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