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The Nose

Blue Book Values

Posted 4/9/2008

Baltimore's blue-blood set announces itself each year in the Society Visiting List, better known as "the Blue Book," where subscribers' high-born credentials and contact information are published in a blue, silk-bound volume distributed to fellow subscribers. This year's edition, like the 119 that came before it, is a detailed list of suitable guests of debutante parties, culminating in the Bachelors' Cotillon, when a stable of well-bred young women are introduced formally to the local gentry.

The Nose is tickled by this elitist breeding ritual in a shrinking gene pool. The Blue Book's longstanding stigma as a slow-to-die vestige of yesteryear's racist elites has yet to wither entirely, and neither has its subscribership--down to 2,000 today from 12,000 in 1960. Optimism about its future was thin even then, prompting a Sun editor to call it "far from extinct" in a reassuring 1962 headline. The number of women signing up for the debutante gig is perhaps the best measure of the Blue Book's vitality: there were 65 at the 1952 Bachelors' Cotillon, and 28 at last year's dance.

The List's hippest year (in the Nose's estimation) may have been 1938, when Esskay Cocktail Frankfurts were included in a poster celebrating Blue Book sponsors. But at times, the Blue Book has embarrassed itself by showing its true colors--in 1973, for example, when Sun writer Gordon Chaplin gave prominent treatment to its exclusivity issues.

In the article, Chaplin asked Mrs. Coleman Brownfield, then-grande dame of the Blue Book, how one gets to join the list, and the lady protested too much. "Talking about it just brings up the Negro question," was her answer, along with the times-they-are-a'changin' addendum that, "We have some Jewish members, but let's not get into that either." Chaplin proceeded to run through the litany of scandalized blue bloods stricken from the List (remember U.S. Sen. Daniel Brewster?), showing the warts of Baltimore's high society in vivid detail.

That was 1973, mind you. Perhaps that gnarliest wart of them all--Mrs. Brownfield--had lingering concerns about the Civil War that clouded her awareness of the hard-fought struggle to stop calling civil rights "the Negro question."

The Blue Book's current editor is William K. MacSherry, 37, who says his mother was editor in the 1990s. The publisher is Hugh Monaghan III, who MacSherry says is six years his senior. The tradition is thus carried on by two second-generation--and relatively young--Blue Bookers. MacSherry says getting on the list is no longer so hard to do, and that lingering questions about the list's diversity can't be answered, since who's added to the list now is determined by those already on, without regard to race, creed, or anything other than the fact that a subscriber referred them.

MacSherry writes on the List's web site (www.baltimorebluebook.com) that today the "Blue Book is a pillar of stability in 21st century Baltimore," and that "in an era of constant transition of media, business, and social and political leaders, the Blue Book holds on to its core values."

It's hard say whether Mrs. Brownfield would approve of today's Blue Book.

MacSherry falls silent when the Nose breaks the news that Monaghan's publishing company, Blue Book Inc., had its state business charter revoked last fall for failure to file its 2006 property tax return. After a pause, MacSherry says quietly, "I'll refer you to Mr. Monaghan to comment on that." When reached Monaghan explains that he'll be fixing that problem, pronto.

If Blue Book Inc. gets its taxes up to date and files the necessary revival papers, the "pillar of stability" will easily regain solid footing as a corporate entity. In the meantime, though, MacSherry reassures the Nose that the Blue Book is "far from extinct," what with its upgraded web site, new newsletter, and reinvigorated effort to gain the patronage of advertisers. The Nose is pretty sure Mrs. Brownfield would be glad about that, at least.

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