For the latest issue of The Rake I was asked to meditate on the concept of poolside elegance. My starting point was the work of Slim Aarons, while my ending note was James Bond. In between are stops in Palm Beach with a few notes on WASPdom. If anything, this piece should get you thinking about a summer getaway. — CC
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The Life Aquatic:
It’s one of lifes’s nagging paradoxes: the areas surrounding the world’s most spectacular swimming pools are sartorial stages that demand stylistic panache — but with lamentably few garments. So what does a man wear while whittling away the hours next to a large well of shimmering aquamarine?
By Christian Chensvold
The Rake, issue 34
Women’s apparel is widely considered more artistic and varied than men’s, and that’s before you consider the nearly endless coiffure and cosmetic possibilities at their disposal. But dressing in masculine garb offers its own singular rewards, namely the special clothes gentlemen have worn in enclaves from which women have been historically excluded. There’s the splendor of maharajahs, caliphs and sultans, the papal pomp of the church, centuries of military splendor, and even the motley rag-tag garb of pirates, bedecked in the jewels and colorful fabrics that were the spoils of their plunder. Men have also devised special clothing for endeavors such as hunting, sailing and flying (does anything signify panache more than a white scarf flapping in an open cockpit?). There are even velvet jackets and fez-like caps specifically for the gentle act of smoking.
For another gentle act, that of lounging poolside with cocktail in hand, women clearly have the fashion edge. Their swimwear can be as modest or as risqué as they like, they can accessorize with sexy heels or laid-back sandals, silk wraps and broad-rimmed hats, oversized sunglasses and sparkling jewelry. Despite being 75 percent nude (or perhaps even because of it), women dressed for sun and water can look just as chic as for any other occasion.
But stripped of his full regalia, his authority-oozing bespoke garb with boulevardier touches like boutonnieres and spectator shoes, how’s the peacock of the species to compete when nearly everything is taken away? “Clothes make the man,” as Mark Twain said. “Naked people have little or no influence on society.” (Continue)
On Monday night I was invited by the brand Boast to spectate at the squash Tournament of Champions, currently underway in Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal.
Coming from a Cali-plebian background, I’d never seen the sport played before. I was very intrigued, though, as for a few years I nursed an intense badminton obsession, playing up to five days per week at a full-time club and training under a coach from the Chinese national team. Badminton is little understood and derided here in the US (the “Official Preppy Handbook” extolls squash as the preppiest of sports while taking a crack at badminton) and of course carries no social prestige. I ended up writing a piece for the LA Times Magazine that tried to correct some of the misconceptions, and if you’ve never seen it played at an elite level before, have a look.
I’d heard that squash and badminton were similar, not only for the intensity, but also the footwork and all the lunging. Boast had a box in the front row, and after a couple of hours, with help from company president John Dowling, I went from being totally bewildered by what was happening to the ball to following every shot with anticipation. It was fascinating and the athletes are absolute ironmen.
The sport is not just preppy by chance. It was actually invented at the English boarding school Harrow and first appeared in the US in 1884 at St. Paul’s in New Hampshire. (Continue)
Update, 4 June, 10:23 AM: WRAL has pressed Representative Holloway on the WASP 101 story, who has said he’s just another man in a Brooks Brothers tie:
Monday night, offered the chance to reconsider his denial, Holloway declined.
“I’ve just made the only comment that I’m going to make, and that’s it. I’m going to stick by what I said. I don’t really see it as news or a story, so we’re just finished with it.”
Holloway said the coincidental similarities between himself and “Richard” prove nothing.
“One thing I would point out is how many brown dachshunds are out there, how many Brooks Brothers ties are hanging on the rack at a Brooks Brothers store,” he told WRAL. “I’m 5’10”, I have brown hair, I’m white. There’s a hundred million people who could look just like me.”
What about the North Carolina politics link?
“I haven’t even read [the blog,]” Holloway said. “Again, I stick with what I said. Do whatever you will, write whatever you will. I’m done with it.”
The similarities were discovered as a result of Google-enabled amateur sleuthing and a more-than-generous dash of Internet obsession.
Last night Ivy Style received an email from a source, who has requested anonymity, saying he had spent the past year trying to uncover the identity of the WASP 101 blogger. “I’ve been following every clue the weasel has posted for a year,” he wrote. “Sad? Yes. But what can I say, he bugs me.” (Continue)
First published April 10, 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” gripped the American imagination and, almost a century later, has yet to relinquish its hold. Its personal, poignant narrative, fatally flawed but perfectly drawn characters, and ability to capture a particular place and time set it apart in 20th century American literature.
The story is a cautionary tale, to be sure: the illusory power of the past, the idea of money solving any or all of one’s problems, the mixed bag of virtue and foible that make up each human being, the harsh reality of having your dreams come true. But it also presents another eternal, if less examined conflict, that of Old Money vs. New Money.
Gatsby has acquired the enormous house, the garish clothes, and the fast cars. Yet his mysterious past and bizarre behavior—he has few friends and doesn’t bother to even attend the lavish parties he hosts—cement his dubious social standing, “Wealthy, but not one of us,” in status-conscious Long Island. Gatsby could have been a cliché of the nouveau riche criminal class, but Fitzgerald reveals a vulnerability and awkwardness in him, tethered to a near-universal motivation: he’s done everything he’s done just to try to get his girl back.
Tom Buchanan, on the other hand, is Old Money, but displays the worst characteristics of it. He is arrogant, self-centered, and petty. When it comes down to brass tacks, he shirks responsibility for his actions and, after tragedy befalls others, he slips away in the night, his honor tucked under his arm like stolen goods. It’s a scenario we’ve already heard or read about before: wealth and privilege, behaving badly and walking away from the consequences, unscathed.
There’s another side of Old Money, however, that makes for a less interesting story, but a more interesting study. It’s the Old Money that has integrity; that lives far below its means; that raises it children to be productive, well-adjusted adults; that uses its position and resources not just to preserve and expand its wealth, but to quietly make the world a better place for everyone.
While much of what comprises the culture of Old Money is antithetical to modern society, it has nothing to do with being a snob. Old Money dresses and behaves so that it is not obvious how much money it has or what position it holds in society. Old Money treats others without regard for how much money they have or what position they hold in society.
The geographic epicenter of this culture is Boston, where my wife was raised and educated. Tellingly, the city is also where a Beacon Hill billionaire was recently seen scraping the ice and snow off his own car one morning, just like many other citizens of the city. Make no mistake, some Boston Brahmins (more often pretenders to that throne) can be as elitist as anyone, but their core values of thrift, discretion, hard work, and public service are well-documented. In a world of professional athletes and entertainers constantly proclaiming their own greatness while bathing in bling—and just prior to filing for bankruptcy—such attitudes are refreshing.
Almost two centuries ago, the newly-minted Old Money families of Boston sought to make their city the “Athens of America”. They realized that their quality of life depended on not just their personal wealth, but on the well-being of the general population. They rightly concluded that a well educated, productive, and ethical citizenry would serve everyone well. Consequently, they put their money to work, building universities, libraries, museums, and hospitals. Walking through the city today, it’s easy to argue that they realized their vision.
The Old Money families of Boston, and of other major cities in America, personify a code of behavior: that of an educated, articulate individual who places the interests of his or her community on par with their own personal interests. They prioritize quality of life over a standard of living, eschewing vulgar displays of wealth. They pass this philosophy on to their children, and their children to their children. They act as role models for New Money and the general public.
Old Money is a culture and a philosophy that creates great people, great cities, and great nations. It holds its adherents to a higher standard of behavior, but pays great dividends. If talent does what it can and genius what it must, then Old Money does what it should.
Gatsby, for all his faults, may have understood that. Tom Buchanan, for all his money, never would. — BYRON TULLY
Byron Tully is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter happily married to a proper Bostonian. “The Old Money Book” is his first book and is available on Kindle and Nook.
In his column yesterday for the Washington Post, George Will discusses William Zinsser and the craft of writing, making a passing reference to J. Press and the formality still observed by old-school WASPs such as Zinsser:
Tooting his own trumpet is not the style of this self-effacing and decorous WASP, who never leaves his Manhattan apartment or boards a plane or train without a jacket (J. Press, of course) and tie.
Zinsser not only dresses properly before leaving the house, he’s also had himself immortalized in oil, as in the 2006 portrait by Thomas S. Buechner above, which is a lot more dignified (though not quite as social or fun) than chronicling your quotidian happenings in grainy iPhone photos on Facebook.
WASPiness, however, was always something Zinsser had trouble coming to terms with. His website includes the following excerpt from his essay “A Reluctant WASP” for Town & Country:
I was born into the Northeastern WASP establishment and have never quite stopped pretending that I wasn’t. My boyhood was spent in a big house on the north shore of Long Island that overlooked the water and had its own tennis court. But I always wanted to get beyond that narrow world. In the summer of 1936, when I was 13, my parents took my older sisters on a Grand Tour of Europe, leaving me with my grandmother. To keep me company they advertised for a ‘tutor.’
A suitable-sounding candidate was found—Harvard junior, all-around athlete, an editor of the Crimson—and was invited for Sunday dinner to be looked over. His name was Cleveland Amory. The name signified that he was a Boston Brahmin. Many years later it would become a familiar presence on the best-seller lists for his droll social histories like The Proper Bostonians.
My father explained to Amory that he would mainly be expected to play golf and tennis and go sailing with me—the usual WASP sports. His biggest problem, my father was sorry to say, would be to wrest me away from my obsessive interest in baseball. The tutor smiled the smile of a young man who has found the perfect summer job.
When summer arrived, my new friend tried at first to adhere to the conditions of his employment. But our hearts were elsewhere. Amory, it turned out, was a crazed Boston Red Sox fan, and our schedule began to tilt. We would put our golf clubs in the family Buick, head for the Piping Rock Club, and somehow wind up at Yankee Stadium.
With their mutual interest in writing, baseball, and J. Press, Will and Zinsser are certainly two of a kind. Dare we say the right kind? — CC
Last week Susan Cheever, daughter of legendary WASPdom chronicler John Cheever and a celebrated author in her own right, wrote a piece for Newsweek entitled “Gin Without The Tonic.” The URL of the digital version explains the theme a little less cryptically:
The theme of Cheever’s essay — that the uber-rich of today are not grounded in the same fixed WASP values as the great American dynasties like the Vanderbilts and Astors — ties in neatly with a comment recently left by a reader:
I hope that Lands’ End continues to be the poor man’s Brooks Brothers, so that we can continue to dress like the 1%.
Cheever’s essay also conflates the “one percent” — the elusive catchphrase that rose to prominence during the On Wall Street protests and in its strictest sense means the global uber-rich, not an old but cash-poor preppy clan trying to save its summer house — with the upper middle preppy class. Prepdom has never been the domain of the top out-of-sight, as Paul Fussell called it. The nouveaux riches — who are newer and richer than ever before — clogging up the Hamptons where respectable families once summered aren’t “modern preppies”: they’re not preppies at all.
In what universe does this line possibly make any sense?:
The 1 percent behave outwardly more like the headmaster of Groton than like their own grandparents.
Cheever is more spot on when she compares the “one percent” to the great American dynasties to come out of the Industrial Revolution, a more direct comparison:
… the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, and more recently the Roosevelts all established foundations that made the world an extraordinarily better place. When John Jacob Astor IV gave up his seat on a Titanic lifeboat, he was acting out of a tradition of gallantry and service that was rare then and is even rarer now.
But the idea that Americans at the very top are “slavishly imitating” old WASPs is hard to swallow. The real people wearing whale-embroidered belts probably do care a lot about the old Protestant values than the jet-owning hedge-funders and technocrats. — CC