As Miss Ireland Marie Irving readied herself to curtsy in front of 360 members of New York high society, European royalty, West Point cadets, and a coterie of friends and family from Naples and beyond, she took a deep breath. At a little past 10 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, here was a moment she had been waiting for, imagining and actively planning for years. This one of Naples’ own had made it to the International Debutante Ball, one steeped in tradition and one of the most prestigious in the country.
In a regal snow-white Viktor & Rolf design with its own name, “Flowerbomb,” Ireland looked every bit the distinguished American girl she is. (Chasing perfection just hours before, her father and older sister sat on the floor straightening each of the 15 layers of tulle in the gown’s billowing skirt. “I wish we had a hidden camera taping that,” Ireland says.) Despite being accompanied on the processional by her longtime friend William Nathan Fritsch, all eyes were on the 20-year-old University of Mississippi sophomore as she stepped out to the Lester Lanin Orchestra’s up-tempo rendition of You Are My Sunshine—a nod to her Florida roots. Ireland approached the stage, turned to face the ballroom and kept her head high as she dipped down as far as she could without losing her balance. The emcee announced in an unusually dignified voice who this young girl was, where she was from, and that she was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Fred R. Irving (known in Naples as Pete and Dawn of Irving Materials, the nation’s largest privately held ready-mix concrete company).
Everything during that 64th anniversary evening of pomp and circumstance had culminated in the presentation of these 22 ingénues, each awash in pure white and holding matching bouquets of pink roses in their evening-gloved hands. Held at The Pierre—New York’s brightest pearl in an ocean of luxury hotels—the ball was their ticket to the uppermost echelons of polite society.
To start the night, they had greeted every guest in a receiving line before entering the cocktail hour, then dined with one another and their escorts on filet mignon. (Ireland recalls carefully removing her elbow-length gloves and placing them under her napkin, so as not to tempt fate.) The West Point color guard then cleared the dance floor, as the big ceremony commenced in the sumptuous ballroom. After each debutante was announced and did her curtsy, they all were called out as a group for a first dance with their escorts before their fathers were invited to cut in. The Irvings had three tables of revelers and well-wishers who had made the trip. “It was an even more wonderful an experience than I could have anticipated,” Ireland remembers, “and having my family and friends in attendance made it all the more special to me.”
Sure, there are debutante balls throughout the United States and beyond—more than enough to fill the social pages of countless magazines—but there’s a reason there is such interest in this one: It and only one other, Britain’s Queen Charlotte’s Ball, hold a particular level of prestige. Started in 1954 and a highlight of the New York winter social season ever since, the International Debutante Ball has attracted the descendants of former presidents (Ms. Anne Eisenhower was one of this year’s honorary chairs); scions of business tycoons (a member of Ireland’s class of debutantes was the granddaughter of Christopher “Kip” Forbes); and nobility (the class’ other peers included Princess Aurelia of Liechtenstein, a French countess and a pair of aristocratic Scottish cousins). It’s also one of the few remaining events in the modern world where the entire guest list of nearly 400 is in a gown or white tie and tails—with “decorations,” if they have them (state medals, pins and ribbons—a surefire sign of noble birth or valor on a battlefield).
The capstone soiree is just the tip of the iceberg on a no-time-to-breathe, two-day schedule of luncheons, rehearsals and receptions—in addition to an event in November for the debutantes and their inner circle that is meant to foster lasting relationships. In the post-war-era origins of the ball, a patriotic streak was woven in by having the primary beneficiary be the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Marines’, Coast Guard and Airmen’s Club. Other organizations, such as the International Academy of Art and the American Friends of Versailles, also receive a portion of the funds raised by ticket sales, sponsorships and the debutantes’ five-figure entrance fees. West Point cadets are invited to attend in full uniform each year, too; 10 seniors and juniors were represented in 2018.
“It’s a neat event—something special—some would say from a bygone era. You get to know intelligent and successful women and their families who are presenting them, and this event has a nice international flavor,” says John Willis, a vice chairman of the Presentation Committee and retired lieutenant colonel from West Point whose daughter debuted several years ago. “It really forms a network of friends for the girls. My daughter was at the pre-ball reception and met up with a von Habsburg and Eisenhower’s great-great-granddaughter—they connect and meet, they form networks, and those translate into business opportunities as well as great, great friendships.”
But it isn’t enough to have the desire or even the deepest of pockets to participate. Young women don’t just apply—they are chosen, brought into the fold by a committee member or influencer. In Ireland’s case, she had not one but two people vouching for her. Both have known her since she was a little girl growing up in and around the Port Royal Club, the center of activity for many of Southwest Florida’s wealthiest residents.
The Countess de Oliveto of Spain, known around town as Blanca Finat, is a vice chairman of the ball’s International Committee. Back in 2014, she invited her dear friends the Irvings to her daughter Bianca’s debut at the 60th anniversary ball. For a high school-age Ireland, who freely admits to having spent much of her youth with romantic thoughts of dressing up and playing princess, the effect was immediate. Ireland danced the night away with Bianca and their families, and she remembers thinking on the plane ride home, “How can I do this?”
She dropped hints over the years with both Blanca and Bernadette Watkins, a vice chairman of the ball and longtime presence in the New York and Naples social scenes. Like a matchmaker with a preternatural gift for the job, Bernadette has pulled strings for about five or six Naples girls, including the younger of her own two daughters, to debut over the past few decades. Ireland’s efforts culminated with a formal request after she had started college, when she knew she was the right age to participate. Her mother, Dawn, remembers a luncheon at the Port Royal Club with Blanca and Bernadette while Ireland was at school, the three of them surrounded by papers alongside their salads, hoping it would result in an invitation being mailed out a few months later.
Fast-forward to a year later, Dawn once again sitting in the club’s beachfront dining room, this time just weeks before Ireland’s debut. “My husband and I are so tickled and lighthearted about this,” she had remarked. “We can’t wait for it to all to come together. For her to participate in the ball, it says to everyone, indeed, that she’s a lovely young woman.”
Ireland is an achiever. She is a dean’s-list sophomore at the University of Mississippi and an active member of Delta Gamma Fraternity, including an eager participant in its charitable endeavors (“I wanted real camaraderie in college, and I’ve found it there,” she says). She hopes to one day enter law school or go into integrated marketing communications. In Southwest Florida, she began her academic life at age 4 at the Community School of Naples, attended Seacrest Country Day School starting in the sixth grade and then followed in her sister India’s footsteps to high school at Culver Girls Academy, an elite boarding school in Indiana.
Now back at Ole Miss, Ireland stays in touch with her fellow debutantes through social media and looks back fondly on the event. “I’m a people-person, and while I would love to make a career of this—I had so much fun and just loved the receiving line in particular—I knew this was my only ball,” she says wistfully. She describes the ball as the perfect combination of philanthropic event and great party (“and just so elegant and patriotic, too”). As she and her new friends know, in the increasingly digitized and easily traversed world, the stage has never been better set for them to stay in touch. This is certainly not the last they’ll hear of each other—or that we’ll hear of them.