The Idle Wild Social Club: Life Magazine Presents Black Debutantes — 1937

by Paula Bosse

debs_life_120637-detThree of 1937’s debs (click for larger image and caption)

by Paula Bosse

In December of 1937, something appeared in a national mainstream magazine that had probably never appeared before: photographs of a society ball celebrating African-American debutantes. In the December 6, 1937 issue of Life magazine — in the recurring “Life Goes To a Party” pictorial feature — four pages were devoted to coverage of the annual Idle Wild Social Club ball (later Idlewild Social Club, and later Cotillion Idlewild Club — none of which is to be confused with Dallas’ 130-plus-year-old super-exclusive, white Idlewild Club). The letters this unusual pictorial elicited were either congratulatory or, dismayingly, shocked and irate. Although today these photos are nothing unusual, in 1937, to see African-Americans depicted in a magazine such as Life as just normal, everyday Americans, was exceedingly uncommon. To see photos of black high-society must have made people’s heads explode. So kudos to Life for running the only slightly patronizing story and for publishing some wonderful photographs.

life_debs_120637_aLife magazine, Dec. 6, 1937


The Idle Wild Social Club was started in Dallas around 1918 by a group of socially well-placed black men — perhaps as a response to the white Idlewild Club. By the early 1920s they, like the white club, were presenting the cream of the crop of their young women to society in debutante balls. The ball covered by Life took place on November 18, 1937. The women making their debuts were:

  • Eddy Mae Johnson
  • Glodine Marion Smith
  • Lorene Marjorie Brown
  • Gladys Lee Carr
  • Gladys Lewis Powell
  • Hattie Ruth Green

life_debs_120637The debs and their escorts (Life, Dec. 6, 1927)

life_debs_120637-club-membersClub members (Life, Dec. 6, 1927)

life_debs_120637-crowd“Social chitchatterers” (Life, Dec. 6, 1927)

life_debs_120637-couple(Life, Dec. 6, 1927)

Read the article and see additional photos featured in this pictorial here.

There was an outcry in response to the article, and some of it was shockingly ugly — read the letters to the editor about the “Negro Ball” that Life published in the next issue, here (use the magnification tool at the top of the page to increase the size of the text).

Here is the more progressive response, from the Jan. 1938 issue of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis:


Progress moves at a snail’s pace, but if coverage of a debutante ball can help to move things forward even a step or two … great!


All photos from Life magazine, Dec. 6, 1937; the scanned article (and, in fact, the entire scanned issue) is here.

The January, 1938 issue of The Crisis is available online; the page featuring the editorial is here. (This issue also has an interesting article, “Free Negroes In Old Texas” by J. H. Harmon, Jr., here.) The Crisis Wikipedia page is here.

To read coverage of earlier Idle Wild Social Club balls — published in the black-owned Dallas Express — see this from 1922, and this from 1923.

The African-American debutante ball has been called Cotillion Idlewild for many years now; information on their 2014 ball is here. (Again, this is not to be confused with the (white) Idlewild Club, which has been throwing heart-stoppingly elaborate balls in Dallas since the 1880s.)

Apparently there is a history of the club out there — Idle Wild Social Club History (1940) — and, according to WorldCat, appears to be available at nearby libraries.

Personally, I don’t really “get” debutante balls, but growing up in Dallas, I know that they’ve always been big, big, BIG deals. A. C. Greene’s snarky article “Social Climber’s Handbook” (D Magazine, October, 1976), is both amusing and informative; read it here.


Copyright © 2015 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.