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Originally published Sunday, December 26, 2010 at 8:00 AM

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Haley Nagel redefines debutante

Of the 30 young ladies who will be formally introduced to high society during the International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City on Wednesday, the most swell may be Hadley Marie Nagel.

The New York Times

Of the 30 swell young ladies who will be formally introduced to high society during the International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City on Wednesday, the most swell may be Hadley Marie Nagel, a German countess, according to her mother, Susan Nagel, and a direct descendant, through her father, Jon (a lawyer), of two signers of the Declaration of Independence.

But Hadley Nagel, 19, plays down her pedigree. "I mean, you still have to pay for your coffee at Starbucks," she said recently. "It doesn't mean anything. I think you impress people more with your talents, with who you are."

And for much of her young life, Nagel's talents, unusual for a socialite, have been on rather dizzying display: published articles, a scholarly paper, nationally syndicated op-ed pieces, awards, advocacy work for sustainable organic agriculture and social justice. An expert shooter in trap, skeet and clay, she was a blue-ribbon winner of a small-bore rifle competition.

By the time of her 2009 graduation from Nightingale-Bamford, the private all-girls school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Nagel had founded Model United Nations and history clubs, a travel website for teenagers, playintraffic.com, and another site, americansformadison.org, intended to raise awareness of her hero, the founding father James Madison, and win him a federal monument.

Along the way, Nagel befriended some prominent historians and at 17, became the youngest registered lobbyist on Capitol Hill. She is a sophomore at Johns Hopkins, double-majoring in international relations and history, with a minor in voice (a coloratura soprano, she recently recorded a CD of operatic arias).

"When you read out her résumé, you just want to throw up in a bucket," said Vicky Ward, the Vanity Fair writer, who thanked Nagel in a recent book about the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and said she has given Nagel advice on matters on the heart.

"I would warn the young men of New York," Ward said, "that she's not somebody who would let herself be trifled with."

According to Susan Nagel, also a historian and her daughter's de facto publicist, "many, many, many" people have thought Serena van der Woodsen, a character on the CW network show "Gossip Girl," is based on Hadley Nagel, minus the promiscuity and drugs (both are 5-foot-7, leggy and natural blonds). On "Author's Night" at Nightingale last year, Cecily von Ziegesar (class of '88) inscribed a copy of her latest "Gossip Girl" novel: "To Hadley, the real thing. I hope you don't mind being hassled about being the model for Serena. So, so funny! Sounds like you're doing a lot more important things than Serena ever did, and more beautiful too. XOXO."

But the television show's story lines do often echo Nagel's life. Her parents, former habitués of Studio 54, used to spend Thanksgiving with the hotel-heir Hiltons, Susan Nagel said.

Hadley Nagel's wardrobe includes a Madame Vionnet gown, Chanel handbags and many pairs of Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo pumps ("There is nothing incongruent about being brilliant and loving fashion, by the way," Susan Nagel said. "Reports of John Adams at George Washington's inauguration show that Adams was dressed in all finery ... Talleyrand loved clothes.")

Hadley Nagel has attended dancing schools (Knickerbocker and Barclay); served as junior chairwoman of charities; and dated a cross-section of interesting young men in New York and Europe, including a duke with a castle.

An only child, she was reading "Great Expectations" by third grade, she said. At 12, she was corresponding with Bryan Sykes, professor of human genetics at Oxford University, after becoming intrigued by his DNA research. At 13, she marched into the office of Kitty Gordan, then the upper school director at Nightingale, and announced: "Hello, I'm an eighth-grader, I will be here for high school, and I'd like to start a debate team. How do I go about doing that?"

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After Nagel wrote up a proposal, the school hired a coach and bought T-shirts. Her older teammates nicknamed her "the baby."

By her junior year, she was a serious history buff, with special permission to take classes at Columbia University. At her insistence, she and her mother traveled to Montpelier, Va., one weekend to visit the James and Dolley Madison estate. When the guide said, "Do you know there is no federal monument to James Madison?" Hadley Nagel refused to believe it. ("Hadley typically knows more than most docents," said her mother, recalling a tour of the Tower of London, around 1999. "They were telling some history and she raised her hand and said, 'Wait, you forgot about Lady Jane Grey and you didn't know' that she did this and this and this. And they said, 'All right miss, would you like a job here?' ")

At a women's weekend leadership seminar at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts where the young women were asked to choose a project to undertake as a future leader, Hadley Nagel said she was going to try to get a federal monument to James Madison. She contacted Joseph Ellis, the Ford Foundation professor of American history at Mount Holyoke and Pulitzer-Prize-winning author. He agreed to lunch, and soon became her unofficial college-admissions consultant.

"If it were now I'd say, 'You're the Cliff Lee of the free-agent market,' " Ellis said by phone, referring to the baseball pitcher. "I was blown away by the combination of her intellectual ability and public presence."

Nagel eventually persuaded Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., to introduce the James Madison Memorial Commission Act of 2007, which would authorize Congress to pass a bill to pay for a Madison monument, preferably on the Mall. Alas, Hill was voted out of office in 2010, but Nagel has kept up her campaign.

In 2008, she organized a panel discussion on Madison at the New-York Historical Society, covered by PBS and C-SPAN, with Ellis; Sean Wilentz, a Princeton professor; and Benno C. Schmidt Jr., a former Yale University president, as moderator. During a summer internship at the University of Virginia, she helped annotate Dolley Madison's letters.

"As you know, Hadley has a lot of older people around her who think the world of her and her abilities," Wilentz wrote in an e-mail. "That can be a blessing, a curse, or a little of both. We'll see."

After the wunderkind scored five 5's on her AP exams during her senior year, making her a National Scholar, the Nagels went to Pastis for a Champagne celebration. Team Hadley spent senior spring break in Florida. While waiting at the Palm Beach airport, she received an e-mail congratulating her for being accepted to Johns Hopkins. Back in New York, another message informed her that she had won a four-year merit scholarship for which she hadn't even applied.

Nagel is a busy lady on campus. Currently a member of Phi Mu, which her mother described as a "values-driven" sorority, she asked her distant cousin Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia to design a Phi Mu ring, the proceeds of which will benefit the Children's Miracle Network. This year she asked Niall Ferguson, an author and professor at Harvard Business School, to speak at the student-run Foreign Affairs Symposium, which he did free.

To unwind, Hadley Nagel says she watches "crappy" reality shows on her flat screen in the suite she shares with three roommates. She enjoys listening to the Jay-Z song "Empire State of Mind" when she's homesick. "I love that it's about making it in New York, about what can you do in New York," she said. "That's such a part of my outlook on New York because I don't think I'm somebody who just sits back and sort of dillydallies."

Indeed. Nagel doesn't go to frat parties. Good-looking nerds are her type, she said. Her biggest vice seems to be iced cappuccinos with cinnamon sprinkled on top and two packets of Splenda. "She is not blowing up, like a lot of kids in college, because of beer," her mother said.

Nagel's sophomore thesis (she is mulling graduating in three years) is on the War of 1812, specifically about the relationship between Madison and Napoleon. "I think the overall American perspective of the war is that we have to blame the British," she said. "My 'scoop' or perspective on the war is that you actually have to blame Napoleon. It's all Napoleon's fault. Blame the French."

Wearing a Ralph Lauren blazer, cashmere sweater, jeans and Ferragamo loafers, she was having a lunch of crab chowder and chicken potpie at a restaurant in Saks Fifth Avenue, with her mother (also in Ralph Lauren blazer). Both women's nails were painted pink.

Hadley Nagel didn't want to talk about her exams or boyfriends, say which church she attends or share her political philosophy. She said she was creating a third website that she promised would be "controversial" and "totally thrilling," but refused to divulge details. "It's not about James Madison, I'll tell you that."

Not that she has abandoned her favorite cause, mind you. She has been pushing the incoming House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., to reintroduce her monument bill. A book called "James Madison and the Birth of the U.S. Constitution" was published on Constitution Day, Sept. 17, with Nagel listed as a contributing editor. This May, she'll be the youngest alumna ever to appear at Nightingale's "Author Night."

Nagel likes how President Obama has occasionally referred to Madison in speeches and would naturally like to have him support her bill and her book. "If he read it on Constitution Day in a classroom, that would be a really great step in the direction of supporting James Madison and his beliefs," she said. "He's really overshadowed by the other founding fathers, but maybe because of his personality, some historians haven't latched on to him. But obviously he had brilliant ideas so, of course, he should be recognized."

As should Hadley Nagel. Does the debutante of the year have any flaws?

"Karate, Latin declensions and can't cook."

Can she dance?

"I have rhythm, thank you."

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