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The Wasp Ascendancy

December 28, 2010

Joseph Alsop

by Joseph W. Alsop


The other day in a secondhand book shop, I happened across a rather seedy looking little green paperbound volume I had never known to exist. It is called Women and Repeal, and it recounts the saga—a very genuine saga it was too—of the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, quite largely by efforts of the mobilized womanhood of the WASP ascendancy. Their leader on this occasion was Mrs. Charles H. Sabin, later Mrs. Dwight Davis; and her Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform beat the tar out of the formerly all-powerful Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and its formidable boss, Mrs. Ella Boole, whose pince-nez had gleamed upon scenes of uninterrupted triumph since 1918.

I bought the dingy little book, which I suspect its heroine paid to have written, for several distinctly miscellaneous reasons. To begin with, the former Mrs. Sabin was a leading Washington personage after she became Mrs. Dwight Davis, and in Washington she became an enormously kind older friend of mine when I was assigned to the Capitol by The New York Herald Tribune in late 1935. Then, too, a great number of the ladies mentioned in the little green book were well known to me as my mother’s dear friends—although, to be sure, my mother was much too partisan a Republican politician to approve altogether of complete nonpartisanship, even in the fight against the Eighteenth Amendment, as advocated by the ladies battling for its repeal.

Furthermore, I am by way of being a very minor member of the ever-diminishing group of survivors of the WASP ascendancy; and the assault upon prohibition by the ladies led by Mrs. Sabin was the WASP ascendancy’s last organized success. The equation was simple. The belatedly unanimous, belatedly vocal, almost nationwide WASP ascendancy, organized by Mrs. Sabin in the name of repeal, and thus firmly added to the nation’s near-50 percent of Catholic, Greek, Ukrainian, and other groups known to the politicians nowadays by the silly label “ethnics,” abruptly produced a solid majority for repeal in most states of the union. So the politicians, instead of trembling before Mrs. Boole, her ferocious ladies, and her Baptist and Methodist allies of the Anti-Saloon League and suchlike, suddenly found themselves trembling and making obeisance to Mrs. Sabin, assorted archbishops and metropolitans, and city bosses of Irish and Italian stock. The WASP injection gave the extra weight that did the trick, in fact.

Nowadays people talk about WASPs without thinking very clearly about what they mean. In most cases, however, it is pretty clear that they really mean the WASP ascendancy. Otherwise the label is vastly too inclusive, for example applying equally to the defeated Mrs. Boole and her cohorts and Mrs. Sabin and hers. After all, White Anglo Saxon Protestants, if these qualities were the only tickets of admission, still constituted just about half the total population of the United States when I was a boy and young man.

The WASP ascendancy, however, was a much narrower group. I don’t know quite how to define it without sounding a fool, except to say that it really was an ascendancy—in fact an inner group that was recognizable as a group, on the one hand, because its members tended to resemble one another in several ways, frequently knew one another as friends or at least acquaintances, and might even be related to one another by blood; and on the other hand, this inner group was on average substantially richer and enjoyed substantially more leverage than any other Americans. For those very reasons, too, it had long supplied the role models followed by other Americans, whether WASP or non-WASP, who were on their way up in the world.

If these others rose far enough, moreover, they had to be really pretty awful not to be promptly absorbed into the WASP ascendancy. Oddly enough, this absorption was then quite often advertised by ecclesiastical migration. My mother’s family, for example, was Scotch on her father’s side, and basically Dutch on the side of her mother, who was Theodore Roosevelt’s younger sister. Among the Scotch in my mother’s tribe, the migration began, despite howls of Presbyterian rage from the primitive tribal majority, when one of the tribe’s leading males bought a pew in Grace Church around 1840, “because all the better people go there.” (For the rich former significance of Grace Church, see Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the wedding of Newland Archer.)

I do not know how soon thereafter my mother’s family’s Presbyterian-to-Episcopalian migration was completed, or when the various branches of the Roosevelt clan left their Dutch conventicles. But all of them on both sides certainly ended as Episcopalians. I fear, too, that the attraction of the Episcopal church lay in the simple fact that this used to be almost everywhere the all-but-official church of the WASP ascendancy. Pittsburgh was, and perhaps is still, the exception that proves the rule. The same ecclesiastical migration took place there, but Episcopalians were the ones who migrated, since the local branch of the ascendancy remained fiercely loyal to its native Presbyterianism—and where Mellons went, there went many more.

All these trivia are on my mind at the moment because I am writing my memoirs. I think, as many others have thought(all too often mistakenly), that I have had an exceptionally interesting life, as well as a very lucky one. Yet I cannot make any sense of the pattern of my life, nor do I think anybody else can, except by taking note of the trifling-seeming fact already noted above, that I began as a minor member of this now vanished group, the WASP ascendancy.

In its day—although one begins to forget this—the group was highly recognizable, and not just by the fairly extreme but regional New England/New York accent I happen to possess. The recognition signals were often very odd indeed. Moreover, new recognition signals were constantly replacing old ones. By my time, for example, not a great many members of the WASP ascendancy had what were called “Family Houses,” which merely meant large, rural tribal dwellings going back a century or more, but those who had hung on to these redoubts somehow contrived that all family houses should smell the same. I believe the secret was beeswax, rather lavishly used, year round, to polish floors and furniture, plus a great many flowers from the summer gardens. At any rate, the front door would open, this splendid scent would waft outward toward you, particularly in summer, for this was before air conditioning and the summer rule was still in force that all windows were closed and shades were pulled until after dusk, when windows were thrown open again to let in the cool night air. And so the house’s smell would tell you just what sort of décor and human atmosphere to expect after you had passed the front door.

But the special smell of the few remaining family houses was in fact a very minor recognition signal of the WASP ascendancy. To begin with, there were all sorts of dos and don’ts about clothes and shoes. But I shall speak only of those of concern to men, for I cannot to this day tell what outward signs enabled my mother and her friends to choose the five or six other ladies who “might be nice to know” from the scores of possibilities presented, say, by the teeming decks of a transatlantic liner. I only know that in my young days, even if American ladies came from the richest topmost branches of the worldly tree, they were never likely to be mistaken for exceedingly expensive, though not quite successful, takeoffs on their counterparts in Paris.

As for the men, the first rule was to go to London for suits and shoes as soon as you could afford it. If financial strain was then felt, shirts, neckties, and so forth might also be acquired in London, or even New York. But if expensive was no object, it was preferable to seek these lesser articles from Charvet or Sulka in Paris. The less well-heeled, meanwhile, clothed, shirted, and shoed themselves at Brooks Brothers, and so did 90 percent of the young males until the fairly awe-inspiring moment when their fathers would take them to their London tailors—not necessarily in London, for the tailors’ and shoemakers’ representatives came to the US twice a year to see to the current wants of their regular customers on this side of the water.

The correct suppliers were by no means the end of the story, however. The dos and don’ts of men’s wear were almost endless; so I shall offer only a selection. Beginning at the bottom, you couldn’t wear saddle shoes. In summer, if you went on a weekend you had to take along a pair of white bucks, complete with whitening to make them white, a piece of bone to smooth the whitening and make it shiny, and a small bottle of black lacquer to cover the edges of the red rubber composing the shoe’s soles and heels. Of course the effect intended to be produced was that you had a valet doing all this for you. But I fear mine never looked in the least like a valet’s handiwork.

Then, at the other end, you could not appear without a hat. In four years at Harvard, I never went out onto the street, even on the most beautiful day, without a felt hat on my head, except in spring, when the time came for straw boaters or Panama hats. Panama hats, I may add, were judged by whether they had been woven underwater with very thin reeds that produced a texture like cloth, so that they could be all but rolled up in a suitcase without being damaged.

As for the actual garments, the aim in town for men was to look a bit like a Morgan partner, since the Morgan partners had their own rather flossy style of haberdashery, which was as much admired as was their bank. To this day, when I dress to go out to an old-fashioned luncheon party in Washington, I do my best to suggest a Morgan partner of 1928. In the evening, furthermore, almost all men who were dining with friends in town, and quite often men staying at one of the richer houses in the country, automatically “dressed for dinner.” “Dressing for dinner,” thank God, no longer meant putting on a stiff shirt. By my time, men were allowed soft shirts, preferably silk, although the very young could wear white Brooks Brothers shirts. But you still needed a dinner jacket and trousers, with black silk socks and pumps to complete the turnout, along with a black bow tie, and a fine white—always white—handkerchief and a cummerbund or waistcoat at a minimum. And woe to you forever if you ventured upon a ruffled or colored shirt or necktie of the sort the young wear to what they call “formals” nowadays. Worse than woe to you, too, even if your necktie was black but was seen to be “made up.”

Yet the essentials for men only began with the rule that any fanciness introduced into the basic black-and-white pattern of a dinner jacket and trousers was grossly improper. If you were sufficiently unfortunate as to have to wear a white tie, a whole series of other strict rules came into severe force. First and foremost, the waistcoat could not show a white line beneath the two side-wings of the coat, yet it must not be too short to cover amply the top of the trousers. For an evening suit a double line of braid on the trousers was required, whereas a mere single line of broader braid was needed for a dinner jacket. Again, there could be no departure from the pattern of black and white. It was highly desirable for the stiff shirt and collar, which were absolutely essential with evening dress, to be washed in such a way that when ironed, the starched linen was glossy. And with evening dress, finally, instead of wearing the patent leather pumps suitable for a dinner jacket, you also needed shoes that laced, but of course, once again, of patent leather.

After I retired, when I moved from the big Georgetown house I built in my heyday, I was also reminded of all the horrors we went through at weddings. If you were a member of the wedding party you needed as a minimum a top hat, a morning coat, striped trousers, dark socks, and black shoes. Usually, in order to insure uniformity, the groom gave his ushers and best man spats, waistcoats, and neckties, and in the early days the neckties were usually very heavy grey silk ascots. Since nobody except an occasional foxhunter knew how to tie an ascot, Brooks Brothers, where these vital appurtenances were always bought by the groom, used to send along a special man to each wedding to tie the ushers’ ties and to see that all was in order. Finally, the spring weddings—far the most numerous—called for white linen, double-breasted waistcoats and white linen spats. When I retired and moved to a new house in Washington a great many decades later than the period I am speaking of, I was reminded of all this by being presented with a large brown box, with the impatient inquiry: “Do you want to take all this junk with you?” I opened the box and found no fewer than nineteen pairs of white linen spats I had acquired as an usher at friends’ sunlit weddings before the Second World War. I decided I could do without them.

There were other miscellaneous “don’ts” too of extreme importance if you wanted to keep out of trouble. Gentlemen, meaning members of the WASP ascendancy, or persons who aspired to be members, did not wear brown suits in the city—I have never understood why. Dark gray, navy blue, or even black were required, albeit possibly with a discreet pinstripe if desired. Black shoes were essential in town—and no nonsense about it, except that with a dark gray flannel suit it was possible to wear brown shoes so repeatedly polished for so long a period of time that they all but counted as black. You also wore a silk handkerchief in your handkerchief pocket—and it was rather second rate to keep it just for show, instead of using it in case of need. To round it all out, in those days men still got buttonholes from the florist on festive occasions. I remember I used to buy a yellow carnation every Sunday in New York after I went to work there—on $18 a week; and on Sundays too I would put a little Florida Water on my handkerchief, as my father had taught me.

Language was the true empire of the dos and don’ts however. Here, very roughly, the rule was that the earliest English name for any thing or any occupation was desirable, and anything later was highly undesirable—so you were buried in a coffin, not a casket, and the coffin was supplied by an undertaker, never a funeral director and (God preserve us) not a mortician. Windows had curtains, not drapes or draperies. “Drapes” remains the most teeth-grating word in the language to old WASPs like me. But a close second is the phrase, “gracious home.” In the first place you live in a house, not a home, unless you’ve been “put away” by your relations; and in the second place it is never good style to use the adjective “gracious.”

To continue the list briefly, the unlucky had false teeth, not dentures; and when their lives ended, they died instead of “passing.” Then too, all of the people I am trying to describe really did speak of tomahtoes, and they had a whole series of other required pronunciations, most of which have by now been forgotten by all, including myself. But what I cannot ever quite forget is the feeling that it is a little wrong to abbreviate. So it grates on my ear to this day when people say they will “phone” me instead of promising to “telephone” me. This sort of thing, I need not point out, always grows up when it is desired to mark off “us” from “them,” and this was the real purpose of all the silly recognition signals which I have just listed for you, and all the many more I have mercifully forgotten.


All these ethnographic annotations may sound trifling now, yet there is a serious, central reason for giving some space to the WASP ascendancy. This is, quite simply, its duration. By 1928, the year I graduated from Groton school, a great ascendancy fortress, the power of this special group and its special place in American life had endured for no less than three centuries, which is a pretty good run by any standard. As I have already indicated, the composition of the group did not of course remain the same through the centuries in question. Pre-Depression, in the first years I remember, there were indeed plenty of families whose names and fortunes went back to the beginning, or very nearly. The Winthrops, all descended from the first Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts, were still very much on hand, as they are today, for example, and in my youth they were very conscious of it too.

When I was at Harvard, the daughter of the enormously rich Boston Mr. Winthrop wished to marry a rather nice man called Standish Bradford, who bore, after all, a well-known Mayflower name. The Mayflower also reached Massachusetts rather earlier than the Arabella, the ship that brought the Winthrops with the second echelon, which established the colony in Boston. But when Dorothy Winthrop engaged herself to Standish Bradford, Mr. Winthrop was heard to grumble that he didn’t want his daughter to marry into “that Mayflower lot” because they were “a pack of thieves and poor debtors.” And Mr. Winthrop only half meant it as part of his comic turn.

It doesn’t seem to me an attractive story, but it is funny rather than being nastily snobbish in the manner of a story concerning Senator Peter Gerry of Rhode Island, who was directly descended from the eighteenth-century governor of Massachusetts made famous by his invention of the gerrymander. Senator Gerry, who was a pretty awful man by any possible standards—he used, for example, to collect very unpleasant, often scatological, and always imaginary poison-pen stories about Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt—was rebuked during the Second World War for being a violent isolationist. “How can someone with your background feel as you do about this war, Senator Gerry, when Britain is in such danger?” asked the gushing female interventionist. To this Senator Gerry acidly replied, “Well madam, you perhaps won’t understand; but in families like mine we still remember the lobsterbacks”—by which he meant the scarlet uniformed British troops in the Revolutionary War!

Along with these few still very rich survivors from the ultimate beginnings, the WASP ascendancy of course included great numbers of people who had made fortunes just a little further down the road, like the Astors and Duponts. Above all, moreover, the ascendancy of my time included great numbers of other families who had made huge fortunes in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The point about them all is that although these fortunes were so different in date, it was often rather difficult to tell the families enjoying them apart, except by their degrees of extravagance. It was easy enough, however, to spot a family of the ascendancy whose fortune had seriously contracted, and, of course, the older the family, the more likely they were to have declined in fortune a little.

The reasons for this rule of decline are only too obvious. First comes the luck of the draw. Either stupidity or bad luck is a better than even bet to engulf any family in two or three hundred years. Just as dangerous, too, were the terrible temptations of fashion and show. When I was young, for instance, I remember one Boston family divided into three clans, “long-tailed,” “bang-tailed” and “dock-tailed.” These adjectives referred to the carriage horses formerly kept by the three clans. “Dock-tailed” horses (with tails chopped off to resemble elegant shaving brushes) were the most fashionable, but the dock-tailed clan of the family had long since spent itself into oblivion for fashion’s devouring sake. The family’s “bang-tailed” clan (meaning those who more humanely cut off their horses’ tails just where the horses’ tails become only hair) were still respectably surviving—but hardly more. Meanwhile, their cousins of the long-tailed clan, defiantly unfashionable about everything from horses’ tails to summertime brown sneakers, were enormously rich, and I am told still are.

It must be noted, too, that old families of the WASP ascendancy who still retained large fortunes were often quite extraordinarily mean about money—which was of course another reason why they lasted. I remember when Mr. Frederick Winthrop, the Bostonian member of the clan I have mentioned already, was said to be the richest man in New England. His second wife, who had also brought him a considerable fortune, used to wear black cotton stockings, which she bought in the basement of Raymond’s department store. There was another incident I remember too. The father of a friend of mine at Harvard, who was then head of the biggest bank in Boston, was going down by train to the North Shore with his friend Mr. Winthrop. Mr. Winthrop was carrying a large brown paper parcel, and my father’s friend said, “What’s that Fred, that you’re carrying all the way down to the Shore?”

Mr. Winthrop replied laconically, “Melon. The Italian in the Faneuil Hall market has the cheapest melons in Boston, and very good too.”

On Monday, they both found themselves sitting next to each other again on the return to Boston from the weekend. Mr. Winthrop still had the brown paper parcel, now more than a little bit damp in places and generally the worse for wear. My friend’s father said, “What’s that Fred, that you’re taking back to Boston?”

“Melon!” Mr. Winthrop replied. “It was overripe. I’m taking it back to the Italian to show it to him, and get my money back.” This is a true story and it still makes me laugh every time I think of it. Here was a man with $40 million, the equivalent of $400 million nowadays, and he was going to great trouble to save no more than a few dimes—for melons were then unknown out of season and very cheap in season. This extreme carefulness no doubt helps to explain why he was exceptionally well-off; and his descendants are not suffering either. It must be added in fairness, however, that the capacity for survival among the more fortunate WASP clans of today has by no means always depended on a knack for sustained economy and a carelessness of fashion. However careful about cash, stupid families did not long survive in truth. But I can name at least three families famous for their hereditary beauty.

Moreover, the tendency of some to defy fashion or ceremony should by no means be taken to imply that the members of the WASP ascendancy were incapable of conspicuous display, particularly in New York and on the North Shore of Long Island, which was the favorite rural stamping ground of the very richest New Yorkers. The whole North Shore, from Manhasset eastward to about the middle of the Island, was formerly a curious mosaic of very big country places with very big houses occupying all the empty land between the towns, which were then rather small and countrified. Next to polo, the favorite diversion of the owners of these large places was fox hunting, about which they had no difficulty because they still owned so much empty countryside; and Robert Moses had not yet built his vast highways.

On the North Shore, the real moment of display was just before the hunting season began, in early autumn, when the “Long Island Dances” took place. If the owner of one of the big Long Island places along the North Shore also had an about-to-be-marriageable daughter, he would then have been thought very eccentric indeed if he did not “bring her out” at a dance in late September or very early October, when these festivals always occurred. The expense of doing this really dazzles me, too, now that I think of it. Seven, eight, or nine hundred people—even a thousand or more—might be invited, for you have to remember that all that year’s more respectable debutantes automatically had places on the list; for every girl three dancing men had to be supplied, as well; and all the family’s contemporaries had to be asked, too.

Champagne was of course illegal because of prohibition, but nonetheless champagne had to flow like water. There had to be at least the main orchestra, invariably that of Meyer Davis, plus the very elegant red-coated Hungarians of Mr. Alexander Haas, who played Viennese waltzes at intervals to give Meyer Davis and his men needed breathing spells. There was nothing to stop a host and hostess, either, from having two orchestras—the second was usually that of Markel—plus the Hungarians, plus an entertainer or two like Helen Morgan, a singer now largely forgotten but very popular in those days despite her habit of drinking a good deal. I have seen her sitting on a piano disposing successively of no fewer than seven glasses of champagne while her mournful songs—”My Man” was the best—brought tears to every eye.

In addition to all these expenses, furthermore, it was of course necessary to put up an enormous tent in the garden with a special dance floor. Then there were the expenses for the decorators who were turned loose with lavish hands to transform the tent into a pleasure dome, and finally there was the very considerable outlay for a large supper—both hot food and cold—after midnight, plus the wages of the less fortunate young men who were not invited to dance, but were instead paid to park guests’ cars in the huge, paddock-like enclosures that always had to be set aside for this purpose.

It was not at all unusual to hear the rumor (and there were always rumors on these subjects) that one of these dances on the North Shore had cost $50,000, and I remember one or two particularly splendid parties that people whispered had cost $100,000 or more. I look back on it all with horror now, for a dollar then had ten times its present value; and all this still went on after the stock market crash of 1929, when people could, and did, feel very lucky to be employed at $20 a week. Yet I have to confess that the present horror by no means dilutes the memory of past enjoyment.

Best of all, however, I fear I remember the only one of these parties that I can think of that went really comically wrong. It was at the very end of the Hoover administration, when Ogden L. Mills had replaced Andrew Mellon as secretary of the Treasury. At the Treasury, of course, Mr. Mills had official responsibility for enforcing the Prohibition Amendment. I don’t remember which daughter of Mrs. Mills the party was given for, but for sheer physical loveliness the party took the prize among all these gatherings of my remote youth. Instead of a tent, the Millses had built a huge palladium pavilion with high, arched openings, overlooking the garden. The interior of the pavilion was brilliantly silvered, and this enormous room had been provided with a frieze worthy of Inigo Jones himself, in the form of long swags of balloons made to look like huge silver and gold fruit, threaded in swags on silver-wrapped wire and interspersed with fronds of silvered canvas leaves. The effect of the enormous silver space, with this sole decoration of the silver and gold frieze, was something to remember for a long time—as I have indeed remembered it.

Unfortunately, in order to do what is nowadays called “distance himself” from the inevitable violation of the Prohibition Amendment, Mr. Mills had confided a huge sum—around $10,000 or $15,000 beyond question—to his butler for the champagne with no questions asked. The result was that the butler had pocketed nine tenths of the money and had provided the only champagne I ever saw Prohibition-era young men and women refuse to drink, even although there was more than enough alcohol in the nasty brew. So the party began to show the fatal signs of a coming to an end not long before 1 AM.


But instead of recalling more and more of these festivals of the past, which make me rather uncomfortable to remember as I have said, I prefer to recall the less glossy bits and pieces of this long-gone world that were more redolent of its beginnings and depended less on enormous riches. Here, I think first of my own place in this strange, though widespread group. This place was dictated by my father’s decision to avoid “the ratrace” as they say nowadays. But although he did not want to compete in New York, he certainly did not wish to take refuge, as it was fashionable among the young not so long ago, in the remote countryside of Vermont or New Hampshire, or even Maine. His tribe was deep-rooted in Connecticut, too, so he bought a farm in Connecticut. Since land there then cost ten dollars an acre, he was able to afford a farm in the very middle of the Farmington River valley, the center of what used to be the Connecticut Gold Coast, which was very different from the present Gold Coast in the northwestern corner of the state.

The Farmington valley extended, as I recall it, from Talcott Mountain in the east, which divided it from Hartford in the Connecticut River valley—for our valley was wholly unurban and unsuburban too. It went as far as the hills in the west which cut off central Connecticut from the Housatonic River valley, and it had extensions northward to Simsbury and beyond and southward to Middletown, where my father came from. I am still rather proud of the fact that this was the only part of the United States to meet with the unalloyed approval of Henry James, when the Master made the return journey to his native land which resulted in The American Scene.

Maybe I am being very foolish indeed, but somehow that portion of Connecticut as it used to be, with its fertile farms and little towns, still seems to me a golden place. To understand it, you have to understand that life was still entirely local, for very few people had cars and when my mother was first married, before she got her car, her excellent team of ponies, Brandy and Soda, needed two hours to get her over the Talcott Mountain from our farm to Hartford. In 1912 when Mother bought a car—a Ford Cabriolet, strongly resembling a black box with a black tea kettle on top of it, it was only the 162nd car in Connecticut. Connecticut license numbers were issued sequentially, and my father, who already had a car, then changed his number to get license 163. As license numbers are for some reason hereditary in Connecticut as well, my brother and his wife’s cars are still 162 and 163. But the real point is that rural life could still flourish untouched in a state that still counted its automobiles by the hundred.

In our part of Connecticut you also used to find something else you would not find today—a good many better than well-off families who were willing to live on the incomes that their forebears had provided for them in the same region where their forebears had made their fortunes. Sometimes they were not content with their family houses and so they embarked on new ones as did my very eccentric cousin Clarence Wadsworth, who dwelt in a half-completed French palace and was reputed to keep his clothes, of which he had many, on a special catalog system, and to ask his valet not for “the blue suit today” but for “number XYZ–110 today.” His wife, Cousin Catherine Wadsworth, was the object of general sympathy, but the sympathy would have been less if Cousin Clarence’s inherited fortune had not been very substantial by those days’ standards.

Maybe it was the fact that in the towns of this bygone Connecticut Gold Coast so many of the families had been there for a long time that a very high tolerance for eccentricity generally prevailed. Certainly my great aunt, Theodore Roosevelt’s sister, Mrs. William Sheffield Cowles, who was perhaps the central figure in this bygone bit of world that I grew up in, was an exceedingly eccentric person. She had a splendid face, like a successful Roman emperor, but she had a misshapen body because she had been a hunchback from her childhood—her father, the first Theodore Roosevelt, gave great sums to the New York Orthopedic Hospital so that she could have a place to be treated—and to being a hunchback she had added a progressively crippling arthritis in her middle age. She had married her president-brother’s naval aide for the sole purpose of begetting a son. Despite her physical handicaps, and despite the further fact that she had reached the age of forty, she had the son, who turned out brilliantly well and died only last year. Furthermore, as soon as she was married to Admiral Cowles she persuaded him to retire, and they returned to Farmington, which was in fact a kind of capital of the old Connecticut Gold Coast, mainly by her doing.

As I remember her, arthritis had immobilized her in her wheelchair, and she seldom appeared except at tea and dinner time. The house she, her admiral, and her son occupied was called Oldgate, because it had a superbly handsome Chinese Chippendale front gate designed by an eighteenth-century architect who had directly imitated the Thames-side water gate of some great London house. The architect was a Revolutionary prisoner of war, as were the workmen who labored under him; and all were rented cheaply from one of the Revolutionary wartime camps in Connecticut. The house, by eighteenth-century standards, was really huge and very grandly designed, too. Indeed, Oldgate is in all the illustrated books of fine American houses of the eighteenth century. However, it by no means satisfied Auntie Bye, as we called my great aunt. She promptly added a very fine garden designed by the younger Olmstead, and she put a big wing on the house to accommodate what she considered a reasonable household.

You can see what this meant when I say that until the death of Admiral Cowles, she always had a butler, Hopkinson, a Scotch maid of her own, MacDonald, and for the Admiral a chauffeur by the name of Scott; and every so often she would add a footman, on a less permanent basis than these three great pillars of the household. In addition, of course, there were the cook and kitchen maid, plus large numbers of other maids to take care of the big house and to produce the luncheons, teas, and dinners that were in continuous demand.

By the time I recall Auntie Bye really clearly, she rarely left her bed except to bathe, dress, and get into her wheelchair; and her cruel arthritis also prevented her from leaving her own house. Even so, the world came to her. She had even invented an extraordinary costume for herself—a hairdo of puffs and piled-up protuberances that must have taken her maid three quarters of an hour to construct, plus a curious dress, combining a great deal of lace with a great deal of fine, white woolen cloth, which vaguely suggested what a Roman toga might have looked like if women had only been admitted to the Roman Senate. All of this was put on most often after luncheon. She had put into Oldgate a kind of giant dumbwaiter in which she traveled between the two main floors of the house, and in this she came down for tea, went up to prepare for dinner, and came down again for dinner.

A continuous flow of rather distinguished or even famous guests from Connecticut and guests from the outside world poured through the house, moreover. I myself can recall one extraordinary occasion when my great aunt had staying with her both Franklin Roosevelt, then governor of New York, and one of the founders of Groton School, Mr. William Amory Gardiner, who was by then a very old, rather ill man. I stayed very late at tea that day and saw them preparing to go upstairs. Mr. Gardiner would not use the dumbwaiter but protected his heart on the very long staircase by loudly declaiming a line from the Iliad in the original Greek from each new step he reached. This performance was watched with fascination by Auntie Bye and the governor of New York, who was also in a wheelchair, of course. Only when Mr. Gardiner had safely reached both the second floor and the end of Homer’s “Catalogue of Ships,” did they successively head for the dumbwaiter. After that, various diamonds were attached to this and that part of my great aunt’s costume, for diamonds were her way of dressing for dinner. Meanwhile, both Mr. Gardiner and Franklin Roosevelt got into their dinner jackets, as was then expected.

Auntie Bye had a tongue that would take the paint off a barn, meanwhile sounding quite unusually syrupy and cooing. The harsher the sentiment, the sweeter the tone, seemed to be her recipe; which was regularly borrowed by her niece Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she helped to bring up. When Auntie Bye summed up a foolish woman, she would almost coo, as she said commiseratingly, “poor little irrelevant Mary.” She could also be what now seems very harsh and hard despite the cooing. The Admiral had a stroke rather early and until he died could usually be seen in the corner of the living room playing a very complicated form of solitaire. One day he had done something to annoy Auntie Bye, and she suddenly looked up from her bridge game, observed the Admiral, and remarked in an offhand way, “There sits darling Bearo—like a great rag doll.”

I cannot resist adding a brief portrait of one more Farmington eccentric of my childhood: Mrs. Barney, who lived not far from my great aunt and was an almost equal personage in the Connecticut Gold Coast of the day. She came from a very old Connecticut family which had kept its money, and her husband, Colonel Barney, made a good deal more money as the head of a large enterprise in Hartford. Consequently the Barneys had a very big place in Farmington, which is now a “think tank,” I believe.

Mrs. Barney’s two passions were gardening and bridge, and she was more than a little unconventional about both of them. I discovered she was unconventional about gardening when I was about nine, when my mother took my sister and me on some mission or other which required settlement of a point of charities policy with Mrs. Barney. At a rather early morning hour we reached the Barney place, which had the best kept and greenest lawns I have ever seen in the United States. We advanced across an acre or so of sward to the flower garden in search of Mrs. Barney; and there among the flowers we found a very ample lady of about sixty, in what was considered to be a ladylike nightgown of that period, made of a material that I think was called lawn. At any rate it was rather thin handkerchief linen and a single waterspot made it almost completely transparent. Mrs. Barney had been working hard in strong sun for some time and large areas of her nightgown clung to her damply, transparently, and (to us children) most surprisingly. Besides the nightgown she wore a large beflowered garden hat and large, sturdy gumboots. This costume was completed by a trowel, already dirt-infested from severe use, which she waved at us in a friendly way, greeting my mother with the remark, “Oh, Corinne, I do hope you won’t mind how I look! I can’t bear taking two baths in the morning, so I get my weeding done first and then I wash off all the dirt in one go.” Whereupon the charitable business was rapidly but calmly disposed of, while my sister and I gaped, fascinated, at the large expanse of Mrs. Barney in her nightgown until farewells were said.

As for Mrs. Barney’s other diversion, it was bridge, at which she could not resist an occasional attempt to cheat, usually by failing to follow suit when it was inconvenient. Her habit was to make a joke—mainly a historical joke, for she was a great wit and a tireless reader of English and American history—to cover her revokes, which quite often went unnoticed while everyone laughed. Her triumph in this line was at my great aunt’s house when she put a club from dummy on a spade from her own hand. As she did so, looking dreamily up to the ceiling, she remarked, “Were I ever to have had an illegitimate child, I should like it to have been by Charles James Fox.” Since she had a rather penetrating voice, everyone in the room burst into laughter, not only because the thought of Mrs. Barney seriously contemplating the production of an illegitimate child was already pretty bizarre, but also because a kind of bizarre extreme was reached when she added to the combination Charles James Fox—black-a-vised; corpulent; capable of losing three fortunes at the gambling table in the course of one night; the hero of Devonshire House and the old-fashioned English Whigs; and (one supposes this was his recommendation to Mrs. Barney) the most eloquent defender, with Edmund Burke, of America’s desire for independence. It took more than a surreal joke to make Auntie Bye miss tricks, however. She said coldly: “That’s all very well, my dear; it’s very funny, but that’s a club and that’s a spade and you’ve revoked again.” To which Mrs. Barney replied with evident disappointment, “Ohh, Bye darling, you are too unkind!”

One could go on telling improbable stories about the WASP ascendancy of the past through a great many pages. But the first requirement in considering it is not to romanticize this group of people. To begin with, they were decidedly snobbish in their own peculiar way. I once described them in print as the “Who was she?” group. This was because of the automatic response when the name of a new married couple was introduced into the conversation. The name would not have come up at all unless the male member of the married couple had a more or less recognizable and acceptable label. Even if he alone was barely placeable by name, moreover, it was automatically assumed his wife must be placeable, too. So all the ladies in the room would always turn their eyes to the ceiling and almost simultaneously say, “Now let me see, who was she?”

My mother was never very good at this game, but my great aunt was one of the all-time winners, and the champion in my mother’s generation was Mrs. Kinnicut, the mother of the great decorator Sister Parish. Mrs. Kinnicut was a specialist in unlikely identifications, such as “I don’t believe you know them, Corinne, but she was one of those Hazards from Providence, the ones that tend to go a little bit mad,” or again, “She was an Albany Pruyn, but one of the poor Pruyns, you know.” Once these identifications were made everyone could then be easy and settle down to discuss what the husband of the married couple did, whether to have them to tea or to dinner, and suchlike.

There were other ways too that the prevailing snobbery in the WASP ascendancy used to manifest itself. It is enough to say that they could be very hard and tough when it came to persons they considered undesirable outsiders, and when their offspring chose a really undesirable outsider for a mate the odds against a happy result were often pretty bad. There is no use pretending, either, that the WASP ascendancy was not anti-Semitic in a mild, old-fashioned manner. You will find the usual viewpoint in Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt’s First World War–time letters to her formidable mother-in-law, Mrs. James Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt in those days was not only mildly anti-Semitic, which she later honorably overcame; she was also quite obstinately anti-Catholic, which she remained until the end of her days.


On balance, if you think about the weaknesses of this WASP ascendancy of the past, you must also add a certain provincialism and an all-too-common hostility to the intellectual life. With respect to both literature and art the WASP ascendancy tended to be intensely conservative. Unless I am mistaken, I owned the only copy of Joyce’s Ulysses in my class at Harvard. Among the great majority, too, the word “modern” was given a pejorative sound when “modern art” was mentioned through the Twenties and Thirties, although it must be admitted that several of the great pioneer collectors of the Impressionists and Postimpressionists were nonetheless leading members of the ascendancy.

I suspect, too, that the first beginnings of the decline of the ascendancy were traceable not just to the corruptingly vast amounts of money that began to be made in the United States after the Civil War; it was also traceable to the often very silly attempts to add the United States to the larger cultural sphere of Europe, or at least England, that began to be made when great sums of money were available to ape European ways. On the social level, one of the most sedulous apes was Ward McAllister, the favorite toady of the famous late-nineteenth-century Mrs. Astor in the era when Mrs. Astor was thought to rule New York. McAllister’s line was always to be more English than the English and more European than the Europeans. I remember him here because I want to commemorate the “Ward McAllister Cheer,” which was devised by Nicholas Longworth and Mr. Rodolphe Agassiz when they were undergraduates at Harvard. The cheer (which I heard from Alice Longworth) was—”Ward McAllister—Wow! Wow! Wow! Were hit not for that vulgar hupstart, George Washington, we might still be livin’ under the rine of ‘er gryecious majesty Queen Victoria! Ward McAllister—Wow! Wow! Wow!” I still like to think of the mocking cheer, really because I hate to think of the shamefully widespread acceptance of the gilded foolishness that inspired it.

I fear that I have been talking too much, however, about the superficies of the life of the WASP ascendancy as they struck me when I was a boy and a very young man. It is necessary, in concluding, to explain the phenomenon too. In the first place, of course, the leaders of the ascendancy got to the United States first and staked out all the best land—a very helpful beginning. In the second place—and I doubt very much if they’d have survived as long as they did without it—leaders of the ascendancy also led the American Revolution and provided us with our Constitution.

It also seems to me that the founders’ boldness in doing this has been underestimated. Not all of them were very rich men, but most of them were at least much richer than their fellows in the United States, and George Washington and Charles Carroll of Carrollton were reputed to be the two richest men in the country. By doing what they did they stood to lose every nickel and every acre they had if the Revolution went against them, and might well have done if King George III had not chosen the worst war minister on record, Lord George Germain.

For some time after the official foundation of the United States, the WASP ascendancy remained highly political. But when Thomas Jefferson was elected, the Federalist party’s goose was cooked, and in most parts of the country the members of the ascendancy were Federalists. After that their political activities were usually local, and sometimes fairly odd, but one can make no rules. For example, the ascendancy produced Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, the two most conspicuous American presidents of this century, and I believe that Franklin Roosevelt was one of the three greatest we have ever had, in a special group with the father of our country, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln, our unique saint.

Although it is not commonly realized, there are still very ancient and far from played-out WASP political families in some states. Governor Kean of New Jersey belongs to one of the WASP ascendancy’s more ancient political families, and to judge by his activity, the Keans are still very much alive. Then, too, one of his neighbors is former Congressman Frelinghuysen, who comes from another ancient and rather persistent political family. A Senator Frelinghuysen was President Harding’s favorite golf partner, and a still earlier Frelinghuysen was vice-presidential candidate in one of Henry Clay’s campaigns, with the wonderful campaign song:

Hooray, Hooray, the country’s risin’
For Henry Clay and Frelinghuysen

If you want a somewhat less conventional example of a WASP in politics the best I can think of is the immensely disreputable Philadelphia Boss, Boies Penrose. He would have been an eminent member of the Philadelphia branch of the ascendancy if he had not vastly preferred the company of prostitutes to the company of ladies belonging to the Philadelphia Assembly. On his deathbed he gave the orders that put Harding in the White House, and earlier he generated the political story that is one of my favorites.

He had made a particularly raw appointment in Pennsylvania, and a clerical and female deputation came to his office, where they found him lying back in his big chair—he was enormously heavy—smoking a huge cigar and reading Ovid’s Ars Amatoria in the original. They made their protest about the dreadful appointment, and Senator Penrose, looking up from his book, took a pull on his cigar, and then said, “Ladies and Reverends, I am sorry you don’t like my old friend Bill. I’ve just got a telegram to tell us that he has unfortunately died, and I shall have to find someone to replace him who may please you better.”

The ladies and reverends burst into the expected chorus of protests that, despite his other defects, the late Bill was terribly kind to his dear old mother, nice to children, and so on. Penrose took another long pull on his cigar and said: “Ladies and Reverends, you remind me of the last time I went to Lucy’s, where I take my pleasure. I rang the bell, Lucy came to the door and asked me, ‘Senator, who would you like to see tonight?’ I said I’d like to see Sally. Lucy said that Sally had just gone to the grave. I said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that Lucy, because she was a good girl, a nice girl, and always gave good value.’ And Lucy said to me, ‘Ain’t it the truth, Senator, you never hear the best of anyone until they’re in the cemetery.’ ”

It would be foolish to pretend, however, that politics more than intermittently preoccupied the WASP ascendancy after the first decades of American Independence. Money was the true occupation; and money was the source of the ascendancy’s authority. From the Revolution onward, in fact, the ascendancy retained a strong grip, not so much on industry itself but on the banking system to which industry had to look for credit. The centers of power in the banking system were in the East; and these centers were the ascendancy citadels. Unless you think of the WASP ascendancy in those rather hard terms, and unless you remember its faults too, you are being wholly unrealistic. For these are the real reasons New York and in lesser degree Boston and Philadelphia felt a right, even a duty, in my youth to set the tune and lay down longterm rules for all the rest of the country; and these were the real reasons, too, for the ascendancy’s decline, for it was the grossly selfish mismanagement of this control of the nation’s credit structure in the 1920s that finally brought down the WASP ascendancy with the Crash of 1929, and the ensuing Depression.

I am often asked whether I regret this. My answer is that it was delightful to live as I lived when I was a very young man before I went to work. The delights were many-sided, too, going far beyond the pleasure of participating in the conspicuous display of others. The WASP ascendancy had its own peculiar culture, its own peculiar cookery (much better than what is now called “the new American Cuisine,” but this is a subject to which I must revert later), its own peculiar certainties, and its own particular advantages.

The greatest advantage, I should be inclined to say, was that the young had their careers laid out for them in advance so there was no foolish waffling and wavering about what to do. If you had special talents in science or architecture or scholarship or some other respectable pursuit, you sought very hard to get to the top of the tree you had chosen for yourself. If you had no such inclinations you could then choose between the various ladders that led to a respectable or even a high place in the WASP ascendancy of your time. The ladders were essentially the various professions, headed by the law, plus businesses of the kind then held to be respectable, with finance and banking at the head of the list.

It’s too easily forgotten now, or at any rate it used to be too easily forgotten by the young people who complained this or that “doesn’t turn me on,” that any healthy man is “turned on” by the mere act of putting his foot on the lowest rung of the ladder. If he is a serious and ambitious young man he will then wish to get to the top of the ladder, in short to achieve a conspicuous success. These were the reasons why young men of the WASP ascendancy did not suffer from the kind of inner anguish and self-questioning that is all too common today. Even guilt, I fear, was an almost unknown quality in the WASP ascendancy, although its members had plenty to be guilty about, I suppose. Certainly the young people whose parents and grandparents formed the WASP ascendancy appear to me to be extraordinarily guilt-ridden.

Then again it is a terrible thing to note, but women in the WASP ascendancy were not expected to have careers and did not seem to be at all bothered by not having them. The truth is that as a young man I hardly knew a girl who went to college except my sister, and after a year of Bryn Mawr, in which she showed great promise, my sister unprotestingly left college to come out. As I look back, I have to make the grossly unprogressive observation that within the WASP ascendancy women seemed to me to have been just about as powerful and effective as they are today when they have formal careers. In other words, those who were intelligent and wise and tough exercised enormous authority in various ways, quite often over large numbers of people, whereas those who were stupid and untough exercised very little if any authority—which is about the way things are today as far as I know.

Above all, if you belonged to the WASP ascendancy, you knew pretty well who you were. I have never to this day understood the phrase “identity crisis” or, indeed, understood why people had identity crises. But this, again, is probably another sign of the narrowness and provincialism that too often marked the ascendancy in the old days.

Having said so much, I must add, emphatically, that I am glad every day to remember that the WASP ascendancy collapsed when it did, essentially at the beginning of the Thirties when the Great Depression totally demoralized most of its members, and Franklin Roosevelt and those who believed in him seized the leadership of this country with almost no opposition. If the ascendancy had hung on to anything like its old leverage I cannot imagine this country achieving what seems to me to have been its greatest single feat in the twentieth century. If you think about it, it is almost unknown for any country to include as citizens with an equal share the members of excluded minorities. If you think about it, in fact, almost every European country today has an excluded minority suffering in greater or less degree from discrimination; the Soviet Union has too many excluded minorities for me to count, even though the ruling Russians are beginning to be a minority themselves; and when one comes to most of the significant nations of the Far East the same rule holds to an even more extreme degree.

In America when I was young we did not have just one excluded minority suffering from discrimination like the black minority today, and no efforts were going forward to end the exclusion of any American minority. Instead we had an enormous array of more or less excluded minorities. The best-off of these was probably the Jewish American minority, who suffered from social anti-Semitism, were subject to an admissions quota from universities like Harvard, but otherwise did very well indeed. Then there were all the so-called ethnic minorities belonging to the Catholic Church and to other exotic churches that flourish in Eastern Europe. Of them it is enough to say that finding an Italian or a Polish or a White Russian name in a position of high government responsibility, or even in any serious university, would have been quite astonishing when I was a young man. Careers were not simply open to talent; careers were open to talent with the right kind of origins and the right kind of names.

Thank God, I must add, all of this seems to me to be over now, except that the last great task facing the United States is to extend equal shares to the members of the black minority. This strikes me as a truly staggering national achievement. It is certainly, at any rate, an achievement no other major modern country can match, and it is an achievement that makes me very proud to be an American.

On the other hand, another question I find I am often asked in my old age suggests we have paid a price for the collapse of the old WASP ascendancy. The best men in the ascendancy, generation after generation, made great contributions to American life, and it is very hard for me to imagine Americans of later generations making, for example, the kinds of contributions that the two Roosevelts made as presidents without the almost excessive self-confidence that they enjoyed because they were conspicuous members of the old ascendancy.

More important, President Roosevelt collected an immense sample of the truly remarkable members of the ascendancy at the time when, as he put it, “Mr. Win the War” replaced “Mr. New Deal.” At that time President Roosevelt had only to crook a finger and a near army of great public servants, as selfless as men can be, as trustworthy as men ever are, all totally dedicated to the American future, reported to Washington in response to the President’s crooked finger. The older ones, Colonel Stimson, who was secretary of war, and Frank Knox, who was secretary of the Navy, are pretty well forgotten nowadays. But they were big men in their day, and while Frank Knox was no more than a very decent fellow, Stimson, with all his occasional mistakes, was truly a great man.

The juniors that Stimson and Knox recruited are now remembered as “the wise men,” and so they should be. They were the civilians who ran the war for Roosevelt and his two elderly war and Navy secretaries. After the war, moreover, those who stayed on in government designed the permanent structure of American foreign policy and remained on and off through most of the Truman administration to make sure that this structure was solid and beyond attack. One of them, Robert A. Lovett, was so much admired by President Kennedy as late as 1960 that the incoming president offered him his choice between the state, defense, and treasury departments. Lovett had to refuse because he was already suffering fearfully badly from the ulcers which the strains of wartime government had given him.

The others who came with him into the government: Dean Acheson, John J. McCloy, James V. Forrestal, Ellsworth Bunker (usually unfairly forgotten), Paul Nitze, who is still contributing, Charles Bohlen, who was my dear friend, as most of the others were, except that Chip was more nearly my contemporary, and many more that it would be tedious for me to list. What they had in common was that they were public servants without compare anywhere else in my experience and in any other country I have visited. The question I am often asked is where we are to get other men like these “wisemen” when the need arises, as I rather suspect it is beginning to do at present. The answer, I am afraid, is that the whole view of the world and of history, the personal culture and the standards and the private manners, that produced these men have all gone by the board.

I don’t for one moment mean that everyone in the WASP ascendancy in the least resembled Bob Lovett and Dean Acheson. In any large group the very best men are always a very small minority and the very worst in the WASP ascendancy were perfectly awful. But the fact is that without the ascendancy’s view of American history and its peculiar culture really good men of this kind could not be produced at all in however small a minority. So we must somewhere along the line find a new American culture and a new American view of history before we produce new wise men more representative of the mixed America that gives me such pride. Thank God I am confident that this will happen, although I doubt it will happen in my lifetime.

Originally published in The New York Review of Books, Nov 9, 1989.

One Comment leave one →
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