By Marie Arana
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Me, My Family, And the Last Days of Wasp Splendor
By Tad Friend
Little, Brown. 351 pp. $24.99
The more diverse America becomes, the more remarkable it must seem that its founders were of a single creed and color: Yet it was white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, establishing principles of a free nation, and Bostonian Wasps who led abolitionism. Today you'd be hard-pressed to find a city -- even in hidebound New England -- where old Yankee families rule. American Wasps are now as rare as black truffles, and rarely has their story been told so candidly or entertainingly as it is in Tad Friend's wonderful new memoir, "Cheerful Money."
Friend, a staff writer for the New Yorker, is a descendant of a long line of Grotonians and Yalies who ruled America from imposing manses, on land stretching from Pittsburgh to Vermont. But now, "at a time when fewer than one in five Americans have any British ancestors," he tells us, "Wasps increasingly doubt their wider currency. Once the most American of people, we failed at the American necessity: assimilation. So we gaze out from the old game preserves -- Bar Harbor, Watch Hill, Jupiter Island -- and wonder how it all came to this."
Friend's book is such a winning family chronicle that the decline he describes is less a fall than an exhilarating ride, less sad than heartwarmingly comic. His mother, Elizabeth Pierson Friend, was a marvelous eccentric: a gifted cook and painter who, as a sophomore at Smith, "came in second to Sylvia Plath in a poetry contest judged by W.H. Auden." She was deeply interested in the business of a well-run house, good, spirited repartee and a suitably splendid Christmas. Her grandfather, George Wilson Pierson, a Yale man with glittering eyes and a sly sense of humor, had written many histories of the college as well as a distinguished biographical study, "Tocqueville in America." But her family had even deeper Wasp roots: A Pierson had been Yale's first rector; another relative, the college's first student.
Friend's father, Theodore Wood Friend III, is a historian and former president of Swarthmore College, with an "Easter Island-size head" stuffed with learning. A forceful speaker who nevertheless finds it difficult to communicate ordinary human emotion, he is portrayed as a singularly touching figure. "He husbanded our declining fortunes, a decline that, as he recognized, mirrored the broader Wasp ebb: the outflow of maids and grandfather clocks and cocktail shakers brimming with gin."
This seemingly golden couple belonged to a generation that was the last to grow up with servants "who took care of the meals and the children and the bother." No longer would the crusts be trimmed from their children's sandwiches, or the gentlemen be separated from the ladies after dinner, nor did they consult the "Social Register" and believe that the only colleges their progeny should attend were the Ivies or the Seven Sisters.
In a quickly evolving America more attuned to change and growth than to tradition, the tribe of Friends and Piersons fell behind. Wasps may still run foundations, universities, antiquarian societies, nature conservancies or estate law, according to Friend, but you'd have trouble finding them in Internet start-ups, high-tech industries or electric-car manufactories. Blindsided by history, Friend's family once saw its duty as "leading without fanfare," and they "continued to see this as their role even as they began to follow . . . even as they fell so far behind they lost touch entirely. Their accelerating crack-up was like a sonic boom: you heard it only after the Concorde was gone."
But oh the days of the picnics in the garden! The tennis, the cavorting dogs and the bright sound of martinis splashing into the cut crystal glasses! And oh the days when dotty uncles pursued love affairs from Zihuatanejo to Marseilles! Never mind that a Wasp fridge is like a bachelor's -- perennially empty. Or that the trust fund is gone. More Christmasian than Christian, as comfortable in black tie as sprawled on a shabby sofa, the Wasps of "Cheerful Money" are lovable old coots with a high sense of patriotism and purpose. Not for them the Wasp look so artfully marketed by Madison Avenue. That, says Friend, is more properly called preppy, and "preppies are infantile and optimistic, forever stuck at age seventeen; Wasps emerge from the womb wrinkly and cautious, already vice presidents, already fifty-two."
The gradual evaporation of Wasps from the ruling class did not mean that they disappeared entirely from culture. Indeed, Wasps remain very much in our cultural mind's eye. Hollywood saw a big market in the Wasp image, as Friend reminds us, and busily went about transforming Issur Danielovitch into Kirk Douglas and Betty Joan Perske into Lauren Bacall. More recently, an idealized Philadelphia Main Line or Nantucket vision was brilliantly mass-marketed by Martha Stewart, a Polish-American Catholic, not to mention Ralph Lauren, who was born Ralph Lifshitz, a son of Russian Jewish immigrants.
Friend's book is a fascinating mix of cultural, family and personal history. And yet, although Friend writes dazzlingly about his relatives and ancestors, he is less successful in writing about himself. That is to say: He is so wrought up about "Wasp reticence" that he ends up talking too much. Do we really want endless details about his doomed affairs with Italian and Jewish girlfriends? Do we care about long-winded bouts on the psychiatrist's couch? Once he commits the uncharacteristic act of baring his Wasp soul, all Pandora's box is unleashed upon us. Whoever imagined you'd want to tell a Wasp to muzzle it?
It hardly matters. "Cheerful Money" absolutely sings in the chapters that count. This is a memorable hymn to a vanishing America. Exceptionally warm-hearted, full of good cheer, and ruthlessly funny, it may even have you singing along:
And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.
Marie Arana is a writer at large for The Washington Post, a scholar at the Library of Congress's Kluge Center, and a visiting fellow at Brown University.