Authenticity, Lyford Cay & The Prole Gape

January 31, 2012

Yesterday’s post, an article concerning the fears of decline surrounding an influx of vulgarity to the staid Bahamas enclave of Lyford Cay, occasioned today’s rig, a belated memorial to William F. Buckley, Jr., in which his death is described as an ascendancy to that great Lyford Cay Club in the sky.  

When William F. Buckley Jr. went to the great Lyford Cay Club in the sky a year ago today, an era of authentic WASPy style died with him. If you want to get technical about it, Buckley wasn’t really a WASP (because he was Catholic, not Protestant), and his wasn’t so much style as anti-style, but in the decades when he rose to prominence as a conservative provocateur par excellence, such distinctions waned in importance.

“Being a WASP has nothing to do with religion or money,” author Susanna Salk declared last year in her preppy-stuffed picture book A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style. [Editor’s Note: Sure, in the same way driving a car has nothing to do with being licensed.] Rather, she said, it’s all about getting the look right. Whether Buckley would have agreed is debatable, but there he was on page 84, clutching a copy of God and Man at Yale, his button-down rumpled and repp tie askew, a picture of pure prep imperfection.

Old clothes “advertise how much of conventional dignity [the upper classes] can afford to throw away,” author Paul Fussell noted in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. “The wearing of clothes excessively new or excessively neat and clean suggests that your social circumstances are not entirely secure.” That was, of course, never a problem for Buckley, whose “pleasantly disheveled and informal” look (as described by protégé Gary Wills) was rivaled only by that of his fellow patrician and friend, George Plimpton.

That’s not to say Buckley’s clothes weren’t well made. Fussell points to an episode of Mr. Buckley’s long-running show Firing Line, in which he interviewed an oafish Texan of decidedly humbler origins. The Texan’s jacket collar “gaped open a full two inches,” Fussell writes. “Buckley’s collar, of course, clung tightly to his neck and shoulder, turn and bow and bob as he might.” His genteel shabbiness, thankfully, did not extend to an inclusion of “prole gape.”

Advertisements

How-to: Collecting

March 31, 2011

The blue-blooded set has long amused itself with some of the silliest pastimes there are. Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson’s father told him, with regard to what he ought to do with his life post-college, “Well… you could always collect antique maps.”

That father is, according to inter-web research, “James Loring Johnson, who leads a quiet life of reading and painting landscapes.”

Eccentric hobbies and collections of staggering triviality taken up by well-bred patricians proclaim their adherents’ station by their frivolity: I am sufficiently wealthy as to not have to care about life’s hassles; that I spend my time collecting English sextants implies I am not required to spend my time doing anything else, like earning money or paying bills.

The more esoteric the hobby or assemblage, the better. Collecting baseball cards can be fun but it’s not very impressive, because it’s common and cheap to do. Better a trove of briarwood pipes or French birding manuals. In a pinch, antique horse bridles will suffice.

The more trivial the things collected or the hobby engaged in, and the more expensive and difficult to collect or undertake, the better.

Editor’s note: collections and activities having to do, in some degree or other, with birds, dogs, horses, sailing, maps, tweed, the original American colonies, old books, geneology, or things which are British are best. Aim for one of those, or combine them all: your editorial staff, for example, collects British genelogy books which trace the bloodlines of labradors from the Plymouth Bay colony to modern day. The books come with maps and are bound in tweed.


The Prince Albert Slipper-y Slope

November 22, 2010

Prince Albert slippers are uniquely situated in the haberdashers’ galaxy for their uncanny ability to do for men what threshers do for farms: that is, separate the wheat from the chaff. Or the boys from the men.

Or, more to it, the men from the much more WASP-ily effete men. But if effected Brahmin effetism is a crime, then your staff is (with apologies to Wm. Shakespeare’s Henry VIII) “the most offending soul alive.”

In our defense, we’re in good company. Specifically, Bobby Kennedy. And Ralph Lauren. And Dean Martin. And, of course, His Royal Highness Prince Albert, who married Queen Victoria in 1840 and lent his name to the slipper as his wife lent hers to the era. 

"Specifically, Bobby Kennedy."

Gentlemen of Victorian England, ever exemplars of propriety, refused to wear their shoes indoors. The behavior likely owed as much to the poor condition of Victorian streets as to manners: shoes (and feet) of the period took a daily beating at the hands of mud-slick cobblestones and street grime.

So Victorian men, indoors, changed into house-shoes. And Victorian gentlemen, in shodding, preferred Prince Albert slippers. Today, the slippers are as much acceptable outdoors as in. “Some young people are starting to wear slippers outside,” observed Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson, chairman of London’s oldest bespoke shoemakers, W.S. Foster, recently. “A young, dapper-looking Australian fellow who works for one of our graphic design firms came to the office this summer in a pair of velvet slippers.”  

The Prince Albert slipper, above, is loafer-shaped and pulls on; there are no laces. They’re made of velvet and have a raised leather heel, so that they can be worn lightly outdoors. They come either unlined or lined in quilted silk.

The more rakish also come embroidered: monograms across the toe are popular, as are coats of arms. American makers Stubbs & Wootton and Del Toro, both of Florida, offer more whimsical fare: slippers embroidered with martini glasses, skulls-and-crossed-bones, dollar and euro signs, sail boats, and that sort of thing. Del Toro in particular seems intent on cornering J. Crew’s embroidered critter market.

Brooks Brothers offers a model in black velvet, with its emblematic “BB” in gold script across the toe, and couturiers Ralph Lauren and Paul Stuart each sell a take on the Prince Albert.

“We’ve noticed a growing interest in our men’s slippers, especially from America.” That’s Hilary Freeman, managing director of Edward Green & Co., boot-makers of Northampton, England since 1890 and purveyors of Alberts. “This is slowly moving west to Europe, then Russia and onwards. We are even starting to see interest in Japan.”

And there, the defense rests.


The Boston Cracked Shoe

September 16, 2010

Shelby Cullom Davis (Princeton ’30) was a Bostonian of the most patrician, and endangered, variety: an Ivy Leaguer and a very succesful banker, he served eventually as ambassador to Switzerland. In dress, he favored two-button blue blazers and repp ties, khakis with cuffs, and cap-toed lace-ups cracked deeply across the front.

Ivy-Style reports that the look wasn’t confined to Ambassador Davis, either: men across New England subscribed to the Boston cracked-shoe look, wearing shoes long past the point at which they’d gone from new- to used- to battered-looking. The message inherent was three-fold: first, the men who subscribed to the look were, despite success, generally frugal and prudent. Second, they were too well-heeled and removed to be bothered with such banalities as cobblers. And finally, that their primary care was for taste, things well-used to the point of smooth burnishing, and not for high fashion.

Newly-minted lawyers and bankers climbed their respective ladders in spit-shined brogues; the old partners at the top of the ladder had the luxury of comfortable shoes. Cracked shoes meant success.

“The first time this stubborn Yankee frugality came to the attention of the public was during the 1952 presidential campaign,” wrote Ivy-Style contributor Bill Stephenson. “LIFE Magazine ran a picture of Adlai Stevenson with his feet propped on a chair, and there was a large hole in one of Stevenson’s shoes. The press was dumfounded at what they considered to be a huge faux pas.”

What LIFE failed to note was that Adlai Ewing Stevenson II (he declined “Jr.”), scion of a wealthy family of New England politicians, was merely at ease in his own environment, cracked shoes and all. So at ease that novelist Tom Wolfe was inspired to coin, in Bonfire of The Vanities, the phrase “Boston Cracked-Shoe Look” …and it stuck.

Photo via Maxminimus.


In Decline, Graciously

July 2, 2010

Via The New York Times:

Satisfaction with our national progress should not make us forget its authors: the very Protestant elite that founded and long dominated our nation’s institutions of higher education and government, including the Supreme Court.

Unlike almost every other dominant ethnic, racial or religious group in world history, white Protestants have ceded their socioeconomic power by hewing voluntarily to the values of merit and inclusion, values now shared broadly by Americans of different backgrounds. The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph.

Like any ethno-racial or religious group, the population of white Protestants is internally diverse. It would be foolish to conflate the descendants of New England smallholders with the offspring of Scandinavian sod farmers in the Middle West, just as it would be a mistake to confuse the Milanese with the Sicilians, or the children of Havana doctors with the grandchildren of dirt farmers from Chiapas, Mexico.

So, when discussing the white elite that exercised such disproportionate power in American history, we are talking about a subgroup, mostly of English or Scots-Irish origin, whose ancestors came to this land in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their forebears fought the American Revolution and wrote the Constitution, embedding in it a distinctive set of beliefs of Protestant origin, including inalienable rights and the separation of church and state.

It is not as though white Protestants relinquished power quickly or without reservation. Catholic immigrants, whether from Ireland or Southern Europe, faced a century of organized discrimination and were regularly denounced as slavish devotees of the pope unsuited to democratic participation.

And, although anti-Semitism in America never had anything like the purchase it had in Europe, it was a persistent barrier. Protestants like Abbott Lawrence Lowell, a great president of Harvard in the early 20th century, tried to impose formal quotas to limit Jewish admissions to the university. The Protestant governing elite must also bear its own share of responsibility for slavery and racial discrimination.

Yet, after the ideals of meritocratic inclusion gained a foothold, progress was remarkably steady and smooth. Take Princeton University, a longtime bastion of the Southern Protestant elite in particular. The Princeton of F. Scott Fitzgerald was segregated and exclusive. When Hemingway described Robert Cohn in the opening of “The Sun Also Rises” as a Jew who had been “the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton,” he was using shorthand for a character at once isolated, insecure and pugnacious. As late as 1958, the year of the “dirty bicker” in which Jews were conspicuously excluded from its eating clubs, Princeton could fairly have been seen as a redoubt of all-male Protestant privilege.

In the 1960s, however, Princeton made a conscious decision to change, eventually opening its admissions to urban ethnic minorities and women. That decision has now borne fruit. Astonishingly, the last three Supreme Court nominees — Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — are Princeton graduates, from the Classes of 1972, ’76, and ’81, respectively. The appointments of these three justices to replace Protestant predecessors turned the demographic balance of the court.

Why did the Protestant elite open its institutions to all comers? The answer can be traced in large part to the anti-aristocratic ideals of the Constitution, which banned titles of nobility and thus encouraged success based on merit. For many years, the Protestant elite was itself open to rising white Protestants not from old-family backgrounds.

Money certainly granted entrée into governing circles, but education was probably more important to the way the Protestant elite defined itself, which is why the opening of the great American universities has had such an epochal effect in changing the demographics of American elites. Another key source was the ideal of fair play, imported from the ideology of the English public schools, but practiced far more widely in the United States than in the class-ridden mother country.

Together, these social beliefs in equality undercut the impulse toward exclusive privilege that every successful group indulges on occasion. A handful of exceptions for admission to societies, clubs and colleges — trivial in and of themselves — helped break down barriers more broadly. This was not just a case of an elite looking outside itself for rejuvenation: the inclusiveness of the last 50 years has been the product of sincerely held ideals put into action.

Interestingly, this era of inclusion was accompanied by a corresponding diffusion of the distinctive fashion (or rather anti-fashion) of the Protestant elite class. The style now generically called “prep,” originally known as “Ivy League,” was long purveyed by Jewish and immigrant haberdashers (the “J.” in the New Haven store J. Press stands for Jacobi) and then taken global by Ralph Lauren, né Lifshitz. But until the Protestant-dominated Ivy League began to open up, the wearers of the style were restricted to that elite subculture.

The spread of Ivy League style is therefore not a frivolous matter. Today the wearing of the tweed is not anachronism or assimilation, but a mark of respect for the distinctive ethnic group that opened its doors to all — an accomplishment that must be remembered, acknowledged and emulated.


WASPs Take Flight

May 25, 2010

Assuming Elena Kagan, President Obama’s anointed successor to Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (himself an illustrious knight of the Protestant realm), is confirmed to the Court, she will become part of the first Supreme Court entirely devoid of WASPs.

Of the 111 (mainly) men and (less often) women who have served as Justices on the high court, nearly a full third have been white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants… what sociologist E. Digby Baltzell identified in 1964 as the American ruling class. A good amount of Catholics have cropped up lately, notably Justice Antonin Scalia, and the Jews have enjoyed a foothold for a while, starting with Louis Brandeis. (Kagan herself is Jewish: a member of the group most often cited by sociologists like Baltzell as having supplanted the Protestants in wielding influence disproportionate to their numbers.)

Of course, the North American WASP has been a species long declining, thanks in part to what researchers call “generational degeneration.” Centuries ago, a strong Protestant work ethic and Yankee ingenuity made for a lot of fortunes earned; entitled heirs made for a lot of waste. Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, explains: “The generations of affluence bred a certain kind of casual, passive approach to life and wealth building. Lots of people just got lazy.” Southern money might put it differently: fat dogs don’t hunt.

So old-line money and its (sometimes honorable, sometimes insular) values are being swept away, and in their place we expect a shiny new meritocracy, exemplary to the world. It’s not about who you know, but what you can do! Our leaders, including Justices of the Supreme Court, will become a more representative lot, drawn from common stock and full of common virtue. Of course, Ms. Kagan’s proponents hold, there’s no stock more common and popularly representative than Upper West Side Jewish girls with Ivy League degrees.

So we seem in the process of trading one aristocracy for another, and all that really changes is the royal religion. And, given Americans’ generally lax proclivities toward faith, this probably isn’t a terribly important shift. What will be more telling is whether or not the old WASP ideals of grace, charm, style, economy, family, and tradition will stay on. As the late Louis Auchincloss, white-shoe attorney and author, noted: “The tragedy of American civilization is that it has swept away WASP morality and put nothing in its place.”  

Victims of regime change.


Brooks, on The Machine

February 28, 2010

David Brooks, The New York Times‘ token conservative, recently wrote an opinion called “The Power Elite” which was published in that newspaper on February 18 of this year. In it, he accurately plots the trajectory of America’s confidence in its leadership and establishments as the composition of those institutions “progresses” …or rather, fails to. It’s worth a read, and presented here, below, sans editing. Mr. Brooks is on to something. 

One of the great achievements of modern times is that we have made society more fair. Sixty years ago, the upper echelons were dominated by what E. Digby Baltzell called The Protestant Establishment and C. Wright Mills called The Power Elite. If your father went to Harvard, you had a 90 percent chance of getting in yourself, and the path upward from there was grooved in your favor. 

Since then, we have opened up opportunities for women, African-Americans, Jews, Italians, Poles, Hispanics and members of many other groups. Moreover, we’ve changed the criteria for success. It is less necessary to be clubbable. It is more important to be smart and hard-working. 

Yet here’s the funny thing. As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower. 

It’s not even clear that society is better led. Fifty years ago, the financial world was dominated by well-connected blue bloods who drank at lunch and played golf in the afternoons. Now financial firms recruit from the cream of the Ivy League. In 2007, 47 percent of Harvard grads went into finance or consulting. Yet would we say that banks are performing more ably than they were a half-century ago? 

Alas...

 Government used to be staffed by party hacks. Today, it is staffed by people from public policy schools. But does government work better than it did before? 

Journalism used to be the preserve of working-class stiffs who filed stories and hit the bars. Now it is the preserve of cultured analysts who file stories and hit the water bottles. Is the media overall more reputable now than it was then? 

The promise of the meritocracy has not been fulfilled. The talent level is higher, but the reputation is lower. 

Why has this happened? I can think of a few contributing factors. 

First, the meritocracy is based on an overly narrow definition of talent. Our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. But this skill is only marginally related to the skill of being sensitive to context. It is not related at all to skills like empathy. Over the past years, we’ve seen very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating. 

Second, this new system has created new social chasms. In the old days, there were obviously big differences between people whose lives were defined by “The Philadelphia Story” and those who were defined by “The Grapes of Wrath.” But if you ran the largest bank in Murfreesboro, Tenn., you probably lived in Murfreesboro. Now you live in Charlotte or New York City. You might have married a secretary. Now you marry another banker. You would have had similar lifestyle habits as other people in town. Now the lifestyle patterns of the college-educated are very different from the patterns in other classes. Social attitudes are very different, too. 

It could be that Americans actually feel less connected to their leadership class now than they did then, with good reason. 

Third, leadership-class solidarity is weaker. The Protestant Establishment was inbred. On the other hand, those social connections placed informal limits on strife. Personal scandals were hushed up. Now members of the leadership class are engaged in a perpetual state of war. Each side seeks daily advantage in ways that poison the long-term reputations of everybody involved. 

Fourth, time horizons have shrunk. If you were an old blue blood, you traced your lineage back centuries, and there was a decent chance that you’d hand your company down to members of your clan. That subtly encouraged long-term thinking. 

Now people respond to ever-faster performance criteria — daily stock prices or tracking polls. This perversely encourages reckless behavior. To leave a mark in a fast, competitive world, leaders seek to hit grandiose home runs. Clinton tried to transform health care. Bush tried to transform the Middle East. Obama has tried to transform health care, energy and much more. 

There’s less emphasis on steady, gradual change and more emphasis on the big swing. This produces more spectacular failures and more uncertainty. Many Americans, not caught up on the romance of this sort of heroism, are terrified. 

Fifth, society is too transparent. Since Watergate, we have tried to make government as open as possible. But as William Galston of the Brookings Institution jokes, government should sometimes be shrouded for the same reason that middle-aged people should be clothed. This isn’t Galston’s point, but I’d observe that the more government has become transparent, the less people are inclined to trust it. 

This is not to say that we should return to the days of the WASP ascendancy. That’s neither possible nor desirable. Rather, our system of promotion has grown some pretty serious problems, which are more evident with each passing day.