Tad Friend’s “Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor” is a memoir of growing up in the once unassailable American ruling class -- and of a long personal struggle to shed some of the emotional baggage such a lineage conferred.
As one would expect from the author of the New Yorker magazine’s deftly observed “Letters From California,” Friend’s recollections of WASP America in the throes of decline are frequently amusing, carefully modulated, occasionally wearying and unfailingly stylish. Friend is one of those journalists with an admirable eye for the telling detail, and his writing is at its best when he makes his point by allowing them to accumulate evocatively.
The terms “WASP” and “establishment,” usually linked, are so ubiquitous and deeply embedded in our consciousness that it’s seldom recalled that they’re of rather recent vintage. University of Pennsylvania sociologist E. Digby Baltzell first used the acronym WASP to describe white Americans descended from Anglo-Saxon Protestant stock in his 1964 book, “The Protestant Establishment.” Baltzell himself came from impeccably WASP-ish stock, but the designation “white” always has seemed curiously superfluous. Are there Anglo-Saxons of another hue? (Actually, as a sociologist, he was famously dismissive of quantitative methods, so perhaps he simply was unfamiliar with the stricture against multiplying categories beyond necessity.)
The noun “establishment” was popularized by the English journalist Henry Fairlie in a 1955 Spectator essay on the Soviet spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. Fairlie described how, following the well-connected traitors’ defection to Moscow, their families had been shielded from attention by other members of their influential social circle, which the writer -- perhaps borrowing from the more familiar “Established Church” -- labeled “the establishment.” “By the ‘Establishment,’ ” Fairlie wrote, “I do not only mean the centers of official power -- though they are certainly part of it -- but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised. The exercise of power in Britain (more specifically, in England) cannot be understood unless it is recognized that it is exercised socially.”
Pride and pedigree
Friend, 47, grew up in the American circles in which a particular kind of power once was exercised socially, though, as he points out, by the mid-1960s those social bonds were fraying into lace as the fortunes that had sustained it bled away.
The author’s father was president of Swarthmore and managed their dwindling inherited finances. His mother, a Smith grad and still-life painter who’d once finished second to Sylvia Plath in a student poetry competition judged by W.H. Auden, managed everything else. (“Just as well I didn’t win,” she would say of the contest. “Head in the oven, and so forth.”) She was good with decorating and rather clueless with her children.
Both the elder Friends descended from English stock that had arrived in the 1600s, and the roster of their notable forebears included the feckless but overbearing Union Gen. George McClellan, who so tormented Abraham Lincoln.
Friend’s vast circle of increasingly erratic, often alarming relations included uncles who carried on multinational affairs and wore white tropical suits to winter weddings, an aunt who donned pearls with her Keds and another who swam nude in her New England ponds.
A cousin, who attacked his own brother with a knife, was taken first to Bellevue and then to Ward’s Island, “where he kept declaring, ‘I am John Trumbull Robinson the Third,’ incredulous that the storied name didn’t precipitate his immediate release.”
Ah, the storied WASP sense of entitlement.
As Friend defines his tribe, “Wasps were circumscribed less by skin tone and religion than by a set of traditions and expectations, cast of mind. They lived in a floating Ruritania loosely bounded by L.L. Bean to the north, the shingle style to the east, Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed polar expeditions to the south, and the limits of Horace Greeley’s optimism to the west.”
As part of his inheritance of that tradition, Friend describes himself as “frugal to the point of cheapness -- when out to dinner with friends, I used to contribute only for the dishes I had ordered. . . . Most of all, I am a Wasp because I harbored a feeling of disconnection from my parents, as they had from their parents, and their parents had from their parents. . . . So I ended up spending my inheritance and then some on psychoanalysis. I was in trouble, but it was nearly impossible for anyone who didn’t know me well to tell, and I made it nearly impossible for anyone to know me well.”
A guarded people
Friend is unflinching in his willingness to recount old girlfriends’ and former therapists’ disenchantment with his emotional distance.
The author reveals that even his own father -- whose emotional life seems to have been lived somewhere out beyond the orbit of Pluto -- criticized his son’s writing for its lack of emotional engagement. Self-deprecation, as Friend points out, is a cardinal WASP virtue.
But there are moments of controlled but genuine pathos in the author’s descriptions of his relationship with his wife, food writer Amanda Hesser, and their two children -- and a reconciliation through mutual recognition with his father that’s genuinely touching.
Still, “Cheerful Money” is a kind of ghost story, an evocation of a vanished world and a people, once dominant, now faded into demographic insignificance. Less than 5% of all Americans today claim English descent. As Friend points out, assimilation turned out to be something the WASPs weren’t good at, and the author is at exquisite pains to distance himself from his relations’ habitual anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism.
WASP culture -- with its dogs, shingled houses at the shore, pearls and sweating silver cocktail shakers -- survives today as a kind of marketing tool, a commercially viable stylish nostalgia. Amusingly, its leading practitioners are a Polish Catholic woman, Martha Stewart -- who evokes the relaxed but well-groomed domestic style of the Hamptons and Nantucket -- and Ralph Lauren, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants named Lifshitz.
Actually, in dress at least, the style Lauren so artfully markets is more properly called “preppy,” and with his keen eye for the distinctions in the details, Friend delineates that as being merely a WASP subset: “preppies are infantile and optimistic, forever stuck at age 17; Wasps emerge from the womb wrinkly and cautious, already vice presidents, already fifty-two.”
As Friend’s hockey player cousin Donny -- who “shockingly” failed to gain admission to Yale -- once said as they strolled by the Ralph Lauren window on Madison Avenue: “If Ralph really wants to get to the heart of Waspdom, he should do a whole window full of beakers of lithium and patients in white gowns.”