Alice D. Outwater, Ph.D., Contributor
We are all born into history and influenced by those we meet. I recently saw the movie Jackie and was surprised at the memories it evoked, as if it were a journey into my past.
In 1947 Jacqueline Bouvier, later Kennedy-Onassis, and I arrived as freshman at Vassar College feeling nervous with so many bright girls. She and I shared a few courses, and I remember her as a diligent student with well-crafted essays in English class.
We were relieved to leave campus for Christmas vacation. This was our debutante year filled with parties. It meant white dresses, eight-button kid gloves reaching to our elbows. Each of us was accompanied by three male escorts. We had limited access to boys if we had gone to all-girl schools, so we chose cousins or brothers of friends to join us.
It felt awkward telephoning to invite them because they might decline. They were less enthralled with this rather archaic tradition that introduced young girls of marriageable age to society. However the boys didn’t want to miss out on any parties.
For any girl who loved dancing as I did, debutante balls assured we were on the dance floor the entire evening, being twirled around and cut in on constantly by our escorts and other boys—a dream situation. That entire holiday was packed with gaiety. Lester Lanin was the orchestra of choice, playing Frank Sinatra songs, keeping up the lively rhythm until long after midnight.
Jackie was especially attractive, and by the end of the season she was named Debutante of the Year. It was both an embarrassment and an honor because Vassar had a no-nonsense scholastic tradition; debutante activity seemed on the frivolous side. I remember a southern classmate who took the entire year off to do the debutante thing—and even went to London to be presented before the Queen. She rarely mentioned this afterward.
Jackie spent many a weekend running to New York City to meet dates under the clock at the Biltmore or to New Haven to check out the Yalies. It was not easy to juggle courses and achieve decent grades, but apparently she managed. Junior year she opted for the Sorbonne in Paris where her acquired fluency in French served her well in the future. She finished her senior year at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
After graduation my job search loomed. Sheldon Chapin, the American ambassador to Amsterdam, needed help in arranging embassy events, and Mrs. Chapin wanted a social secretary. At that age nothing was beyond my reach, and I was certain I could handle both. My family nixed this possibility,thinking I might marry abroad. Father had a rule that none of his four daughters would marry until they worked for a year. “You never know what the future holds.”
They felt comfortable about my going to Washington, D.C., because Kitty, my older sister, and her family lived there. In 1951 Washington resembled a small city with a sleepy town approach, and drew young men hoping to get into government. It was an exciting time with JFK soon to become president. An astronaut had recently landed on the moon, unemployment dropped to 3.3 percent. New roads were being built for ever-more luxurious cars—some with two-tone paint and turn signals. “I Love Lucy” premiered. A sense of idealism prevailed throughout the country. Everyone in Washington wanted to be part of the future.
I couldn’t wait to spread my wings. Landing at National Airport, the reservation desk told me no hotel rooms were available. The person in charge said she could recommend a private home; I hesitated, but she assured me the owners were charming. I took a taxi to an enormous residence off Dupont Circle. Mrs. McDonald, a stunning, tall woman in an evening gown, swooped down the steps to greet me saying, “This house is too large for the Admiral and me, so we’ve been renting three rooms.” The building was later sold to the Arabian Embassy. She offered me a room on the third floor in what had been the maids’ quarters. Mrs. McDonald reviewed the rules: No guests were allowed, and we were to be quiet because they often entertained downstairs. Meals must be eaten out. That suited me; I planned to find a job and then move elsewhere with friends.
I would return afternoons from job interviews and join Mrs. McDonald for tea in the spacious living room with floor-to-ceiling windows and heavy satin drapes. One day she said, “You handle yourself well. The Admiral and I would like you to join us for cocktails, but you’ll need a long dress.” So the next day I stopped at Lord and Taylor to find a long black skirt and simple top. I was nervous joining them that evening.
Next time I’ll tell you what happened. Until then keep your eyes open for historical plays, movies and books. Surprising memories might surface for you.