Dec 12, 2013
Eve Pell on Old Money and Its Discontents
Posted on Sep 25, 2009
By Eve Pell
In “Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor,” Tad Friend paints a vivid portrait of what it’s like to grow up inside America’s now-former ruling class; it is a sometimes funny, often sad, and slashingly accurate portrayal of that peculiar subculture. Because I’m from the same background, I know all too well the world he brings to life: the decline in fortune from one generation to the next, so contrary to the prevailing Horatio Alger ethos; the emphasis on “form” and good manners in place of genuine feeling; the handed-down sense that one’s family deserved its spot in society’s top tier. Tad Friend is the age of my sons, though, and therefore one generation further removed from the ancestral fortunes; as a result, he didn’t get to experience very much by way of Wasp splendor.
One of Friend’s forebears signed the Declaration of Independence. By the turn of the 20th century the Friends were wealthy industrialists and aristocrats of the class best known for producing snobbish Anglophiles who earned the nickname “God’s Frozen People.” But by the time he was born in 1962, his family’s wealth had been divided and subdivided among generations of heirs, and the legions of servants who had waited on his parents and grandparents were gone. He picks 1965 as the year families like ours lost their status and a new era in American social history began, heralded by the Vietnam War, the Watts riots, the civil rights movements and computers. In fact, the author remembers that, as a young child, his parents were so strapped that he could see the road below through the rusted-out floor of the family station wagon as they drove along. Later on, when he went home for vacations from college, his mother dunned him and his siblings for dollars to pay for their long-distance phone calls.
Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor
By Tad Friend
Little, Brown and Company, 368 pages
Moreover, the “Cheerful Money” of the book’s title does not refer, as I had expected, to the bountiful fortunes that eased the gilded lives of his upper-class forebears. Rather, it describes a chintzy kind of behavior modification used by the author’s mother and father. For each of the three children in the family there was a glass jar in a kitchen drawer; when a child exhibited especially good humor or helpfulness, the parent dropped a quarter into that child’s jar. But get this: Whoever had been awarded the most Cheerful Money at the end of the year received the amount, doubled—but was obliged to spend it on Christmas presents for the other two. In fact, Cheerful Money was anything but.
For parental love was conditional upon conduct “that brings credit to the family. … ” No matter what was going on in a child’s head or heart, it was important to manifest at all times a “veneer of acquiescence” as well as stoic good manners—and dissent was not tolerated. As Friend notes, “I turned into a wary, watchful child. I began building the internal Wasp rheostat, the dimmer switch on desires.” His sad conclusion: “ … if this condemned us each to be an island of seeming cheer in an archipelago of sorrow, so be it.”
And there was sorrow, though Friend, true to his roots, soft-pedals it. He trots out a veritable zoo of relatives who, despite their superior attitudes and formidable gentility, come to grief just like the less fortunate: One grandfather abandoned his wife and children; a great-grandfather was indicted for price fixing; a grandmother committed adultery; cousins drank themselves to death, had multiple marriages, went crazy and so on, just the way people do in other subcultures and classes of society—but Friend shows how these things are done among Wasps, and in particular how the ramifications are hidden from subsequent generations. “ … [W]ith Wasps, the caretakers lock the explanatory sorrows away, then swallow the key.”
What makes this book moving and relevant to the wider public is the author’s skill in evoking the dilemmas that arise in the life of anyone raised in a particular culture who becomes aware of its limitations. Do you become what your parents want you to be? What price do you pay if you conform or, conversely, if you don’t? How much of your inherited culture can you—or do you want to—cast off? Moreover, he has a fine way with words; as children, and he and his siblings, when asked to take part in household chores, “exuded sulkiness as squids squirt ink”; as a young adult, while expecting to be dumped by a girlfriend, he “hung there in the gloom like meat in a locker, waiting.”
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