The Rich Get Rich, but They Also Get Children

Wonderful money. It is such interesting stuff, and yet current fiction pays so little attention to it. American novelists love to talk about money, as everyone who has seen two of them together has noticed. But these days they don’t write about it very often or very well. I can think of just one contemporary American writer who has made a career of observing wealth: Louis Auchincloss.
Since 1947 Auchincloss has published twenty-six books (including a memoir and some criticism). He has slowly attracted a sizable audience, though he has few friends in the critical Establishment. Perhaps the warmest praise he has received came from his distinguished distant cousin Gore Vidal, in an essay in The New York Review of Books. Vidal remarked approvingly on Auchincloss’ frank fascination with money, and said, “of all our novelists Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their boardrooms, their law offices, their clubs. . . . Almost alone among our writers he is able to show in a convincing way men at work . . . discreetly managing the nation’s money, selecting its governors, creating the American empire.”
Auchincloss is a relentlessly old-fashioned novelist, as even many of his titles make plain (The Great World and Timothy Colt; Pursuit of the Prodigal). His novels suffer from artificiality of plot and manner. I suspect, though, that unlike most writers, he’s probably more embarrassing at the moment than he will be in the future. He is, at a minimum, an entertaining correspondent from an under-reported country, the country of the rich.
His new book, THE WINTHROP COVENANT (Houghton Mifflin, $8.95), aims higher. It’s an effort to examine the philosophical underpinnings of the American upper class.
It consists of nine short stories, all related, as Auchincloss says in a preface, to “the rise and fall of the Puritan ethic.” “By Puritan ethic I mean that preoccupying sense, found in certain individuals, of a mission, presumably divinely inspired, toward their fellow men.” This headmasterly tone is typical of Auchincloss. But this definition is also a bit wry. The “preoccupying sense” of Auchincloss’ characters is more often than not a ruinous obsession.
The movement of the book is a long climb up the Winthrop family tree, beginning with Governor John Winthrop and General Wait Still Winthrop, a judge at the Salem witch trials. The rest of the branches are fictive—three centuries of representative patrician types, ending with a portrait of a CIA old-boy.
These stories are uneven; some of them suffer from being more nearly outlines for novels. And there is the difficulty of Auchincloss’ rarefied diction. His seventeenth-century figures often sound more contemporary than his contemporaries. Consider these eloquent snippets of post-coital recrimination (c. 1950):
“At least I shall have given you the satisfaction of making a cuckold of a man you deeply envy and can never possibly equal.” ... “I suggest that you sought my chamber only to revenge yourself on John.”
But manners interest Auchincloss less than morals in this book. The Winthrop Covenant matters mostly as an extended act of brooding on a central strain in American character. Auchincloss’ Puritans brood a great deal themselves. Although they are afflicted with a sense of mission, they are hardly altruistic; their greatest efforts go toward self-justification. In an early story. Wait Still Winthrop, at the end of his life, anguishes over having sent a Salem witch to death, only to find a moral loophole that excuses him from guilt. His imaginary descendant, the CIA official, uses his inherited gift for indignant wrath to shame his son out of draft evasion; meanwhile the man is lying to the public about American warfare in Southeast Asia. The mildest of the Winthrops, a prep school chaplain, is told by a more worldly figure: “For you, the drama is all within you.” It might be said of all these characters.
For Auchincloss, Puritanism is an exquisite mix of arrogance and guilt—arrogance breeding guilt, and guilt doting on its own niceties to the point of renewed arrogance. The contradictions were there from the start. The doctrine of grace, central to Puritan theology, might have been devised by R. D. Laing as a model for the creation of schizophrenics. Some are saved and there is nothing anyone can do about it: to be a member of the elect is to feel both helpless and omnipotent. The Winthrop Covenant implies that those Americans with the clearest claim to aristocracy have always been profoundly confused about the meaning of their presumed superiority.
Parvenu Puritans
In 1855, John D. Rockefeller, a farmer’s son, was working as a clerk in a Cleveland shipping firm. He was a thrifty fellow.
In 1863, he speculated to the tune of $4000 in the new refinery business.
In 1865, with borrowed capital, he bought out the small firm he had invested in; known first as Rockefeller and Andrews, it subsequently became Standard Oil.
By the turn of the century, John D. Rockefeller’s fortune was approaching its peak of a billion dollars.
In 1913, The Rockefeller Foundation was formed with assets of $100 million.
In 1921, control of the Rockefeller fortune passed to John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
In 1934, “Mr. Junior” arranged trusts of $40 million for each of his five children, two of whom of course were David and Nelson, current proprietors of the Chase Manhattan Bank and the vice presidency of the United States.
In 1974, the aggregate worth of eighty-four Rockefellers was calculated at nearly $ 1.3 billion.
In 1976, Esquire magazine published an article about the next generation of Rockefellers, with the cover line “Nelson Rockefeller’s Niece Sells Toilets.” In the article Abby Rockefeller spoke of her desire to get rid of “this preposterous name.”
The Esquire piece was drawn from THE ROCKEFELLERS: AN AMERICAN DYNASTY by Peter Collier and David Horowitz (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $15.00), which is the most comprehensive account yet written of the financial and spiritual progress of four generations of the family. The authors are the first writers (not commissioned by the family) to have had access to the Rockefeller family archives, but unhappily they were denied interviews with the now ascendant generation: “Mr. David.” “Mr. Nelson.” “Mr. Laurance,” “Mr. John.” as they are known at “Room 5600,” the office of family affairs in Rockefeller Center.
What Collier and Horowitz have produced is a sort of tendentious encyclopedia of Rockefeller lore. It is more valuable for its data than for its thought, and though moderate in tone it is inhibited by a reflexive skepticism toward its subject. The lore, though, is fascinating. We see the original Rockefeller, gleefully monomaniacal in his pursuit of money, literally jumping for joy at financial success. Money was his language, as his son realized. When he was twenty-eight John Jr. wrote to thank him for a raise:
Dear Father:
My breath was completely taken away by what you told me regarding my salary for the year that has passed when I was at the house the other night.I appreciate more deeply than I can tell you this added expression of your love and confidence.
Desperately timid as a young man, “Mr. Junior” proved himself to the family with a public demonstration of brutal coldness on the occasion of strike-breaking violence at the family’s Ludlow, Colorado, mines. But he suffered, and he fretted over the family’s reputation, and he nurtured its great philanthropies. He schooled his children in their privilege and their duty.
There were prayers at breakfast and ledgers to be kept of one’s allowance, part of which was to be set aside for charity. On Wednesday evening domestic education occurred, with the children in charge of the kitchen, where they might learn the humility of ordinary work.
Some of these traditions continued in the fourth generation. Alida Rockefeller, daughter of JDR III, recalls dividing her money into three boxes, one to be spent, one to be saved, one to be given away. Life at the 5000-acre Pocantico estate was opulent and austere; under “Mr. Junior’s” reign there it was customary to serve neither whiskey before dinner nor wine with it. The selfmade Rockefellers created their own nouveau Puritanism.
On the currently prominent Rockefellers—particularly on David and Nelson— the authors are relatively weak because of their reliance on the public record. The best glimpses we have of “The Brothers” come from their children. And, in fact, the freshest part of this book has to do with the young adults of the fourth generation. “The Cousins,” who, unlike their elders, made themselves available for interviews.
One of them, Rodman, has taken his place in the family empire; another, Jay, has staked out a career in politics, and some of them lead tidy Establishment lives. But the dominant mood of the cousins, according to the authors, is malaise about the existence they have inherited. “They have a searching look, an unremitting seriousness, a wariness . . . they have the look of people who have grown up with a burden they still aren’t sure how to handle.”
In various ways, some of them have opted out. Marion, daughter of JDR III. runs an organic vegetable stand in northern California. Peggy, David’s daughter, was an SDS-er. Another of his daughters. Abby, calls herself a Marxist and dabbles in a capitalist experiment that embarrasses her family, the marketing of the “composting toilet” Clivus Multrum. Nelson’s son Steven, who teaches at Middlebury, says, “I am firmly convinced that there is no rational justification for extreme privilege and the accumulation of vast sums of wealth. . . Part of the problem for the Cousins ... is that they believe in their heart somewhere that there is something very superior about the Rockfellers. . . . I don’t buy that.”
Richard Todd