Upper Class Putting Us In Our Place
I once had a boyfriend who tried to turn me into a WASP.
He urged less makeup and longer vowels. He gave me pink oxford-cloth shirts from Brooks Brothers and nubby gray sweaters from L.L. Bean. When I finally acceded to his request to get Topsiders, he recoiled when I bought a Lord & Taylor version and rushed out to return them for genuine Topsiders, with a registration card inquiring about the size of my yacht.
It didn’t work. I couldn’t overcome my belief in high heels and he couldn’t surrender his belief in crew necks with fuzz balls.
So it gave me a start, after years of gloating over the WASP descendancy, to read in The Times that debutante balls are back. Exclusive, expensive New York cotillions (wasn’t that word declared archaic?) complete with pearls and white silk, curtsies and calling cards, Bachrach portraits and Lester Lanin’s society band, debs with names like Eisenhower and Forbes, and pedigreed escorts known as “Debs’ Delights.”
Gioia Diliberto, author of “Debutante,” a book about Brenda Frazier, the raven-haired 1938 Deb of the Year who prowled the Stork Club and El Morocco, was also alarmed. “Silly rich people acting out silly customs that died a natural death,” she says. “Why bring them back? Debs are dinosaurs in tulle.”
But that is the point, after all. Debutante balls are back, not as a way to keep the blood lines going, but as nostalgia for that vanished world. Young women are eager to behave like show horses - executing the perilous Texas dip floor curtsy - for the same reason Hollywood likes Jane Austen, Edith Wharton and Henry James. In a society so shameless and coarse, all that formality seems exotic. (What is the Episcopalian version of hell? Setting the table without a dessert fork.)
“The Protestant Establishment isn’t threatening anymore, they’re never going to run the world again, so it’s safe to do the Texas dip,” says Richard Brookhiser, who wrote “The Way of the WASP.” “It’s only a ritual now, instead of a passport to clubs to which you must belong in order to succeed.”
Evan Thomas, who wrote “The Very Best Men,” about the WASP’s who started the CIA, a wacky bunch that would tank up on martinis in Georgetown and decide to overthrow Iran and Guatemala, agreed: “The only things WASPs have left are good rugs and good vacation houses.”
For years, bluebloods internalized their anger about displacement. After George Bush left, with his radically Caucasian vice president, his jumbled Ivyspeak and his Maine golf outings (Poppy, Bucky, Hap and Bar) Anglo-Saxons receded amid the deafening cacophony of minority voices, and ethnic cultural, political and foreign policy achievements.
WASPs didn’t fight back, even when they became the only group it was safe to belittle. They didn’t fight back, even when it became fashionable among the young to drink blue martinis in bars with fake dark wood paneling.
They muttered about their institutions being taken away. Even the sound of George Plimpton speaking English couldn’t hold the line.
For one man I know, the last straw was when feminists altered the service at his Episcopal church this Christmas, changing “peace on Earth and good will to men” to “peace on Earth and good will to all those who feel the same way.”
Brahmins were extremely put out over the Christmas Brooks Brothers catalog, featuring a model in a lavender cashmere polo shirt. (The color barrier had been broken.) One friend, upset over the smaller stock of circa 1958 rep ties and plain blue cotton sweaters, confronted a salesman over the “appalling” plaids and fuchsia. In this rough and tumble society, you won’t get far if fuchsia is your cause.
But now, WASPs want their place in the multicultural sun. Social rituals are social rituals. If there is Kwanzaa, why not cotillions?
Aesthetically speaking, we should be grateful for a Wasp re-ascendancy. In fact, the upper class has fallen off the job very badly. Its proper function in a democratic society is to make the proles feel so rejected and inadequate, so sick with envy, that they produce great literature, a la John O’Hara, and eventually are inspired to usurp the classes above them. After a decade of diversity whining, a little class rage would be bracing. Welcome to martini-culturalism.