High Society In The 1930s: No Time For Depression

Published December 12, 2014
Updated January 9, 2018

The West Coast saw its share of extravagance as well. Newspaper king William Randolph Hearst hosted lavish celebrations and commissioned new bedrooms at his mansion to accommodate his plethora of guests.

High Society Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle is a blend of architectural styles given the owner’s fondness for purchasing ancient ceilings, which often determined size, shape and décor for a room. Source: Design Blendz

Marion Davies was actually an exception when it came to the Hollywood colony, though she did have an ongoing affair with Hearst. Davies frequently hosted wild and unsparing celebrations, but she was also known as the most generous woman in show business. During her life, Davies established a children’s hospital that would go on to be one of the best in Los Angeles and consistently provided money to charitable causes.

High Society

This Tyrolean themed party was hosted by Marion Davies in the pointy hat. She’s accompanied by Gloria Swanson, Constance Bennett and Jean Harlow. Source: Glamamor

Debutante balls were quite common at this time. “Poor little rich girl” Barbara Woolworth Hutton had her coming out celebration at the Ritz in New York City to the tune of $60,000 ($1 million today). The Astors and the Rockefellers were some of the party’s more highfalutin guests, and Rudy Vallee entertained the multitudinous crowd. Hutton fell under harsh public criticism for such an opulent display, to the point that she was forced to flee to Europe to escape the press.

High Society Hutton

Barbara Hutton married self-styled prince Alex Mdivani of Georgia in 1933 after her debutante ball. She would go on to marry six more times and continue to spend lavishly. Source: Jewels Du Jour

High Society Hutton Grant

Hutton’s third husband was famous actor Cary Grant. The media dubbed the coupled “Cash and Cary.” Source: Celebrity Net Worth

The social elite cavorted in other countries, too. The Agua Caliente Hotel and Casino in Mexico was another hotspot for anyone who wanted to be seen. Located in Tijuana, the hotel gained popularity among celebrities during Prohibition because gambling and alcohol were still legal in Mexico. Rita Hayworth got her start at the hotel, but the haunt’s glory days wouldn’t last. In 1935 owners closed Agua’s doors after Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas outlawed gambling.

High Society Agua

Mae Clarke, star of film and stage, rang in the New Year with Dr. B. Blank in 1934 at the Agua Caliente. Source: Blogspot

High Society Agua Caliente

Joan Bennett pictured with director Raoul Walsh at the Agua Caliente in 1933. Only two years later the site would close and take it with the glamour of an unbelievable era. Source: Blogspot

The Hollywood elite didn’t only relish in extravagant parties in the 1930s, they also delighted in jewelry. Diamond demand was on the decline due to the failed economy and its cheaper, more modest bands and metalwork became truly competitive substitutes.

DeBeers had already established a monopoly on the diamond mines in South Africa, so it only makes sense that they would turn to advertising executives in uber-opulent New York to boost their sales. The ad agency used Hollywood starlets to advertise diamonds and within three years sales rose by fifty percent. This would create the standard of diamond giving for engagements in the modern era.

High Society Diamonds

A “Diamond is Forever,” according to DeBeers. Source: BBC

The oblivion could only last so long. Eventually, the dust would settle, America would be drawn into the Second World War and jobs would be created while wealth would be compressed. Women would tie back their hair, don pants and join the work force. The elite wouldn’t be respected for throwing parties but rather for their philanthropic interests, and the Dirty Thirties would be just a memory.

Susan Sims
When she's not fighting crime or cleaning the garbage disposal, you can find Susan writing about travel, science and things that go bump in the night.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Sims, Susan. "High Society In The 1930s: No Time For Depression." AllThatsInteresting.com, December 12, 2014, https://allthatsinteresting.com/high-society-1930s. Accessed May 18, 2024.