Wealth of Insight: Jamie Johnson on the WASP Establishment

Like twilight through faded chintz curtains, the sun is setting on the WASP establishment. And Jamie Johnson is seated in the drawing room taking assiduous notes.

“It’s interesting to document a small group of people that are losing their influence,” says the filmmaker and columnist, “and highlight what may be appealing about their world, and also what is unattractive.”

A great-grandson of the founder of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical empire, the 29-year-old heir wrote and directed the 2003 documentary “Born Rich,” and currently chronicles the splendors and miseries of WASPdom in a blog for Vanity Fair entitled The One Percent.

Johnson, who majored in American History at New York University, recently spoke with Ivy-Style founder Christian Chensvold about the setting sun’s bittersweet glow.

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IS: What was your motivation for making “Born Rich”?

JJ: I had noticed a number of people from rich families who had opportunities and a great education and everything going for them, and they didn’t do anything with their lives. In some cases they even died of drug overdose or by crashing their Ferrari in the French Riviera.

I was in school at NYU and I thought it would be interesting to chronicle the lives of affluent kids in a documentary film, which had never been done before. I really didn’t know where the film would go, and I certainly didn’t expect many people to see it. But it got accepted at the Sundance Festival and had a good run on HBO.

IS: How much classic preppy style still remains in the WASP community?

JJ: You can go to any old WASPy social institutions, especially country clubs, and virtually nothing’s changed since the 1950s. Tennis whites are the same as they were, and many institutions still have dress codes on the golf course. When I was a teenager, I remember it being quite stylish to have a belt with the emblem of your country club on it. And if you were in a different part of the country, someone might compliment you on it. So there’s that sense of community that gets expressed through clothing.

I think the WASP community is often completely blind to outside influences. WASP style is incredibly unappealing at times, especially for women. It’s definitely repressed. I often wonder how they can operate without an awareness of what’s going on in the fashion world.

IS: Does the taste for old and rumpled clothing still remain?

JJ: Certainly for more casual looks distressed clothing is desirable. When I was in school, having your boxer shorts hang below the bottoms of your regular shorts was very hip. And for teenagers, there’s this crossover between the preppy and the pothead. So it’s fundamentally a preppy look, but there are these accents like out-of-control hair and a frayed collar and a patch on your clothing, like a hippy look.

The WASP community likes the idea of abundance, and that you’ve had such a long history of affluence that purchasing new clothing is never something you need to do. That can become a status symbol, and it can work against you if you’re thought of as someone who needs to buy a new dinner jacket in order to go to a debutante ball.

IS: What do you personally like to wear?

JJ: I actually think it’s fun to reference the American classics ironically. I’m a fan of anyone who has an ironic style. I’d say more and more I’m drawn to what I grew up with. Not so absurd as whales stitched onto corduroy pants, but I certainly grew up with the fundamentals of preppy style.

To me, WASP style is more interesting when you’re a teenager, because you have more opportunities to be creative. As men get older, their options are restricted. They’re wear jeans and the classic Gucci loafer, and the shirt is the only thing about them that’s expressive.

IS: Books and articles on the “decline of the WASP” have practically become a cottage industry, and that’s part of what you cover in your column. What are your thoughts on this?

JJ: I think we’ve been witnessing the end of WASP ascendancy for a while. It’s true that WASPs have less power with each passing decade since the ’50s. Part of it is their own fault, because their exclusive social practices have limited them. They haven’t brought in fresh talent and ideas, and been able to maintain their influence. Both the decline and what still remains equally fascinate me. And there are people I know who’ve had much more WASPy upbringings than I did.

IS: What are the degrees of WASPiness in one’s upbringing?

JJ: I mean that I had some outside influences. If you are raised in an affluent WASPy household, and you don’t interact with anyone who isn’t a part of that community, your upbringing is more WASPy. And there are some people who don’t want to interact with anyone who isn’t Protestant Old Money.

IS: How much of the old WASP prejudices still exist?

JJ: They still exist. They’re acknowledged less and less, and are certainly stated less and less, but it’s definitely a community that still holds prejudices. That’s how you’re raised. Exclusivity has been such a part of the WASP world for so long it’s impossible not to take impressions from it.

IS: And what of the virtues still remain? Are young people still raised to hold things like ostentation and naked ambition in contempt, and to appreciate understatement, have a moral sense, and feel an obligation for civic duty?

JJ: I think those values still exist. There is definitely a preference for understatement, and people encourage subtlety and a less ostentatious way of living.

IS: Your film includes Ivanka Trump, and the Trump family isn’t exactly known for subtlety.

JJ: But I think WASPs are behind the times in that regard. There’s nothing wrong with subtlety, but at the same time there’s nothing wrong with self-promotion. Times have changed, that’s why you don’t see that many WASPs involved in the highest ranks of government, business and culture. They’re hanging on to values that are irrelevant in the modern world.

IS: It sounds like you’re suggesting that many WASPs are unwilling or unable to compete in a meritocratic society, that they were accustomed to a more casual, gentlemanly approach, and that today things are too competitive.

JJ: I think that’s true, and that it brings up a real paradox in our culture. What’s so alluring about WASP style is the sense of nonchalance it communicates. And at the same time, that casual, laid-back attitude and approach toward life has really been a disservice to WASPs in recent decades, and has contributed to their decrease in influence.

IS: Your film explores the insecurities that come with being born to money, and even envy for those who make it on their own. Tell us more about this.

JJ: I’ve often observed that people want to be something they’re not: The self-made banker wants to be a gentleman farmer and man of leisure, and the inheritor wants to be a mover and shaker in the business world. I’ve seen it go both ways.

15 Comments on "Wealth of Insight: Jamie Johnson on the WASP Establishment"

  1. Christian,

    I enjoyed reading this interview tremendously. I’ve watched “Born Rich” before and loved it. To hear Jamie’s perspective on WASPdom is very interesting from the viewpoint of an insider. I have said this before, but I repeat: your blog is the best of this genre, I practically enjoy everyone of your postings.

  2. really interesting points here. always fun to read a/b wasp culture. thanks again guys.

  3. Thanks to men.style for another link to us:


  4. HRH The Duke of Windsor | April 28, 2009 at 9:12 pm |

    I quite seriously wanted to punch Jamie Johnson after “Born Rich”.

  5. Oh, for the days when boxers hung out the *bottom* edge of the shorts.

    But I should complain, right? At least it’s not whales on corduroy. Because that would be *really* unattractive.

  6. This is a good doc. It did a lot to change my own bias of those born into privilege even though there was that one kid, the litigious one eventually declined to participate in the film, who did reinforce the negative stereotype.

  7. Wow what a site. I am probably flagged on FBI database for visiting it.

  8. Trinity College ’67. Totally WASP. Whew. I was the only Black guy in the class. What the hell was I thinking.

  9. he has a few interesting posts on his blog…I sent the one about “birding” to my mother actually….I also like his comments about the New York Public Library getting the name SCHWARZMAN carved on the outside of it

  10. I really have to say, JJ is the biggest disappointment since the Republican Party’s transformation in the 80s. This kid so clearly hates himself, it’s amusing.

    In many ways, it makes me happy to know that his self-loathing it’s merely attributed to his acknowledgement that he has let his family down in more ways than one can count. JJ, I’d say go to hell, but you’re probably already there.

  11. HWG has codified JJ’s thesis:
    “I’ve often observed that people want to be something they’re not”

    You want it so badly, don’t you HWG? JJ is free. He’s not worried about ingratiating himself with the next higher class. Jealousy on the other hand is hell. He’s the kind of person that should run for office.

  12. Perfect financial sector | August 14, 2010 at 4:17 am |

    Jamie Johnson is very informative. He’s also thoroughly elegant and well regarded by many, including myself. It’s unfortunate that he has to sit back and watch several of his peers self- destruct, including his own cousin—

    Like Jamie, I know several Trust fund Preps that are (potentially) deep people as well as being the best groomed, but they tend to use thier energy on pointless decadence and have grown pleasure beaten as a result of not cultivating their originality. It’s boring to me now.

    What really gets me is that the *several generations* Preppy Wasps have strands of perfection they’re working from–a little starlight perhaps is what it is. It’s near divine and everyone is intrgiued by it. Yet, when it comes down to cultivating this nobility into expertise talent, they seem to be too fragile to give it the old college go . I wish it were otherwise of course.

    Good interview none the less. !!!

  13. I enjoyed hearing his take on the culture and behaviors Jamie presented in this interview. It’s intriguing to learn about the ways society divides into groups and how it is upheld and passed on through the children. I would like to know why it seems the financially well to do stay to themselves instead of mixing with and finding people of value through all the societal groups. Granted the prestige from having money brings dishonest and money hungry people but if you grow up in money wouldn’t you still think for yourself and question the practices of those around you to determine if they would be the best to follow. In addition, wouldn’t you still seek out people with good hearts and even if you had to do it under the radar. If the families are known for their privacy use that and make an independent name for yourself as a branch of the family tree? Just some thoughts I’ve considered through my reading this and trying to understand why the separation of good people with or without money.

  14. Just watched Born Rich on youtube…I felt terrible for Josiah, he looked so lost and confused. I never thought I’d feel so bad for a person with so much money. Nice job Jamie, this was really a great movie and I’m using it to educate all the kids in my not-rich family about some of the issues that come about with this kind of money.

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