It was a day for curiosity, anxiety, reminiscing, renewing relationships and wanting to look sensational. It was a Saturday early this month, and the event was the one-time reunion of the Dantes, a social club at Los Angeles High School from 1941 to 1963.
For many in the banquet room at the Beverly Wilshire, admission to that club in early adolescence had been the most important thing in their lives. Now they viewed it with humor and perspective, but it wasn't always so.
The Dantes began because a 13-year-old 10th-grader in 1940 was excluded from the only other girls' club that might have taken her. The physically underdeveloped Rita Krasner (now Loew), who wore an undershirt and didn't wear lipstick or shave her legs, was not asked for her phone number or address the first crucial day of school during the ritual circling of the flagpole.
"Nobody came near me," she recalled 45 years later. "That night I asked my brother about it and he said, 'Those are the clubs. You can't get into any of those. They're all Gentile except one, the Baronettes, and they're the really cute girls.' " In those days, clubs were either Christian or Jewish at L.A. High.
Don't Get Mad, Get Even
Unaccustomed to rejection, Rita and her friend Peggy Friedman (now Polinger) decided to get even instead of angry.
After forming the Dantes, both voted for Rita for president, making her election unanimous. The following year, 1941, they held the club's first rush tea on the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. So important was it "to do the same evil things that those other girls had done to us," Rita said, that no one considered postponing the tea due to catastrophic world events. "No one's consciousness was raised in those days about that sort of thing."
Years after the club disbanded, the husband of one of its former members still thought of it as "a breeding ground for Jewish-American Princesses." Former Dante Elaine Wolf remembers telling her father she needed 32 cashmere sweaters to get into the club. He bought them for her.
On Pearl Harbor Day, 1985, 200 former Dantes, whose interests have long since surpassed amassing cashmere sweaters, convened to celebrate an exuberant if sometimes awkward time of their lives.
The first arrivals squealed on seeing long-lost friends. Many tried to recognize each other without checking name tags, sneaking looks when memories failed. Chairwoman Lynda Levin was relieved to be able to read the tags without glasses.
Several women said they had been worried about how their childhood friends would look. "I was afraid to see a bunch of old ladies," said pleasantly surprised TV executive Judy Polone. "They may not have had plastic surgery just for this, but if they were considering it anyway, they went ahead," joked Levin.
But the day transcended jokes. "It was an intense coming together and I think everyone sensed it," said Sue Blumenthal. Pat Bress, who traveled from Bethesda, Md., for the Dantes' event said she would never attend a high school reunion, "but these girls I knew well. I'm more comfortable with them."
The day had special poignancy for Palone. She and her sister had been estranged, and a month ago, because of the upcoming reunion, the two spoke for the first time in almost a decade.
Nearly 90% of the 200 women who attended the reunion live in Los Angeles. Only 85 former Dantes who were contacted failed to show. Some 50 more could not be located.
Fear of Facing the Past
Some of the women who missed the reunion may have feared facing the past, according to psychiatrist Nancy Rosser, the only physician at the gathering.
"You're reminded of your regrets in life," she said. "In my case it was not having children. Those not here may have had too many disappointments and don't want to face them."
Explaining why looking good takes on such importance, she added, "I think in anticipation of a reunion people feel anxious because they want to be admired and fear being judged. Most use a characteristic way to reduce anxiety, and women who want to be admired, particularly physically, would get their hair or nails done or buy a new outfit. That happens especially at a reunion where you see people once in 25 years and all the judgments are going to occur on one occasion."
Whatever the fears beforehand, the brevity of the encounters keeps painful pangs to a minimum, Rosser said, adding that everyone is pretty much in the same boat--successful in some areas, not in others. "You find, in fact, that no one is judging you and are relieved there are people you don't have to envy quite so much," she explained.
There are numerous career success stories among the Dantes.
Natalie Krol's public sculptures can be seen at parks, banks and schools around the Southland, Priscilla Ulene produces videocassettes, Harriett Bay is a respected educational placement consultant, Lynda Palevsky is a well-known political activist.