Operation Deb

The rest of New York is still groggy from holiday excess, but on the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving, Au Bar is already bustling. In place of the cigar-toting dandies who usually fill the bordello-like venue, troupes of Hermès-clad socialites have gathered for the Bachelors’ Brunch, a pregame mixer for the International Debutante Ball. Those who attend the ball, which benefits the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Marines’ and Airmen’s Club, must bring two escorts, one military and one civilian; the brunch, now in its forty-fifth year, allows debs to chat up cadets from military schools and sign one up for the evening’s service.

“I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” sighs Sarah Stroh, a “post-deb” who has returned to help the next generation. “This year I’ll be wearing a pink-and-gold embroidered dress, like a fairy princess.”

It may seem to outsiders like an archaic ritual, but to the 50 girls from as far as Connecticut, Texas, even Scotland, who’ll be at the Waldorf-Astoria on December 29, the ceremony is still very real. “My mother did this ball, and she said it was the most fun,” explains Ashley Smith, a freshman at Ole Miss. “And I said, ‘Granddaddy, I’ve always wanted to do this!’ “

Some of the girls are more self-conscious. Elizabeth Harsch, 19, took a class in college in which a video about debutantes was used to illustrate conformity. “Everyone was laughing,” she says, “and I’m shrinking in my chair.”

After an hour of awkward mingling, the young men are instructed to form a receiving line across the dance floor. The debs then make their way down the gauntlet (some in pairs, some trailed by their mothers) and size up the contenders.

At six feet three, Jennifer Levin is towering over a boy from Rhode Island, but they see eye-to-eye on one thing: “Yeah, South Park rocks,” she says sheepishly.

Not the stuff of romance novels, maybe, but partnering for the ball tends to be more a matter of convenience than one of connection. “For us, it’s pretty much a job,” says Justin Dupuis, a senior at Norwich University military academy. Three cadets from Annapolis, however, marvel at their good fortune. “We get to hang out with the upper echelon of New York society, and there’s a lot of beautiful women,” says Tim O’Connor, 21. As if on cue, a blonde from Texas interrupts to offer him her calling card.

But some participants won’t make it to the big day. As a group of wallflowers work the open bar, Laurance Guido, 22, explains he’s been to three brunches, but never to the actual ball. “But I’m always away,” he insists, sipping a martini.

Ms. Levin, however, can hardly wait. “Last time, when I did my curtsy, there was a hushed silence,” she explains. “You get to feel important, and I want to feel that way again. Plus,” she says, “Neil from West Point said he found me someone six foot seven.”

Operation Deb