A VOICE FROM OLD NEW YORK by Louis Auchincloss

Book Quote:

“Of course, like most men, I judged women by my mother. As the wife of a prosperous lawyer, she had two nurses to care for four minor children, a cook for her meals, a waitress to serve them, a chambermaid to clean the house, and a chauffeur to drive her. Her days were thus free for some not very taxing charity work, lunches with friends at her club, matinees or concerts, visits to museums.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett  (JAN 12, 2011)

Born in 1917 to a prominent New York City family – all eight great-grandparents were natives and resided within blocks of each other – Auchincloss belonged to an insular, elite group that, over the course of his 92 years, furnished him with material for some 60 books. This memoir, completed shortly before his death a year ago, was his last.

“In the 1920s and ‘30s there existed indubitably, however hard to define, a social structure called ‘society’ that regarded itself as just that. These persons resided on the East Side of Manhattan (never west except below Fifty-ninth Street) as far south as Union Square and as far north as Ninety-sixth Street. The members (if that is the word; it doesn’t seem quite right) were largely Protestants of Anglo-Saxon origin. (Note that Catholics and nonpracticing Jews were not always excluded if rich enough.) The men were apt to be in business, finance, or law, sometimes in medicine, rarely in the church and almost never in politics. Franklin Roosevelt was an exception and not a popular one either.”

Like his novels, this anecdotal book is spare and eminently quotable. His affection for old friends and kin does not blind him to their faults, though he is never gratuitously witty at the expense of others. The person he’s hardest on is himself – revealing transgressions and peculiarities that he could have excluded (childhood kleptomania, an act of vandalism, sexual terrors).

Short chapters recall the dowagers, socialites and husbands who loomed large in his young life, summers in Bar Harbor and Long Island, and pure misery at Groton (of which it was said there was no snobbishness because the boys all came from the same background). His urge to write blossomed at Yale but an early disappointment steered him into law, where he made a career, though writing soon became more important. He touches on issues of cowardice and courage while reviewing his WWII days in the Navy but never delves too deeply into emotional issues, allowing his anecdotes to lead.

His father and sister were subject to bouts of debilitating depression, though this was not bruited about, and his brilliant, empathetic mother, Priscilla, had a blind spot where her children were concerned. This was not an indulgent blind spot. Auchincloss remembers one of her friends who had benefited from his mother’s sage advice saying, “ ‘I was lucky not to be related to your mother, for her mind doesn’t work as well with her own family.’ “ This quote is paraphrased again near the end of the book: “Thank God I wasn’t your mother’s child! I’d never have gone to her then for advice.”

Priscilla expected her children to fail and therefore steered them into safe, respectable lives, convincing one brother to give up music for medicine and trying her best to discourage Louis from writing. “She believed that the world needed second- and even third-rate lawyers, doctors, dentists, etc., but that it had no need of artists and writers except the very best, of whom I would certainly not be one.”

Auchincloss noted at an early age that women had freer lives than men. Men went to work and handled the finances, women handled everything else – and they had servants for most of it. “Men accepted this division eagerly, thinking that they had won, as did women, with more reason.”  Yet he also wonders if his mother’s disparagement of her children’s dreams stemmed from frustration of her own sublimated ambitions. Several of the spirited women he most admired in childhood came to a sad alcoholic end (although this was also true of some of the men).

At a dinner shortly after he’d published his novel, Sybil, he sat beside a young Jackie Bouvier who was engaged to a decent fellow named Husted. “ ‘Oh, you’ve written my life,’ she told me. ‘Sybil Bouvier, Sybil Husted. Respectable, middle-class, moderately well off. Accepted everywhere. Decent and dull.’ “ But a week later the Husted engagement was off, and the rest is history.

This anecdote is one of the best, but, with his mastery of the pithy story, Auchincloss produces other delightful gems from his intimate circle of bold-face names. At hated Groton alone, every one of his 28 fellow graduates went on to prominence, including a couple of ambassadors, an assistant secretary of state and presidential advisor, a secretary of the army, several CEOs and a couple of bank presidents. And after the war, he met a different class of people at The White Horse Tavern, where writers like Norman Mailer congregated. Not that he felt as comfortable in those more bohemian circles. “A registered Republican who was also listed in the Social Register was something of a duck-billed platypus to them.”

This is an affectionate tip of the hat to a bygone world (though class and privilege is ever with us) and will be heartily enjoyed by fans of Auchincloss’ novels and those interested in early 20th century New York “society.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 12 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (December 2, 2010)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Louis Auchincloss
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

East Side Story

The Scarlett Letters


Short Story Collections:

Biographies and other writings:

*This is a complicated bibliography and certainly contains errors and incompleteness.

January 12, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Non-fiction

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.