HE DIES A FEW TIMES every week now, and you can read about him in the paid Death Notices in the New York Times. He's in his late eighties or nineties, born on the East Coast, educated at a famous prep school, then either Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, usually interrupted by four years in battle as an officer in the army or navy, then back to finish college before law school or business school, marriage, and a long career in law, or investment banking, or senior management, until, finally, retirement and active leadership of at least one charity. He played golf and sailed, belonged to the appropriate country and yacht clubs in Connecticut or Long Island and Palm Beach or Jupiter Island. There are children and grandchildren.
Louis Auchincloss, who died last year at 93, wrote forty-seven books of fiction — novels and short stories — about such men and their families, as well as nineteen books of criticism and social history. His subject was, in his own words, "the advantage of birth," and the manners and social codes of New York society. All eight of his great-grandparents were born to money in New York City, and Auchincloss's stories range over the last century and a half, charting his tribe's movement from birth to death through those same private schools, boarding schools, colleges, summer houses, law firms, and investment banks-as well as their ongoing support of the museums, symphonies, opera companies, and hospitals their great-great-grandparents founded. His final, short memoir, A Voice from Old New York: A Memoir of My Youth refracts all the themes at the heart of all the books of his that I've read, themes which I suspect dominate the rest, too. Though Auchincloss was nearly as prolific as Simenon, his books, save for The Rector of Justin, a novel about boarding school, have never found a wide audience. I've recommended him to friends, but no writer I've passed along was ever met with less enthusiasm. I used to think his style got in the way, his weirdly chaste syntax that sometimes sounds like a regional dialect, sometimes like it's been translated from another language. But it's not that, it's his character.
Auchincloss was born in 1917. He was distantly related to the Roosevelts and to Jackie Bouvier. Growing up in an East Side brownstone, he was jealous of the friends who lived in the mansions still standing on Fifth Avenue. His father, partner at an old law firm, made a hundred thousand dollars a year in 1931, which is the equivalent of at least a million and a half now. "Yet it never occurred to me that we were rich," he writes. "I was quite aware of who the rich were." This was a quality his mother didn't like: "What she complained about in me was my admiration of wealth. 'My grandmother's snobbishness has come back to earth in Louis,' she used to say."
Though he says the house was happy, the anecdotes, shorn of qualification, suggest something else. His father was a chronic depressive who took so much time off from work that he never made the fortune that Auchincloss believes should have been his. Louis shared a bedroom with his younger sister, who masturbated so much as a child that she was swaddled in thick padding when put to bed. By her early teens she was in such emotional trouble that the family hired a psychiatrist for $20,000 a year to work with her.
Summers were spent dividing their time between a rented 'cottage' in Bar Har...