Miss Alice Busch Condie was led down a back staircase, given a large bouquet of flowers and positioned in front of a tall curtain. As the curtain opened to the expansive Kiel Auditorium filled with St. Louis high society, the young Alice was revealed as the 1964 Veiled Prophet Queen of Love and Beauty.
Today, Condie—now Mrs. Alice Behan—fondly recalls the glamour and mystique that night. “It was really something,” she says. The ball is a longstanding, valued tradition for prominent local families. Behan’s daughter, Miss Alice Marie Behan (now Mrs. Alicia Christopher), also became queen in 1989.
Some details have changed through the years, including the attire—yesteryear’s conservative, satin gowns with lengthy trains to today’s strapless, shimmering dresses with shorter trains; and the venues, St. Louis Merchants Exchange, St. Louis Coliseum, Kiel Auditorium and Chase Park Plaza to the Hyatt Regency at The Arch.
“It is still as glamorous as it was 100 years ago, but there’s not that total feel of pomp and circumstance. It was just that era. You can never duplicate that,” says Mrs. Rosalie McRee Ewing Engler, adding that the ball used to be televised. Engler, who was crowned queen in 1967, was preceded by the crowning of her mother, Miss Rosalie McRee Ewing, in 1940; and followed 30 years later by the crowning of her daughter, Miss Rosalie Ewing Engler, in 1997.
But while some things are different, the major theme remains the same. Each year, the event continues to be an honored family tradition that is shrouded in secrecy. Every last detail of the ball was secret, Behan recalls, from the queen to her dress and train. “My father packed a trunk and took it down to Union Station and put it in a locker so (my siblings) actually believed I was going back to school,” she says.
Instead, Behan would take the year off of college to be queen. “We never practiced. I only saw the dress once, and I never saw the train,” she remembers. The long, bejeweled, velvet train, which was hooked to the straps of her white scoop-neck satin dress, pulled her back during the walk down a white satin-covered aisle, she adds. Organizers indicated where Behan’s parents would be sitting in the large stands filled with an “enormous audience” on either side of the wide aisle. “They also said to be sure to turn all the way around and look above me to acknowledge the dressmakers—who were designers from stores like Neiman Marcus,” she says. “It was really special to them, so I turned around as much as I could to see them.” As Behan and her escort continued their walk through a column of lanterns, the surrounding ceremonial guards, the bengal lancers, came to attention—simultaneously hitting their spears on the ground. “I must have jumped 40 feet in the air,” she says. Finally, Behan reached the Veiled Prophet, where she was presented with her crown and a gold scepter.
Behan believes the ball is still as secret today—and Mrs. Eleanor Hawes Brennan agrees. Brennan, who was queen in 1980 and goes by 'Chachie,' went to great lengths to ensure her daughter’s crowning remained a mystery before last year’s ball. The retirng queen, Miss Eleanor Clark Brennan, who goes by 'Clarke,' is carrying on a decades-long tradition in her family. Her grandmother, Marie Christy Johnson Hawes, also was queen in 1949. In addition, her aunt, Mrs. Felicite Pollnow, was a special maid in 1972, and Felicite’s daughter, Mrs. Laura Pollnow Bryan, was a special maid in 1998.
Early on, the family decided to carry the tradition to their attire. When Chachie Brennan returned to walk as a retired queen in 1981, she wore her sister Felicite’s blue dress, with a blue velvet train. Now, 30 years after her aunt, Clarke Brennan wore the same dress and train in her role as the retiring queen at this year's ball. Chachie Brennan said the experience of returning to the event, which is “so steeped in tradition,” was a special moment with her daughter.
Behan agrees that the ball joins families together in a special way. “It’s such a big honor to the fathers to have their child chosen.” Engler adds she also was honored to be crowned because of her family’s tradition. “My mother was queen, then I was and my daughter was—and that was very special.”