Author Stephen Birmingham wrote approximately 30 books, almost all of which were about the super-wealthy. And he had a good time doing so.
“I think rich people are more interesting than poor people,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1984.
His biggest hit was the 1967 nonfiction “Our Crowd” about the Jewish elite in New York, but Birmingham was an equal opportunity chronicler, also writing about African Americans, the Irish and others, as long as they had big money, whether old or nouveau. He felt they had been misrepresented.
“Sometimes I feel rather sorry for the rich,” he told the Enquirer, “because I’m practically the only [writer] who’s paying any attention to them. I mean, we’re having all these serious studies of poverty in America, now, these ‘demographic profiles.’
“And the poor old rich are just sitting there and they’re important too.”
Birmingham, 86, died Nov. 15 at his home in New York. The cause was cancer, said his son, Carey.
“Our Crowd,” subtitled “The Great Jewish Families of New York,” was so successful that he wrote two follow-up books: “The Grandees: America’s Sephardic Elite” (1971) and “The Rest of Us: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews” (1984).
He also wrote “Real Lace: America’s Irish Rich” (1973) and “Certain People: America’s Black Elite” (1977).
Some of his tales of the wealthy were based on location, such as “California Rich” (1980) or “Live in the Dakota” (1979) about residents of one of New York’s most famous apartment houses. There were also novels and biographies of figures such as Jacqueline Onassis (though she declined to be interviewed by him).
In his most prolific period, from the late 1960s into the 1990s, Birmingham turned out nearly a book a year.
“I think of myself as being in the entertainment business,” he said in a 1986 Contemporary Authors interview. “I really write to amuse and satisfy myself primarily, and if somebody else finds it amusing and satisfying, that’s nice too.”
He relished anecdotes that showed the excesses and sometimes eccentricities of the wealthy. As an example, he told the Cincinnati paper of motoring up the gravel driveway of Anna Ingersoll, the daughter of a Philadelphia railroad magnate. Two men “appeared behind my car,” he said, “and raked the gravel back into place after my car went over it.”
Literary critics sometimes disparaged Birmingham’s breezy tomes. But many admitted, even amid critical reviews, that his books were guilty pleasures.
Jonathan Kirsch, reviewing the novel “Carriage Trade” in the Los Angeles Times in 1993, noted that Birmingham kicked off the book “with a device so hackneyed that it has become the stuff of parody: the reading of the will.”
But by the end of the book — a mystery tale concerning a family dynasty in the department store business — Kirsch admitted to being hooked.
“I was not surprised by the destination,” Kirsch wrote, “but, then, I did not regret going along for the ride.”
Birmingham was born May 28, 1929, in Hartford, Conn. His father was a lawyer and “reasonably prosperous,” he told Contemporary Authors.
When he was 2, his family moved to Andover, Conn., where he attended a three-room grammar school. His first exposure to the extremely wealthy came when he was sent to the exclusive Hotchkiss prep school, where “I was rubbing shoulders with Mellons, Fords, Vanderbilts.”
He said he wasn’t at all daunted by these families, even when attending society events. “I found myself being invited to all these fancy coming-out parties for people I didn’t even know. All you needed was reasonably good manners and a dinner jacket.”
Birmingham earned a bachelor’s degree at Williams College and served in the Army during the Korean War. He worked in advertising and wrote for magazines before trying his hand at books.
In 1973 he moved to Cincinnati, far from the hub of the social whirl. He said it was more conducive to writing.
Birmingham is survived by his partner of 42 years, Edward Lahniers; sister Susan Losee; sons Carey and Mark; daughter Harriet; and a granddaughter. His marriage to Janet Tillman ended in divorce in 1974.