How did celebutante Brenda Frazier influence baby names in 1939?

Debutante Brenda Diana Duff Frazier  (1921-1982)
Brenda Frazier

Brenda Frazier (b. 1921) was an American debutante who rose to fame toward the end of the Great Depression. She wasn’t from an old-money family, but she did have a $4 million trust fund, thanks to her paternal grandfather.

By the time Frazier was ready to make her debut, most of the established charity group balls and cotillions — even the more down-market ones — rejected her application.

So Brenda’s overbearing, “embarrassingly nouveau riche” mother planned an extravagant coming-out party. It was held at the Ritz-Carlton in December of 1938, and it attracted a remarkable amount of media attention. In anticipation of the event, LIFE made Brenda a cover girl in mid-November.

The baby name Brenda was already on the rise, but all the buzz around Brenda Frazier kicked the name into high gear in 1939:

  • 1942: 7,239 baby girls named Brenda [rank: 40th]
  • 1941: 6,331 baby girls named Brenda [rank: 41st]
  • 1940: 5,442 baby girls named Brenda [rank: 42nd]
  • 1939: 2,756 baby girls named Brenda [rank: 86th]
  • 1938: 676 baby girls named Brenda [rank: 244th]
  • 1937: 233 baby girls named Brenda [rank: 423rd]
  • 1936: 163 baby girls named Brenda [rank: 511th]
  • 1935: 132 baby girls named Brenda [rank: 556th]

This was also the year that gossip columnist Walter Winchell, inspired by Frazier’s “ubiquity, her hustle, her fame,” coined the term celebutante — a portmanteau of celebrity and debutante — to describe Brenda specifically.

Over the next few years, Frazier stayed in the spotlight by appearing in various magazine advertisements, such as this Studebaker Land Cruiser ad from early 1941:

Brenda Frazier featured in a magazine ad for Studebaker cars (Jan. 1941)
Brenda Frazier in magazine ad

(Decades later, she wrote: “I found it amusing that I should be paid to recommend a particular make of car — I, who had never been permitted to drive an automobile and went everywhere by taxi or by chauffeured limousine.”)

By the middle of the century, the name Brenda was one of the most popular baby names in the nation. It ranked among the top 20 girl names from 1948 all the way to 1964.

Graph of the usage of the baby name Brenda in the U.S. since 1880
Usage of the baby name Brenda

By that time, though, Brenda Frazier’s popularity had long since waned. She went on to live a difficult life (which included eating disorders, drug and alcohol addictions, two divorces, and multiple suicide attempts) before passing away “a virtual recluse” in 1982.

In 2007, New York Magazine ranked the top 20 socialites of all time. Frazier came in 16th.

P.S. Other debutantes who’ve influenced U.S. baby names include Cobina Wright, Jr., Deyanne O’Neil Farrell, Oona O’Neill, Sharman Douglas, Theonita Cox, and Gamble Benedict.


Top image: Clipping from the cover of Life magazine (14 Nov. 1938)

3 thoughts on “How did celebutante Brenda Frazier influence baby names in 1939?

  1. I had a sister Brenda, born in ’55. I’m guessing the name was past its peak by then, since she never mentioned meeting another one in her all-too-short life.

  2. A quote from Judy Goldman‘s Losing My Sister, which is about her big sister Brenda:

    She was named after Brenda Frazier, a glamorous debutante with whom all of America had fallen in love, who made the cover of Life a month before my sister was born, the day after Christmas, 1938.

    As a child, I memorize that magazine cover — the glorious tangle of brown hair, the little pinched bodice of Brenda Frazier’s strapless gown, the way she stares at something out of the camera’s range, something I assume only Brendas can see.

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