Louis Auchincloss: "Last of the Old Guard"

Prolific writer and close class observer Louis Auchincloss dies at the age of 92.

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What actually takes place behind the carefully guarded doors of white-shoe law firms and Park Avenue living rooms? Louis Auchincloss knew – and wasn't afraid to invite the rest of us in for a glimpse. In more than 60 books written over the course of 70 years, Auchincloss turned his privileged background into an array of quietly impressive fiction. He was also a historian and essayist.

Auchincloss died today in Manhattan at the age of 92, marking an end to a remarkably active career. "Some people make the rest of us look like idlers," commented Monitor book critic Heller McAlpin in her 2008 review of Auchincloss's 65th novel, "Last of the Old Guard." "Case in point: Louis Auchincloss, who has written, on average, a book a year for six decades – even while practicing trust and estate law full-time for more than 40 of those years."

Auchincloss, McAlpin suggested, "who was honored as a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy back in 2000, may well feel like the last of the old guard himself."

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This was a man to the manor born. He descended from a prominent New York family, attended Groton and Yale, and practiced law on Wall Street. His mother was an artist and even as a child he felt a pull toward creative pursuits. Yet when he tried writing fiction full time, he felt cut off from what he called "the real world." So he spent his life allowing his two chosen professions to feed one another.

Some of Auchincloss's best-known works include "The House of Five Talents," "Portrait in Brownstone," and "The Embezzler." He was a four-time fiction finalist for the National Book Award.

"There’s something oddly comforting about reading this patrician novelist of manners, successor to Edith Wharton," noted McAlpin. "You know, to a certain degree, what you’ll be served – rather like eating at an exclusive social club. The food is rarely exciting, but it’s never alarming, either, and it’s impeccably presented. Manners are genteel, language is as proper and crisp as white linen napkins, and everyone is educated and well-heeled. It all feels like a throwback to a more gracious time."

And yet Auchincloss's fictional constructs were anything but cozy. Auchincloss "chronicles the kinds of compromises - professional, ethical, and personal - that cause his moneyed protagonists to lead tragic lives despite their outward privilege," wrote Monitor book critic Yvonne Zipp in her 2006 review of Auchincloss short story collection "Young Apollo and Other Stories."

Money may muffle emotion in the world of an Auchincloss novel. And yet quiet is not to be confused with calm. Zipp concludes her review of Auchincloss's stories by quoting one of his "zingers." Of a character named Martin he wrote, "His moderate good looks, his moderate competence in sports, and his moderate good nature caused him to be moderately accepted."

As Zipp points out, "This may be one of the most barbed uses ever of the old Greek maxim, 'Moderation in all things.' "

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/MarjorieKehe

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