Louis Auchincloss, 92

Lawyer and prolific author Louis Auchincloss, 92, dies

Louis Auchincloss wrote stories that imparted firsthand knowledge of America's patrician class.
Louis Auchincloss wrote stories that imparted firsthand knowledge of America's patrician class. (1969 Photo/associated Press)
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By Dennis Drabelle
Thursday, January 28, 2010

Louis Auchincloss, 92, a novelist, essayist, biographer, editor and lawyer whose literary beat was the decline of the old WASP world of power and privilege to which he belonged, died Jan. 26 at Lenox Hill Hospital, near his home in Manhattan. He had complications from a stroke.

The author of more than 60 books in a career stretching over seven decades, Mr. Auchincloss was best known for such novels as "The Rector of Justin" (1964), about the founding headmaster of an elite prep school, and "The Embezzler" (1966), about an upper-class Wall Street stockbroker who succumbs to temptation during the Great Depression.

Louis Stanton Auchincloss (pronounced AWK-in-closs) was born in the Long Island, N.Y., community of Lawrence on Sept. 27, 1917, and grew up on Manhattan's Upper East Side. As a youth, he was put off by his father's arid practice as a corporate lawyer and drawn to his mother's artistic pursuits.

But the young man did what was expected of him. He entered Yale in 1935, leaving three years later without a degree to attend law school at the University of Virginia. He found law congenial and, after graduating from Virginia in 1941, returned to New York to work for the white-shoe firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. He interrupted his legal career to serve in the Navy during World War II but rejoined the firm afterward.

All along, however, Mr. Auchincloss had harbored literary ambitions, writing stories for his prep-school magazine and editing the Yale Literary Magazine. In 1947, he published the novel "The Indifferent Children" under the pseudonym Andrew Lee. The book received favorable reviews, and he began placing stories under his own name in such periodicals as the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker.

In 1951, he resigned from Sullivan & Cromwell to write full time, only to discover that he didn't like being cut off from what he called "the real world." Three years later, he joined the Wall Street firm Hawkins Delafield & Wood, where he remained until his retirement in 1986. He juggled his two callings by confining legal work to weekdays and creative writing to weekends.

As subject matter, however, the law looms large in Mr. Auchincloss's fiction; among his best books is "Powers of Attorney" (1963), a collection of related short stories about a Manhattan law firm. The titles of other novels and story collections suggest the boundaries within which Mr. Auchincloss liked to operate: "Portraits in Brownstone," "A World of Profit," "Tales of Manhattan," "Honorable Men," "Diary of a Yuppie."

His biggest bestseller, "The Rector of Justin," takes place in a proving ground for that rarefied world: a New England boys' boarding school, which, as a graduate of the Groton School in Massachusetts, the author knew well. A portrait stitched together from the diaries and observations of multiple observers, "The Rector of Justin" reaches a climax when the now-retired great man perceives that, despite his best efforts to inculcate high ideals, "snobbishness and materialism were intrinsic in [his school's] makeup."

Mr. Auchincloss took issue with a complaint frequently made about him: that in dwelling on characters and conflicts peculiar to the Eastern upper crust, his fiction is parochial. In a 1997 interview, he replied, "If you look through the literature of the ages, you will find that 95 percent of it deals with the so-called 'upper class,' from 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey' through to Shakespeare with his kings and queens."

'Novelist of Ethics'

Mr. Auchincloss was often called a novelist of manners. In light of all the sinning and thieving in his fiction, "novelist of ethics" might be more accurate. In any case, author Gore Vidal, whose stepfather was an Auchincloss, called attention to a socio-political dimension in his kinsman's handling of his material: "Of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardroom, their law offices and their clubs."

The nature of Mr. Auchincloss's law practice -- trusts and estates -- gave him an intimate knowledge of how, and with what effect, wealth is passed on from one generation to the next.

By the time of his death, with an African American family occupying the White House and citizens of every ethnicity and creed holding positions of power all across the country, Mr. Auchincloss's oeuvre had taken on a patina of yesteryear. One of the pleasures of reading him is to glimpse the sometimes bewildering mores of a bygone subculture.

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