On June 16, 1962, I came out to society on Philadelphia’s Main Line. That was fifty-two years ago, today. My mother had to actually register the date of my coming out years ahead, so no other debutante parties would be held on that particular Saturday evening. Nowadays, only one out of twenty girls comes out on the Main Line. It seems like it was just yesterday that I was presented, and I remember it as being one of the grandest nights of my life. The Philadelphia Bulletin described it as the most unusual and thrilling coming-out party in a decade. Colored flags flew from the circus tent tops. One thousand balloons floated in the air and the crème de la crème of Main Line society were all there. There were twelve dancing llamas, a baby elephant called Queenie, fortune-tellers, clowns, cotton candy and, of course, bottles and bottles of the best champagne.
Originally, coming out meant a young woman was now eligible to marry, and part of the purpose was to display her to eligible bachelors and their families—with a view to marriage within a select upper-class circle. Despite the fact that most of the first settlers of Philadelphia lived in caves dug out of riverbanks, by the mid-1800s Philadelphia was the financial center of the United Sates and was where the first United States Mint was located. The railroad helped create the Main Line towns, and they became home to sprawling houses and country estates belonging to Philadelphia’s wealthiest families. Over the decades, these families became a bastion of “old money”. Only the bluest of blood can be part of Main Line society. You could not buy your way into to it, no matter how much money you had. My paternal great-great-grandfather, John Armstrong Wright, was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Railroad. And that was the reason I was deemed acceptable. I was born into it.
In 1962, the anticipation for my debutante party and the preparations underway far surpassed the importance of anything else going on around me. I have to admit that anything outside of my beautiful bubble of brunches, lunches, tea dances, dinner parties and magnificent balls, was of little interest to me. Which ball gown I would wear and on what evening, were my major concerns.
John F. Kennedy was president that year, and the New York City Subway introduced a driver-less train. Two of The Flying Wallendas were killed when their famous 7-person high-wire pyramid collapsed during a performance, and the United States embargo against Cuba was announced. The first Walmart store was opened in Rogers, Arkansas. Marilyn Monroe was found dead at age 36. CBS broadcast the final episodes of Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, marking the end of the Golden Age of Radio, and Johnny Carson took over as permanent host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, a post he would hold for 30 years. The 1962 New York City newspaper strike began, affecting all of the city’s major newspapers, and lasted for 114 days. Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and the Single Girl, and the first Beatles recording, “Love Me Do” was released.
The average cost of a new house was $12,500. The average income per year was $5,556. The average monthly rent that year was $110. Tuition to Harvard University was $1,520. The cost of a new car was $3,125, and eggs per dozen were 32 cents. Gas per gallon was 28 cents, and a factory worker with three dependents took home $94.87 in pay. You could buy a fallout shelter for as little as $100, feeding your family radiation-free for up to two weeks.
Times have changed. The average cost of a house now is $300,000 and the cost of a car is $30,000. Average take-home pay is $12 an hour–that is, if your factory is still open. If it’s not, then you may have to get a job as a janitor for $10 an hour. Tuition to Harvard University is now a whopping $58,000.
As I said, on June 16, 1962, I came out to society on Philadelphia’s Main Line. That was fifty-two years ago, today. I’ve lived through a lot of changes since then. But one of those changes is particularly close to my heart. What once was meant by ‘being presented to society’ now means something different altogether. The words coming and out no longer bring to mind debutantes twirling in white billowy gowns. Coming out now has an entirely different meaning. Coming out has become a figure of speech for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, and is a phrase of self-disclosure. The words coming out today denote presenting yourself to society… but as you really are. How far we have come in just a few years. What once was for me the month of my debutante party is now the month of Pride.