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Eve Pell on Old Money and Its Discontents

Posted on Sep 25, 2009
book cover

By Eve Pell

(Page 2)

The “Me” of the subtitle chronicles the author’s adventures as he deals with the strictures imposed by his heritage and his family, variously confronting, avoiding and otherwise coping—or failing to cope—with that upbringing. Under the lens go his love life, his therapy, his interactions with his family as well as his navigation through the wider world as he strives to become a happy adult. The reader follows as he comes to understand—and struggles to unlearn—the attitudes and behavior exemplified and taught by his parents and grandparents. The author calls it his “suit-of-armor problem”—emotional armor—and it’s a doozy. Along the way, he is fearless in his self-revelations, noting that one ex-lover described him as “a wet linen sheet that had been crumpled up and left in the freezer.” (There’s that image of coldness again.)

A list of artifacts inherited by his parents evokes the social class from which they came: bouillon spoons, demitasse spoons, a pea spoon, a butter pick, an egg warmer. And the loss of fortune had its effects on the family psyche. The Friends who coasted on inherited wealth discovered in the decline “a tidy recipe for despair.” His mother never got over the childhood abandonment by her father; her sense of deprivation pervaded her adult life and that of her children.


book cover


Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor


By Tad Friend


Little, Brown and Company, 368 pages


Buy the book

But despite the period in the 1960s when the family income was low and their station wagon had that hole in the floor, the reader doesn’t get a strong sense that the Friends declined terribly in wealth and status. His father became president of Swarthmore College, and, in 1986, his parents gave each of their children $60,000 to use as they chose. (Friend spent his, as well as a subsequent legacy from a grandparent, on psychoanalysis. “My birthright in wherewithal seemed to me almost perfectly balanced by my birthright in repression.”) He expresses some ambivalence about the decision to commit himself to success as a writer and climbing the career ladder—though of course he did; since 1998, he’s been a staff writer for The New Yorker. One hangover from his privileged status annoys his wife: his suspicion that perhaps he doesn’t really have to work at anything he doesn’t like because surely, if they run out of money, another inheritance will come along.

And now to my quibbles: As if to avoid getting into any one issue too deeply, Friend tends to switch subjects a bit abruptly. I’m getting really interested in his ambivalence about work and money, for instance, when suddenly he is on to an uncle, the uncle’s wives and children, an ex-wife’s son, and that son’s death. I find a few too many relatives and family friends who make cameo appearances, exhibit some peculiar Wasp behavior, then exit the book. Moreover, it would have made tracking those relatives easier if the overly simplified family tree at the start had included a few more limbs and branches. In addition, I found some word choices to be mannered. “… Charles was a gamecock known as ‘Cootie’ ”; someone else “had a pawky sense of humor”; “a door snicking shut.” His mother, whose character was chatoyant, wrote in a surprisingly low, scurrying hand.

But overall, Friend has done a fine job of taking the reader inside the world in which he grew up; he shows how much of it he has overcome and how much still remains part of him.

Eve Pell is the author, most recently, of “We Used to Own the Bronx,” a memoir. Her other works include “Maximum Security: Letters From California’s Prisons” and, with Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau, “To Serve the Devil: A Documentary Analysis of America’s Racial History and Why It Has Been Kept Hidden.”

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By Birdsong44, September 27, 2009 at 5:15 pm Link to this comment
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I think the death of the WASP is simply wishful thinking.  Another group has risen to go on TV night and day, but that does not mean the group who made this nation is dead, for God’s sake! TV has power but not to execute an entire culture.

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By vwcat, September 26, 2009 at 8:22 pm Link to this comment
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funny how the now wealthy families (not to mention the average ones) now see being cheerful, giving to others when you ‘win’ and such things as awful.  So much so that now it is the opposite.  The celebration of the culture of me and glorification of selfishness.
Rather then pretend all is well while driving a car with a rusted out floorboard you have them resorting to criminal acts with a justification of how they cannot possibly be expected to put up with anything less then perfect.
And proceed to whine loudly over it.
So, which was worse for society and the person and the family?
The one that subdued emotion and put on a happy face and never showed emotion?  But, also dealt with their own poverty and when in good times gave to those less fortunate?
Or the one that wears it’s emotion on it’s sleeve, believes it is due everything on demand and wanted?  Coddled from life and given everything?  But, expecting it all to be about them and their wants and desires and that the life was created just for them?

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By christian96, September 25, 2009 at 8:04 pm Link to this comment

It’s odd that I would be commenting on this article
since I was raised on the other side of the tracks.
My formative years were spent in a coal mining town
in West Virginia where my father worked 40 years in
the mines.  During my early years we had to venture
outside in dead of winter to perform our bodily
functions both at home and at school.  I admit it
is hard for be to identify with your childhood experiences but I do have a Doctoral Degree in Child
Development and would take exception to your phrase,
“parental love was conditional upon conduct.”  You
probably meant “parental approval was conditional
upon conduct.”  I am sure your parents loved you
even though they may not have approved of your behavior.

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