The fast lane is littered with the wreckage of eager beavers ready to rev their engines in High Society. A few make it to the finish line relatively unscathed like Betsey Whitney. Then, there are those like Ann Woodward who find themselves without a helmet at crucial moments. And some, in particular, Brenda Frazier, experience engine trouble for the entire ride.
Rollin’ along on champagne and a smile, America’s Favorite Debutante made international headlines in 1938 with her much-ballyhooed debut. By 1978, Brenda Frazier was drowning in champagne and doing everything she could to maintain her reign as Glamour Girl No. 1. Her driving skills were erratic, a life filled with pit stops.
Brenda Diana Duff Frazier was born June 9, 1921 to Brenda Williams-Taylor and Frank Frazier in Quebec, Canada. Her mother, “Big” Brenda as she was called, was the daughter of Lady Jane Williams-Taylor and Frederick Williams-Taylor of Montreal and Nassau. Lady Jane was the personification of an arriviste. She pushed her banker husband from small town Canadian banker to president of the Bank of Montreal and an eventual knighthood. His financial acumen pleased Lady Jane who had a taste for the high life. The family traveled between large homes in Canada, Europe and Nassau. Lady Jane with an eye always on bigger and better, pushed her unattractive daughter to marry wealthy Frank Frazier of Boston.
While it wasn’t exactly a match made in heaven, the couple made the best of things with plenty of drinking and carousing. Frazier settled into several million dollars of a family trust and Brenda used his money to make inroads into high society. The Frazier’s’ weren’t Boston Brahmins or New York Knickerbockers but they managed to lay down tracks to keep themselves occupied. During his bouts of drunkenness, Frank Frazier had loose fists on his social-climbing wife. He would also disappear on benders for days at a time. Once when little Brenda was three, on his way to a Harvard-Yale football game, Frazier announced he was never coming home, “even though Yale won.”
Despite the abusive marriage, Little Brenda was a seemingly healthy baby whose parents continued on their lavish, often separate, sprees throughout the Roaring Twenties. During this period Big Brenda sought escape and soon met Frederic Watriss, a businessman from Chicago. Finally seeking freedom from each other, the Frazier’s’ initiated divorce proceedings in 1925. The only problem was, who would keep Little Brenda? Her father insisted on calling her Diana and her mother called her “Little” Brenda. Not being able to even decide on her name, it confused an already cloudy situation. Frank Frazier, in his own way, really loved his precocious daughter, but also didn’t want the responsibility of fatherhood. Nor could he handle it since his drinking had become a full-time job. Big Brenda wanted her daughter, but as time proved, it was more for use as a pawn against her husband.
Through a protracted divorce case it was discovered for the record that both parents were decidedly unfit to care for the young girl. In the end it was finally ruled that Big Brenda would retain custody of the child with holiday visits for the father. In addition, the judge ordered a substantial trust for little Brenda’s care and feeding. Big Brenda used her daughter’s income as a security blanket. This left a bitter scar with Frank Frazier who would inflict revenge after his death.
Little Brenda was brought up in comfortable, if chilly circumstances. Big Brenda was too busy promoting herself socially and so the child was raised by nannies. She received daily visits to the nursery before her mother went out for the evening. Later on, Big Brenda married Frederic Watriss and little Brenda found a remote, but sober, father figure in her daily household. Little Brenda often found herself in Nassau, with her maternal grandparents. Less often, she would visit her Frazier grandparents in Massachusetts. When she was with her father he made a very good game of dividing his time between devotion to his daughter and staying drunk.
Often ill and alone, Frank Frazier died of excessive liver damage in 1933. Someone who started his day with milk and whiskey then segues into champagne for the luncheon hour was bound to inflict permanent damage. At the reading of his will, Frank Frazier in a final snub to ex-wife, created a moderate provision for Yale University should his daughter choose to live with her mother or maternal grandparents. Brenda stayed with her mother anyway (At age 12 there was little choice). Yale never sought the funds and the money was re-invested into Brenda’s capital until she came of age. It also sent Big Brenda a message: further petitions to the court asking for more money would be difficult.
With the Depression laying a pall over America, people were looking for any distraction to take their minds off the grim realities of everyday living. Brenda Frazier, having grown into a pretty young lady, was a perfect candidate for over-promotion. Big Brenda hoped to push her attractive daughter into what had become Café Society – a stylish ménage of aristocracy and Eurotrash with a little bit of Hollywood thrown in for good measure. To be “in” Café Society was to be in the Grand Prix of alpinism. Social climbers, start your engines.
With her mother now divorced from Watriss, the two Brendas took up residence at a luxury hotel in Manhattan. Young Brenda attended Miss Chapin’s School for Girls and then finishing school - Miss Porter’s - for little more than a glossing of art, history and of course, French. She would soon receive her real education later on at those infamous schools of higher living, El Morocco and the Stork Club.
Through the looking glass it appeared to be an ideal existence. However, ever since she began her extensive social activity and throughout her entire life, Little Brenda suffered from a form of edema that caused her legs and ankles to swell up painfully. She underwent a delicate operation that did little to solve the problem. Rather, the situation was more psychosomatic than organic. Whenever she was under stress her legs swelled, leaving Brenda to linger in bed for days at a time. This period of convalescence was the beginning of a long relationship with her bed. If the time were added up, it would probably come to years of lounging. When the pressures of life became too large, she sought refuge within pink satin sheets, safe from the outside.
Regardless of her daughters budding dependence on solitude, Big Brenda would create a life lived through her daughters social success. Mastering the art of being seen, Big Brenda ensured that her daughter was receiving a proper press, even as she herself claimed to loathe it. Little Brenda, now a teenager, began appearing in Walter Winchell’s column on a regularly, being seen with various celebrities. Winchell even coined a new word for her: “celebutante.” All of this baseless fame was in preparation for Brenda’s debut in 1938.
Sent to almost every social obligation she was invited to, Little Brenda made great inroads in securing her picture everywhere. Her personage was imitated worldwide. She had invented her famous “white-face” look. Powdered skin made a startling contrast to her very red painted lips combined with dark, dark – almost blue-black – hair perfectly coifed. Brenda often developed a stiff neck, as she feared moving her head lest a hair fall out of place. Her eyebrows were penciled around to the corners of her eyes. She sported strapless gowns and made a sensation with that trend as well. The effect was highly dramatic, a perfect look for evening. During the year of her debut Brenda was at the beck and call of press agents from Bar Harbor to Bali. Occasionally, she did stop to think about where all this was coming from. “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.”
Being “just a debutante” was exactly the wrong thing to be during the late 1930’s. The press, both awestruck and vindictive, constantly wrote of “Poor Little Rich Girls” – such as Gloria Vanderbilt, Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton. As so many in Society (Yes, with a capital “S,” as opposed to civilian society in the 1930’s which had no capital) 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.” Some “winners” of years past were Eleanor “Cookie” Young, Mimi Baker, Esme O’Brien and Diana Barrymore. But in 1938 Brenda Frazier was Glamour Girl No.1. Leading the pack, she had become a cottage industry. She posed in ads for Woodbury soap and Studebaker cars (even though she couldn’t drive) among others. In November she achieved the opus of fame – her face on the cover of Life magazine. The article inside gave hardly a mention of Brenda but from it she secured international wattage.
The morning of her debut on December 27, 1938 trumpets heralded, the Stock Exchange was silent for one minute and virgins tossed rose petals down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square. No, of course not, but with all the attention she was getting that behavior wouldn’t have been too surprising. Rather, the day started off wet and rainy and Brenda had a terrible cold. Her face was puffy with fever and she underwent a four-hour toilette to prepare for the big event. Her edema flaring up painfully, Brenda stumbled down the receiving line at eleven that night, her mother beaming proudly – this was the event she had been preparing for her daughter’s entire life. And old Grace Vanderbilt showed up, what more could a socialite ask for? New York’s old Ritz-Carlton Hotel was transformed into a shimmering array of lights and flowers for the almost five hundred guests. Over one thousand glasses were broken throughout the evening, two quarts of champagne per person were consumed and one exhausted deb had finally turned the first lap in the Nightlife Indy 500.
The debut was a success carried on the front page of newspapers around the world. Some morning headlines read, “Bow’s a Wow!” and “Brenda Finally Comes Out – Now What?” The going-out-out-out continued. The press still recorded her every move and in 1940 a parody of sorts was created. Brenda Starr, girl reporter, hit the funny pages nationwide. The nationally syndicated comic struck was a hit and struck an odd parallel to Brenda’s own success with the same newspapers that covered her comings and goings. With her Toast of the Town status, Brenda could get on with the real business at hand, which was entering into a proper marriage.
The choices, surprisingly, were limited. Any self-respecting businessman on the rise wants little to do with a publicity hound. What would the guys in the office think, even if the men she sought owned the office? She needed a man who would indulge a spoiled rich girl. With a four million dollar trust tucked under her satin belt, Brenda could afford to be the aggressor. She was often linked to cartoonist Peter Arno and there was rumor of a marriage, but nothing materialized.
Soon, she would meet a man named John “Shipwreck” Kelly. A boy from a good Louisville family, Ship played football for Kentucky and was an avid horseman. He was buddies with millionaire sportsman Jock Whitney and that helped. “Tall, handsome and lightly educated,” Ship was the perfect gentleman and after a whirlwind courtship, he and Brenda took to the altar in New York in 1941. Big Brenda was not too pleased but saw the potential of Ship. Mostly, though, she was upset due to the fact that Brenda had come of age and momma would no longer derive any income from her daughters’ trusts. Divorced from Watriss, Big Brenda found things difficult.
Ready for the happy ending, Ship and Brenda bought an estate on Long Islands’ old money North Shore, - not the most ideal setting for a girl of Brenda’s training. Living in “Meadowood” was idyllic. Surrounding the large house was white picket fencing imported from Louisville. Ship played golf, Brenda hosted dinner parties and in 1945, their daughter Victoria was born. A perfect life was in the making, except, Brenda couldn’t get out of bed most days. When she was out, it was usually to the Stork Club or a party lasting until dawn, with the ever-present press not far behind. Over the years she and Ship drifted apart and underneath the strain of being Brenda Frazier, Brenda Frazier had the first of her nervous breakdowns.
Back in bed, Brenda would surround herself with admirers, cigarettes, champagne and prescription drugs. “Pills for slimming, pills for sleeping, pills for living.” She remained under the spell of her glorious debutante days, spending hours before her vanity, recreating the “look.” Striving for thinness, she would develop anorexia, then bulimia. As the years passed Brenda Frazier began to look like a parody of her former deb self. She never changed her look – ever. Brenda’s friend CZ Guest was told by admirer Truman Capote to keep her look the same and she’ll never grow old. Excellent advice, but for someone who never left the house without a full makeup base, Brendas’ efforts ultimately lost its luster.
By the 1950’s Brenda divorced Ship Kelly and moved back to New York City. Around this time her mother also passed away, ending a somewhat schizophrenic relationship. She began various romances and carried on one tempestuous long-term relationship with an Italian named Pietro Mele. Mele was a handsome and charming man who had a violent temper. The ever-present press that followed Brenda around recorded his fighting. One final bloody showdown with another fan of hers finally resulted in Meles’ deportation. Embarrassed and still looking for peace of mind, Brenda moved to a small town near Cape Cod and married once more, this time to distant relation Robert Chatfield-Taylor.
This time the marriage seemed to work better. Chatfield-Taylor catered to Brendas’ needs more easily once they were away from the social vortex. Far from the maddening crowd seemed to help if only Brenda would eat something every now and then. Her rail thin body was begging for food but she still lived under the veil of false celebrity and all the tangled neuroses that brought. Combined with her drug use and bedridden life, this marriage too was doomed to failure and the Chatfield-Taylors eventually divorced.
Moving again, this time to a suite of rooms at Boston’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, Brenda once again resumed old nightlife habits. Bulimia would get the best of her when she would hide a plastic container inside her evening bag. After dinner, Brenda would barely wait for the waiter to remove her plate before she turned her back on everyone and vomited up the whole thing. Fewer and fewer people would ask her out to dinner after a couple of nights of that.
In 1966, photographer Diane Arbus took a now-famous picture for Esquire magazine. Propped up in bed, a cigarette nearby, her face was haggard and worn. Arbus had revealed the real Brenda Frazier - exhausted, the parade having passed her by. Those yellowing newspaper photos from another era were a startling contrast to the wastrel in pink satin surroundings.
Victimized by her own consumption of too much living, Brenda retreated from life. Still not forgotten by the outside world, she was mentioned in Stephen Sondheim’s infamous song, “I’m Still Here.” As Brenda closed the doors to the outside, she kept herself surrounded by maids, popping pills, drinking Great Western champagne and smoking her way though cartons of cigarettes. Where she once stayed up all night dancing and laughing, she now spent the evening rearranging her dresser drawers.
Not completely introverted, Brenda maintained warm friendships with admirers right until the end. While she still refused to eat, there were still menus to be planned down to the last detail. By 1982 her health got the best of her and there were no more pit stops to make. Suffering from cancer Brenda Frazier died peacefully, in her bed of course, on May 3. For Glamour Girl Number 1 the race was finally over.