- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2011

By Louis Auchincloss
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25 203 pages

If Louis Auchincloss’ forebears rolled over in their manicured graves when his novels came out, they can stop worrying now that his posthumous memoir has appeared. The most shocking outrage herein happened to the author himself, at boarding school.

Louis Auchincloss was to Manhattan’s East Side what Smokey Bear was to forests, what Helen was to Troy: a spokesman, a symbol, the personification of a place. Named a living landmark by preservation watchdogs, he was Park Avenue’s Cal Ripken Jr., the Ironman, producing a book a year from 1947 to 2010, while keeping his day job as a Wall Street lawyer crafting wills for top-drawer clients. His admirable oeuvre comprises 31 novels, 17 anthologies, 17 expositions - including a biography of his heroine Edith Wharton - and now this.

As if honoring every fiction teacher’s first rule, the perennial author wrote about what he knew: his milieu and its denizens, institutions, traditions, standards. The elite were his people: blue bloods from old families who coddled their old money and lived by their old rules - which they broke less often than arrivistes flout the new rules they make up as they go along. His novels, slender as their protagonists, aptly wore dust jackets bearing portraits of American aristocrats by John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eakins.

His characters were known by their Brahmin diction, perfect manners and Tiffany tastes. He told their stories in paragraphs as silken as the lapels of their Abercrombie tuxedos, with jibes as sharp as hatpins and turns of plot as piquant as onions in a Gibson cocktail. His slices of life were buttered as smoothly as white rounds beneath the cucumbers on a silver tray of canapes. (Does anyone serve canapes today? I daresay not.)

Now the chronicler of the Four Hundred, dead at 92, addresses his declining readership from the grave, offering in 203 undersized pages a tea cart of waspish wisdom and self-absorbed reflections:

“To me, New York society (we never used the term) was not a class that dominated my world; it simply was that world.”

“The Auchinclosses were the Johnny-come-latelies [sic], not bringing their woolen business from Scotland until 1803.”

“I can’t think of a single example among my contemporary friends and relations who dissipated a substantial inheritance. Many vastly increased them.”

There is the offhand surprise. Witness a post-sexist recollection of asking Mother, ” ‘If you went downtown to work like Daddy, do you think that between you we could have a red Rolls-Royce?’ Why should one rest while the other toiled? I didn’t get it.”

There is Eros in summer. “I learned in Bar Harbor that sex is as interesting to people I once regarded as too old for it as it is to the young.”

And Eros rampant at Groton: “I had no friends and was even subject to a sexual violation that would have created a minor scandal today.” Then he describes his sexual dysfunction - cured by a savvy therapist - in clinical detail that would abash a younger man.

As for politics: “The one thing that the rich share in common is apt to be the Republican Party.”

Browsing in memory’s attic, he displays an uncurious ignorance of people who shared his roof: “I don’t recall even discussing with another child the plight of the poor women who lived in narrow cubicles on the often cold top floors of our brownstones and who worked around the clock with one day off a week and nothing to do on it.” (Actually these “poor immigrant Irish girls” had vibrant lives, as portrayed in Colm Toibin’s “Brooklyn,” and other celebrations of hoi polloi.)

The narrative displays a woeful absence of editorial oversight in repetitions and slips of the pen that suggest the editors felt as powerless as scullions, forgetting that part of a minion’s job is to keep one’s superior from looking bad. Example: “mustang” in Navy parlance is defined twice on consecutive pages.

Sad to say, this seems written in one draft, an old man’s amble through cherished places seen through failing eyes and recalled with a fading memory. Syntax slips and names drop - Jackie Kennedy, the Bundy brothers, Bill Scranton and such. There is the occasional wry trope and rays of sunny nostalgia, but overall one fears that Manhattan’s blind Homer was going deaf at the last.

In fact, this literate lion wrote an admirable adieu, but it appeared in his last novel. The narrator in “Last of the Old Guard,” a lawyer and patriarch like his auteur, reflects:

“I have had what most people would call a happy and successful life. My sole marriage brought me joy and two children; I have made many good and trusted friends, some in high places. … I have also enjoyed rude health and what I have often been told are striking good looks. But the question remains: Have I made the best use of my unquestioned advantages? Have I even made a respectable use of them?”

Of this memoir, in his better days Louis Auchincloss himself would have answered both interrogatives in the negative.

Philip Kopper, who writes about history and the arts, is the publisher of Posterity Press Inc. in Bethesda, Md.



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