Nobody lived the phrase “money can’t buy happiness” like the Poor Little Rich Girl Brenda Frazier. Born into unimaginable wealth, she also faced unspeakable trials from a young age—and as she grew up and grew beautiful, in only got worse from there. Here are facts about Brenda Frazier, the tragic debutante.
1. Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
At the time of the Great Depression, debutantes and their party calendars were like the Olympics of high society. Most of America had fallen on hard times, and they wanted to escape into the fantasies (or nightmares) of the very lucky few who still had riches. Pretty, wealthy, and pitiful, Brenda Frazier soon became a household name.
2. The Lush Life
Frazier’s parents were old money loaded. Her mother, also named Brenda, came from a prominent banking family, while her father Frank hobnobbed with the best of Boston. But for all their wealth, they were concealing rotten cores. Both of Frazier’s parents were miserable alcoholics. In fact, the day Brenda was born in 1921, her father left on a bender and only resurfaced months later. And that was just the start.
3. Don’t Put a Ring on It
Frazier was very sought after as arm candy, and even dated the notoriously eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes. She was still frighteningly young at the time, but this didn’t matter to her family. Her battleax of a grandmother pushed her into marrying him, so much so that the night she agreed to his proposal, Frazier cried herself to sleep.
Luckily, she broke it off soon after, but this would become a heartbreaking pattern in her life.
4. Bedroom Lies
In addition to their troubles with the bottle, little Brenda’s parents also had trouble in the bedroom. They were chronically unfaithful to each other, and set out on numerous affairs, many of them just spiteful attempts to get revenge. This kind of selfish parental plotting would only get worse as Brenda grew older.
5. This Is My Message to You
During her heyday in café society, Frazier was so famous that she was known only as “Brenda” in the papers, and young admirers would write her fan letters mailed in on envelopes that only had her name and “New York, New York” written on them. No full address was needed—somehow, she always got them.
6. Mr. Mom
Frazier’s parents finally did the sensible thing in January of 1926 and went through a vicious divorce. Just months after the split, her mother married Frederick N. Watriss, one of her many “other men” during her marriage. So now five-year-old Brenda also had a philandering step-dad…and more upheaval was just around the corner.
7. Frazier Vs. Frazier
Mr. and Mrs. Frazier had been horrible people as husband and wife, but they were even worse as exes. For eight full years, they fought over custody of Brenda, with each one accusing the other of infidelity, alcoholism, negligence, you name it. Of course, all these allegations were true…on both sides. It soon reached a disturbing climax.
8. Children Should Be Seen And Not Heard…And Not Seen
Ironically, during the entire time that Brenda’s parents were accusing each other of being an unfit parent, both of them completely ignored their young daughter. For nearly a decade, they carted Frazier off to expensive finishing schools or her grandmother’s house.
9. Equal Opportunity Offender
Frazier’s maternal grandmother, Jane Henshaw, was a terrifying figure in her life, and the heiress blamed most of her family dysfunction on Grandma Jane…which makes sense. Henshaw was harsh and opportunistic, once even accepting a lunch with the führer himself, Adolf H. Yeah. As Frazier put it, the woman didn’t care “whether a man was a beast or a hero, as long as he was a head of state.” Lovely.
10. Paging Mrs. Doubtfire
Frazier was raised by a series of governesses. Most of them were cold strangers to her—but one was unforgettably cruel. Frazier called her a “tyrant,” and the woman would force the young girl to get up at 6:00 AM to practice piano before school. Then, if her school grades weren’t high enough, she would refuse to speak to Frazier for days at a time.
11. All by Myself
Even though this governess ruled over Frazier with an iron fist—punishing the little girl if she so much as coughed the wrong way—the heiress still loved her dearly. As she later admitted, this strange case of Stockholm syndrome proved “the measure of loneliness I felt.” God, does it get much sadder than that? Well…
12. Case Closed
In 1933, a judge finally came to a verdict about the bitter Frazier custody battle, and his decision left them stunned. He angrily lectured them on their shameful behavior, sniping that “Neither parent appears to have been in the past, nor appears to be now, any paragon of virtue in parenthood.” As a result, he had no choice but to give them both joint custody.
And then an even bigger plot twist occurred.
13. Perfect Timing
Immediately after the judge’s decision, tragedy struck. As if he had been hanging on just through sheer bitterness, Frazier’s father Frank passed on from throat cancer just a month after the judge handed down the court decision. This girl was born with everything, but somehow she just couldn’t win.
14. Who’s That Girl?
From the age of 12 onward, Frazier started going to “café society” functions, making sure to look her best for the photographers who were always on site. The next day, her glamorous image would be splashed all over the gossip sections of newspapers. But sadly, even as a glittering golden girl, Brenda was hiding a very dark side.
15. Mommy’s Little Girl
By the time Frazier was 12 years old, she was going out in full debutante ball gowns, wearing a thick layer of makeup, and sucking on Camel cigarettes, a brand that quickly became her signature. Little Brenda did all this with the full approval of her absent mother and ambitious grandmother, who quickly forced her into even worse behavior.
16. They Grow up So Fast
Both Frazier’s mother and her grandmother didn’t just encourage her to dress up like an adult, they also pressured her into acting like one in incredibly sinister ways. By the time she was 14—and maybe even earlier—the matriarchs of the family started pushing Brenda to get intimate with men and learn the ropes inside the bedroom.
17. The Price of Fame
Growing up in that chaotic environment is obviously bad for a child, and Frazier started showing unsettling omens early on. She had a complicated and unhealthy relationship with food from a tender age, and friends would often witness her shoving back piles of food at lunch, only to go to the bathroom and purge.
And that’s not even the worst part.
18. Mother Knows Best
I know this will shock you to hear, but Frazier’s own mother was at the heart of her dieting issues. Say it ain’t so! Yep, mommy dearest did her daughter yet another solid and started pressuring her to lose weight before she was even a teenager. Her reasoning? If she wasn’t thin, people wouldn’t like her. YIKES.
19. Kiss the Ring
In addition to criticizing her daughter’s weight and looks, Frazier’s mother also withheld affection, big time. When the little girl was growing up, Mama Frazier refused to kiss her daughter, and made Brenda go through overly adult rituals like curtsying prettily for guests and bending low to kiss her grandmother’s hand.
20. The Glamour Girls
Frazier came up with other high society icons like Gloria Vanderbilt, Doris Duke, and Barbara Hutton, all beautiful girls from wealthy families. The press dubbed them “glamour girls,” yet their sordid personal lives also earned them a more tragic name: the “poor little rich girls”—and Brenda may have been the most pitiful.
21. Mirror, Mirror
Heartbreakingly, Brenda Frazier was perfectly healthy at the time she began restricting her diet. Classmates described her as a little “chubby” with a “plump face,” but she was also only 13 years old and still rapidly changing. They also noted that she was “absolutely beautiful” before she even turned 15…not that Mama Frazier ever noticed.
22. The Belle of the Ball
Though Frazier had some tough competition in the debutante sweepstakes, she was one of the best in the glam game. Two full years before Frazier came “out,” a society columnist predicted she would be “the Belle of her season.” As it turned out, this was a major understatement—but more on that later.
23. Breaking the Mould
Frazier was so famous in her time, she even helped coin a term. As a teenager, noted columnist Walter Winchell anointed her as a “celebutante.” Step aside, Kardashians.
24. Pure Class
Frazier had her own signature look: the “white look,” where she was photographed with a powder-white face and crimson lips. Of course, she always looked super white (and super-rich), but let’s take that as a given.
25. Beauty Is Pain
As Frazier’s social star started to rise, she also became famous for her coiffed hair. She meticulously shaped her dark locks for photographs and parties, but this vanity came with a high cost. Later in life, Frazier admitted that she was so terrified of messing up her hair one bit, she suffered from horrible neck problems.
26. The Great Escape
Frazier’s mother seemed to make it her life’s mission to keep her daughter unhappy. During one of Frazier’s stints in finishing school in Munich, the girl was finally enjoying her life. When she begged her mother to stay, the matriarch naturally forced her to come back to America. After all, who cared about education when you had rich men to nab?
27. The Name Game
Though she became known for her beauty and poise, Frazier also had much darker claims to fame. As she got older, her purging and restricting eating disorders took on such a life of their own, Frazier once quipped that she “invented” anorexia.
28. Food for Thought
Frazier’s food demons made her act out in utterly bizarre ways. In order to keep her diets in check, she would treat food erratically. According to her friends, she sometimes scarfed down “strange” foods, other times skipped her dinner, and on particularly bad binges, she easily emptied out her entire refrigerator.
29. The Bash of the Century
Frazier’s incredible debutante ball in 1938 was the era’s biggest bash, and that’s no exaggeration. The mere anticipation of the party landed her on Life magazine and thrust her into the international spotlight, and after the soiree finally took place, people named her “The Debutante of the Century.” But the real truth of that night is much different.
30. The Life of the Party
Frazier’s coming out housed 2,000 people and happened just after Christmas on December 27, 1938, at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City. I mean, what other hotel would do? During the gala, Frazier stayed up until the wee hours, only falling into bed at 6:30 am. Except, the entire time, she was lying to everyone around her.
31. I’m Sick of This
You see, Frazier was suffering from a nasty head cold during her own debutante party, and her feet had swollen up to painful proportions as she danced the night away. When she passed out in bed that early morning, it was from complete exhaustion. She was so ill, she couldn’t even remember the entire day that followed.
32. You Make Me Shiver
Try as she might, Frazier couldn’t completely hide her emotions or her illness on the day of the party. As captured in a famous photo, actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. noticed her shivering and draped a tablecloth over her shoulders to help warm her up. Frazier never let on that she was shivering from fatigue, not the temperature.
33. Shipwreck Incoming
Brenda Frazier was even more cursed in love than she was in family. In 1941, she married football player John “Shipwreck Kelly” Simms after a now-typical celebrity/athlete romance. Their marriage produced one girl, Brenda Victoria, in 1945, but came to a bitter end in 1956—and Frazier’s life was all downhill from there.
34. A Cry for Help
Even from the very beginning of her marriage to Kelly, Frazier was miserable. On the day of her wedding, reporters asked her on the record if she was happy. Her response was utterly disturbing. She told them the truth: “No, can’t you see? I’m utterly miserable.” Worry not, though: Later, the best man went to the journalists and convinced them to destroy the recording.
35. Gentleman Caller
This is where Frazier’s love life got extra messy. After her marriage dissolved, she rebounded hard, running straight into the arms of the gentlemanly and kind sales executive Robert Chatfield-Taylor. She married him alarmingly soon after her divorce, tying the knot in 1957. But even on their wedding night, she knew the awful truth.
36. He’s Not the One
Frazier had been trying to fill the hole in her heart, care of mommy and daddy, for years, but it never seemed to work. When it came to Chatfield-Taylor, Frazier knew she had made a huge mistake. She later confessed to friends that almost as soon as she walked down the aisle, she regretted it. And even darker days were ahead.
37. Daddy Issues
In yet another case of “Man hands down misery to man,” Frazier’s father was also the victim of a horrible family life. Her paternal grandfather, a successful businessman, was unbelievably brutal to his son. The old man hated his child and considered him “the only bad investment he ever made in his life.” Look, no amount of therapy was going to help this family.
38. Say Cheese
In 1966, the famous photographer Diane Arbus got rare access to takes snaps of the aging Frazier. Her photos show an unsettling sight. At 45 years old, Frazier clearly couldn’t handle the thought of her beauty fading, and she looks painfully frail staring warily at the camera, even with her signature pale face and slash of red lipstick.
39. A Virgin Who Can’t Drive
For all her fame, there was one thing Brenda couldn’t do: drive. After all, who needs a learner’s permit when they have a chauffeur and a limo to get around? Hilariously, this didn’t stop Frazier from posing for an ad series for Studebaker cars—she could certainly look good behind the wheel, even if she couldn’t turn it.
40. The Poor Little Rich Girl
Though Frazier inherited a mind-boggling sum of about $61 million in today’s money, she claimed she was actually somehow poor. Apparently, the money was locked inside a trust fund, and she became attracted to the debutante life at the well-known Stork Club because they offered cheap dollar lunches. Sure, Brenda.
41. A Cold Open
As a precursor to celebrities like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, Frazier was famous for being famous, and critics often sniped at her for having zero qualities other than the heft of her bank account. During one of her appearances at a Broadway nightclub alongside bona fide stars, the crowd even loudly booed her.
Great for the self-esteem.
42. The Scent of a Woman
These days, every pop star and B-list actress has their own perfume line, but I’m here to tell you yet again that Brenda did it first. The scent “Sarong” was created just for her. After all, as the “#1 Glamour Girl,” and every Madison avenue executive knew that Frazier was “the best advertisement for just about everything.”
43. You Owe Me
Despite being born with a silver spoon in her mouth, things seemed to be doomed from the start for the heiress. When her mother had Frazier, she nearly passed in childbirth.
44. Don’t Spoil It
Perhaps no one was as surprised at Frazier’s fame as her family, well-adjusted and supportive people that they were. Her great aunt thought she was going to be “spoiled” by all the notoriety, and none of them thought she deserved it. Then again, none of them thought she deserved basic love and care either, so…
45. To Forgive, Divine
Despite the Frazier family’s mistreatment of Brenda, she found it in her heart to forgive them. In a 1963 tell-all article she wrote for Life magazine—the same publication that shot her to fame—she said she had no ill-will toward her mother, her father, or her grandparents because their wrongdoings were “the inevitable result of their own upbringing.”
I…would not have been so kind.
46. Mother, May I
In the middle of her parents’ custody battle, little Brenda was forced into court to testify. When she stood in front of the judge, she made a heartbreaking confession. In “most carefully rehearsed words,” she said she wanted to stay with her mother, though she later implied she was under duress from her family when she made the speech.
47. Daddy Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Because of her courtroom testimony, Frazier saw very little of her father for the remainder of the custody case. Even more tragically, her mother cruelly rebuffed most of his efforts to reach out, throwing out his toys after assuring her daughter that she “didn’t really like them,” and shoving his gifted clothing in the back of closets.
48. Ending It All
While still married to Chatfield-Taylor, Frazier made the first attempt to take her own life in 1961, trying to stuff a fatal dose of sleeping pills into her body. Over the next 20 years, she made 30 more attempts on her life.
49. There’s a Pill for That
Frazier’s first suicide attempt also reveals another sad truth about her life: She was completely dependent on pills. As one of her friends described it, she took “pills to go to sleep and pills to wake up, pills for digestion and pills to go to the bathroom, and pills to be happy and pills to be sad, and pills to be.”
50. Rest in Peace
In 1982, a lifetime of illnesses, both physical and mental, finally caught up to the poor little rich girl. Frazier had been in and out of hospitals for nearly a decade, and finally passed on in early May of that year when she was only 60 years old. As her biographer lamented, “She didn’t stand a chance. There was no way she was going to be happy. Her life was basically over before it began.” RIP, Brenda.