Sunday, November 28, 2010

Brenda Frazier

The China doll loveliness of young Brenda Frazier, compared with the later, ravaged beauty of older Brenda Frazier, has a Grey Gardens ghoulishness I can't resist. How has Hollywood overlooked this story?

Brenda Frazier, the 1938-39 social season's queen of the sub deb set, made the cover of Life magazine that same year (November '39). She was always one of my favorite parts of the 1930-1940 volume of the This Fabulous Century set. One section of that book highlighted the hottest society names of the 30's debutante scene, and Brenda Frazier was hands down the prettiest and the most popular. She made famous, at the time, her signature look of perfectly coiffed, dark hair, pale white face powder, red lips, a strapless gown, and minks, minks, minks. How many minks gave their lives in the service of Brenda Frazier!

Her sweetheart face and birdlike slightness, combined with a studied sense of put-togetherness, a pushy mother, and a knack for self promotion, were just an unstoppable glamour recipe. She rose from an eight million dollar heiress with "piano legs", to "Glamour Girl #1", the girl for whom the term " celebutante" was coined by Walter Winchell, all within the space of three or four years. She belongs in that same "begging for a biopic" category of high social register histrionics and heartache as the Beales (the aforementioned Grey Gardens), the Baeklands (Savage Grace), and the von B├╝lows (Reversal of Fortune). Yet, if you note my parenthetical citations there, Brenda Frazier is missing (in spite of her first name having the alliterative quality to be grouped with the others) her 15 minutes of celluloid fame.

The pug nosed lug on the right is John Simms "Shipwreck" Kelly, halfback for the New York Giants (1931) and the Brooklyn Dodgers (1933-1937, now the Indianapolis Colts). Kelly married Brenda in 1941... they spent fifteen years together knocking around vacation spots and upper class suburbia until their divorce in the mid fifties. Look at the sheer SIZE of this guy. Her outfits in the two pictures above and the one below are so prim and neat without being stuffy or drab...I wish I could strike that balance as effortlessly.

Below, more debutante pictures (I'm going at this kind of backwards, but I so love the 40's pictures, it would've been hard to put them after the [still very pretty] 30's ones). Douglas Fairbanks, Jr was in an attendance at her debut, which ran from 11:30 pm until well into the next morning... at seventeen, doing a rumba (did they spell it "rhumba" back then, usually?) with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. probably would have ended my young life, from sheer heart failure... but Brenda was probably made of stiffer social stuff than to collapse at the foot of a debonair, second generation movie star.

From reading Debutante: The Story of Brenda Frazier, I remember being struck by a few things: one, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was there (I might have mentioned this), amid lots and lots of American and European society, something like two thousand people; two, Brenda's feet had swollen to twice their size from either nerves or edema, or nervous edema just before the affair, but she bravely soldiered through dancing pretty much ceaselessly for hours in order to fulfill her social obligtation, and three, a college freshman girl from Brooklyn Heights dressed in her best taffeta, rode the subway to the Ritz, gatecrashed with her school's newspaper ID, and was part of the presentation line as Brenda greeted her guests (she said in her later writeup for the school's paper that Brenda looked "bored but beautiful". A great description.). After her debut, she subsequently dated ladies man Peter Arno (an urbane cartoonist for the New Yorker, who has the square jawed good looks of Dana Andrews, or the like) before settling down with friend-of-Jock-Whitney, "Ship" Kelly.

As you could imagine from my opening, things kind of went downhill from there. She had a daughter, a divorce, another marriage, and battles with anorexia, bulimia, prescription pills, and mental breakdowns. The last few chapters of the book reminded me of many of the old celebrity biographies I've read-- Brenda went into seclusion in her later years and rarely left her bed, much less her apartment, until her eventual death in 1985. These disquieting photos of ruined glamour were taken by the great Diane Arbus, and it's funny to me how gruesomely glamourous she still looks inspite of her failing looks and health. All the trappings are there, only the base of her great beauty and youth is eroded.

So. Hollywood. Could we make a movie already?

PS...if you search Google Books for Life magazine, Novermber 1939, or Brenda Frazier, it should take you right to the cover and a full text of the entire neat is that?


  1. wow. i'd never seen the ones of her old before. yowsers.

  2. I am a HUGE fan of Brenda Frazier. I read "Debutante" many times, her story fascinates me so much. The pictures of her smiling are the best, it's like you can feel her happiness by looking at them. I recently found many great pictures of her, feel free to stop by my Facebook group and page made to honor her memory (just search for Brenda Diana Duff Frazier on FB and you should be able to find the group and page-same avatar). Thank you so much for keeping her memory alive, she truly deserves a movie a-la Farrah Fawcett's docu-soap "Poor Little Rich Girl", the story of another tragic heiress, Barbara Hutton.


  3. Agree, yes this poor woman's life is screaming "make a movie, make a movie already!" I read Debutante in the 1980s when I was in my Vanderbilt and basically every-railroad-wealth-guy-there-ever-was phase, and somehow stumbled upon her. I was immediately fascinated with Brenda Diana Duff Frazier and have been ever since. I was young then so I found it astounding that someone so beautiful like her could just go to bed for 20 years - how sad. I remember the book said her teeth were rotting because of all the vomiting from bulimia. Now that I am old and I see that life is not always kind, I can kind of understand why she just gave up. Very sad. I would love to see a movie made about her. Thank you for this lively piece with good pix.

  4. why isn't brenda fraziers marriage to
    donald mckensie mentioned in her biography??

  5. Splendid. Thank you. Am looking forward to zooming around the rest of this garden of creativity and zest.



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