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'The irony of my life'
It is a myth," he continues, that a once great and powerful class of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants has been pushed aside; the ruling class has simply eliminated the ethnic and religious bars to entry, and expanded.
Financial Times

'The irony of my life'

By Trevor Butterworth

Published: September 22 2007 03:00 | Last updated: September 22 2007 03:00

Iget writers to sign their books," says Louis Auchincloss, reaching up to a shelf of immaculate first editions. Just shy of his 90th birthday, he is now the "grand old man" of American letters - older than Norman Mailer (84), Gore Vidal (82), Tom Wolfe (77), John Updike (75) and Philip Roth (74) - and in rude health, apart from his hips, the only act of betrayal wrought by age. He is alone - his wife Adele, an artist and a commissioner of New York's public parks, died in 1991. Their three sons are grown up, and he has a granddaughter just startingat Yale.

He is confined to his apartment atop a solid 14-storey building on 90th and Park Avenue, one of the red-brick repository boxes of old money and old New York. The Upper East Side, the golden mile of American power and privilege, is to his south and west. It is this world, the locus of power and privilege for much of America's history, that he has chronicled and dissected for 60 years, and now he is shut off from it until after his surgery. Bored, and decidedly irritated by his confinement, he turns energetically to the past.

"There's the Bonfire," he says, taking down Wolfe's tumultuous novel of financial decadence and racial tension in 1980s New York, and opening the cover to reveal a dedication as outsize as the dandified author - a florid script of copperplate curls and Gothic abutments written with a nib the size of a small paintbrush. "It's a marvellous book," Auchincloss says in a patrician accent of broad "a"s and reedy "r"s that in its natural, inherited form has all but disappeared from America, "but not everyone thinks so."

If Auchincloss's name is not typically partnered with the literary firm of Updike, Mailer, Bellow and Roth - or dazzles with the rebellious élan of a Wolfe - it is certainly not for his lack of talent, versatility or range as a writer. He has authored 30 novels, the most recent of which, The Headmaster's Dilemma, was published this month in the US; there are 17 collections of short stories; and then a further 17 works of non-fiction, including biographies of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, and volumes of literary criticism and social history.

But despite the plaudits - "Since Henry James, no American writer has met the challenge of writing the 'novel of manners' with the success of Louis Auchincloss," said Ralph Ellison - and the quixotic decision by the New York Landmarks to declare him a living landmark in 1991 (one suspects the commission will not foot the bill for his hip replacement), Auchincloss has always been something of a maverick, leaving American literary society perplexed (why must he always write about the rich?) much as, 60 years ago, he left aristocratic New York perturbed (please God, may he not write about us!).

Louis Stanton Auchincloss was born in Lawrence, New York on September 27, 1917 and grew up in Manhattan. He owes his lineage, and the good fortune to be born into America's upper class, to Hugh Auchincloss, a Scottish merchant who left Paisley in 1803 to set up a branch of his family's dry goods business in New York. Through adroit marriages and hard work, Hugh and his progeny multiplied and prospered into a new old world of brownstone houses, summers in Bar Harbor, Maine and Southampton, Long Island, New England prep schools, the bluer-blooded Ivies, secret societies, gentlemen's clubs, Park Avenue and Wall Street - all the contours and peaks and exclusive domains of American Waspdom.

Arguably, the most significant event in Auchincloss's life was attending Groton, a preparatory school in Massachusetts founded in 1884 by the Reverend Endicott Peabody and endowed with the help of JP Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt. As with many who find themselves in the cloistered and intense schools of the elite, Auchincloss never fully left; and the inspirational and feared figure of Peabody and the stern Episcopalian values and hyper-athleticism permeate Auchincloss's most lauded work, The Rector of Justin(1964), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

After graduating from Groton in 1935, Auchincloss entered Yale (which had a more aristocratic pull than Harvard), where he immersed himself in and deeply enjoyed English and French literature. But he fled after three years and without a degree to the University of Virginia's Law School at Charlottesville (which was, Auchincloss explains, an impulsive and tempestuous act of "expiation" after having his first novel rejected by Scribners).

He joined the law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell on the eve of war, and then promptly left to join the navy. ("You may be sunk, but you're quite comfortable until then," he says, about his choice of service.) Posted first to naval intelligence, an oxymoron given his senior commander's reliance on a psychic lieutenant to locate German submarines, he then served on amphibious landing ships which, in the slow chugging backwards and forwards, gave him plenty of time to read.

He returned to Sullivan and Cromwell after the war but, fortified by long days at sea with Henry James and Edith Wharton and buoyed a relatively undemanding clerkship (unlike his peers at the firm, he lived in hope of not making partner), he returned to writing.

The decision to actually publish a novel was a daring act of rebellion. To his family, novel writing was déclassé and a novel about the manners and morals of "high society" was certain to be vulgar. When The Indifferent Children was published in 1947, it bore the pseudonym "Andrew Lee" as a concession to his mother's concern for his and her social standing.

"When I was told that an Auchincloss had written a novel, I said: 'Not possible'," recalled Gore Vidal (a "kind of cousin" through the temporary acquisition of an Auchincloss stepfather). "No Auchincloss could write a book. Banking and law, power and money, that was their category."

By the inverted standards of literary critical fashion, Auchincloss was guilty of studied perversity if not irrelevance - he was the wrong sort of writer writing about the wrong sorts of things in the wrong sort of way. The "approved" American experience was that of the everyman, the loner, the misfit, the con artist, the neurotic, and occasionally even the intellectual: it was not that of the social registrite, the registered Republican, the Wall Street lawyer, the Wasp - unless, of course, mockery was afoot. Auchincloss was all of these things - and never overcame them, as one is supposed to do with the trappings of privilege in America if one wants to be taken seriously by those who take themselves seriously.

As Vidal complained in the same essay for the New York Review of Books, "of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs. Yet such is the vastness of our society and the remoteness of academics and bookchatterers from actual power that those who should be most in this writer's debt have no idea what a useful service he renders us by revealing and, in some ways, betraying his class."

If Auchincloss was unfashionable in writing about high finance and law, he was practically obscene in avoiding the great compulsive issue that spurred his literary peers and kept the public titillated by the novel form: sex. Yes, Auchincloss wrote about people having affairs, as in The House of the Prophet (1980), based on the life of the great public intellectual Walter Lippmann. But the nitty-gritty was in the impact of the relationship on affairs of state, not on what went on between the sheets. Auchincloss's terrain is manners; his interest identity, and how it could prove elusive: was the Lippmannesque character of Felix Leitner fearlessly and admirably devoted to the truth, or was he deviously expedient and monstrously egotistical? Auchincloss's great skill is in suspending these multiple viewpoints in a finely modulated psychological realism.

While he has no regrets about having avoided prose-bound sex or literary experimentation - "I've always been a rather straight and direct writer, ever since I started," he says, "and there isn't that much difference between my style then and my style now" - the one criticism that rankles is that his subject matter represents a vanished world. "I grew up in the 1920s and 1930s in a nouveau riche world, where money was spent wildly," he says, "and I'm still living in one! The private schools are all jammed with long waiting lists; the clubs - all the old clubs - are jammed with long waiting lists today; the harbours are clogged with yachts; there has never been a more material society than the one we live in today. Where is this 'vanished world' they talk about? I don't think the critics have looked out the window!"

"It is a myth," he continues, that a once great and powerful class of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants has been pushed aside; the ruling class has simply eliminated the ethnic and religious bars to entry, and expanded. "Proust studied this very carefully," he says. "He understood that society would take in anybody it wants."

Indeed, at the very centre of American politics is the great dynastic Wasp story of our time, the Bush family (both presidents: Philips Andover - America's Eton - Yale, Skull and Bones). Surely this is the grist for a great society novel? Auchincloss demurs. "I just think the Bushes are a big family of shits," he says with a sibilant hiss, "they might have existed anywhere." The statement sits oddly with the photograph on the mantelpiece, which is of the Bushes welcoming Auchincloss to the Oval Office after he was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2005. "That's because all the grandchildren are there," he replies, noting that he has received an enormous amount of grief from friends over the picture. As befits a lawyer, his defence is a touch legalistic: "I didn't accept a prize from George W Bush, I accepted a prize from the President of the United States. Who am I to turn that down? The grandchildren had a lovely time!"

"I used to say to my father," he says, " 'If my class at Yale ran this country, we would have no problems.' And the irony of my life is that they did." He pauses before invoking a 20th-century American foreign-policy who's who: "There was Cy Vance, Bill Scranton, Ted Beale, both Bundys, Bill and McGeorge - they all got behind that war in Vietnam and they pushed it as far as they could. And we lost a quarter of a million men. They were all idealistic, good, virtuous," says Auchincloss, "the finest men you could find. It was the most disillusioning thing that happened in my life."

Auchincloss has struggled to understand just how their shared patrician background could have produced this disconnect. And the answer would appear to be that wars are lost, if not always made, on the playing fields of New England. "Bill Bundy and I shared a study at Groton, and one day he came in from a football game, and I said: 'Who won?' and he said: 'We lost,' and then he burst into tears. You cannot lose. Groton cannot lose. That's what they believed in, no matter what," explains Auchincloss. "They all would have all been willing to die, if they hadn't already been in high positions. They believed America cannot lose. We stand for every virtue and right that's in the world."

But the lessons of Groton don't end there. There is also the matter of obedience. "My friends had all graduated from college and professional school before they entered the war and that was a great help - even to those who had a terrible time," says Auchincloss. "I think the awful psychological effects happen in younger men. They are less accepting - they are outraged that it could happen to them. The officers all sort of expected it; and they all went to private schools, so they had never any difficulty with the fact that they were commanded by idiots. One learns to be commanded by idiots in the private school system."

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'The irony of my life'