What popularized the baby name Brenda in 1939?

brenda diana duff frazier, life magazine cover, November 1938

Brenda Diana Duff Frazier (1921-1982) 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 had already been on the rise, but all the buzz around Brenda Frazier kicked the name into high gear in 1939:

  • 1942: 7,237 baby girls named Brenda
  • 1941: 6,332 baby girls named Brenda
  • 1940: 5,442 baby girls named Brenda
  • 1939: 2,756 baby girls named Brenda
  • 1938: 677 baby girls named Brenda
  • 1937: 232 baby girls named Brenda
  • 1936: 164 baby girls named Brenda
  • 1935: 132 baby girls named Brenda

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

“Brenda” went on to become one of the most popular baby names of the mid-20th century.

By that time, though, Brenda Frazier’s popularity had long since waned. She went on to suffer from eating disorders, become addicted to drugs and alcohol, divorce twice and attempt suicide multiple times 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.

Sources:

More debutantes: Cobina Wright, Jr., Deyanne O’Neil Farrell, Oona O’Neill, Sharman Douglas, Theonita Cox, Gamble Benedict

3 thoughts on “What popularized the baby name Brenda 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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