During Jane Hall’s first year of art school most of her former Nightingale-Bamford classmates became debutantes; the tradition of presenting marriageable daughters to eligible young men from prosperous families dates back to Babylonian times and still exists today (though most modern young women find the practice old-fashioned and elitist).* In the 1930s, privileged young ladies who represented a tiny slice of American girlhood had “coming out” parties ranging from the more modest tea dances to lavish balls. Rose and Randolph Hicks were eager for Jane to marry as their plans for the future had been upended by financial losses. At some point in 1933, they had all moved to a two-bedroom apartment at The Berkshire Hotel at 21 East 52nd Street where, much of the time, Rose and her niece shared a bedroom. It was clear that Jane was not likely to find a financially secure mate at her all-scholarship art school. So the Hickses decided to team up with the parents of one of Jane’s former classmates, Margaret Gregory. “Muggy” and Jane would “come out” together in the fall 1933 season at a tea dance in New York and in Virginia.
Jane was thrilled at the idea. She’d had a “grand old time” that spring tempered only by the memories that haunted her on April 28 (the seventh anniversary of her father’s death), and on May 12 as she lit a candle for her late mother at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church at Park Avenue and 85th Street. When “Muggy” had had a party in March, eighteen-year-old Jane reported gleefully to her diary, “EVERYBODY took my phone number.” Her zany humor, unusual candor and streak of independence intrigued some men, especially those in their twenties who were bored with being put on a pedestal. But for the most part Jane saw her dates as pals; she took none of them seriously and that was dispiriting to those who fell for her.
Still, on Manhattan evenings and weekends, they all had plenty of fun. When they were not at parties, they danced to the sound of big bands, tried out restaurants in Greenwich Village, went to the theater, or drove around the city. The most popular pastime was the movies, some of which (such as those starring Mae West), were quite risqué in the years of Pre-Code Hollywood before July 1934. Jane and her friends also took advantage of the city’s parks; in the early 1930s they were used by many of the homeless, as well as those who were more privileged. In Central Park, hundreds of the hungry and jobless built shanties out of whatever they could find, and scratched out a living selling apples or waited in bread lines. In sharp contrast to this crushing poverty, luckier folk found the park ideal for skating, horseback riding and rowing.
And for some of Jane’s crowd the big news in early April was “Beer is back!” At least 3.2% beer was (though the legal age in New York was 21). Always wary of alcohol as her mother had been, Jane now acknowledged that Prohibition, which would not officially end until 5:32 p.m. on December 5, 1933, was an “asinine law.” Although Jane rarely tried alcohol, absention was never the case with her dates. At a beer party at 535 Park Avenue, one of the boy’s fathers bet them five dollars each that “they couldn’t drink a soup plate of warm beer with a teaspoon. They all won.”
As she prepared to spend the summer in Virginia, having just made it through her first year of art school, Jane hoped she would be productive despite the many distractions that stemmed from her newfound popularity with the opposite sex. Would this serious young author and artist who once had such strong career ambitions be seduced by the revelry that awaited her in the summer and fall of 1933? She recorded it all in her diary and in a “Debutante Yearbook” that she kept between October 1933 and April 1934.*For a useful survey of this age-old tradition see Karal Ann Marling, Debutante: Rites and Regalia of American Debdom (2004).