Was Louis Auchincloss a snob, as his mother claimed – ruing her third child’s “admiration of wealth,” which unpleasantly evoked her snobbish grandmother – or simply a relic of another era? In his posthumously published memoir, A Voice from Old New York, Auchincloss recaptures a time when there was “a predominating and generally recognized Society” in the “marvelous” city where not only he but all of his grandparents “dwelled merely by advantage of birth.”
Honored by the New York Landmarks Conservancy in 2000 as a “Living Legend,” Auchincloss was a link to the privileged New York of Edith Wharton and Theodore Roosevelt, the subjects of just two of the more than 60 books he wrote during his long, productive life.
The bulk of Auchincloss’s oeuvre were novels about New York’s patrician class and the interplay of money and morality in the lives of its lawyers, bankers, and brokers. Before he died in January, 2010, at the age of 92, he turned his discerning eye on his own family, education, and career, duplicating but also amplifying some of the material covered in his 1974 autobiography, “A Writer’s Capital.”
Freed from constraints by the deaths of many of its players – including his parents, all but one sibling, and friends such as Jacqueline Onassis (a cousin by marriage) and Brooke Astor – “A Voice From Old New York” addresses various episodes in Auchincloss’s life with greater frankness. These include his sister’s battles with depression and confessions of his own isolated incidents of larceny and vandalism before the age of 10. In “A Hang-up,” he writes with restrained frankness of a deep-seated fear of castration that inhibited his sexual development well into adulthood, until he finally sought help from “a brilliant psychiatrist.”
Auchincloss’s forebears came to America from Scotland in 1803. His father, Joseph Howland Auchincloss, born in 1886, was a third cousin of Franklin Roosevelt on the Howland side. He suffered from periodic depression, yet had a successful career as a partner in the New York law firm of Davis Polk.
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.”
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.