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|Born||Brenda Diana Duff Frazier
June 9, 1921
|Died||May 3, 1982
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Cause of death
|Other names||Brenda Frazier Kelly Chatfield-Taylor|
|Education||Miss Chapin's School for Girls
Miss Porter's School
|Spouse(s)||Shipwreck Kelly (m. 1941; div. 1956)
Robert Chatfield-Taylor (m. 1957; div. 1962)
Brenda Diana Duff Frazier (June 9, 1921 – May 3, 1982) was an American socialite popular during the Depression era. Her December 1938 debutante ball 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.
Frazier'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. Frazier's parents were married in December 1916.
Both of Frazier's parents drank heavily. At the time of her birth, Frazier's father went on an alcoholic bender and did not return home for months. After public fights and infidelity from both sides, the couple divorced in January 1926. In March 1926, Frazier's mother married Frederick N. Watriss with whom she had been having an affair. After Watriss' death, she married Henry Pierrepont Perry. Over the next eight years, Frazier's parents fought over custody of Brenda. Both attempted to gain sole custody by accusing the other of immoral behavior, alcoholism and being an unfit parent. During the custody battle, Frazier was largely ignored by both parents and spent the majority of her time at school (Miss Chapin's School for Girls, Miss Porter's School and a finishing school in Munich) or with her paternal grandmother. In 1933, a judge finally ruled that Frazier's parents would share custody. The judge stated, "Neither parents appears to have been in the past, nor appears to be now, any paragon of virtue in parenthood." A month after the decision was handed down, Frank Frazier died of throat cancer.
Although Frazier had shown promise in music and art, she later lamented that she had never been given a chance to let those talents develop, or to complete her education. The year before her 1938 debut, Frazier was attending a finishing school in Munich. She 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.
By the age of 12, Frazier, with her mother's blessing, began appearing at café society functions and was regularly photographed and featured in the society pages of magazines and newspapers. She was most often written about by columnist Walter Winchell. In 1936, two years before her society debut, society journalist Maury Henry Biddle Paul (known as Cholly Knickerbocker) wrote, "It may seem a bit early, but I - here and now - predict Brenda Frazier will be one of the belles - if not the Belle - of her season." She popularized the famous “white-face” look; powdered white skin contrasted by red painted lips combined with dark hair, perfectly coiffed (Frazier later said she suffered from neck problems because she rarely moved her head for fear of mussing her hair). During this time, Frazier developed anorexia and bulimia to keep her weight down. Both disorders would plague Frazier for the remainder of her life.
Frazier's debutant party was held on December 27, 1938 at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City. The party was attended by 2,000 people including Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. whom Frazier danced with. Despite being was sick the flu and having swollen feet, Frazier danced with Fairbanks, Jr. until 6:30 am. Frazier later recalled collapsing into bed from exhaustion in the early morning hours and not being able to remember any of the day that followed. Frazier's debutant party was a success and was featured on the front page of newspapers around the world. She was dubbed the "Debutante of the Century".
During the Great Depression, the press took a keen interest in wealthy members of high society who had not lost their fortunes due to the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The press routinely reported on wealthy heiresses such as Frazier and fellow “Poor Little Rich Girls” such as Gloria Vanderbilt, Doris Duke, and Barbara Hutton. They were also dubbed "Glamour Girls". “Publi-ciety” — a combination of money, social standing and news coverage also entered the Winchell lexicon. In 1938, the year of her debut, Brenda Frazier was dubbed the #1 Glamour Girl. In 1939, the word celebutante was coined to describe Frazier. However, not all of the attention Frazier and other heiresses received was positive. Some media outlets and critics commented that Frazier was only famous for being rich and possessed no discernible talents. 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. Although she felt humiliated afterward, she that her critics were right insofar as she was not a true celebrity, only a debutante.
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. In the book 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."
Frazier would go on to pose 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 enclosed article inside gave hardly a mention of Frazier but from it she secured international fame. At the age of 21, Frazier inherited a total of $3,900,000 ($56.3 million today) from her father and her paternal grandmother, who died in 1936.
Frazier married football star Shipwreck Kelly at her mother's apartment at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City on June 30, 1941. She gave birth to a daughter, Brenda Victoria, in 1945. Frazier and Kelly divorced in 1956.
After several tempestuous relationships, including ones with cartoonist Peter Arno and Howard Hughes, Frazier and daughter moved to a small town near Cape Cod. On March 3, 1957, she married sales executive Robert Chatfield-Taylor. Frazier later told friends that she regretted marrying Chatfield-Taylor right away. They divorced in 1962.
Later years and death
On March 16, 1961, Frazier attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. She was discovered and survived the attempt but would make thirty more suicide attempts throughout her life. 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 the article, she related that she was largely unhappy during her debutante year and, after years of therapy, she looked at photos of the event and noted "the mockery of faked smiles...and how many people there are in the world who were doomed like me by unfortunate childhoods to adult lives plagued by fears and inner emptiness." Frazier also detailed the many nervous breakdowns she suffered due to the negative attention she received and was also critical of her family for "being pushed into social functions." The article sparked renewed interest in Frazier and she appeared on several talk shows where she discussed her experiences as a "celebutante".
In 1966, photographer Diane Arbus took a now-famous picture of Frazier for Esquire magazine. The photo featured a gaunt Frazier heavily made up in her signature white face powder and red lipstick, propped up in bed with a cigarette in hand looking wearily toward the camera.
In her later years, Frazier retreated from public life and divided her time between her homes in East Harwich and Beacon Hill. She became reclusive and developed an addiction to drugs and alcohol. A friend later stated that Frazier took "...pills to go to sleep and pills to wake up, pills for digestion and pills to go to the bathroom, and pills to be happy and pills to be sad, and pills to be." During the final ten years of her life, Frazier suffered from ill health due to her long battle with anorexia and bulimia and was routinely hospitalized. On May 3, 1982, Franzier died of bone cancer at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Boston at the age of 60.
In popular culture
- 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!
- "8 Years' Legal Battle Over Little Diana Frazier". The Milwaukee Sentinel. April 29, 1933. p. 45. Retrieved August 15, 2014.
- Koenig, Rhoda (May 4, 1987). "Better Dead Than Deb". New York Magazine (New York Media, LLC) 20 (18): 118–119. ISSN 0028-7369.
- "Brenda Frazier's Mother To Marry". Toledo Blade. August 1, 1942. p. 3. Retrieved August 15, 2014.
- Heller, Karen (March 31, 1987). "The Downfall Of a Debutante". philly.com. Retrieved August 15, 2014.
- Frazier, Brenda (December 6, 1963). "My Debut - A Horror". Life (Time Inc) 22 (23): 133–144. ISSN 0024-3019.
- "Brenda Frazier Once Mixed With Cream of Cafe Society". Toledo Blade. June 4, 1987. p. 30. Retrieved August 15, 2014.
- Braudy, Leo (August 23, 1987). "After the Ball Was Over". nytimes.com. Retrieved August 15, 2014.
- Oxford English Dictionary, citing the Nevada State Journal, April 11, 1939.
- "National Affairs: At the Ritz". Time. January 9, 1939. Retrieved August 31, 2009.
- "Brenda Frazier Inherits Fortune As She Becomes 21". The Evening Independent. June 9, 1942. p. 12. Retrieved August 15, 2014.
- "Only 36 Guests See Brenda Frazier Wed". The Milwaukee Sentinel. July 1, 1941. p. 5. Retrieved August 15, 2014.
- Montgomery, Paul L. (May 6, 1982). "Brenda Frazier, Who Caught Eye Of Public As Debutante, Dies At 60". nytimes.com. Retrieved August 15, 2014.
- "Bridal Toast For Ex-Deb". The Miami News. March 4, 1957. p. 13A. Retrieved August 15, 2014.
- Burleigh, Nina (2009). A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer. Random House Publishing Group. p. 61. ISBN 0-307-57417-2.
- Finke, Nikki (June 26, 1987). "A New York Socialite Goes Hollywood : 'Deb of the Decade' Cornelia Guest Is Pursuing an Acting Career". latimes.com. p. 2. Retrieved August 15, 2014.
- "Evening With Short Was a Blass". Palm Beach Daily News. May 6, 1982. p. 2. Retrieved August 15, 2014.
- Román, David; Court, Paula; Termine, Richard (2005). Performance in America: Contemporary U.S. Culture and the Performing Arts. Duke University Press. pp. 202–203. ISBN 0-822-38744-1.
- Marmorstein, Gary (2013). A Ship Without A Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart. Simon and Schuster. p. 359. ISBN 1-416-59426-4.
- Diliberto, Gioia. Debutante: The Story of Brenda Frazier. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. ISBN 0-394-53516-2.