Our Fading Aristocracy

BY KURT ANDERSEN
OLD MONEY: The Making of America’s Upper Class byNelson W. Aldrich, Jr. Knopf, $19.95.
NEAR THE END of his witty, thoughtful book about the petering-out of the WASP upper class—his class—over the past half century, Nelson Aldrich tries to convince us and himself that the old-fashioned, highborn, well-furnished summer-at-the-sea, autumn-in-thewoods way of life holds no interest for his countrymen. “As a vision of the good life,” he writes, “Old Money has very little appeal to the American imagination of wealth, to the various visions that Americans have of what money can buy.”
This wholesale lack of appeal must explain why L. L. Bean and Ralph Lauren don’t sell any clothes and why the stately-homes extravaganza at the National Gallery in 1986 was such a bust and why grand old cottages in Easthampton and Bar Harbor go begging and why nobody cares about going to Princeton or Harvard anymore.
Aldrich, however, is serious—sometimes way too serious—about the decline of haut WASPs. Even as he is indicting the premises of Old Money as undemocratic and its social life as impossibly dull, he seems faintly sad to see it all go. Not his readers, though. So persuasive are the explanations of why his
kind is doomed (upper-class WASPs are racists and anti-Semites who are afraid of risk and of ordinary people—who, in other words, can’t cut it in America) that we do not mourn the passing of their era. After all, whenever we feel the urge to celebrate good-looking, polo-playing, plebeian-fearing WASPs, there’s always the British royal family.
Old Money is a memoir-cum—social history, the product of a whole life spent stewing about the ramifications of wealth. Aldrich is ur-WASP. A descendant of Roosevelts and Rockefellers, a graduate of St. Paul’s School and Harvard (including, naturally, membership in the PorceIlian Club), he briefly worked for the CIA. Yet though Aldrich took every course in what he calls the Old Money curriculum, and inherited a resonant family feeling, he got hardly any of the family money. He was born with a silver spoon yanked from his mouth. Thus his final, unexplained acknowledgment, to the Massachusetts Division of Employment Security.
The book is clear-eved and. for all its considerable philosophizing, tunny. Only once or twice is Aldrich disingenuous about his forebears’ way of life. “But what is enviable about having been brought up, as my mother and aunt were, in Vienna, Paris, London, Trieste, Dijon, and a castle in the Little Carpathians?” Usually the family allusions are more seemly, and illuminating. About the New York law firm Milbank Tweed, Aldrich writes:
One of the antecedents of that firm, incidentally, was the Harvard friendship of my grandfather Harrison Tweed and my great-uncle Winthrop Aldrich, and in Uncle Winthrop’s sub-
sequent rise to the top of the Rockefeller-controlled Chase Manhattan Bank, whose lawyers, in due course, Milbank Tweed became.
T he dropped names would be offputting if they were just that, rather than easy reminders of the densely interrelated caste quality of American Old Money.
Indeed, Old Money may be the best nonfiction book about the American upper class written by one of its members since Henry Adams’s Education. It’s neither a sour-grapes screed nor a wasn’tlife-rnarvelous eulogy. Aldrich is both piquant (the wealth of Louisville’s newspaper-owning Binghams is described as “fuck-you money with a social conscience”) and a careful assembler of evidence. The Old Rich, he grants, lead graceful, impeccable-looking lives. The New Rich, on the other hand, although unsettled and vulgar and irredeemably lonely, are constituted to experience life and America more authentically than elegant, fretful old WASPs ever can. Aldrich casts his lot with the hurly-burly equality of the marketplace and its selfmade men and women. “Inherited wealth is an especially egregious, because wholly unearned, form of inequality.”
Hereditary wealth may be un-American. But even less tenable, perhaps, is the very idea of American wealth that’s old. The country has not existed long enough. In America fifty years is plenty of time to make money seem as though it has been around forever. This is the rather fetching sham at which monied American WASPs are so well practiced and by which status-anxious hoi polloi are so easily cowed.
ALDRICH FOUND OUT early about the big lie of Old Money. As a student at St. Paul’s, he learned the fishy particulars of the life of the first Winthrop Aldrich, his great-grandfather and the family progenitor. The son of a Connecticut millworker, Winthrop I was a patrician manqué, determined to make a fortune and then to pretend he had always had it. He went into banking but switched to politics, because he dreamed of being “above the reach of circumstance, above the whirlwind of common passion,” Aldrich quotes him assaying. He comments, “Not for a long time now has any sane man gone into American politics with a dream like that.” Winthrop was sent to the U.S. Senate from Rhode Island, where he served as a kind of ombudsman for the ruling class. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he set the tariffs that kept the Old Money oligopolies profitable, and he guided the creation of the Federal Reserve, whose purpose, he took it, was to be a more enduring protector of Old Money’s prosperity.
When, after two terms, Senator Aldrich threatened to resign to earn enough to continue to support his two homes and eight children in patrician style, his regulatory beneficiaries fixed it so that he could stay in the Senate and get richer. The Sugar Trust provided the capital for a new Rhode Island trolley company, from whose profits he eventually received millions. With a bit of his new fortune he built a ninety-nineroom chateau on Narragansett Bay— some distance north of Newport, a town this son of a millworker deemed too vulgar.
As a writer, our Aldrich is fortunate to have such a perfect Old Money exemplar for an ancestor: from lumpen proletarian to earnest businessman to corrupt politician to landed Brahmin {whose daughter married John I). Rockefeller’s only son) in a single generation. The most that today’s social climbers can ordinarily manage in a lifetime is one or two such transformations. The inside trader Martin Siegel, for instance, had hardly made it halfway up the evolutionary scale from New Money to Old—estate in Greenwich, daughter headed for prestigious elementary school—when he was nabbed. Ivan Boesky, Siegel’s confederate, had made it just about as far: he lived in the WASPv heart of northern Westchester County, had bought his way onto a Harvard University board
and thus into the New York Harvard Club, and was about to endow an institute at Princeton.
The fact is, and Aldrich to the contrary, New Money is today more than ever tricking itself up in Old Money duds. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, it is true, when solvency itself was slightly unfashionable, the clothes and furnishings and leisure pursuits of American WASPs were correspondingly outre. Where once Cary Grant’s characters (George Kirby in Topper, C. K. Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story) embodied Americans’ conception of aristocrats, by the late sixties it was Thurston Howell III, Jim Backus’s over-the-top twit on Gilligan’s Island, who defined Old Money character. Popular culture had turned on the class, and for a while declared it obsolete.
With the past decade’s outbreak of wealth fever, however, it was not just entrepreneurial ambition that came back into vogue—so did spending a lot of money. What stylistic models would ail that new cash seek to emulate? What would the houses look like, and the fashions? The Old Money aesthetic (albeit rather too extravagantly executed) was the natural choice, the only convincingly tasteful manner in which to consume conspicuously in the 1980s. Nancy Reaganism carried the day. The freshly acquired fortunes of California creditcard peddlers and New York stock speculators could not be made old, but they could be antiqued. Thus, when Susan Gutfreund, a former airline attendant and the socialite wife of the investment banker John Gutfreund, receives a compliment about any antique she owns, her response is desperately faux patrician. “Thank you,” she invariably replies, “I’ve had it for ages.”
HARVARD IS A mainstay of the Old Money curriculum and is thus one of the secondary subjects of Aldrich’s book. While the WASP upper class has withered over the past half century, Harvard has had the wisdom to reinvigorate itself by admitting students from all economic strata and races. It is at least as amusing as it is inspiring rhat Harvard has managed to turn thousands of roughand-ready middle-class Americans into honorary Old Money, both patrician (conservative, joyless, complacent) and aristocrat (charming, heedless, complacent). Aldrich writes of that moment when a “new-risen talent” in early middle age suddenly wakes up to the
realization that in the eyes of his colleagues and competitors, in the eyes of his children, in the eyes, even, of his Old Money Harvard classmates, he is endowed with the flattering or unflattering attributes of people who, in college, he imagined despised him, and whom he despised in return.
It was out of Harvard and the dominant New England Old Monev milieu that all of the twentieth century’s aristocrat Presidents leapt—Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy. Several of this year’s WASP presidential aspirants, tellingly, have sought to deny their class origins by depicting themselves as tough-guv New Money zealots. George Bush, most notably, pretends he made his fortune entirely on his own, in Texas.
The more traditional way to persuade voters that you aren’t a twit is with a combat record. The upper class has adored war for this very reason—particularly the First World War, in which nearly a fifth of the alumni of St. Paul’s School now living were combatants. It figures, then, that the campaign circulars of rich boy Albert Gore (St. Albans, Harvard) prominently featured photographs of him shouldering an M-16 in Vietnam and that Gore’s ideologically distinguishing feature was a professed willingness to exercise American military power.
Where the aristocrat is fearless, even reckless, the Old Money patrician—that is, the dull, dreary mass of the upper class—is just the opposite. Old Money is thus ill suited to the wholesome social ruckus of modern America. It just doesn’t get Richard Pryor or Lee Iacocca; it can’t fathom station-wagon vacations or drive-in movies; it doesn’t rock-and-roll. Today, as Old Money patricians are feeling more and more defensive, their class consciousness has given way to a cruder, primarily ethnic consciousness. I am the sort of person who runs things becomes, once the collective cultural and economic power has faded,
I am a white Anglo-Saxon Protestantthe sort of person who ought to he running things. Instead of an undercurrent, racism and anti-Semitism become a main theme. Instead of admitting blacks and Jews, as Harvard does, the class turns mean and whiny and—perhaps the unforgivable sin for Old Money— unattractive.
And so Old Money is on the verge of dying—wiped out both by the inexorable current of “can-do” entrepreneurialism and, like all defunct species, by an inability to accommodate ambiguity. And then, as Aldrich prophesies, only particular privileged WASP families will remain—families that are kin to other handsome, overbred families but that no longer add up to a social class.
It is now a kind of dazed twilight era for Old Money heirs. It is a time to clip coupons and lie low, as usual, but also to reflect, between cocktails and resentful murmurs, on the irony of one’s simultaneous popular adulation and extinction. □