Pretty, blonde, and rich, 18-year-old socialite Fernanda Wanamaker Wetherill was the most famous debutante in America since Brenda Frazier made the cover of Life magazine in 1938 for being pretty, brunette, and rich. Wetherill was the essence of her breed and the envy of millions of young girls. The great-granddaughter of John Wanamaker, the founder of the eponymous department store, her clothing, country-clubbing, and patrician boyfriends with perfect teeth were great fodder for gossip columns, as were the minutest details of her all-pink coming-out party held at her stepfather Donald Leas’s Southampton estate on Labor Day weekend 1963—pink invitations, pink dress, pink floral arrangements, and a pink three-poled tent under which 800 guests culled from the Social Register would sip pink Champagne. Her stepfather rented an oceanfront mansion as a dormitory for her young friends with no place to sleep.
There wasn’t much sleeping. After 24 hours on a liquid diet, left alone to their own devices in the huge mansion, about 60 of the pride of society went on a Lord of the Flies rampage. The beds were splintered, the chandelier ripped from the ceiling, the crystal and china used for target practice, and the house stoned in a frenzy that broke all but six of its 1,600 exquisitely mullioned windows. The owner was paid for damages, but no charges were filed immediately, inciting a wave of public indignation. Under mounting pressure, a grand jury was convened, and thirteen young men (five in the Social Register) and one girl were charged with the willful destruction of property. The trial in Riverhead gave the public a perturbing glimpse into the lives of the spoiled rich. When sophomore Eaton Brooks, who was swinging from the chandelier when it ripped loose, was asked by the district attorney how he was invited to the party, he answered, “There is a social secretary.” Philadelphia Mainliner Samuel Shipley III accused authorities of using “innocent people’s lives as instruments of publicity.” The D.A. then called him a “snotty kid.”
The incident was analyzed by the media for months as having grave sociological implications. Do “the Rich Have Immunity?” asked the Times. Life ran an eight-page spread with a group photograph of the perpetrators looking very much like a Ralph Lauren ad and the headline “Young People Don’t Give a Damn Attitude Hits A New Extreme.” The magazine also hired a psychoanalyst who proclaimed the destruction an act of “mass psychosis.”