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  • Debutantes and Queens in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Balls
    By Christine Maynard

    The best way to explain New Orleans’ Mardi Gras balls, royalty and Krewes might be to utilize Louis Pasteur’s deathbed concession. “It’s the terrain.” Isolated aspects of the rituals, observed out of context, don’t explain the whole story.
    To convey any understanding of this slice of society, their rituals and traditions, requires a grasp of that terrain, which is primal, with a thick veneer of protocol. There are the throbbing street parades, which the world knows as Mardi Gras, and there is the St. James’ bow amidst secret societies. Within the environs, which encompasses both, there is evidence of evolution. 21st century New Orleans debs are modernizing tradition, and moving forward.
    In 1743, the Carnival balls were established. The state of Louisiana declared Mardi Gras a legal holiday in 1857, and the Mistick Krewe of Comus held its first parade. 1874 was a pivotal year; the King of Rex took his first queen and a new species appeared. The New Orleans Mardi Gras debutante.
    From its inception, the balls were the venue to sponsor daughters “coming out.” A century ago, if these debutantes failed to sufficiently impress a man and his family, the alternative (to not snaring a husband at a Cajun cotillion) might have been a bleak future as a nun, a spinster, or a school marm.)
    This decathlon of morals, manners and majesty has its own Fantasy Debutante League, of late. Maid status rakes in 60 points, and the Queen, 200. Extra points are awarded for extravagant parties, and girls get tally marks for side pony tails and toe rings.
    Trisha Lockhart Wells and her husband Mike began this Carnival tracking, which now includes spreadsheets of information about New Orleans’ debutantes, including recent information gleaned from Facebook.
    Evidently, the deb party of the decade catapulted one young woman, Jane aka “Snow” White, to Fantasy Debs’ number one slot. In 2011, she was Queen of Carnival. It was whispered to me that it is rare that the parvenues participate, much less win, this coveted title.
    Thea Pagel, the event planner for Jane White’s million dollar soiree, in anticipation of her Queendom, informed me that guests were greeted by “little people” dressed as fairy tale dwarfs, and artificial snow fell from trees.
    Thea’s planning resulted in an 8,000-square-foot White Magic tent and a gazebo covered in white feathers. Lavishly set tables proffered shrimp, stone crab claws, Hudson Valley seared foie gras, oysters on the half shell, and caviar as well as Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve Champagne. Guests passed through a dark forest to the Queen's Boudoir tent, a "seductive den of sensual pleasures.” A blood-red libation was served after dinner, along with red chocolate-candy hearts.
    “Yes, there is something primal about the sensuality which imbues New Orleans,” Thea Pagel shared. “The goal was for everyone to have a good time; it wasn’t just about excess. As Donald Trump quips, you have to think anyway so why not think big? These debutante parties are about a lot more than keeping the jambalaya hot and the beer cold.”

    I met twin debutantes, Karli and Ann Mentz, while attending college at LSU, in the 70’s. We had Latin class together. Their father was a highly respected federal judge. The annual price tag for their individual debuts into New Orleans society was around a quarter of a million dollars. Priests performed Sunday mass in box cars with pipe organs at their splendid, country estate.
    They could only report that their car was silver when they misplaced it in Tiger Stadium parking lot. Their clothes were picked out for them, and packed by their mother’s maid. The most risqué thing involving Ann was her beige bra strap being exposed when she diagrammed Latin sentences at the blackboard. The twins powdered their faces, adding only a touch of lip gloss from their collection of school toiletries.
    They were polite society girls untouched by Women’s Lib or anything else going on in the rest of the world in the 70’s. Their brightly lit, more flamboyant world was New Orleans society, and its storybook alchemy, transforming bourgeois elite into royalty.
    35 years later, I find myself ensconced in the Quarter. It is Mardi Gras. I see young debutantes in the news, being presented in the various Krewes. It is a parody, I think. Fairytales obscure reality.
    I wonder if these girls will travel, if they will experience other cultures and be open.

    But the New Orleans debutante is not just charged with recalling a lost culture (those good old days when women were safely on pedestals and lineage mattered most of all); she is also part of a still-thriving one: the secretive, byzantine, often fantastic culture of Mardi Gras. (Julia Reed NYTimes magazine March 23 2001)
    Is the trajectory for young women from the "right" families shifting from amassing silver crystal and china to winning at soccer, independent thinking, and embracing careers and creativity?
    I needed to talk to the girls, but I also needed to find Ann.
    She met me at Arnaud’s Exchange, on Royal Street. An ice cream parlor/coffee shop which was the only place in the French Quarter without a bar during Mardi Gras weekend.
    Ann was dressed like a New Yorker. In black. With black stockings. She had her hair down, although it is most often worn off of her neck, in a ballet bun. Sans beads, known as “throws” a tasteful, understated gold lapel pin with purple, gold and green was the only thing about her appearance which intimated “Mardi Gras.”
    Ann divorced two decades ago. She has never remarried. She did go back to school and obtained her juris doctorate. And, she was quick to tell me that in her opinion, “a degree is worth a dozen wedding rings.”
    She is very much a part of upholding the traditions of court and upper crust society. She aspires, actually, to be the court trainer for young ladies, preserving etiquette and propriety. It’s her perfect job description.
    She wrote to me:
    I remember how much you admired and were intrigued by the royal pageantry of Mardi Gras when I made my debut years ago. It is true that some debs have remained in traditional roles, like my twin, Carli, a stay at home Mom, while others, like myself, have moved forward and advanced our careers. After divorcing, with a ten year old son, I went back to school and got my law degree. However, as a former debutante, I still love the pomp and circumstance of Mardi Gras and the beauty and pageantry of the Meeting of the Courts! Only a few are privileged to carry on the traditions of Kings and Queens. The Ball of the future and the debutantes performances will always be beautifully breath-taking because our job (past debutantes and Krewe members) is to never let our traditions be forgotten!”
    Ann and I walked awkwardly under her tiny pale green umbrella (perhaps it really was a parasol) and discussed the inclement weather. She informed me that she studied ballet at an Academy uptown. I can envision her helping young women seamlessly glide across the floor and fluidly deliver the St. James Bow, confirming the young girls’ allegiance to the ritual and the attendant values.
    She reminds me, by her carriage and carefulness, that etiquette is a behavioral touchstone, like a wink or secret handshake which can usher one into the inner sanctum of society. That, and how many generations French one is. We don’t get happy feet when we walk past the buskers and pre-pubescent tappers on Royal Street, with smashed beer cans attached to the bottoms of their sneakers.
    Heather Miranne, the 2011 Queen of Caesar, and the daughter of a local neurosurgeon, clearly demonstrates that the species is evolving. She does not buy into traditional Southern Belle behavior; she is not ready to settle down and marry. She was eager to share her love of Russian Sci-Fi, particularly the “hochoi dozor,” the Night Watch series.

    She has had her eye on being a Queen since she was a little girl. But it hasn’t narrowed her parameters or reined in her spontaneity.
    Her priorities, since graduating from Loyola and getting a job which keeps her in the public eye? “My work, and saving money to buy a house,” she says, emphatically. When asked if she were engaged, she said “Oh God no!”
    Her independence is due to her strong family support and the fact that she was raised to believe that she didn’t need a man to complete her. “Education obviously empowers women everywhere” Heather said.
    “A lot of people I meet through my work say ‘ I know you; you were the Queen of Caesar.’ It is helpful.”
    Ellen Logan was a Queen in 2008. She saw her role, in part, as modernizing tradition. “I think that it is so important that these girls recognize traditions, and where they come from, but we all know it is no longer about being introduced to the “men.” None of that exists anymore.”
    Ellen recently returned to New Orleans from L.A. where she launched her own jewelry business with “big stones which make a statement, nothing dainty.” She and her fellow debutantes from Sacred Heart Academy won the State Soccer Championship in High School. Her jewelry description is a personification of her own attributes as an evolved New Orleans debutante.

    Secrecy is an important aspect of the Carnival celebration. A queen was originally notified that she had been chosen by finding a golden bean, either inside a cake or in a drawer. In the Krewe of the 12th Night Revelers, maids receive a silver bean to inform them of their status.
    The heavy hitters comprising the list of Kings of Mardi Gras include Sam Rayburn, Hale Boggs ,Hubert Humphrey, Barry Goldwater, Frank Chuck and Estes KeFauver. And one King named King. Voris King, who later became the Imperial Potentate of North America. A 33rd degree Scottish Rite Mason. He was photographed in the oval office with Reagan in 1988, and he is listed as being a Colonel in the Armenian Air Force of the USA in that same year.
    In ‘53, Walter Cronkite narrated the Mardi Gras Ball held in D.C. and Richard Nixon, vice President, presented the Queen. In ’57, Russell Long created the Mistick Krewe with its Lord of Misrule.

    It may appear that these people are play acting in tableaus, but the acts may simply be slight hyperbole for forces in effect in this environs which keep it sustainable. To save a species one must first ensure preservation of its habitat.
    There exists a strict code of behavior within the ranks. The world may see it as narrow and stultifying, but for the people living in it there is no other eco system in which they could flourish; the individuals (and their business interests) comprising Krewes, balls and monarchy are symbiotic. Many feel validated knowing that within this terrain there is only one way in which to conduct one’s self which is acceptable. But there is always adaptation, and New Orleans 21st century debutantes are showing great signs of progress.
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