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 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:
(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.
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.
- Braudy, Leo. “After the Ball Was Over.” New York Times 23 Aug. 1987.
- “The Debutante.” Life 14 Nov. 1938: 39-42.
- Frazier, Brenda. “My Debut–A Horror.” Life 6 Dec. 1963: 133-4, 136-8, 141-2, 144.
- Laneri, Raquel. “The sensational debut and fall of the world’s first ‘celebutante’.” New York Post 16 Nov. 2009.
- “The Top Twenty Socialites of All Time.” New York Magazine 7 May 2007.
Image: © 1938 Life
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.
3 thoughts on “What popularized the baby name Brenda in 1939?”
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.
A quote from Judy Goldman‘s Losing My Sister, which is about her big sister Brenda:
A short-lived radio drama called Brenda Curtis started airing on CBS in 1939…was the character named after the debutante, do you think?