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Rich man’s burden

A coolly sardonic and conflicted memoir of growing up amid uptight privilege and personal pain in New York

Louis Auchincloss’s memoir largely manages to be entertaining and occasionally even moving. Louis Auchincloss’s memoir largely manages to be entertaining and occasionally even moving. (Associated Press/ File 1969)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / December 5, 2010

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Society is a bore to be in, Oscar Wilde wrote, but a tragedy to be out of. Louis Auchincloss, novelist, lawyer, and heir to generations of New York high society — all eight grandparents were native New Yorkers, and rich — makes the Wilde quote from “A Woman of No Importance’’ so much his own that he cites it twice in this brief memoir. He wrote it when he was 90, shortly before his death last year.

“A Voice from Old New York’’ both bites and feeds from the parchment hands that bred him. He has sardonic things to say about the uptight, often self-punishing patrician world he was born to; at the same time he makes sure we know he was born to it. His mother, a complicated woman who managed to be unpredictably open as well as predictably closed, accused him as a boy of being a snob.

It shows in his asides about the family’s three houses, four maids, two nurses, and a chauffeur; and in his retort, amiable but cutting, when his fellow law associates teased him about his social position: “Every one of them was ‘working his tail off’ to create for his children as close a copy of my background as he was able.’’

A note or two of snobbery is inevitable in such a memoir. What is more striking is its chilly distance. (And if the chill is a limitation it is also a kind of salvation. Auchincloss entirely avoids the penny-Arcadian sentimentality of many golden-childhood memoirs.) Even the most painful things are told as if by aerial spotter. The events are there, some of them anyway, but hardly a word about his feelings.

He recounts them without making the effort to go deeper — neither with others nor with himself. He tells us that as a young man he was unable to respond to sexual advances either from women or men; but that a brilliant psychiatrist cured him. That’s it. “I draw the curtain,’’ he writes after giving us part of someone else’s unhappy story.

Auchincloss delivers a decidedly limited strip tease and, chill apart, an occasional vague slippage in the patrician writing style. Memoirs are more demanding than they seem; they require a firm bite, and in his ninth decade, Auchincloss’s may have loosened a bit. Still, enough remains to seize our interest, to entertain, and occasionally to move.

Even an aerial spotter will detect large devastation. The most vividly described is the shock of boarding school after a cosseted and cushioned childhood.

At 12, arriving in Groton, he spots a second cousin and approaches him with the naïve assurance that the familial warmth of summers and holidays will continue. But he has crossed from a pleasant manicured lawn into the wild wood: The cousin shoves him into the mud. Beatings and other abuse follow: Under the benevolent blindness of the faculty it was a “Lord of the Flies’’ world. And he quotes an Irish family retainer, bemused with the upper-class ritual of obligatory boarding school:

“In this country you have to be rich to afford the unhappiness of parting with your children.’’

He tells us, incidentally, that the model for the headmaster in his most successful novel, “The Rector of Justin,’’ was not, as universally assumed, Groton’s founder, Endicott Peabody, but the eminent jurist Learned Hand, a friend. And of another friend, another disclosure: Justice Antonin Scalia belongs to the fanatic band of those who hold that the earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

An ardent Shakespearean himself, Auchincloss offered to give a course in the subject at New York University, which had begun a program of recruiting writers to teach. The dean wondered about his qualifications. “I’m a doctor of letters of NYU,’’ Auchincloss told him. But that was honorary, the dean pointed out, taken aback. “You should be more careful in handing those things out,’’ Auchincloss sniffily replied.

He did teach such a course and was appalled by his students’ poor writing and pathetically transparent attempts at plagiarism. “It was impossible for me not to recognize the shift from their own clumsy prose to that of a more elevated variety.’’

He writes of the eccentricities of uncles, aunts, and in-laws, many of them stunted, like captive beasts, by the isolation that privilege kept them in. Some are funny: an uncle who sends his sheets to Europe to be laundered and who briefly ran the Metropolitan Opera — friends got him the job — until the Verdi-and-Puccini-loving board fired him for favoring Wagner. Others are less funny. The wives, once married and immured in family and social rounds, discard feminine charm like an unneeded garment. (After marriage, Wilde wrote, a woman becomes “something like a public building.’’) Several died of alcoholism.

Ultimately Auchincloss’s memoir of privilege shows its wounds. He portrays a bed of roses, and under the roses the nails. He bears their damage even when, as evidenced by his cold detachment and successful writing career, he has managed to tear himself at least partly free.

Richard Eder can be reached at richardgeder@gmail.com.

A VOICE FROM OLD NEW YORK: A Memoir of My Youth
By Louis Auchincloss
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 203 pp., $25