Megan Hustad on Class in America
Posted on Jun 12, 2009
By Megan Hustad
She attends Byrn Mawr College and starts to wonder whether the culture of high-priced ennui is for her. “Only our failures marry” was the unofficial Bryn Mawr motto, but Pell—having been raised to think that words like failure simply didn’t apply to her set—is undaunted and she marries a young architect and heads west to San Francisco. Sacramento native Joan Didion once confessed that she didn’t really understand “The Great Gatsby” until she moved East; for Pell, the West beckoned as a place of myth and redemption where the demands of family and caste might dissipate.
The last part of the book offers a glancing overview of Pell’s immersion in early ’70s radical chic. She starts working with assorted anti-capitalists, joins the Prison Law Project and shares a brief kiss with Black Panther Field Marshal George Jackson in the visiting room at San Quentin. This account of Pell’s radicalism is made more compelling in that it didn’t require a fundamental shift of perspective—her world was not reimagined so much as flipped around. Pell at the revolution retained the strident elitism she was born to, only now black, brown and other oppressed peoples occupied the moral superior slots.
Losing Mum and Pup
By Christopher Buckley
Twelve, 272 pages
We Used to Own the Bronx
By Eve Pell
Excelsior Editions, 225 pages
Pell eventually realizes that she’s in over her head when a brick thrown through her window lands on her son’s bed. Satisfaction would have to be found elsewhere, and likely after dispensing with self-righteousness and resentment. To her lasting credit, “We Used to Own the Bronx” is a graceful object lesson in how perspective is gained not all at once but by accretion, the reward of years of methodical observation.
In a wistful prologue, Pell admits to lingering mixed feelings about her background. “My relatives include bigots, humanitarians, eccentrics, athletes, and ordinary people, most of them infused with a strong sense that they are aristocrats. Like them, I love it that our family used to own a manor in colonial America.” But “while the family forms a sort of bulwark against time, a base of permanence in a world of flux, it exacts a terrible price.” Her father, perhaps cruelly keen to put a fine point on his disapproval of her antics, disinherits her.
From the evidence assembled in his memoir “Losing Mum and Pup,” Christopher Buckley is entirely more sanguine about love among the ruling class. As the only son of William F. Buckley and Patricia Taylor Buckley, Christopher grew up having to fight for oxygen with two outsized personalities. William F., a rapaciously productive writer and founding member of the modern conservative movement, was demanding and competitive. When Buckley sent Dad a copy of his latest novel, he received his thanks in a curt e-mail P.S. (“This one didn’t work for me. Sorry.”) His mother, Pat Buckley, was a “beautiful, theatrical, bright as a diamond” hostess who towered over rivals in New York society with her near 6-foot frame and cutting wit. “I’ve got the best legs in the business,” she’d chirp, all the better to preside over the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Ball with. “She could have done anything; instead, she devoted herself heart, soul, and body to being Mrs. William F. Buckley.”
“Losing Mum and Pup” does not dwell on childhood. It zeroes in on Buckley’s parents’ last few months, respectively—they died within a year of each other—and how he held their hand as they left this “vale of tears,” to use one of Buckley pere’s preferred formulations.
Buckley did not set out to write a book about class or society, lower- or uppercase S. Yet if one were to take a red pen to all references to his family’s lifestyle—the homes, the boats, the winters in Switzerland—the end result would be far slimmer. “Is it namedropping when they’re your own parents?” he jokes in a self-conscious aside. To point this out is neither to fault Buckley’s skill nor his character; the story doesn’t work without the money.
But it also begs this question: If Pat occupied a different stratum of society, if you removed her from the Costume Ball and scratched her name off Mr. Blackwell’s best-dressed list, would she have been just another mean drunk? Buckley doesn’t detail many accounts of Pat’s alcohol-fueled spasms of unremitting obnoxiousness—if you’re looking for a Portrait of the Mother as a Real Bitch, stick to Pell’s story—but he is unambiguous about their frequency. He took to taking Pat to task in letters, letters that he later discovered she’d stopped opening. (One reads this and thinks he yelled via letter? As keeping up appearances goes, we’re approaching self-parody—or expert mimicry of Evelyn Waugh.)
Pat couldn’t stop herself from lying—a trait Buckley discovered when, age 8, he overheard his mother tell someone that when she was a child, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth would bunk at her family’s house whenever they breezed into Vancouver. As amusing as this anecdote is, indeed we’re told that Pat’s childhood home stretched to an entire city block. Royalty might not have supped there, but they could have; this subtext in Buckley’s book is rarely sub.
Before he spends the second half of the book discussing his father’s final months, Buckley pauses to grumble about the bill for his mother’s memorial service: $20,000 for audio-visual equipment alone. Never mind flowers, catering, or the bore of having to remind Henry Kissinger to keep his eulogy under four minutes.
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