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The Wasp Ascendancy


The other day in a secondhand book shop, I happened across a rather seedy looking little green paperbound volume I had never known to exist. It is called Women and Repeal, and it recounts the saga—a very genuine saga it was too—of the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, quite largely by efforts of the mobilized womanhood of the WASP ascendancy. Their leader on this occasion was Mrs. Charles H. Sabin, later Mrs. Dwight Davis; and her Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform beat the tar out of the formerly all-powerful Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and its formidable boss, Mrs. Ella Boole, whose pince-nez had gleamed upon scenes of uninterrupted triumph since 1918.

I bought the dingy little book, which I suspect its heroine paid to have written, for several distinctly miscellaneous reasons. To begin with, the former Mrs. Sabin was a leading Washington personage after she became Mrs. Dwight Davis, and in Washington she became an enormously kind older friend of mine when I was assigned to the Capitol by The New York Herald Tribune in late 1935. Then, too, a great number of the ladies mentioned in the little green book were well known to me as my mother’s dear friends—although, to be sure, my mother was much too partisan a Republican politician to approve altogether of complete nonpartisanship, even in the fight against the Eighteenth Amendment, as advocated by the ladies battling for its repeal.

Furthermore, I am by way of being a very minor member of the ever-diminishing group of survivors of the WASP ascendancy; and the assault upon prohibition by the ladies led by Mrs. Sabin was the WASP ascendancy’s last organized success. The equation was simple. The belatedly unanimous, belatedly vocal, almost nationwide WASP ascendancy, organized by Mrs. Sabin in the name of repeal, and thus firmly added to the nation’s near-50 percent of Catholic, Greek, Ukrainian, and other groups known to the politicians nowadays by the silly label “ethnics,” abruptly produced a solid majority for repeal in most states of the union. So the politicians, instead of trembling before Mrs. Boole, her ferocious ladies, and her Baptist and Methodist allies of the Anti-Saloon League and suchlike, suddenly found themselves trembling and making obeisance to Mrs. Sabin, assorted archbishops and metropolitans, and city bosses of Irish and Italian stock. The WASP injection gave the extra weight that did the trick, in fact.

Nowadays people talk about WASPs without thinking very clearly about what they mean. In most cases, however, it is pretty clear that they really mean the WASP ascendancy. Otherwise the label is vastly too inclusive, for example applying equally to the defeated Mrs. Boole and her cohorts and Mrs. Sabin and hers. After all, White Anglo Saxon Protestants, if these qualities were the only tickets of admission, still constituted just about half the total population of the United States when I was a boy and young man.

The WASP ascendancy, however, was a much narrower group. I don’t know quite how to define it without sounding a fool, except to say that it really was an ascendancy—in fact an inner group that was recognizable as a group, on the one hand, because its members tended to resemble one another in several ways, frequently knew one another as friends or at least acquaintances, and might even be related to one another by blood; and on the other hand, this inner group was on average substantially richer and enjoyed substantially more leverage than any other Americans. For those very reasons, too, it had long supplied the role models followed by other Americans, whether WASP or non-WASP, who were on their way up in the world.

If these others rose far enough, moreover, they had to be really pretty awful not to be promptly absorbed into the WASP ascendancy. Oddly enough, this absorption was then quite often advertised by ecclesiastical migration. My mother’s family, for example, was Scotch on her father’s side, and basically Dutch on the side of her mother, who was Theodore Roosevelt’s younger sister. Among the Scotch in my mother’s tribe, the migration began, despite howls of Presbyterian rage from the primitive tribal majority, when one of the tribe’s leading males bought a pew in Grace Church around 1840, “because all the better people go there.” (For the rich former significance of Grace Church, see Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the wedding of Newland Archer.)

I do not know how soon thereafter my mother’s family’s Presbyterian-to-Episcopalian migration was completed, or when the various branches of the Roosevelt clan left their Dutch conventicles. But all of them on both sides certainly ended as Episcopalians. I fear, too, that the attraction of the Episcopal church lay in the simple fact that this used to be almost everywhere the all-but-official church of the WASP ascendancy. Pittsburgh was, and perhaps is still, the exception that proves the rule. The same ecclesiastical migration took place there, but Episcopalians were the ones who migrated, since the local branch of the ascendancy remained fiercely loyal to its native Presbyterianism—and where Mellons went, there went many more.

All these trivia are on my mind at the moment because I am writing my memoirs. I think, as many others have thought(all too often mistakenly), that I have had an exceptionally interesting life, as well as a very lucky one. Yet I cannot make any sense of the pattern of my life, nor do I think anybody else can, except by taking note of the trifling-seeming fact already noted above, that I began as a minor member of this now vanished group, the WASP ascendancy.

In its day—although one begins to forget this—the group was highly recognizable, and not just by the fairly extreme but regional New England/New York accent I happen to possess. The recognition signals were often very odd indeed. Moreover, new recognition signals were constantly replacing old ones. By my time, for example, not a great many members of the WASP ascendancy had what were called “Family Houses,” which merely meant large, rural tribal dwellings going back a century or more, but those who had hung on to these redoubts somehow contrived that all family houses should smell the same. I believe the secret was beeswax, rather lavishly used, year round, to polish floors and furniture, plus a great many flowers from the summer gardens. At any rate, the front door would open, this splendid scent would waft outward toward you, particularly in summer, for this was before air conditioning and the summer rule was still in force that all windows were closed and shades were pulled until after dusk, when windows were thrown open again to let in the cool night air. And so the house’s smell would tell you just what sort of décor and human atmosphere to expect after you had passed the front door.

But the special smell of the few remaining family houses was in fact a very minor recognition signal of the WASP ascendancy. To begin with, there were all sorts of dos and don’ts about clothes and shoes. But I shall speak only of those of concern to men, for I cannot to this day tell what outward signs enabled my mother and her friends to choose the five or six other ladies who “might be nice to know” from the scores of possibilities presented, say, by the teeming decks of a transatlantic liner. I only know that in my young days, even if American ladies came from the richest topmost branches of the worldly tree, they were never likely to be mistaken for exceedingly expensive, though not quite successful, takeoffs on their counterparts in Paris.

As for the men, the first rule was to go to London for suits and shoes as soon as you could afford it. If financial strain was then felt, shirts, neckties, and so forth might also be acquired in London, or even New York. But if expensive was no object, it was preferable to seek these lesser articles from Charvet or Sulka in Paris. The less well-heeled, meanwhile, clothed, shirted, and shoed themselves at Brooks Brothers, and so did 90 percent of the young males until the fairly awe-inspiring moment when their fathers would take them to their London tailors—not necessarily in London, for the tailors’ and shoemakers’ representatives came to the US twice a year to see to the current wants of their regular customers on this side of the water.

The correct suppliers were by no means the end of the story, however. The dos and don’ts of men’s wear were almost endless; so I shall offer only a selection. Beginning at the bottom, you couldn’t wear saddle shoes. In summer, if you went on a weekend you had to take along a pair of white bucks, complete with whitening to make them white, a piece of bone to smooth the whitening and make it shiny, and a small bottle of black lacquer to cover the edges of the red rubber composing the shoe’s soles and heels. Of course the effect intended to be produced was that you had a valet doing all this for you. But I fear mine never looked in the least like a valet’s handiwork.

Then, at the other end, you could not appear without a hat. In four years at Harvard, I never went out onto the street, even on the most beautiful day, without a felt hat on my head, except in spring, when the time came for straw boaters or Panama hats. Panama hats, I may add, were judged by whether they had been woven underwater with very thin reeds that produced a texture like cloth, so that they could be all but rolled up in a suitcase without being damaged.

As for the actual garments, the aim in town for men was to look a bit like a Morgan partner, since the Morgan partners had their own rather flossy style of haberdashery, which was as much admired as was their bank. To this day, when I dress to go out to an old-fashioned luncheon party in Washington, I do my best to suggest a Morgan partner of 1928. In the evening, furthermore, almost all men who were dining with friends in town, and quite often men staying at one of the richer houses in the country, automatically “dressed for dinner.” “Dressing for dinner,” thank God, no longer meant putting on a stiff shirt. By my time, men were allowed soft shirts, preferably silk, although the very young could wear white Brooks Brothers shirts. But you still needed a dinner jacket and trousers, with black silk socks and pumps to complete the turnout, along with a black bow tie, and a fine white—always white—handkerchief and a cummerbund or waistcoat at a minimum. And woe to you forever if you ventured upon a ruffled or colored shirt or necktie of the sort the young wear to what they call “formals” nowadays. Worse than woe to you, too, even if your necktie was black but was seen to be “made up.”

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