Dec 8, 2013
Megan Hustad on Class in America
Posted on Jun 12, 2009
By Megan Hustad
“There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher announced in 1987. “There are individual men and women, and there are families.” So don’t blame your troubles on a competitive capitalist culture, she told the readers of Women’s Own magazine, and don’t feel entitled to government intervention. When it came to forging one’s way in the world, we were all mere products of our families—with no greater social forces to credit or fault for our successes or lack thereof.
Such “pro-family” pronouncements have left a stain on the literary memoir’s reputation. “Memoirs are a Thatcherite genre,” I heard a hung-over Marxist remark during a recent panel discussion at the New York Public Library. He explained that since memoirs, more often than not, treated individual family psychology as the critical factor determining the contours of a life, they were inherently conservative regardless of any political opinions espoused on the page. For a frank discussion about the influence of class on American life, you’d have to look elsewhere.
Losing Mum and Pup
By Christopher Buckley
Twelve, 272 pages
We Used to Own the Bronx
By Eve Pell
Excelsior Editions, 225 pages
Eve Pell’s “We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante” tests this proposition in a refreshingly direct fashion. A former senior staff reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting now in her 70s, Pell can claim membership in the ranks of American nobility, and she uses her lively memoir of growing up in aristocratic style to ask a series of provocative questions: Is it possible to choke on a silver spoon? What good is a sense of entitlement? Are riches wasted on the rich? Her candid account of bristling at her birthright transcends the stereotype suggested by the subtitle to divulge the psychic pressures of living with inherited privilege in a meritocracy-mad country.
The Pell family had money, a lot of money. “In 1654, my forefather Thomas Pell, surgeon and fur trader, bought a large tract of wilderness from a council of Native American sachems.” From then on, their collective CV reads like a history textbook sidebar. They once owned Fort Ticonderoga. Pell Street, in what is now Manhattan’s Chinatown, is named for them. And thanks to a contract drafted in 1688, the city of New Rochelle, N.Y., is still obligated “if demanded” to present the Pell family with one “fatt” calf every June 24th.
Entering this august lineage right when the funds started to run low presented Pell with some interesting dilemmas. The Pell family—which now branched out to incorporate names like the Harrimans, Stuyvesants, Mortimers and Roosevelts—had an allergy to working for money. They fancied themselves aristocrats, and though this amnesiac fantasy is fairly common among rich Americans of their vintage, the Pells indulged a particularly virulent strain. (As Pell recalls, the Mellons could not possibly be envied—despite their deeper pockets—because they had made their fortune “in trade.”) Horatio Alger, Pell writes, would not have been welcome at their table:
“We took for granted a system antithetical to the American dream: instead of sons outdoing their fathers through better education and diligent endeavor, fathers lived better than their children. Instead of ascending steadily into wealth and status, families like ours gently declined. Once-huge fortunes were divided among offspring who had progressively less money, fewer servants, smaller houses, and by the time my generation came along, not even their own trust funds—we had to depend on our parents for handouts.”
Pell’s father, Clarence Cecil Pell II, humbles himself and takes a job in Manhattan, transferring mid-commute from the club car to a waiting limousine. Clarry was a cautious conformist in his daughter’s eyes; a snob by inclination and training whose intellect lacked the suppleness required to examine the fault lines in his worldview. “According to the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal,” Pell writes. “But you’d never have sold that to my mother or my father.” They were of a caste that believed itself set apart from and above the masses. In a country increasingly in thrall to achievement, believing yourself superior when you have few noteworthy accomplishments to your name is surely difficult. (Never mind that your cash flow is also slowing to a trickle.) As Pell tells it, knee-jerk elitism and emotional constipation have their uses—both allow someone with a thwarted sense of entitlement to keep his or her chin up.
Pell’s mother—nee Evie Mortimer—does not come across as a woman blessed with self-awareness, but she did have wits enough to realize that a man who played his patrician role with flair was more to her liking. A few short years after marrying Clarry, Evie leaves him for Lewie Ledyard, a 6-foot-3 former classmate of her husband’s with a yen for horse breeding and cockfighting, and a faltering marriage of his own. Protracted divorces and custody battles marked Pell’s childhood; Clarry eventually relinquished custody of Eve and younger brother Cooky under the condition that the Ledyards assume all child-rearing expenses.
Pell finds out decades later that her half brother Peter regarded her and Cooky with great skepticism, having never been informed that he and these occasional weekend visitors shared a dad. (“A governess finally clued him in.”)
Given the affective deprivation tank that was her childhood, it isn’t surprising that Pell’s knack for detail is best displayed when she holds the physical trappings of upper-class life to the light. Her mother’s dark curls against a white chaise lounge, an embattled hemline on a boarding school uniform, china cups rattling in a nervous maid’s hand—the material world Pell conjures up glistens.
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