It was almost enough to squelch the story on the spot; sitting here in the livingroom of one of San Diego’s most powerful society matrons, facing an elegant uplifted eyebrow and a gaze that would have crumpled the confidence of a Bobby Riggs. “I must confess I was surprised when you told me you were planning to do a story on high society,” she murmured, “because frankly my dear, don’t you think that’s a bit old-fashioned?”
Old-fashioned may be the word. After all, these have been difficult years for aristocracy, a topsy-turvy age in which heiresses robbed banks, and rich folks started dressing like street people, and the radical chic became easy targets for people like Tom Wolfe. This woman, in contrast, laden with old San Diego names and money, and impressive community achievements, was, by all accounts, a societal pillar. If even she dismissed society as passe, what could there be to say?
Her attitude seems to be a common one, and it superficially misleads. The old San Diego families have heard their children laugh at the traditional ritual and they’ve watched the word “elite” change into a profanity. They don’t flaunt membership in any kind of a privileged class, and they can rightfully question whether San Diego high society constitutes a “class" at all. But as readers of the Union's Burl Stiff, or the Tribune's Hazel Tow, or of the 50-year chronicles of Eileen Jackson (before her retirement from the Union last July) can testify, society lives, at least as an arena where' the town’s movers and shakers gather to party and to raise money and to hobnob with each other.
Burl Stiff squirms when he’s asked to define what distinguishes a society member, but it doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as membership. “Who is and who isn’t, in this town anyway, is certainly a subjective judgment. You could give me a list of 50 people and I could go through and in my judgment say these people are and these people aren’t, but it would be a very complex platform on which the decisions were based. It’s not easy. There are, however, some people who are without question—in the mind of anybody who cares— society.”
Stiff or anyone else who’s active in San Diego society might make such judgments, but the town lacks any real social arbiter, the classic leader like the dowagers who once ruled many of America’s cities with iron control, women like Mrs. Potter Palmer in Chicago, or the wives of William Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt in New York. San Diego observers recall that 50 years ago, when Coronado was the center for social action, Mrs. Henry B. Clark ranked as a grande dame. In later years, E. (Elizabeth) Gonzales, a Mission Hills resident who had been a spectacular debutante in New York in the 1930s, came as close to being a social leader as anyone before or since. Both now are dead, however, and neither ever exercised the totalitarian command once seen in the East.
This town also has lacked that traditional authority for determining who, socially, is who – an edition of the exclusive Social Register (founded in 1887 and still published by the Social Register Association of New York). We also don’t have the kind of social list or blue book still published in a number of non-Register cities. The town did have a fling with blue-blood nose-counting, but that was short-lived.
In 1934 a man named O.L. Hopper put together a 460-name list of San Diego families as a commercial venture. He chose “surprisingly well,” social lioness Jackson recalls, recognizing “that those who care what happens to a community, who are socially conscious in the finest, not superficial sense of the word ‘social,’ are the ones worthy of inclusion in a prestige directory.” Hopper listed most of the old San Diego names, the Spreckelses, Marstons, Copleys, Grants, Klaubers, Seftons, and others. But the town didn’t buy it, and after 1934 “social" San Diegans had to be content with looking themselves up in the Southern California Social Directory published in Los Angeles.
The absence of a social register, of an autocratic arbiter, even the relative unimportance of debutante balls (which this year made a comeback, but which San Diego historically has disdained), tell a lot about this city’s social character. In short, it’s wide open. If you yearn to move into “society," this is the place to do it; anyone who really wants to, can. Then again, if you really care about the whole concept of high society, you might do best to turn your sights elsewhere. With the pickings so easy, the satisfaction of climbing for climbing’s sake has to be a bit mild.
In a city so young and so transient, family makes very little difference. There simply is no San Diego analog to the impenetrable “inner-circles” to be found in the East, the Van Beurens, Van Rensselaers, Morrises, and others who trace their ancestry back to the colonial days and whose names have aged like fine wines over the course of many generations. Compared to them, the San Diego names which filled Hopper’s social register are neophytes: perhaps as a result, they lack a comparable oppressiveness. Being a Marston or a Burnham is surely a social plus, but not being one won’t be held against you. The old families tend to socialize with each other, but members also blend into broader groups which practically welcome newcomers.
“They don’t reach out to newcomers; they don’t make an effort to find new people or new ideas, really. But they’re not reluctant to accept people who appear and say take me,”Burl Stiff says, and his words ring with sincerity. “I think it’s one of the few places of its size left in the country where just being nice is a great social asset. And there are people who are part of the scene almost exclusively because they’re nice. Their acceptance, and it’s a universal acceptance really, is because people like them.”
Within limits, you needn’t be rich, observers say, though they also claim people who don’t have much money don’t tend to express much interest in climbing San Diego’s social pinnacles. Money obviously doesn’t hurt; its presence adds options, and you need some to reciprocate, an expense which isn’t trivial when cocktail parties tend to start at four to five dollars per head.
“But that’s for catered things, and if you have smaller parties, and do them at home, you can do them much, much cheaper; and people do that,” says one party veteran. “A party in a hotel or a large catered party doesn’t carry that much more cachet than a small one at home does. A lot of people who certainly would be considered middle-income level are part of the scene and perfectly acceptable and seem to be comfortable with it.”
Even one’s address isn’t critical. Of course, the Establishment congregates in the traditional prestige areas—La Jolla, Mission Hills, Point Loma, Rancho Santa Fe, Banker’s Hill (west Hillcrest), Coronado, Mount Helix—and the spectacular individual home is likely to be noted. But the ocean-view showplace is hardly necessary. Even condominiums are becoming more and more popular nesting places for the socially prominent, particularly those who are older and increasingly concerned about security.
With a city as spread out as San Diego, geography plays a different, more critical role, splintering local society into a “federation of societies,” distinct groups which tend to feed upon themselves.
“There’s some crossing over,” Stiff says. “There are some La Jolla people who go to Point Loma parties and so forth, and the Mission Hills and Point Loma groups tend rather more than the others to blend together. But still, it's really quite easy to list people who are members of Point Loma society, or Rancho Santa Fe society, or La Jolla society; and even though they might attend other parties, they’re still regarded as being part of one geographical group.”
Insiders argue over which group has more clout. One young woman from Mission Hills, who asked not to be named, heatedly decried a La Jolla superiority complex which she claimed has lingered for decades. “It’s the only pocket in San Diego where you’ll find the kind of traditional high society attitudes. It’s very insular; you’ll find that a lot of La Jollans simply will not go out of La Jolla for anything, and your position depends a lot upon things like what kind of trips you take, what jewels you’re wearing, what kind of clothes you wear, and so on. People hear about this all over the country and they come to La Jolla to try to get into it.”
Eileen Jackson sees it differently, and her successor agrees. Says Stiff: “Separate but equal is almost the case, and I don't think any one group feels superiority to another; certainly to a third party there’s not really any difference. Within each of those societies, to use a Joyce Haber phrase, there might be an ‘A’ list and a ‘B’ list. But the ‘A’ list in La Jolla in certainly considered the equal of the ‘A’ list in Point Loma.”
If one’s neighborhood doesn’t affect one’s social chances, neither does one’s religion, although old-timers recall stories about organizations like the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club formerly excluding Jews. Mrs. Jackson, however, notes “San Diego doesn’t seem to have as much prejudice against Jews as one hears about in some other areas. Some of our very finest families arc Jewish, and San Diego always has been very open to them.” Blacks, however, maintain a more ambivalent position.
Traditional social observers like Mrs. Jackson say they rarely see blacks at San Diego's major parties, with educator-dominated groups being one notable exception. That’s not because black “society” doesn’t exist here, according to Connee Robinson, who writes the social column for the Voice News and Viewpoint.
She says black San Diego essentially has its own, separate “society,” dating back to a number of Old Guard black families who settled here during the 20s and 30s. Names like Anderson, Ragsdale, Kimbrough, and Green today carry the black establishment clout in San Diego. A lot of the distinctively “social” black men’s groups have faded away, although a few fraternities (Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi) rank as influential, and fraternal organizations such as the Elks and the Masons, the Daughters of Isis, and the Eastern Star, remain socially important to men and women, respectively. Other black women’s groups which carry a society flavor in addition to supporting social projects include one 15-year-old chapter of The Links, a nationally prestigious black women’s group; Women, Inc., which each year selects black women of distinction; the Negro Business and Professional Women, which this year presented about 15 young women at its annual winter debutante ball; and Alpha Kappa Alpha, the black women’s sorority which this year gave its 22nd annual debutante cotillion. The black San Diego cotillions, surprisingly, never disappeared during the 60s like so many of their white counterparts. In fact, another San Diego black women’s social club, El Club De Manana, started a third black deb ball about three years ago. The Colonial Belles women’s social group claims a unique annual affair: an Heir’s Ball (now in its 12th year) at which young black San Diego men are presented.
Why have San Diego’s black and white members of society not mingled? Mrs. Robinson speculates: “White society doesn’t want to be bothered very much with its own middle-class and lower-class people, let alone black people.” She tells of an unnamed group of black society women who just a few weeks ago met with a group of mostly older white society women to discuss a project which would have benefited all San Diego. “They were really turned off when the white women’s attitude was that they couldn't quite believe the black women were intelligent enough to carry it off.” Then too, Mrs. Robinson claims some black San Diegans were repulsed when the pendulum swung the other way a few years back and white society fawned on its new black guests. “In some cases the whites really were overbearing. You’d go to a party to have fun, then you’d find yourself trapped in a corner discussing politics. They wanted to be your friend, then they got a few drinks in them and they’d start telling black jokes.”
Just as blacks form a distinct social group, so do other special-interest elements in the San Diego scene—the university and research people, the sports community, politicians, bankers, the military. The edges blur, particularly around the military, a fact which Eileen Jackson notes. “In a lot of places, like Honolulu, people tend to think of the military as being transient, and they don’t take them in except on official occasions. But here we have always taken admirals right into the group. They feel like they’re a part of things here and that’s why so many of them stay." Thus, the military commonly produces social “stars” as much in demand as any civilian party-goer.
The mechanisms which traditionally have separated the blue bloods from ordinary folk don’t seem to apply. It’s nice and interesting if you went to an Ivy League school, people say, but so what if you went to Iowa State Teacher’s College? Professional prejudices don’t carry great force. Car dealers do mingle with doctors. All this is relative, of course; you're probably not going to assume a stellar role in San Diego society if you’re a socialist day-care worker, but then you probably wouldn’t want to. But if you were so inclined, you might have a crack at it, whereas such a thing would be unthinkable in Philadelphia—unless you were a socialist day-care worker with an old name or old money. “People are not very probing in their conversations in first meetings,” declares one source. “They don’t really subject you to that attempt at classification that newcomers encounter in other communities. The very fact you’re there seems to mean it’s okay and you can get on with other things.”
So how do you get “there” in the first place? How do you finagle an invitation to rub noses with the social powers that be? Consider the case of Kate Hinds, one notable young woman from La Jolla.
She moved to San Diego three years ago, eight months pregnant, with her husband and one small child. She knew few people and spent the first year at home with her infant. Then her husband died. Yet by last summer she won the hearts of influential La Jollans by staging an innovative benefit for the La Jolla Chamber Music Society, a social affair revolving around Bulgari jewelry called “The Classics.” Her name had become a regular in the society columns and she had made friends throughout all levels of San Diego society. She still hasn’t done any entertaining, and says the secret of her social prominence has been community work.
“San Diego will let you do whatever you want,” she claims. “They won’t tell you what to do; you have to go out and do it yourself, and if you think of something original, they’ll think you’re kind of crazy. But if it looks like you're going to pull it off. people will back you all the way.”
A former resident of Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Boston, Mrs. Hinds recalls a different situation back East. “There you still have your old money and your old guard, and there’s still some remnant of aristocracy. There’s a saying that to be on a board of directors you need two out of the three W’s: wealth, wisdom, or work. That’s not so true in other places, but I think it is true in San Diego.”
The emphasis on work is universal; with so much of it to be done, it is said, somebody can come to this town and within a year be one of the movers and shakers.
Unlike some communities where membership in the “social” charity and community organizations is a social coup in itself, many San Diego volunteer organizations which list influential members also are open to anyone who cares to join and pay the dues. The Fine Arts Society, the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, the Natural History Museum and Museum of Man. the symphony associations, the Opera guilds, the Children’s Hospital Guild, and a number of other medical charities are all in need of volunteers to work side by side with people who are active in society. Membership isn’t the key; recognition comes with hard work.
There are also more exclusive volunteer and social organizations—those to which one cannot march up and pay one’s dues, and their exclusivity tends to give them a certain higher society flavor. But since membership comes through recommendations from current members, and those members tend to belong to the more open volunteer organizations, contacts aren’t impossible to make.
In another area, the private clubs—San Diego Country Club, La Jolla Country Club, San Diego Yacht Club, La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, University Club, and the Cuyamaca Club—also smack of old money and society, and joining them isn't quite like signing up at the YMCA. (La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club requires sponsorship by two resident members, a $1,500 initiation fee, and has a long waiting list to get in. San Diego Yacht Club initiation costs up to $4,000, and you need what amounts to eight member recommendations.) However, the clubs tend more to be regarded as acceptable facilities of convenience, rather than social king and queen makers. The latter are conspicuously missing. “There’s just nothing like the Pacific Union Club or the Bohemian Club,” Burl Stiff notes. “There’s no organization in town that I know of that says I have made it.’ And there are, of course, in most other cities.”
Predicting whether high society is making a comeback, whether the recent return of the debutante balls signals a resurgence of the old established forms, is somewhat perilous. The words of a respected society advisor come to mind; “Society is having a revival. In cities, small towns, and suburbs all over the country, Americans are returning to a class system that seemed doomed a generation ago ...." The reason? “Conformity is the dominant emotion of the age. Many people want the sense of security gained by belonging to an established group.”
Those words were written in 1960, just a few years before the trauma of Vietnam made the elitist frivolity of deb balls seem almost disgusting, written on the threshold of the wave of egalitarianism and individualism which still permeates popular culture. More fruitful than predictions, perhaps, is an assessment of the status quo in San Diego today, a status quo marked by contentment.
“People are pretty satisfied with the way things are,” says Stiff, “and their children, the young marrieds. seem to be doing just the same types of things that their parents have done. It's not a very competitive society; parties all tend to be the same and hostesses don’t really try to outdo each other. But San Diego society is quite relaxed and reasonably happy with itself. It’s not desperately trying to prove anything or show off.”