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A Voice from Old New York

Louis Auchincloss shares glimpses of his remarkable life – both as a writer and a highly privileged New Yorker.

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Auchincloss marvels that in 1931 his father was able to maintain a brownstone on 91st Street; a weekend house on Long Island; a rented villa in Bar Harbor, Maine, where the family retreated every July; four housemaids; two children’s nurses; a couple to maintain the Long Island house; a chauffeur; four cars; several social clubs; and private schools for his four children – all on an income of “just” $100,000 a year. Auchincloss comments, “Of course the dollar went further then, but still! Yet it never occurred to me that we were rich.”

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In fact, Auchincloss’s world was so narrowly circumscribed that perspective was clearly difficult. He writes, “To me, New York society (we never used the term) was not a class that dominated my world; it simply was that world.”

Although he notes that he was both parents’ favorite, Auchincloss’s relationship with his mother, Priscilla Dixon Stanton Auchincloss, had its stresses – particularly when she strongly discouraged his proclivity toward writing. He explains, “She was afraid that I was just slick enough to get my toe on the publishing ladder and would ruin my life and happiness as a hack. She felt it her duty to save me from such a disaster.”

Infected with his mother’s doubts, he left Yale before graduating after his first novel was rejected by Scribners, leaping directly to the University of Virginia Law School. He practiced trusts and estate law in tandem with his writing until 1987, when his literary career took over.

In Mark Twain’s recently published autobiography, he avowed that the genre should not entail a chronological account of a life but whatever preoccupies its author. Auchincloss’s memoir begins traditionally enough, following a rough chronological arc. But the sequencing diffuses, darting around, we suspect, as time grew short. There are scattered musings about women’s changing roles in society, several lost friends, the woeful lack of writing skills among college students today, and, in a section titled Farewells, a belated tribute to his Irish nurse, Maggie Kane, who disappeared without a trace when she felt herself redundant in the Auchincloss household – never to be found, despite a detective search.

“A Voice From Old New York” is a guarded glimpse into aspects of a remarkable life. Auchincloss makes clear that for him, the most important aspect of that life was his writing. He closes his somewhat rambling narrative with a penetrating coda that could be his epitaph: “I will leave you with that. Society matters not so much. Words are everything.”

Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.

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