Genealogy, et cetera
OF MANY PEOPLE it does not tell us much to describe them as residents of New York City because so large a portion of those so situated were born and raised elsewhere or are even recent arrivals. In my own case, the description is only too telling, as all eight of my grandparents lived the bulk of their lives in this marvelous place.
I was born in 1917 to parents who had been wed in their early twenties in 1911. My father, Joseph Howland Auchincloss, named for a great uncle who had been a Civil War general, was a member of a prominent New York law firm known by the abbreviated title of Davis Polk. (The senior partner was the former Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis.) My mother, the former Priscilla Stanton, was a member of a large, close-knit, and socially active clan, the Dixons, who lived in neighboring brownstones on West Forty-ninth Street and summered in shingle villas by the sea in Southampton.
Both of my parents lived to be old and were devoted to their four children, John, Priscilla, myself, and Howland. But a seldom-discussed shadow complicated our lives. My father suffered all his life from severe periodic depressions that sometimes caused him to suspend the practice of law for as much as a year. It was as though something in his spirit simply fell away upon occasion and, whatever his exertions, could not be regained. Yet my father remained charming and popular with the world at large, whatever the cost to himself. We were not raised to show our problems or disappointments in public.
The term “getting ahead” invokes a sacred American goal. Yet it was not one ever much emphasized by my father, who was utterly content with his partners, his practice, his family, and his sports. He had no hankering for political office or other distinction. Until the onslaught of his nervous ailments in late middle age, he seemed as happy as a man could be. And why should he not have been? To support his devoted wife and children he could count, in the year 1931 for example, on the following assets: a modest but ample brownstone in Manhattan; a house in Long Island for weekends and summer; a rented villa in Bar Harbor, Maine, for July; four housemaids; two children’s nurses; a couple to maintain the Long Island abode; a chauffeur and four cars; several social clubs; and private schools for the children.
Mother used to warn us when we went to the country for the weekend: “Now don’t expect anything fancy; we’ve just got the couple!” Father would add that “the couple” referred to most often in such circumstances was actually never more than one and a half people. (One always drank and the other was, unfailingly, a treasure.) But even so!
My father managed all of the above on an income of a hundred thousand dollars a year, out of which he managed to make an annual saving. Of course the dollar went further then, but still. Yet it never occurred to me that we were rich. We lived only as other successful lawyers’ and doctors’ families did.
I was quite aware of who the rich were. They inhabited Beaux Arts mansions rather than brownstones and had butlers and sometimes organs in the front hall. One of Father’s uncles had married a Standard Oil heiress. Now she was rich. She had thirty in help.
The younger members of my world took the fact that it was supported by armies of domestic servants, like our beloved Maggie, largely for granted. That these domestics were mostly recruited from an Ireland that could no longer support its own we accepted. Without thinking too much about the circumstances. Just as we accepted the brownstone stoops that ascended to our front doors and the lights on stilts that controlled the traffic on Fifth Avenue. I don’t recall even discussing with another child the plight of the poor women who lived in narrow cubicles on the often cold top floors of our brownstones and who worked around the clock with one day off a week and nothing to do on it. At Christmas, one heard the parental whispered warning about not giving too much to the maids because “they give it all to the church.”
The help weren’t the only group often ignored. I didn’t meet any Jews until I was sent to Bovee on Fifth Avenue at Sixty-fourth Street, which, unlike the other fashionable boys’ day schools of the time, had no restrictions. I don’t know why Father selected it, but it had a high reputation and most of the boys came from Protestant families. My time there was a great blessing, for getting to know some Jewish boys made me question the casual anti-Semitism that sprinkled the conversation at home and in the houses of family friends and relations.
I don’t recall people (grownups, of course) giving any particular reason for objecting to Jews, except that they were supposed to be grasping in money matters. It simply seemed to be accepted that they were to be avoided at all costs in terms of social mixing. It was as if they carried some easily contractible and unattractive, though not necessarily dangerous, ailment.
Although I neither understood nor sympathized with the prejudice—I liked my Bovee Jewish friends and admired their wealth—I saw that the attitude, however displeasing, was a natural phenomenon of the parents’ generation. When we moved our summer residence from Long Island’s south to north shore, I gave my friends Father’s reason as placidly as if it were a change of weather: “Because of the Jews.”
Mother was too intelligent for prejudice but too indifferent to fight it. A friend of my father’s attending a reception at the Stantons as a young man told me that he once found my mother, Priscilla, then eighteen, pouting in a corner at some sort of gathering. She complained: “Mother asks all her pet Jews, but won’t have mine.”
Mother’s prejudices were non-denominational. What she complained about in me was my admiration of wealth. “My grandmother’s snobbishness has come back to earth in Louis,” she used to say.
Her grandmother, born Babcock, had been a rigid, bewigged old dowager with the rough candor about money of an earlier New York society. “Don’t say you don’t like Mrs. Kingsland,” she once reproached my mother. “She has three million dollars.”
The elderly lady was not much impressed by Mother’s engagement to an Auchincloss. “I suppose it’s better than being the last leaf on the tree” was her comment. She thought of Mother at twenty-one as an old maid! She herself had been married at sixteen.
Despite the fact that there were few with whom she could discuss his depression, Mother gave my father unfailing and needed support. She had no ambition for the glories of the world, but she possessed a strong desire to hang on to the benefits of her family’s share of the status quo for her children. She had great faith in the economic opportunities available to her sons if they followed the normal course of their class and fortune. She dreaded their striking out into untested areas.
In all of this she was an average mother; the trouble was that she was not an average woman. She was brilliantly imaginative, well read, and independently daring; she should have been the writer in the family. As it was she gave too much of her fine mind to the care of her offspring at the expense of their independence.
But where these children were concerned she was abjectly timid; she deemed it her sacred duty to spare them all risks, emotional and physical. Her fine mind was singularly free of prejudice, but she saw danger to her dependents in the unconventional. And she saw it in any overemphasis on the arts, which...