Here's the kind of thing Susan Barron found when she set out to report on Newport, R.I., the "last vestige of the Gilded Age," in its tragicomic twilight.

Ushered into the drawing room of Eileen Gillespie Slocum, one of the few breathing remnants of a vanishing species, Barron is asked this question first: "Tell me, dear, do you go to school or live at home with mummy?"

As they talk, the dowager mentions that her daughter is considering converting to Catholicism, a prospect that troubles her. "I'm an Episcopalian," she declares, "and I always firmly believed that when you're an Episcopalian, you have everything. Though I do think ... that the pope is the most adorable man in the world."

Barron's eyes and ears are uncannily sharp. But what is most impressive about her story (in the June New England Monthly) is the check she keeps on the impulse to be indignant or condescending. She lets the scene do the job, like this one at an annual Newport ball:

"Trying to differentiate among the guests was akin to undertaking a comparative study of after-dinner mints. Their obscure pleasantries bore little resemblance to conversation as it is usually defined. In fact, these guests seemed more like principalities, exchanging diplomatic courtesies.

"One woman in particular personified the rarely admitted but long-suspected link between money and immortality. Her age was indeterminable; her dark hair was set in a chignon and her artfully reconstructed body, poured into a gown of gold sequins, suggested the twin values Newporters claim to hold dear: preservation and monumentality."

The Ceremony of Ignorance The explosion of human knowledge since the Enlightenment has not extinguished completely the belief systems that prevailed, say, 25 generations ago. Indeed, our ancestors would be proud of us.

According to a study of scientific literacy described in the June issue of American Demographics, 39 percent of Americans believe astrology to be scientific, and 7 percent have changed their plans after reading their horoscopes. When asked to respond to the statement, "Human beings as we know them today developed from earlier species of animals," 47 percent agreed, 46 percent disagreed. Have "rocket launchings and other space activities ... caused changes in our weather"? Forty-one percent said yes.

One more -- a cautionary datum for the kind of people who conduct polls like this one: 53 percent of all adults concur with the statement "Because of their knowledge, scientific researchers have a power that makes them dangerous."

For Immediate Release One fine day not long ago, James Kaplan, an editor at Manhattan, inc. intercepted a press release on its normal trajectory from in-basket to wastebasket. It proposed a story about a remarkable family: a father, mother, daughter and son-in-law, each engaged in worthy, newsworthy occupations. By proceeding to write the story, Kaplan must have left the family wishing the release had gone to its just reward.

Kaplan caught a whiff of trouble when he talked to the father and mother, a politically well-connected couple named Thomas Evans, a lawyer, and Lois Logan Evans, an investment banker. They seemed ill at ease with the idea. The press release, they said, had been generated by their daughter, Heather Evans, 27, also an investment banker.

When Kaplan talked to Heather, she said the idea for the story came from a public relations firm that worked for her investment banking company; first she said its purpose was to put the spotlight on her parents, then she said it was to publicize the work of her husband, painter Matthew Baumgardner.

By now the aroma of deception was unmistakable. The PR person responsible for the release told Kaplan that Heather was planning to write a how-to book called "The Promoter Personality." And then Kaplan caught wind of serious trouble in paradise -- another Evans child whose life, to put it mildly, is not the stuff of press releases.

Kaplan's "Perfect Family" is a subtle, engrossing piece of work, in part a journalistic detective story, in part a parable of the age of hype.

Table of Contents

In "Prose Styles of the Rich and Famous," Spy magazine's Ellis Weiner assumes the voice of Robin Leach to limn the literary likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn -- "cozily ensconced in his fabulous, hyperexclusive New England compound, it's Gulag moola and Archipelago a-go-go as readers keep rushin' to the bookstores." (June).

Scrabble enthusiasts, even very good ones, surely will be demoralized by Barry Chamish's article, "Masters of the Tiles," in the June Atlantic. As it is played by grandmasters, the word game is almost unrecognizable, a test of memory banks packed with the absurd contents of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary -- words with no vowels, words with q's not requiring u's, words like oorie, xu, epopoeia, ranid, pyruvates, bunn and taroc. This is a match of word skills? This is fun?