Brenda Frazier

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Brenda Frazier
Brenda Frazier.jpg
Born Brenda Diana Duff Frazier
(1921-06-09)June 9, 1921
Quebec, Canada
Died May 3, 1982(1982-05-03) (aged 60)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Nationality American
Not to be confused with Brendan Fraser.

Brenda Diana Duff Frazier (June 9, 1921 – May 3, 1982) was an American debutante popular during the Depression era. Her December 1938 coming-out party was so heavily publicized worldwide she eventually appeared on the cover of Life magazine for that reason alone. She was known and dubbed as 'Poor Little Rich Girl' by the media, together with socialites and other famous debutantes Barbara Hutton, Gloria Vanderbilt and Doris Duke.

Early life[edit]

Brenda's father, Frank Duff Frazier, came from a prosperous Boston family. Her mother, the former Brenda Germaine Henshaw Williams-Taylor, was the only daughter of Sir Frederick Williams-Taylor (a general manager of the Bank of Montreal who was knighted in 1910 and combined his middle name and birth surname into a new hyphenated surname) and his wife, the former Jane Fayrer Henshaw. Lady Williams-Taylor was painted in 1917 by the Swiss-born American society artist Adolfo Muller-Ury in Nassau in the Bahamas, after which he attended Brenda Williams-Taylor's wedding to Frank Frazier in Montreal in December of that year. Both parents drank heavily, caroused separately and eventually divorced, causing Brenda to spend much time with her maternal grandmother.

Her parents divorced when Brenda was 11 and both remarried. Her mother's second and third husbands were Frederick N. Watriss and Henry Pierrepont Perry.


Frazier completed her education at Miss Chapin's School for Girls and Miss Porter's School. Sent to almost every social obligation she was invited to, she made great inroads in securing her picture everywhere. She had invented the famous “white-face” look. Powdered skin made a startling contrast to her very red painted lips combined with dark, dark hair, perfectly coiffed (Frazier's hair has often been described as "blue-black"; in fact, it was naturally a very dark brown; under low nightclub lighting and in black-and-white press photographs it appeared much darker). Brenda often developed a stiff neck, as she feared moving her head lest a hair fall out of place. She sported strapless gowns and made a sensation with that trend as well. During the year of her debut Brenda was at the beck and call of press agents worldwide. She was most often written about by columnist Walter Winchell.

Despite her fame, Frazier later admitted that she was never truly happy as a debutante although there were times when she did relish the attention she received, and that she had never felt loved by either of her parents or valued as anything more than a status symbol or a trophy.[1] In Debutante: The Story of Brenda Frazier by Gioia Diliberto, Frazier's daughter, Victoria Kelly, remembered her saying, “I’m not a celebrity,” she said, “I don’t deserve all this. I haven’t done anything at all. I’m just a debutante.” Her family was equally dumbfounded. "I fear Brenda's being spoiled," said a great-aunt at the time of her great-niece's debut. "I bemoan all this spectacular notoriety."[2] Although she had shown promise in music and art, she lamented that she had never been given a chance to let those talents develop, or to complete her education; the year before her debut, she had studied at a prestigious girls' school in Germany and had begged her mother to let her stay there and continue to study, but her mother refused, and thus her formal education ended at the age of 15.[3]

The press, both awestruck and vindictive constantly wrote of “Poor Little Rich Girls” such as Frazier, Gloria Vanderbilt, Doris Duke, and Barbara Hutton. As so many in Society lost their fortunes during the Depression, lineage was no longer the sole common denominator. “Publi-ciety”—a combination of money, social standing and news coverage also entered the Winchell lexicon. And then there were the “Glamour Girls”. In 1938 Brenda Frazier was dubbed Glamour Girl #1. In 1939 the word celebutante was coined to describe her.[4] Vindictiveness toward Frazier and the other Glamour Girls was not limited to the press; Frazier would later recall being booed at a Broadway nightclub one evening after she was introduced to the audience alongside other celebrities such as Ben Blue and Sonja Henie, and afterward, although she felt humiliated, realizing that her critics were right insofar as she was not a true celebrity, only a debutante.[5]

Leading the pack, she had become a cottage industry. She posed in ads for Woodbury soap and Studebaker cars (even though she could not drive) among others. In November she achieved the apex of fame—her face on the cover of Life magazine. The article inside gave hardly a mention of Frazier but from it she secured international wattage.

The morning of her debut her face was puffy with fever and she was suffering from painful edema in her legs. All in all, however, the debut was a success carried on the front page of newspapers around the world, although she would later recall collapsing into bed from exhaustion in the early morning hours and not being able to remember any of the day that followed.

Frazier's fame was noted in the introduction to the Rodgers and Hart song, Disgustingly Rich, the first act finale from their 1940 show, Higher and Higher:

Brenda Frazier sat on a wall.
Brenda Frazier had a big fall.
Brenda Frazier's falling down, falling down, falling down.
Brenda Frazier's falling down, my fair Minnie![6]

Personal life[edit]

Frazier married football star Shipwreck Kelly in New York in 1941. She gave birth to a daughter, Brenda Victoria, in 1945 and attempted a typical upper-class suburban marriage; however, the excessive nightlife and a natural disinclination to play the role of society hostess caught up with her. She experienced several nervous breakdowns, suffered from anorexia and bulimia and during the 1950s, she and Kelly divorced.

Later years and death[edit]

After several tempestuous relationships, Frazier and daughter moved to a small town near Cape Cod where she married once more, to distant relation Robert Chatfield-Taylor. This marriage also ended in divorce.

Considering herself a failure as a person and as a a mother to her daughter Victoria, Frazier attempted suicide in March 1961 with an overdose of sleeping pills, but was discovered in time and survived. In 1963, she wrote a piece for Life magazine - the same publication on whose cover she had appeared 25 years earlier (although the cover of that week's issue was given to the funeral of President Kennedy) - titled "My Debut - A Horror," in which she bared her soul regarding the vapidity of her life as a debutante and her troubled relationships with her parents and grandparents, and discussed at length her suicide attempt.[7]

In 1966, photographer Diane Arbus took a now-famous picture of Frazier for Esquire magazine. Propped up in bed with a cigarette in hand, her face haggard and worn, Frazier looked every one of her 45 years and more—world-weary, exhausted, the parade having clearly passed her by.

Victimized by too much high living, Frazier retreated from the outside world and practically became a hermit. Still not forgotten, however, she was mentioned in the Stephen Sondheim song, "I'm Still Here" (from Follies) while living in relative obscurity until her death from bone cancer in Boston, Massachusetts, aged 60.


  1. ^ Frazier, Brenda. "My Debut - A Horror." Life magazine, 6 December 1963. pp. 133-144.
  2. ^ "National Affairs: At the Ritz". January 9, 1939 work=Time. Retrieved 2009-08-31. 
  3. ^ 1963 Life magazine article cited above
  4. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, citing the Nevada State Journal, April 11, 1939.
  5. ^ 1963 Life magazine article cited above
  6. ^ Rodgers and Hart: A Musical Anthology, Hal Leonard Corporation, 1995.
  7. ^ 1963 Life magazine article cited above


  • Diliberto, Gioia. Debutante: The Story of Brenda Frazier. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. ISBN 0-394-53516-2.

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