FLIGHT OF THE WASP: The Rise, Fall, and Future of America’s Original Ruling Class
Has social media killed the Social Register? Or do WASPs still have something to offer the rest of us?
Because of their outsize if fading power and influence in the United States, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are one of the few ethnic groups it feels OK to lampoon. That starts with the acronym WASP itself, origin uncertain — a letter writer to this newspaper found it in The New York Amsterdam News in 1948 — but engraved into common usage by the sociologist E. Digby Baltzell.
“The Official Preppy Handbook” (1980), edited by Lisa Birnbach, is rightly a classic of observational humor, identifying WASP outfits, objects and customs such as ditsy prints, duck décor and boarding school. “The WASP Cookbook” (1997), by Alexandra Wentworth, put recipes for bland cuisine like creamed chipped beef and stiff cocktails between blue velvet covers.
I was expecting “Flight of the WASP,” by the journalist and author Michael Gross, to be the latest entry into this pantheon of Muffy mockery, but no. It’s a formal, sincere and rather crowded portrait gallery of about a dozen significant Old Names — Biddles, Peabodys, Whitneys, et al. — that sternly accounts for their evil deeds while also tabulating their noble ones.
The railroad heir and paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, for example, a longtime president of the American Museum of Natural History, was a devoted proponent of eugenics. The early-19th-century statesman Lewis Cass was a committed engineer of what he called “Indian removal.” (Meager satisfaction to read of him being “mortified when a causeway collapsed at an event and he was dumped into the Hudson River, surfacing without his wig.”) And “America’s original ruling class,” as Gross’s subtitle calls it, also of course committed and perpetuated “America’s original sin”: slavery.
Regardless, the author argues, the WASP patriciate evolved to uphold certain ideals — “humility, responsibility, simple civility,” he ticks off, twice— that are worth reviving, even if Donald Trump “represented the clan’s nadir” and Joe Biden, “a paragon of decency,” happens to be Catholic.
Gross is a tickler of glamour’s dirty underbelly, whose many books include “Genuine Authentic,” an unauthorized biography of Ralph Lauren, the Jewish designer who is the most successful purveyor of the WASP aesthetic in the world, which two separate New York Times reviewers called “catty.” (Partial to cats, I found it quite delicious, likewise his “Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women.”) He has written books about two of New York City’s ritziest apartment buildings, and taken a run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dodging tomatoes from its trustees.
“Flight of the WASP” is a horse of a different color (and because it’s about WASPs, also features a lot of horses). It begins in 1609, with William Bradford of the Mayflower, a progenitor of Thanksgiving. Wending through a dense thicket of names, governments and afflictions (“Elder Brewster had lost his daughters, Fear and Patience, to smallpox”), we don’t really hit familiar Gross territory until Ward McAllister’s list of the Four Hundred, truffled turkey and other follies of the Gilded Age.
The least potted chapter is one called “Decadence,” about Michael Butler, the paper and aviation scion who befriended John F. Kennedy and later produced the Broadway musical “Hair” — occasionally joining the cast during its infamous nude scene.
Butler had a privileged but rough childhood, marked by a fall from a bay pony named Do It for Christmas that all but destroyed his right arm. He was bisexual, having trysts with Rock Hudson and, it is implied, Tyrone Power, who he hoped would star in an adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel “Messiah.”
Ashamed of a failed nightclub venture on Fire Island, he abruptly abandoned the second of his three marriages, to the former Robin Boyer, a Main Liner. (He confided his bisexuality to her only on their wedding night.) “Why was he so morally thin?” she wonders to Gross, who acts as a sort of carrier pigeon between the two. “He really undid me. It’s second-rate.”
The interviews with her, Butler (who died late last year) and a few others are rare live-wire moments in what is mostly a work of history reconstituted, however assiduously, from secondary sources. Gross blames this on the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down many archives.
But long stretches of his footnotes seem simply to march through other books, like Richard Brookhiser’s “Gentleman Revolutionary,” about the founding father Gouverneur Morris. (Brookhiser also wrote a precursor of sorts to Gross’s book, “The Way of the WASP,” in 1991.) Morris suffered irreparable damage to a limb as well: his left leg, after he was thrown from a phaeton, though this didn’t slow him down socially or professionally. “He was the life of whatever party he attended,” Gross writes.
“Flight of the WASP” is far from a party. It’s more like pulling down a few volumes of the old Encyclopaedia Britannica, their covers not blue velvet but red leatherette: useful enough as a gateway to other material, but slightly dusty and sticky.
“I seek to look back, not in anger, envy or mourning, but with a fresh eye, curiosity and some well-tempered admiration, at a handful of totemic WASP families who made America what it is, for both good and ill” is how Gross explains his project. But it’s a handful of hoodied tech billionaires who are now making America what it will be.
FLIGHT OF THE WASP: The Rise, Fall, and Future of America’s Original Ruling Class | By Michael Gross | Atlantic Monthly Press | 480 pp. | $30