“This prolific author’s last book is a farewell to a way of life that was gone before he was.” – A Voice from Old New York, by Louis Auchincloss
When I heard that a memoir by Louis Auchincloss was due to be published posthumously, I knew I’d want to read it. Born in 1917, Auchincloss grew up in a world of wealth and privilege among the creme de la creme of New York society. This slim volume is filled with lively anecdotes. One of my favorites concerns Auchincloss’s Uncle Ed, who sent his shirts to Europe so they’d be properly laundered!
The Auchinclosses moved in exalted circles, although as is usual with children, young Louis took it for granted that the family should socialize with the elite of the period, including the Vanderbilts. I liked this summing up of that high profile clan by one of the era’s supreme chroniclers:
Edith Wharton spoke of the family as engaged in a constant Battle of Thermopylae against bad taste, which they never won.
(Wharton, a huge influence on Auchincloss, was known to his grandmother from their summers at Newport, Rhode Island.)
Some of the author’s recollections are poignant. For instance, he went to law school (University of Virginia) with Marshall Field IV. This scion of the wealthy Chicago department store and newspaper owners suffered a nervous breakdown in 1956 and endured a lifelong struggle with drug use. He died in 1965 at the age of 50. Auchincloss comments that “the story of the Fields is like that of the House of Atreus.” (These allusions to the classics and to ancient history serve as a dismaying reminder that a basic knowledge of these fields of study used to be presumed for all and any educated Americans.)
In the domestic sphere, Auchincloss’s mother did not have to do without: she had two nurses to assist with the care of four minor children, a cook, a waitress (!), a chambermaid for general housekeeping, and a chauffeur: “Her days were thus free for some not very taxing charity work, lunches with friends at her clubs, matinees or concerts, visits to museums.” Once again, this profusion of servants, a state of affairs that seems almost unimaginable to us now, would have been something that Louis and his siblings took for granted. To this description, Auchincloss appends some provocative observations on the status of women of that era:
It was commonly said that because so many women were possessed of great wealth in their own right, that they exercised considerable economic power. It is truer to say that they could have. But all that was left by tacit consent to the men. Women, before they took jobs in the professions, were content with the power they exercised in the home, where they ran the household and the children, selected the life style and the friends, chose the vacation spots and the charities to be supported and even the church to be attended.
In this passage, Auchincloss delineates those that comprised the entity called “society,” as it existed in New York City in the 1920s and’30s:
These persons resided on the East Side of Manhattan (never west except below Fifty-ninth Street) as far south as Union Square and as far north as Ninety-sixth Street. The members (if that is the word; it doesn’t seem quite right) were largely Protestants of Anglo-Saxon origin. (Note that Catholics and nonpracticing Jews were not always excluded if rich enough.) The men were apt to be in business, finance, or law, sometimes in medicine, rarely in the church and almost never in politics.
He adds that “Franklin Roosevelt was an exception and not a popular one, either.” I suspect that’s a bit of an understatement. Re Roosevelt: does one not frequently hear that he was considered “a traitor to his class”? I also liked the part about “nonpracticing Jews.” Better lose the skull caps and prayer shawls, fellas, if you want in!
Louis Auchincloss crossed paths with many who would later attain fame (or in some cases, notoriety). At the elite private boys’ school that he attended in Manhattan, he knew two future actors of some disctinction: Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Mel Ferrer.
Then it was on to Groton, the prestigious prep school in Massachusetts, where he counted William Bundy as a classmate. Bundy and his older brother McGeorge – called “Mac” by intimates – went on to become security advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. At the time that Auchincloss was at Groton, Reverend Endicott Peabody, the school’s founder, was still headmaster. (Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, was an earlier scion of the same illustrious clan.)
Auchincloss went to Yale and then, as mentioned above, to the University of Virginia Law School. Finally in 1941, he obtained employment at the Wall Street firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. The movers and shakers there were the Dulles brothers, Allen, the fifth director of the CIA, and John Foster, future Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. At different times during his tenure at Sullivan & Cromwell, the author worked for both brothers. He makes interesting observations about them:
Foster was sober, grave, dedicated to work, deeply religious, and utterly unimaginative in his dealings with clerks and staff. Allen, on the other hand, was hearty, cheerful, outgiving [sic], full of charm and humor. Where he was devoted, perhaps too much so, to the fair sex, Foster was strictly a faithful monogamist.
Probably Auchincloss’s most intriguing connection entered his life in 1942, when his father’s cousin Hugh D. Auchiincloss married Janet Lee Bouvier. It was his third marriage and her second. She already had two daughters, one of whom was to become one of the twentieth century’s most famous women: . (Hugh Auchincloss’s second marriage was to Nina S. Gore, mother of author Gore Vidal.)
Louis Auchincloss recounts a fascinating anecdote about Jackie Bouvier, as she then was. He had just written Sybil, and Jackie, at the time engaged to one John Husted of New York, strongly identified with the novel’s eponymous protagonist. She told him:
‘Oh, you’ve written my life….Sybil Bouvier, Sybil Husted. Respectable, middle-class, moderately well off. Accepted everywhere. Decent and dull.’
Auchincloss writes that at that moment, he had a premonition of an entirely different fate awaiting his pretty cousin. Still, he admits that no one in the family “…predicted her remarkable destiny.” (One week later, her engagement to Husted was broken.)
In his introduction to this memoir, Louis Auchincloss voices the hope that in taking us on this journey to the past – his past and ours – he will bring that past to life. In this effort, he has succeeded admirably.
Louis Auchincloss was a remarkably prolific writer. Here is his oeuvre, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Short story collections
- Reflections of a Jacobite (1961)
- Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Women Novelists (1965)
- On Sister Carrie (1968)
- Motiveless Malignity (1969)
- Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time (1972)
- Richelieu (1972)
- A Writer’s Capital (1974)
- Reading Henry James (1975)
- Life, Law, and Letters: Essays and Sketches (1979)
- Persons of Consequence: Queen Victoria and Her Circle (1979)
- False Dawn: Women in the Age of the Sun King (1985)
- The Vanderbilt Era: Profiles of a Gilded Age (1989)
- Love without Wings: Some Friendships in Literature and Politics (1991)
- The Style’s the Man: Reflections on Proust, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Vidal, and Others (1994)
- The Man Behind the Book: Literary Profiles (1996)
- Woodrow Wilson (Penguin Lives) (2000)
- Theodore Roosevelt (The American Presidents Series) (2002)
Auchincloss’s The Great World and Timothy Colt (1956) was adapted for television in an episode of the Climax! series (Season 4, Episode 22; Broadcast 27 March 1958).
It is difficult to believe that it was only only last that we bid Louis Auchincloss adieu. His work and his life belong so completely to a bygone era. The Kirkus reviewer of A Voice from Old New York commented that this last book from the author’s pen “…is a farewell to a way of life that was gone before he was.” Auchincoss would most certainly have agreed with this assessment.