophe struck through in ink, it became simply The Debutante Club, with “Membership to be composed of ex-debutantes.”

The purpose, the organizers wrote, was to hold a festive dance early in the season each winter, to introduce the new debutantes to the waiting community, “and to cement the friendships made in past social seasons.”

Dues were $3.00 per year – this was the Great Depression, you know -- and included three invitations for the dance. Extra invitations were hard to come by, and had to be purchased – for a pittance, no doubt.

Officers’ terms were limited to two years, and they were granted “power to act in all emergencies” as the executive committee.

But subsidiary committees were necessary to ensure the proper functioning of the club and the success of the annual dance. There was need of committeewomen for the Hall, Decoration, Music, Flowers, Costume, Membership and “Invitation – (Secret) and Nominating – (Secret).”

But even before the first dance was launched, there was the suggestion that “each Spring or Fall a style show or other form of entertainment be given for the purpose of helping some worthwhile movement.”

And, as tradition and civility would demand, “When a member becomes engaged to be married, there should be a party or shower given in her honor. Funds for this purpose to be taken from the treasury.”

Mildred was surrounded by friends: Alice Parker, first vice-president; Miriam Hartson, second; Kathleen Denechaud , secretary; and Ethel Garic, treasurer.

As members, there were more Fenners, LaCours, Hardins, Logans, Minors, Phillips, Solaris, Werleins, Wahls, Watkins and Wickliffes than you could shake a stick at.

Clearly, in 1933, it paid to have your name begin with W.

The first fall fete, the hand-tinted invitation announced, was a dance, to be held on November 3, 1934, from 10 till 2 at the “Tip Top Inn” of the Roosevelt Hotel, for the “Introduction of Debutantes.”

In an interview decades ago with Times-Picayune reporter Marjorie Roehl, Mildred recalled that there was not enough money in the treasury to buy stamps, so one of the members had her chauffeur hand deliver the invitations.

The previous year, Mildred’s debut party, held at her parents’ home, featured – according to a handwritten list Millie and I found several years ago – one ham, a turkey, ten pounds of American cheese and a jar of kosher dill pickles. These, were, you remember, Depression days.

We don’t know what was served at the Debutante Club’s first formal dance, the music or the décor. But one thing we can be sure of, cast in today’s social-column parlance, about the party:

Fulsome were the fecund festivities!

How’s Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.