The Luckiest Girls in the World: White Tie Endures at the International Debutante Ball

Last night the Waldorf-Astoria hosted the Fifty-Sixth Anniversary International Debutante Ball, and before the procession of girls in white dresses could begin, the master of ceremonies addressed the tuxedo-clad crowd.

“Please stand up if you have a relative who signed the Declaration of Independence,” he implored. There were cheers and, indeed, a smattering of guests rose from their seats. “That’s what this party is all about!”

This stunning display of blue-blood pride came about through a discussion of New York’s cherished Hadley Marie Nagel, the most celebrated ingenue of the night and — it’s safe to say — the presumed Girl Of The Year 2011. Miss Nagel has a family tree that includes two signers of the Declaration of Independence, but at this event, that sort of lineage wasn’t unusual.

The master of ceremonies was Mr. Ivan Obolensky, a direct descendant of John Jacob Astor through his mother and a Russian prince through his father. He’s long been involved as an Honorary Chairman of the International Debutante Ball, which was first held in 1954. The press sheet described the event’s creation story: “Reminiscing about her own debut, Consuelo Vanderbilt, future wife of the Duke of Marlborough, recalled it took two weeks for her to get to England for her debut, then another seven or eight days of exhausting travel to Paris for another ball in her honor. ‘Girls don’t realize what a wonderful opportunity they have to fly around the globe to attend each other’s parties.’ That remark sparked Beatrice Dinsmore Joyce, a New York Socialite with a dramatic flair for parties and pageantry, to create the first international Debutante Ball as a charity.”

In some ways, then, the International is forever destined to be an anachronism, a relic of the past.

“As you can probably guess I am a history lover, so I do appreciate it,” Hadley Marie Nagel, Girl Of The Year, told The Observer. She was taking a quick break from her dinner, at a table surrounded by her fellow debs in white gowns and escorts in white tie. Most tables were outfitted with doubly stocked Champagne chillers, but Hadley’s table came instead with Coke and Sprite (not that we didn’t witness a deb or two bopping about the ballroom flute-in-hand). 

Hadley’s a New Yorker, so in debuting at the International she turned down the more city-exclusive cotillions such as the Junior Assemblies or the Infirmary Ball, the same dances that once thrilled and inspired a Midwest-born New York transplant named F. Scott Fitzgerald.

“I love meeting people from all over the world,” Hadley said, as to why she chose the International. “I have a teenage travel website called Play in Traffic that I created a long time ago…”

How long ago, Hadley?

“Oh, my gosh! When I was a teenager — I mean, I’m still a teenager, but yes.”

Hadley burst into giggles, and put a hand to her mouth.

Miss Hadley’s military escort was from West Point, and she had met him this morning.

“It’s a once in a lifetime kind of thing,” a cadet from Norwich University told us earlier, in one of the hotel’s ancient and spectacular gold anterooms. He was standing, stoic and in uniform, alongside a few similarly dressed buddies. Behind him, four rows of fresh-faced debs — a giant mass of white silk and smiles — stood posing for a group of photographers.

“But don’t drink too much,” another cadet chimed in. “That’s why Annapolis isn’t here, sooooo…”

A scandal!

“Two years they were here and now they’re not,” he explained. “They drank too much and they did bad things while they were drunk. I’ve been told not to break furniture so maybe that could have been it.”

“Everybody’s been saying ‘Don’t throw furniture!'” another burst.

“Yeah, ‘Don’t throw furniture.’ The first cadet repeated. “So that must have happened.”

The girls, done posing for the pictures, huddled in nervous little groups. Their debuts were just hours away.

“Even though we’re all from different places I think that’s what makes it interesting and makes us want to meet each other and hang out,” one debutante in a group of four, all blonde, told us. “Where else — besides maybe college — are you going to meet people from all these different backgrounds!”

She was referring to the three other countries represented at the International Debutante Ball, which were Sweden, France, and England.

“And it’s funny seeing how many people know other people that you know,” the girl on the left, who seemed a bit shy, let out.

“Exactly!” said another. “You have that random friend who also happens to go to your school, or went to your school…”

The four girls started laughing.

With dinner set to begin the debs and their escorts filed into the Waldorf’s grand ballroom, which exuded a level of sumptuousness that may be familiar to those raised in New York luxury but was wildly alien to many of the young eyes present.

The Luckiest Girls in the World: White Tie Endures at the International Debutante Ball