As A-List hostesses plan their parties this year, they will have to make do without the help of the 2002 Society Visiting List, better known as "The Blue Book." After 113 years of publishing the names, addresses and debutante parties of the area's upper-crust families, the Blue Book is taking the year off for some much needed rejuvenation.
The sturdy blue directory with the cursive gold script, a compendium of information about the long-rooted and socially prominent, hopes to find ways to attract younger subscribers to its pages. It also wants to increase its advertisements and introduce new social calendar listings, according to editor Jennifer Roebuck.
Roebuck, who replaced longtime editor Louise Macsherry, already has revolutionized the enterprise by computerizing the subscriber base, although she does not anticipate the Blue Book will have a presence in cyberspace anytime soon.
A relative newcomer in Blue Book terms -- the 32-year-old editor has lived here only 10 years -- Roebuck is quite at home in the changing ways of "Society." She has raised funds and co-ordinated special events at Goucher College and Gilman School. And she grew up in Bethesda as a member of Washington's Green Book, a sister publication that also offers tips on diplomatic etiquette.
In fact, the new Blue Book will include a protocol section written by Cathy Hanson, co-owner of the International School of Protocol in Phoenix. Other additions may follow after subscribers respond to her forthcoming questionnaires.
For years, the directory was the main source of such information as local society marriages and deaths. It printed the winter and summer addresses of the area's gentry, a group which included such longtime Maryland families as the Carrolls, Abells and Garretts. And it listed the new debutantes and who was holding parties for them.
Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, interest in Baltimore Society's exclusive traditions began to wane. In 1952, there were 65 debs; in 1999, only nine young women were listed in the Blue Book as candidates for "coming out" at Baltimore's annual Bachelors Cotillon, one of the nation's most venerable debutante balls.
While the debs dwindled, so did the number of prominent hostesses who considered it worthwhile to be listed in the Blue Book. Forty years ago, there were an estimated 12,000 names listed in the directory, according to press reports. Now the subscriber base numbers about 2,400 families, Roebuck says.
Francis O'Neill, reference librarian for the Maryland Historical Society, suspects that many of the Blue Book's most faithful subscribers are living in retirement communities -- or contemplating them. Roebuck hopes to tap into what she hopes is a new interest in Society matters among their children and grandchildren. Her initial research suggests some 30- and 40-somethings are enthusiastic about reviving debutante parties (the 2001 deb list included 15 young women) and entertaining around such seasonal events as point-to-point timber races. She also says subscribers would like to know well in advance the dates of certain formal fund-raisers -- the Triple Crown Ball and the Baltimore Zoo's Zoomerang, for example.
She plans to include such information in the 2003 edition available this October.
Those who wish to be admitted to the Blue Book must be recommended by one subscriber. (Formerly, rules called for three subscribers not related to a candidate to write letters of support.) An anonymous committee of five decides upon the merits of each application -- and welcomes, in the words of the late editor Mary Spottswood Warren, "compatible families."
Another late editor, Mrs. Coleman Brownfield, described the directory as "a kind of family reunion directory keeping up with changing life of friends whom you may not have seen for years."
Roebuck concurs: "The Blue Book is probably the handiest personal phone book for this group of people."
And what sort of group is it?
Blue Book subscribers tend to have long local pedigrees, although not as much as they used to. They tend to send their children to private schools. They spend time at exclusive country clubs and some still belong to such hereditary societies as the Huguenot Society of North Carolina and Daughters of the Barons of Runnemede. They tend to live in Roland Park, Homeland, Guilford, Ruxton and equivalent ZIP codes in Baltimore County, although many subscribers have now retired to such warmer states as Florida. They tend to patronize the florists, party planners and funeral homes who advertise in their directory.
The Blue Book tells its subscribers where their peers went to college and also where they sent their children to college. It lists married women's maiden names. And it tells its readers who belongs to which clubs and who is a member of the Bachelor's Cotillon (only men are permitted to subscribe).
And as to its racial and ethnic diversity?
"We are keeping up with changing times," Roebuck says.
So who's in the most recent Blue Book? It may be easier to say who's not in it.
Among the political powerbrokers, cultural leaders, philanthropists and local legends not listed in the 2001 Blue Book are Peter Angelos, Fred Lazarus, Mayo Shattuck, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Walter Sondheim, Henry Rosenberg, Harvey (Bud) Meyerhoff, Eddie and Sylvia Brown, Martin O'Malley, Ben Carson and Cal Ripken.(Filmmaker John S. Waters Jr. is noted. He remains part of his parents' listing, a perfect candidate for Roebuck's Blue Book rejuvenation campaign.)
Although you cannot purchase a Blue Book ($55) unless you are listed in it, there are recent copies at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The Maryland Historical Society has a complete set dating back to 1888. It reveals glimpses of the privileged and powerful who bought their cabriolets from H.H. Babcock carriage company and their salted filberts from Hooper, McGaw & Co.
"Baltimore society used to be a sort of separate little society where people were related to each other," reflects O'Neill of the Historical Society. "Families [and their place in society] were important in a way that they aren't anymore to the younger generation. It used to seem that you were born into the Baltimore Blue Book and died in the Blue Book. But these days, it's more the trend that you're here for a while, then you move on. You go on to some other Blue Book in another city."
Stephen Higley, author of Privilege, Power and Place: The Geography of the American Upper Class, says the Social Register, a national listing of pedigreed upper class, still holds the highest bar of social exclusivity.
"Although there are plenty of upper class people in a Blue Book, it is more of an upper-middle-class compendium, although they may be extremely successful upper-middle-class people," Higley says. "One of the reasons the Social Register became the bible of the upper classes is that you couldn't buy your way into it. Nouveau riche moneyed people -- [like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg] -- are generally not candidates for the Social Register but could more easily get into a Blue Book."
He says the Social Register and Blue Books were created in the late 19th century, when Gilded Age fortunes were forged. Between 1875 to 1913, the year the income tax was instituted, America's industrial prowess and wealth grew so rapidly that it transformed the social order. There were so many people making so much money so quickly that the previously small upper class needed guide books to help them distinguish which new fortunes belonged to "people like us" and which didn't.
Now, with economic globalization "gutting" the traditonal elite, it's difficult to say what, exactly, any blue book means, notes Higley who teaches urban social geography at Alabama's University of Montevallo. But he's sure of one leading social indicator:
"Neighborhood is as important as it has ever been," he maintains -- and Blue Book communities will probably remain exclusive.