A Voice from Old New york: A Memoir of My Youth
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 224pp
Review by Peter York
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In one of Peter Sellers’s marvellous late Fifties comedy records he has an old toff reminiscing — Sellers was brilliant at a whole range of English class-based voices — visiting an old bed-ridden retainer in his tiny low-ceilinged hovel, the loyal creature struggles to sit up, bangs his head on an overhead beam and expires.
Auchincloss was an American toff, an old-family New Yorker of the Groton and Yale kind, who worked in the Henry James and Edith Wharton seam as a novelist and essayist — but 50 years later. His posthumous memoir A Voice from Old New York reminds me of that Sellers track. Auchincloss wrote about what he knew, the New York haut-WASP world of rich, secure people who all knew each other and sailed on together being important — in politics, the law and Establishment business — well into the Sixties when Auchincloss wrote his most successful novels Portrait in Brownstone (1962) and The Rector of Justin (1964).
Even in his prime, Auchincloss must have seemed rather retro and secondary. Robber-baron families and repressed debutantes were unlikely themes for New York in the Sixties, when the best-selling literary novelists were people like Norman Mailer and Phillip Roth, both Jewish, lower-class boys who talked dirty. When the great Preppy Revival came in the early Eighties, it was a Ralph Lauren neo-conservative one, open to all, a sign that the Old WASP world had lost its power, and was up for pastiche and Hollywood re-invention.
Now, because New York like London, is dominated by global big money, books about that vanishing world are more nostalgic. Old upper-class America, in other words, has become a sort of fogey parlour pursuit.
It’s been a two-tier social change. The original brownstone, Upper East Side, Social Register, white shoe, law firm people have retreated from their pre-WW1 position at the top of the heap. Tougher, hungrier Americans have taken their place.
At the same time, with the end of the American Century and the rise of the East, the richest Americans are starting to be outshone by billionaires from the BRICs. Inevitably those world cities acquire a gratin of impossibly rich, elusive people, from what Robert Frank called Richistan — the parallel universe of the New Super-Rich. These are people who might buy a Scottish sporting estate or a New England farm, but never want to live the life of the old national upper class, wherever it is. If it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium.
Tad Friend’s Cheerful Money of 2009 is a good, thoughtful example of the American upper-class autobiography, looking at what’s happened to family and friends over the generations. Auchincloss isn’t anything like as open and analytical. A Voice from Old New York looks promising but it’s decidedly bitty and anecdotal: a lot of short chapters with no very clear themes or arguments, and no great revelations. It has been published posthumously; he was 92 when he died in 2010, so you’re not exactly expecting a dissertation with stats, more a now-it-can-be-told interesting. Particularly as Auchincloss’s day job over the years was as a partner in precisely the kind of old-line law firm that dealt with the financial arrangements of old-line people.
The author has a very stiff upper lip. We learn a little: that he was in analysis when young because some unpleasant incident at school left him scared of sex, and that some safely dead smart people were raging adulterers or ‘known’ homosexuals. We also hear the familiar arguments about America neither having nor ever having had a proper upper class remotely comparable with the European kind.
But why then did he devote quite so much time — 31 novels, seventeen books of essays — to writing about them? The immediate comparison, which doesn’t quite hold up on examination, is with Anthony Powell, who was twelve years older. The writing feels oddly stodgier and more old-fashioned than Powell’s, and the perspective narrower. Powell knew what was happening to the world outside his world. The Dance to the Music of Time series contains big themes.
Within six pages Auchincloss deals with the Great Depression, as an aside, and the Brits in another six. Women take a bit longer: ‘A few more words about women’ wrings out eight pages, but we learn very little about his wife (except that she was the former Adele Lawrence and therefore very Social Register) or his children.
This kind of book is usually read by historians and biographers for insights on the bigger stars of the old regime, people like Brooke Astor (herself the subject of a biography by Frances Kiernan, The Last Mrs. Astor: A New York Story, in 2007).
She appears, but Auchincloss says nothing new, merely that when she went off to visit one of her charities in the rough projects, she’d go dressed up and jewelled up, because that’s what people were expecting. Anyone remotely interested would already know that.
However, there is one revealing direct quote from the Social Register’s biggest star. If you have never read any Auchincloss, his name may be familiar if you have read about Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her family. Auchincloss was a cousin of sorts (‘I had known Janet Auchincloss’s daughter, Jackie Bouvier, since her mother’s marriage to father’s first cousin Hugh D Auchincloss’). In the late Fifties, after a family dinner, Auchincloss quizzed Jackie about her engagement to a New Yorker called Husted. Jackie tells him that his most recent book, Sybil, had described her. ‘“Oh, you’ve written my life,” she told me. “Sybil Bouvier, Sybil Husted. Respectable, middle-class, moderately well off. Accepted everywhere. Decent and dull.”’ A week later he heard the engagement was off.
And the Peter Sellers parallel? The final chapter is about Maggie Kane, his childhood nursemaid, the loyal retainer. Maggie was a character and a family stalwart until her sixties when, her job done, she simply disappeared. ‘Even now, Maggie remains someone to recall… Not a subject for a writer of my ilk as it happens. Rather, a genuine and lasting comfort.’