Growing up on the Main Line there are just things you grow up with. Namely the local society pages. Historically, sometimes what has kept a local paper afloat wasn’t necessarily local news, but the society pages.
It was like a rite of passage: you go to nice private schools, you have nice Main Line parents who do their share of volunteer work and from the time you are little you get your photo taken occasionally.
My friends and I had it drummed into our heads that society editors were to be respected and revered. You always were polite and you never asked to be in a photo, you were invited to be in a photo.
When I was little, the queen of the society editors was Ruth Seltzer from the Philadelphia Inquirer. She was formidable to say the least. She was a society editor first in the original Bulletin and then Walter Annenberg lured her to the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she remained until her death in 1986.
Ruth was the high bar that the other society editors had to reach to meet. My mother knew Ruth and I remember in her later years my parents giving her rides home from social events on their way home. Her society columns were just that columns with maybe a photo or two. Not like today which are mostly photos with captions. You would read the columns and she would have descriptions of parties and who was wearing what and maybe a photo or two. She was an encyclopedia of who was who in the Philadelphia area.
It was always a huge deal to make it into a Ruth Seltzer column. But you didn’t ask to be, she decided. She was a force of nature. A lot of people didn’t care for her. I was still kind of young when she died, early 20s. I loved reading her columns.
Ruth Seltzer was such an institution that you would find her mentioned in books about Philadelphia and her columns re-quoted in various newsletters. I remember when someone I knew’s father wrote his autobiography he wrote about Ruth Seltzer when recounting a tale of when he first came to Philadelphia.
When she died the whole structure of society columns changed. The Inquirer had a few different people take on her society column, but it was never quite the same. It was an end of an era, (If you want to read something amusing, read this little piece written in 2010 which was written by a writer who was basically Ruth Seltzer’s gofer for years as a first job it sounds like. My first writing job JUNE 28, 2010 BY
At other papers, namely the suburban weeklies for the most part there was a certain jockeying for position after Ruth Seltzer died. One now deceased society editor in particular thought her ascension to the top would occur after Ruth died. It didn’t happen. She never got over it and grew increasingly more miserable and mean spirited.
So enter this new era: all these society editors from other papers jockeying for position and readership. If one took your photo, another one wouldn’t. Or you could play a game and see if you can outwit them. I will admit that some of my friends and I had an enormous amount of fun seeing if we could get more than one society editor to take our photo at the same event.
But we never asked to be in photos. We were invited to be in photos. You see a couple of these society page folks in particular so did not get along that they would often appear at events to cover them at different times so their paths did not cross.And that would make chairs of non-profit events more comfortable anyway since a couple of these other society editors expected exclusives.
When it came to the point that I was volunteering and even co-chairing non-profit events I never played the exclusive thing. I invited whomever was doing society for whichever newspaper and told them flat out everyone was invited from the society press. After all, it wasn’t about them, it was about the institution we were volunteering for, right? And there was one editor in particular who would not take a photo of a person who did not live on the Main Line, including one time the then Maestro of The Philadelphia Orchestra, Ricardo Muti. (So for decades you would have seen photos of people you knew lived elsewhere who were suddenly from Bryn Mawr.)
I did my volunteerism thing fairly devotedly as I was expected to up until 9/11. After 9/11 I decided the world had changed enough that I wanted to still be active in my community, but the bloom was off the rose for the countless black tie events. And people and the events were changing too. It just wasn’t as much fun.
It used to be that black tie events were exclusive. You got dressed up and you felt special. All of a sudden there were what felt like thousands of them. And the people were changing. It became less of a who’s who and more of a who was buying a corporate table. I noticed that first at Opening Night of the Philadelphia Orchestra. All of a sudden there was this super emphasis on corporate tables and they were filled by people who really didn’t know or appreciate the Philadelphia Orchestra but their company bought tables, so they got dressed up and went.
Society and what defines society has completely changed. Slowly from the late 1980s on you saw a shift. No longer was it the norm to be asked to be in a society photo, you told the society editor whom to photograph. And if that didn’t work, you just hip checked someone out of the photo quite literally so you could be in it. That actually happened to me at a black tie that the old Chester County SPCA used to hold called the “Growl Scratch and Sniff” (yes that was the name of the party and it was a lot of fun!). Anyway, this woman wanted to be in a photo and some of my friends and I had been asked to be in a photo and we literally got hip checked out of the photo. I remember just moving off to the side and kind of just standing there a minute because I could not believe someone had done that. Today at the rare occasions I am at one of these things any longer the water buffalo-like jockeying for position and “take my photo” is somewhat astounding to observe.
As what defined society changed, so did the newspapers. Newspapers had also started consolidating and even closing as the Internet and how it was used grew.
On the Main Line for a while there were three papers with society editors: Main Line Life, Main Line Times, Wayne and Suburban. There was also a City Line paper that no one ever wanted to be in. Then on the other side of the river was the Chestnut Hill Local. And other even smaller papers sprinkled everywhere.
When the Main Line papers consolidated it became like the Hatfields and the McCoys with the two remaining society editors. Then they got rid of one and eventually the other one died.
Which brings us to today. You have a really nice man who does most of the Philadelphia area events and a smattering of surviving society editor folks. Main Line Media News still has a very nice lady who does what is left of the “society” pages, and there are others, including a former Main Line area society editor who does photos for her own website. Only when you run into that one these days she is not as pleasant. Fairly unpleasant as a matter of fact. And that is even when you are just saying hello for old times sake, and have absolutely no desire to be in a photo. Truly, it is very sad.
Some ladies I know whom are slightly older than myself say that something must happen to these women who survive at this now somewhat archaic tradition of the society page. I have had more than one say to me how miserable a lot of them get, even while they are still on the job.
I look at the society pages now and I marvel at how I no longer recognize any names. In the good old days you recognized the mothers, the daughters, the grandmothers and so on. It was a tradition after a fashion.I also remember I loved to look at the photos because I loved to look at the gowns.
Today? Not so much. And it is not just that there are different people in the photos that you wonder who the heck they are, but more often than not the event is not dressy and you look at the photos and wonder why they wore that not wow what a gorgeous dress. That and people no longer seem to really know how to stand for those photos, or arrange themselves so the photos flow.
Anyway, this is just something that has been rattling around in my head: what passes for high society today? Should we care?