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Thanks for Asking | Mar. 28, 2013

our local Jack-of-all-Facts tells you how it is

Frank Smoot |

At the recent passing of either Ann Landers or Abby Van Buren, it was stated that when they lived in Eau Claire that they were socialites. What activities made them a socialite and what people today are considered socialites in Eau Claire? And what do they do to receive this title?

Thanks for asking. Let’s define. In the 1880s, “old money” American cities published exclusive and exclusionary lists of folks who were both rich and well-heeled. You might not be surprised that Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia had these “Social Registers,” but lesser locales had their Registers, too: Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh. The west coast had a smattering: Portland, San Francisco, Seattle. There were similar lists — though well-separated — for cities in the South.

To my mind, these were meant to give the U.S. the same caché as England, which had published Burke’s Peerage and Burke’s Landed Gentry since the early 1800s — only the latest and most famous of similar English indexes appearing for centuries.

Other American communities wanted in, so lists began cropping up in smaller eastern communities such as Dayton, Ohio — and Johnny-come-lately cow towns such as Denver, Dallas, and L.A. — by the 1920s or 1930s. But there were limits. It was impossible to be on the Social Register in Eau Claire, because Eau Claire (being not even Dayton or Denver) had no Social Register.

Of course, even in Boston or New York, the overwhelming majority of people had no chance at gaining notice in the Social Register either. But a few Bostonians or Clevelanders were almost, but not quite, “society people.” Perhaps young, perhaps of underwhelming wealth, they hadn’t (or couldn’t) gain the first tier. But still, they liked to entertain, attend fashionable events, rub elbows. What to call them?

In 1928, Time magazine combined “social” and “lite” (think “lite” beer) to coin a term describing these social tickbirds riding on the backs of the social rhinos. This term would also have to do for people in cities like ours. Shortly enough, “socialite” lost its origin and became a gender-specific term for women of a certain strata — girls who flutter, ladies who lunch. So, a trifecta: classist, sexist, and urbanist. Little Eau Claire could only have socialites, and no one had a definition, or list, of those folks anyway.

The term socialite didn’t fit Eppie Lederer. While in Eau Claire (briefly enough) she chaired the county Democratic Party, and as Ann Landers she used her very public venue to fight racism and anti-Semitism. And while she began her column as a social conservative, she became an advocate for women to live lives of their choosing.

However, had her identical twin Pauline Phillips been asked, she might have said the term fit her too well. Remembering her life as a young Eau Claire bride, she told the Los Angeles Times that she thought, “There has to be something more to life than mah-jongg.” She began training hospital volunteers. At that job, she told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “I learned how to listen.” As Abigail Van Buren, she became an advocate, too: a plain-spoken listener who gave sensible, prickly advice to anyone.

It’s hard to overstate their importance in guiding our mainstream mores through the late 20th century. In so doing, it seems obvious that neither Ann nor Abigail represented “Society.” Instead, both of them listened to, and spoke for, society. Were other Eau Claire women socialites? Definitely. Are there Eau Claire socialites now? Doubtless, but I don’t get to decide who they are. Beyond my pay grade.

Got a local question? Send it (205 N. Dewey St.) or email it (mail@volumeone.org) and Frank will answer it!  Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 44 years. He is an editor and researcher at the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is open all year just beyond the Paul Bunyan Camp Museum in beautiful Carson Park. You should go there.