The Right Coast
October 24, 2005
By Tom Smith
State of preppiness report today here. Preppitity was a big deal in the eighties, when I was still in school. I married a young lady from New Canaan, Connecticut who was a sophomore at Bryn Mawr when I met her, so I have been exposed to a certain amount of the phenomenon. In fact, our nineteenth anniversary is tomorrow, so today I am off to Tiffany (n.b. not Tiffany's) for some money which will be very well spent. Lacoste shirts, go-to-hell pants and the cocktail are all fine by me, but especially that civilized moment when the sun just passes the yard arm. Ms. Wallace fails to mention some of the harsher facts about true preppiness and its decline, however. Perhaps the harshest is the inexorable operation of the bell curve. You can't get into Harvard or Yale any more just because your family has always gone there. It certainly helps, but if you are a dim bulb, Yale has better ways to spend its money. One of the thickest planks I ever met was descended on both sides (first and last names) from New England names you would recognize. He was tall and all my female friends said, drop dead gorgeous. In fact, one of the memorably nauseating memories of my undergraduate days was a group of his admirers actually weeping as they discussed his family having to let their servants go, and struggling mightily with such things as having to carve the dinner themselves. That many of these admirers were nice Jewish girls from Manhattan made it all that much more baffling. Old dense McPlank was too dumb to get into law school, but loved horses, and eventually ended up as a chiropractor in the South, where I'm sure the horses and society ladies are keeping him busy, though he may wonder from time to time why he is not secretary of state. So, meritocracy and regression to the mean -- very bad for the WASP elite. Cry if you want to.
Then there's the whole disfunctional WASP family thing. It's hard to hold the family together on stiff upper lips, squash, and post-Christian espiscopalianism. Should mummy stick with daddy even though he is drunk most the time just because it would be tacky to give him the heave-ho? Arguably not. Hard to keep up the dynasties when mummy and daddy are split. You need that whole family values thing to succeed generation after generation. That's part of why it's laughable for Samuel Huntington to worry about Mexican-American culture taking over the country. I will start worrying about it when Mexican-American dads are blitzed by 5.45 andcan't remember their kids names, and would like to forget their wives's.
Then there's the whole money thing. Going back to New Canaan over the last 24 years, I have seen it happen. Now the former throbbing heart of preppidom is crowded with Lexus SUVs and Mercedes, rather than four year old estate wagons. Idle-fit trophy wives say "fabulous" into their cell phones as they clip clop down the sidewalks in their god only knows how expensive heels. Investment bankers try to cut in front of you at Starbuck's, requiring you to give them that look that informs them you will break their arm if necessary. Service at local establishments has gone from the chilly rudeness of WASP matrons in financial distress to the phony friendliness of young persons in college somewhere (an improvement, yes, but definitely a change), and parking is impossible. There is still Christmas carols on God's Acre and fireworks at Waveny, but it's not the same. Now instead of assuming everybody is comfortable, you know everybody is rich, trying to recreate a past they themselves have wiped away. I do miss the old New Canaan in that respect, what what are you going to do?
Overall, though, how much is the passing of preppiness and the WASP ascendancy to be regretted? Not very much, in my view. Part of the reason I don't care is that I am a Catholic (though my father is a WASP), and the real WASP prejudice against Catholics (not to mention Jews, and any other minority you wish to mention) is pretty tiresome. Jeanne and I had our wedding reception not at the New Canaan Country Club, which has few Catholic members, and did not even admit Catholics until fairly recently, but at Spring something or other, a few miles out of town (but still quite nice). The NCCC makes the local monsignor an honorary member, and you may ask, would a Catholic priest play golf at a club that otherwise did not welcome Catholics very heartily, but only if you know little about priests and golf. So, if the WASP ascendancy is these days a declinacy, because Muffy is making jewelry in Aspen, and Chip is in rehab, and Daddy is living with his girlfriend in the Bahamas, and mummy is playing bridge in Greenwich, well, I just can't get too broken up about it. Love the clothes, though.