A Fifty Year Celebration
The Glamour, the Glitz, and the Glory
by Ted Clayton
For fifty years it has been the most coveted invitation of the Nashville social scene, prompting Town and Country magazine to write: “If you receive an invitation to the Swan Ball, drop everything else and accept at once!” Yes, for five decades the A-List of Nashville socials have done just that, making this event one of the country’s most successful charity balls. For years some folks have been on the wait list for an invitation, but most are content knowing that one year in the future they may attend. This is by no means a corporate party, but a private party where everyone knows one another and enjoys the company.
Nashville is and always has been a most generous and giving city. In 1959, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Sharp donated their mansion along with fifty-five acres to the city of Nashville to become the botanical gardens and fine art museum known today as Cheekwood. What a generous gift to this city Cheekwood was in the early 1960s, but to support this endeavor funds were needed to maintain and operate the mansion and grounds.
In 1963 Dr. Garth Fort, then president of the Cheekwood Board, asked leading social hostess Jane Dudley if she had any thoughts on how to raise these funds in a social manner. Voila! The Swan Ball.
Jane shared with me that after being approached to produce such a spring party, her mind raced back, remembering all the wonderful balls she and husband Guilford had attended throughout the western world. One ball that stood out in Jane’s mind was an elegant ball held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York that the Dudleys had attended. With this ball in mind, Jane decided to create the same elegance under a tent on the Cheekwood grounds, not in a hotel. Nashville’s first tent party was held in the spring of 1963, with tickets set at fifty dollars. Jane decided that the party would be held in the back yard of the mansion surrounding the wonderful huge bronze swan fountain.
Everybody that was anybody attended the first ball. Five hundred of Jane’s closest and dearest turned out for her tent party where fifty tables were elegantly set with folding chairs on the grass. The party was a success, but did it raise the needed funds to support Cheekwood? Yes, the very first Swan Ball raised a whopping $36,000.
As the years progressed, hemlines on gowns went up and then back down as Nashville and Cheekwood grew at a rapid pace. The Swan Ball was also growing with hundreds of volunteers, the addition of the Late Party for the younger social set, and the Patrons and Workers parties, all adding to the festive Swan Ball week.
In 1978, for the sixteenth Swan Ball, chairs Alice Mathews and Claire Coble wanted something different. The result was the first disco-themed Swan Ball. Yes, disco, and what an upbeat, enjoyable evening Alice and Claire created with their Animal and Art-themed ball. Upbeat yes, hot under the tent, no! This was the first year the Swan Ball tent was air-conditioned. With the help of Alice’s husband Bobby and Claire’s husband Neely Coble, the Swan Ball temp was cool and comfortable for the first time ever—such a wonderful relief for the gents in black wool tailcoats. That year Bobby Mathews and Neely Coble created the Penguin Society to help raise funds for the AC, and not a man minded! The Iranian Ambassador, a guest that year, said, “Every tent in Iran should be so nice and cool!” Alice and Claire raised an astronomical $250,000 with their extravagant themed ball.
Alice Mathews has been a great force behind the Swan Ball. “It takes someone with a giant vision to chair this event, and what a wonderful opportunity it is to chair this ball,” she states. “It is the best sorority a woman will ever join,” she assures future Swan Ball Chairs, or should I say cygnets, baby swans.
Entertainment through the years has included Chet Atkins, Barbara Mandrell, Dinah Shore, Natalie Cole, Diana Ross, and this year’s headliner, Aretha Franklin. Jewelry designers wanting to be asked, and who have been asked, include Tiffany, Bulgari, Luis Bared, Cartier, and this year’s jeweler, David Webb. Webb designed the first Swan Award that was given to Jane Dudley in 1969 by that year’s Swan Ball Chairs Ann Parsons and Sissy McAlister. Fashion designers Bill Blass, Bonwit Teller, Pucci, Oscar de la Renta, Neiman Marcus, Balmain, Ralph Lauren, Mary McFadden, and Swan Ball favorite Alfred Fiandaca have all graced the Swan Ball stage.
When one thinks of the Swan Ball one also thinks of Roberta Lochte, for through the next few decades she was the chief Swan Ball designer. Roberta said there are three design elements to a successful ball: elegance, glamour, and authenticity. Roberta’s insight through the years has created elegant ballroom interiors: Monet Gardens, Oriental Gardens, an Arabian Night, a replica of Opryland’s Showboat, Tiffany Stained Glass, the Roaring Twenties, Jade Pagoda with giant temple lions, Versailles’ grand pink-marble Trianon, all under a tent.
The year 2000, Y2K, the electronic high-tech ball to bring in the new century was chaired by Lindy Sayers and Libby Page. Dramatic color, and the seventy-two-inch round tables were made of acrylic and lit to change colors with the evening of the ball, as did the entire tent. A new century and a new era for the SBY2K Ball. Libby shared with me how important this ball is to Cheekwood and that she sees a new focus on the botanical garden development today, a project that will be used and enjoyed by the entire city. Oh, by the way, Lindy and Libby raised $850,000 that year. Now that’s a lot of technology.
This brings me to the current year, 2012, the Golden Ball where chairs Sandra Lipman and Jacqueline Hutton are working their swan tails off for a sellout evening, I am sure. Yes, this party is still private and by invitation only. Yes, it is expensive. Yes, it is still the social event of the year. Yes, it has raised millions of dollars over the past fifty years, and yes, there is still an International Committee headed by the incredible Jane Dudley with lots of H.R.H.s invited and attending.
As I have mentioned the many volunteers that have made this ball such a success through the fifty years, we must remember the personalities that are continuing to celebrate a Heavenly Swan Ball: Guilford Dudley, Corinne Franklin, Joe Smith, Clara Hieronymus, Gene Harris, Yolanda Mizell, Harvey Pride, Catherine Beasley, Teenie Buchtel, Francis Corzine, Shelia and Sydney Keeble, Olivia Shwab, Dan Buntin, Virginia Keathley, Gay Nielson, Jean Miller, Becky Clayton, Bobby Shwab, Cettie Wager, Tony Hail, Mary Anne Harwell, Govan White, Claire Coble, Sigourney Cheek, Gray Bolster, Chippy Pirtle, Nancy Allen, Siddy Foote, Alice Tyne, Jack Massey, Jeanne Saunders, Florence Lamb, Evelyn Anderson, Charlie Wells, Gray Oliver, Florence Blair, Bobby Tyne, Anne Wilson, Sarah Cannon, Michael Corzine, Peggy Steine, Bob Standford, John Sloan, Welling LaGrone, Darlene Hoffman, Betty Caldwell, and of course my lifelong mentor Herbert Fox. I only hope I did not forget any of these heavenly people, for I am sure they will save me a dance, if only I can stay on that coveted invitation list!