Cheerful Money: Me, my family and the last days of WASP splendour
Little, Brown, 351pp
Reviewed by Christopher Silvester
Tad Friend was born in 1962, five years after the ethnonym Wasp, standing for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, was coined and two years before E Digby Baltzell popularised the term in his book The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America. Of course, Wasps had long rejoiced in their shared identity. ‘But as with many historical forces and periods — the Ages of Iron, Steam, and Reason, say — Wasps received their enduring name only as they were about to pass from relevance.’
Friend’s growing-up tracked the decline of Wasp influence, which he scrutinises wittily through the prism of this family memoir. ‘The branches of my family tree were bowed with squires, judges, ministers, senators, and colonial dames,’ he writes. ‘Yet no one grew really wealthy until the turn of the 20th century, when the Friends made enough from steel, coal, and banking to become — briefly — smashingly rich: chauffeur rich, yacht rich, $350,000,000-in-today’s-money rich.’ The family fortune has since dissipated, but the cluster of caste markers remains.
‘Wasp’ is a more elastic term than it might at first appear to be, since it embraces those Americans of northwestern European origin in general, not just those of British origin — though the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were of exclusively British extraction. But it is also geographically confined to the North-east of the United States, with an entrepôt in the Georgetown district of Washington, DC. There were Southern conservatives and later Sunbelt conservatives, but traditional Wasps were predominantly Rockefeller Republicans, conservatives with a conscience.
At the height of Wasp power and influence, around the turn of the century, industrial and financial fortunes were combined with civic and academic leadership. By the mid-1960s the certainties of the Wasp world were fraying. All four of Friend’s grandparents were Wasps, and his parents were the last Wasp generation ‘to grow up with servants who took care of the meals and the children and the bother’, whereas his own generation was ‘the last to receive silver christening cups and to be taken shopping for the chain mail of adulthood — camel hair coats and Brooks Bros suits and Lloyd & Haig shoes. And the first to abstain from church, to give God a rest.’
What makes this book so affecting is that its author is not sure whether he approves of his Wasp heritage or not, but is nonetheless ‘drawn to what we had in great part because it’s gone — drawn to the ruinous romance of loss’.
Despite some un-Waspish attributes — he belongs to no club, prefers beer to hard liquor, and enjoys pop culture — Friend harbours enough classic Wasp traits to admit the pull of his caste: an awkward body language, a conservative dress sense, an aloofness, a feeling of disconnection from his parents, a judgmental aversion to non-Wasp taste, and an effortless capacity to render non-Wasps ‘a little uneasy’.
Regarding the last of these, he explains in a dryly self-deprecating manner (another Wasp trait) that ‘a woman I fooled around with in my early twenties told me, years later, that she had to get a new mattress and headboard after I remarked on her “game-show bed”.’
So what are some of the things that make a Wasp? Wasps are credentialists. They enjoy reciting achievements, not just their own. They are inveterate list-makers, especially the women. Propagation is a duty rather than an urge and Wasp women ‘labour under son-and-heir anxieties like those of Henry VIII’s wives’. As with the British upper class, it is ‘acceptable for Wasps to discuss necessary expenses ($18,000 for a new roof, the shocking price of heating oil) but not elective expenses and never income’.
Self-criticism is a social norm: ‘Wasps live on the narrow margin between consciousness of their bad habits and preoccupation with their faults.’ While Wasp food is nutritious and well presented, there is never quite enough of it on the table. Boozing was de rigueur among earlier generations of Wasps, ‘as long as it conformed to protocols designed to avert the word “alcoholic”’.
A Wasp would never break a sweat in the metaphorical sense: ‘Visibly striving or seriousness of purpose is unWasp because it suggests you aren’t yet — haven’t always been — at the top.’ Yet the top remains ultimately unattainable: ‘No matter how inside they seem, Wasps always sense a further circle just beyond reach.’
Since the social stature of Wasps has declined, their style has been co-opted into the wider culture by such outsider tastemakers as Martha Stewart (Catholic) and Ralph Lauren (Jewish). But the Wasp outlook is still ingrained in the DNA of a swathe of boys and girls educated at Ivy League or Seven Sisters colleges and their feeder schools — even those like Friend who are captivated by the casual, unbuttoned ease of their Eurotrash college friends.
Friend’s memoir is always wry and often extremely funny. The ‘cheerful money’ of the title refers to his parents’ tradition of rewarding their children with cash tokens for exhibiting a perky and upbeat attitude, though Friend explains that such perkiness should never be confused with optimism, which is a preppy rather than a Wasp attribute. Wasps are too prematurely care-worn to truckle to the delusion of optimism.
‘Preppies are infantile and optimistic, for ever stuck at age seventeen,’ says Friend. ‘Wasps emerge from the womb wrinkly and cautious, already vice presidents, already fifty-two.’