One Inch Above the Ground

There’s a voice that, while still a bit controlled, opens on to something savage, even ugly.

May 9, 2011

    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 47 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 Harbor, Maine, and a house they owned on the south shore of Long Island.

    We moved our summer residence from Long Island's south to north shore, [and] I gave my friends Father's reason as placidly as if it were a change of weather: "Because of the Jews." Mother was too intelligent for prejudice but too indifferent to fight it.

    Did they really ditch the manse because the sound of the shabbos' blessings drifting over the golf course was making it hard to concentrate on putting, or because the North Shore was cheaper? 

    At Groton, his father's prep school, Auchincloss was a bad athlete, and a prig. He ruined his social standing with classmates when he voluntarily confessed to dropping stones on a passing train. In the course of confessing, he ratted out the two friends who had been with him, something he tries explaining away in the memoir:

    It was an attempt at honesty and, as so often occurs with such forays, disaster was the result. I became even more of a social leper. I could expect to be struck or kicked as I passed from classroom to classroom or even to be beaten up by a mob. I had no friends and was even subject to a sexual violation that would have created a major scandal today.

    At Yale, which he entered in 1935, again following his father, he continued acting with the dramatic society as he had in boarding school, until, he says, he "appeared in a Goldoni comedy as a girl disguised as a boy": "My father did not think that this exhibition of confused sexual identity would enhance my image in the college. Father and his Yale classmates were rather what we called too bulldog, but in my disgust I gave up the dramatic society altogether." 

    He turned to writing, completed his first novel before he was twenty, and, when it was rejected, went to the University of Virginia. His explanation is that he was "grabbed by the folly of youth and decided in a fit of depression" that he must "give up all idea of ever becoming a writer and immediately drown [himself] in the study of law."

    Just as the move to the North Shore may have had other motives than he states, so might his abandonment of a Yale B.A. This is from Auchincloss' 1960 novel, The Life of the Prophet:

    You can't bear that men who were your social superiors when you were young are now running the world. Stuart Hammill was in Skull and Bones and on the football team at Yale, and now he's trying to save the world from blowing itself up. What were you doing then but scribbling for the Yale Literary Magazine, which nobody read? And what are you doing now but writing a silly column for old women to read while they sip their coffee?

    So maybe he dropped out of Yale in a creative panic. Or maybe his reputation at Groton stayed with him, including his nervous prissiness and whatever effeminacy had upset his father, and maybe that combination cost him getting into a social club-in which case he quit Yale because he couldn't bear the rejection from his "social superiors."

    The war came and Auchincloss enlisted in the Army. He was an officer on a landing craft and saw heavy action in a landing craft at Normandy. He came back from the war and went to work as an associate at Sullivan and Cromwell, one of the oldest and most prestigious firms in the country, where Allen and John Foster Dulles were senior partners. He was writing all the time, and wanted to write more, and left before making partner to join a smaller firm where he could take on lighter responsibilities. "Before I left the practice of law," he writes, "I prepared many wills for rich testators." 

    Most of Auchincloss's works, including A Voice from Old New York, are variations on a few basic themes, each manifested in a series of predictable tics. For instance, Madame de Sevigne appears as a reference in the dialogue in so many of his books, it seems she's the only historical figure anybody learned about in prep school. When there are two senior partners in a story's law firm, one is inevitably Louis XIII to the other's Richelieu. The limited references pile up until Auchincloss sounds like a con man who talked his way into the club after studying up on someone else's obsessions, never expecting to stay long enough to be exposed as a fraud.

    Sex shows up sometimes, following a narrow pattern. Norman Mailer told Auchincloss that he wished he had written "The Gemlike Flame," a story about a mother and son fighting for the love of a dissolute artist, all against the preparations for a masked ball in Venice. This is the kind of story Capote told in "La Cote Basque," the piece that cost him his position as society's lap dog. Auchincloss knew those stories; both in the memoir and in his fiction he wrote often about gay men in "white marriages" to wealthy widows. One can say that after so many years as a lawyer he sealed by habit the most exciting material behind attorney/client privilege, or one can say that at the brink of saying something scarier about himself, he used the need to protect others as the excuse to protect himself, that he spread his contempt around enough of a group to hide his particular transgressions in the general.

    Yet his ingrained strategy betrays him anyway. Take, for instance, the writer's description of his older brother:

    John, six years my senior, was a sober, serious man with a fine clear mind who interrupted a promising career in the State Department to share a life of pleasure and leisure with a rich and devoted wife. Armed with discrimination, taste, and moderation, they achieved both happiness and success in the sort of existence that often offers less than that.

    What is behind this bland affection? It seems Auchincloss is saying something he doesn't hear. How deep can a writer go, then, into stories of what "often offers less than that" when he accepts that a man born to advantages can ditch the noblesse oblige of public service and somehow remain within five time zones of moderation? 

    I came to Auchincloss because I optioned the film rights to Diary of a Yuppie, his 1987 novel about an ambitious young attorney who fights an old and prestigious law firm's reluctance to enter the bold new world of mergers and acquisitions funded by junk bonds, and a transitional moment in social history, the passing of the old WASP guard, with the collapse of its self-regard for an ethos of privilege and obligation. That's a tension I thought would be good on screen, but for reasons I came to understand after reading more of his books, and finally, most clearly, after reading the memoir, it's not likely that anyone can successfully translate Auchincloss to camera without turning him against himself, without telling more of the story he was trying to hide-and what that effort cost him as an artist.

    Faulkner had the expansive sympathy to love his "own little postage stamp of native soil," as he famously called it. "By sublimating the actual into the apocryphal," he said, he would have "complete freedom." Auchincloss wrote broadly about his own postage stamp, but gave up the freedom to disclose what William Carlos Williams in his autobiography called one's "punishable secrets." Auchincloss never relinquishes control, however, his secrets remaining suspended by what he prides in himself as restraint-though what he's restraining, the full portrait of his own snobbery, comes through anyway. He's a snob who admits he's a snob but doesn't know what his snobbery has cost him.


    Still, I read him. When he drops his fear of losing his club membership, there's a voice that, while still a bit controlled, opens on to something savage, even ugly. The story that reveals this most blatantly is "The Money Juggler," from 1966. It's also the one closest to his version of The Great Gatsby. Four classmates from Columbia's class of 1940 are sitting on the veranda of the Dunes Club in the Hamptons, after a round of golf, drinking "many rounds of gin." The group includes a stockbroker, a popular social columnist, a corporate attorney, and the story's narrator, the vice-president of a prestigious auction house. They're sharing their memories of a classmate, Lester Gordon, and "his failure and flight from justice": "Everything about Lester was what we were told as children to distrust: he was too glib, too smiling, too quick." Also, too Jewish. Lester was born Felix Kinsky, the son of a Lithuanian haberdasher in Hamburg.

    Each of the four figures, in turn, relates his adventures with Gordon — from Gordon's social climbing in college, to his shirking the front during the war, to his financial crimes in the fifties. He aimed for both money and access to Society. While Society despised the Jewish part, they liked his money, and as Gordon's empire collapses, each of the friends benefits. Near the story's end, as the others reflect on Gordon's imminent jail sentence, the narrator studies them: "Over their apparel, which was as beautiful as a New Yorker advertisement, glowed the snake's eyes that saw the world at a snake's level: one inch above the ground. Oh yes, they saw it whole and they saw it clear-one inch above the ground." The auctioneer then unmasks his friends for criticizing the man they managed to exploit even as he tried to crack into their world: "The aristocrat, the intellectual, and the professional are bound to the chariot of the money juggler."

    The columnist responds, "Don't you realize that we have in our presence the most gigantic hypocrite of all? When poor Lester Gordon's art collection was placed on the block by his creditors, who do you think sold it, item by item, but our friend Roger here? We three may have been the midwives of Lester's fortune, but Roger was the undertaker!" 

    "In the explosion of laughter that followed this revelation," the narrator says, "which, of course, I had known was coming, [...] we were once again our congenial golf foursome. Why should we not, after all, have been the best of friends? What were we but four junior Gordons?"  The only thing Auchincloss envies the Jews for is the power of their self-loathing. The comedy of old money is that new money has the bad taste to show the old money how it was made. 

    Toward the end of the memoir, Auchincloss writes about William A.M. Burden Jr., "who had received his fortune from so many ancestors" and who came to Auchincloss with the project of writing a history of the Burden family. Auchincloss considers the assignment, and looks forward to what he might be able to say about Joseph H. Choate, a lawyer and Burden family adviser in the 19th century and a one-time ambassador to England. Auchincloss saw a story in the way Choate got between William and his brother, and made a fortune from them. Auchincloss quotes a letter from Choate to his wife: "The Burdens are famous for protracted lawsuits. The father of these men had one about spikes that lasted for twenty years. And why should this one about horseshoes come to an untimely end?" Choate, implies our memoirist, is behaving true to the idea of Junior Gordonism.

    The name Choate jumped out at me; I had just been reading the new Autobiography of Mark Twain, where the same Joseph Choate makes a powerful appearance. On January 23, 1906, Twain cites a New York paper's headline: "CHOATE AND TWAIN PLEAD FOR TUSKEGEE." Choate had organized and was presiding over a fundraiser at Carnegie Hall for Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute, and Twain was the entertainment. Twain writes, "It was at a Fourth of July reception in Mr. Choate's house in London where I first meet Booker T. Washingon," the former slave and the most prominent black leader of his time.

    There were three thousand people in Carnegie Hall that night, and another two thousand trying to get in, and the weather was bad. Before introducing Twain, Choate addressed the crowd about the night's purpose, to help "this tremendous negro problem, which was left when slavery was abolished and will last much longer than slavery lasted..." Choate's pleading raised $1,800,000 that night, or $42,000,000 in today's money. 

    So I showed both passages to my friend Jane Choate Beck, past president of the American Folklore Society and Joseph H.'s great-great grandniece. She wrote back:

    Didn't know the story about the fund raising or the one about the Burdens. The family story is that he didn't dress properly for some event with the Queen and with black coat and tails he looked like another waiter. When he was leaving the event, another man asked him to call him a cab, to which Uncle Joe replied, "You are a cab, sir." The man again asked him, and again the same response. Tempers got hot, the man grabbed Uncle Joe. Queen Victoria swept in between them, and said to the man, "This is the American ambassador!" Can't vouch for the truth, but I can see why the story has continued.

    Doesn't Twain's friendship with Uncle Joe vouch for the truth? Why is Auchincloss twitter-pated, to use Owl's term for distress in Winnie-the-Pooh, by a lawyer who shares with his wife his news about the chance to make money from a wasteful family feud? You can sense the energy of that crowd outside Carnegie, and know that the lawyer Auchincloss mocked had spent money and his own reputation to join something immense, something larger than self-interest. I don't know what social benefit fell to J.H. Choate from that night, but it couldn't have been as much as a charity ball for a museum. For the ambassador to invite both a former slave and Mark Twain to the same table shows interest in a world where moderation and discrimination are not the measures of success. However far from his postage stamp, Faulkner would immediately have seen what the prolific New Yorker never could: Choate did belong to that group of Auchincloss's "social superiors," but it wasn't blood.



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