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Forbes' thirty-five-year career as an art expert and appraiser gave him unusual entrée into the houses and lives of the old rich. Along with their collections, he closely examined the customs, manners, and viewpoints of
America's upper crust. Old Money America presents a discussion of the:
The Ironies of Old Money
Cui bono? (Who profits?) -Cicero
I don't remember much about being four, though I remember being cleaned up and admonished before visiting my great-grandfather, always referred to as "The Judge." To visit him was like coming into the presence of Almighty Oz. Even at four years old, I knew he was more than just all-powerful and all-knowing. "The Judge" had money. Old Money. And every member of the family pinned hopes on getting it.
The Rt. Hon. Frederick Henry Hazard, a New York State appellate justice, was born outside of Utica, New York. His grandparents came out from Rhode Island in the 1820s. They built a Greek revival farmhouse and filled it with the old Newport furniture now so coveted by connoisseurs. Reviewing the ephemera that have survived, they were genteel people. Their old books reveal that the Hazards had intellectual interests and read transcendentalist literature. Lost to history is why this branch of the Hazards left Newport. There are no tales of quarrels or banishments. My great-grandfather had august relations back in Rhode Island. His cousin Frederick made an enormous fortune mining soda ash. Cousin Caroline was president of Wellesley College and the world's greatest collector of original Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning manuscripts. That this country lad became a judge was not all that surprising. He set up practice in Utica, married well, and walked to his law offices until he was ninety-two years old.
By the time I visited his house on Genesee Street, he had long retired from the bench. His second wife, Agnes, greeted us at the door. The Hazards considered her a walking, talking faux pas and a step down from my deceased great-grandmother. Great-grandmother's fortune came from the Ten Eycks of Albany; her money and her diamonds were subjects of much tooth sucking. The house made an impression on me. I recall gloomy, silent rooms with Oriental rugs and a hulking clock in the stair hall. The grand old man was ensconced in his study. He sat behind a desk surrounded by tall bookshelves, looking pink and amiable. He was jovial toward me though I was childishly frightened of him. I also remember a navy blue automobile in his garage. This was the 1937 Packard 12 Club Sedan that he glided in from his house to his courtroom. Packards were big, really big, and the fenders were higher than my head.
Shortly after that visit he died. Oh, the whispered conversations, speculations, and schemes about his money. Even I felt the crash of despair when it didn't pan out as hoped. His estate came to fewer than seventy-five thousand dollars, a chunk of money in 1956, nevertheless splintered into so many pieces that it disappointed everybody. Auntie Hazel packed up the Rhode Island antiques while everyone else attended the funeral, plus she got the diamonds. This evoked decades of keening from my mother; I say the race belongs to the swift. And as nobody wanted that humongous Packard, it was given to the kid who mowed the lawn.
I haven't been back to Utica in forty-odd years. I understand that 2102 Genesee Street is converted to a dentist's office. That '37 Packard, in show condition, is now worth twice the sum total of Great-grandpa's entire estate. For all the family's schemes, the lawn boy made off with what, in the long run, was the greatest treasure. I hope he kept it, and I wish him well.
The Who and Where of Old Money
Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons. -Woody Allen
When Old Money is the subject, too much blather surrounds the tycoon clans. Although they have been extremely rich, to focus only on them narrows the breadth of established wealth in the United States. While there are lots of venerable fortunes in New York, Boston, and Chicago, every American town has Old Money. Each area has families that have lived there for decades, families that staked out the land, built the mills, or started the bank. Enclaves of older colonials and Tudors pop up in unlikely places; the mansions in Hickory Corners, Michigan, rival those of Winnetka.
Three groups are passing through those big homes. First is the old guard, now well into their eighties and fading fast. The second generation are middle-aged baby boomers facing retirement. Boomers are parents of the third set, the Internet generation, or I-gens for short. These three stages represent confidence, anxiety, and indifference. While most families follow the same progression, these shifts from exuberance to uncertainty to apathy are dangerous for Old Money's survival. If the indifference of the Internet generation continues, nobody will carry the gentry's culture forward.
The Best and Brightest: The Old Guard
The old guard were born in the 1920s and '30s and inherited money roughly by the '50s and '60s. These people did not just make rain; they were rain. The old guard rode the crest of the American century, enjoying limitless opportunities and unshakable confidence. They benefited from every boom and saw their investments double and redouble. It is almost inconceivable how far money once stretched. Ninety thousand dollars in the 1950s bought a fine house, some good antiques, and a Mercedes, with money left over for college tuition. By 2009 standards, these things total nearly two million dollars.
The Old Money elites were also the power, legal, cultural, and fashion elites. It was an oligarchy. Important matters were settled by swapping favors. Influence given held the expectation of equal influence reciprocated. Having once taken a favor, refusing a favor in return was nigh impossible. Such trade-offs built colleges, founded symphonies, and engendered other ventures for the public good. There was a darker side; these favors included advancing dunderheads and worse. Insiders looked the other way. Outsiders had no clout.
Old guard men tended to be brusque and unaffected. The majority served in World War II or Korea. This was a revelatory experience. In the service, privileged men came to appreciate people of courage and character who were outside their usual circle. And while they would never allude to it, they had faced some horrific situations that knocked the prep school snot clean out of them. While old guard males came back from war still socially superior, they were personally humbled.
In America's booming 1950s and '60s, career qualifications were lenient and good things existed for just the taking. Even technical job requirements were lax. Just-smart-enough really was smart enough. A halfway decent education and a helpful connection started old guard men in solid positions. Capable old guarders did succeed, sometimes spectacularly. That they were the best and brightest was a given. As much as pure talent, these achievements were aided by an expanding economy and an all-male hierarchy. One thing was certain: it was no longer acceptable for a rich gentleman to be idle. A man who couldn't talk business, politics, and sports was a drip.
I never knew an old guard man who counted calories, drinks, or cigarettes. Doctors were avoided, and psychiatry was nonsense. These guys lost no sleep over the cost of a canned ham or a Cadillac. Anything these men saw and liked-such as a boat, a painting, or a dog-they bought on the spot, and often to their wife's dismay. If one male epitomized the ideal it was Nelson Rockefeller. He was supremely rich, personally hardy, and he exuded self-confidence. Old guard men were often stubborn and shortsighted; the absolute assurance of their opinions was grating. Most infuriating was the sometimes-expressed view that they were self-made, conveniently forgetting that the playing field was ever tipped their way. However, their word and a handshake were better than any written contract. To charges that these men were stuck in the 1950s, I'd counter that manners and optimism are old-fashioned too.
Old guard women were more sheltered and reserved than their husbands and brothers. Standards of deportment, speech, and dress were paramount. Anything done poorly, said poorly, or worn poorly besmirched their family honor. It was all about keeping up one's side. If there was an ultimate old guard socialite, it was CeeZee (Mrs. Winston F. C.) Guest. Her all-American beauty, sporty clothes, and unpretentious manners made her the loveliest of lovely ladies. Slim Aarons's 1955 photo of her beside a Palm Beach pool is arguably the definitive icon of Old Money in America.
Independent means separated Old Money women from other American wives. Often a woman was better off than her husband. This did not damage the husband's pride because these males were accustomed to moneyed mothers and aunts. High-caste ladies had absolute control over their wardrobes and households; asking their husband's opinion was only a matter of form. Ideally, a couple would share interests, such as golf or gardening or collecting. Certainly anything pertaining to their children was of mutual concern. Yet how bills were paid was fluid from family to family. Two rules were absolute: a gentleman always paid for his clothes, and no lady ever bought herself jewelry or furs.
Few former debutantes held salaried jobs. Instead, charitable projects absorbed a lot of their time. They did not possess a common touch; clubwomen, also called "ladies who lunch," had a reputation for being stuffy. The Junior League combined benevolence with chic, though my family scoffed at do-gooders in Chanel suits. Nevertheless, these women took upon themselves soup kitchens, hospitals, schools, museums, and parks. Prior to the 1970s, government was not much involved in social welfare; public health, arts, and recreation were Old Money's purview. If charities were run like private clubs, they were successful clubs. Such efforts gave ladies who lunched a sense of responsibility, accomplishment, and self-respect.
The old guard's world is passing away as quickly as the old guard itself. Their stubborn refusal to acknowledge change has isolated the old guard and reduced Old Money's authority. In the age of Obama, shortstops make salaries larger than fortunes accumulated over two centuries. The civic good is provided by enormous bureaucracies, and patricians are no longer arbiters of art, fashion, and style. In Who Killed Society? author Cleveland Amory answered his own question: the rise of celebrity worship stole the spotlight from Old Money. However, the old guard dies still believing that they kept up their side.
The Dazed and Confused: The Old Money Baby Boomers
Old Money baby boomers are a new lost generation. Born roughly between the late 1940s and early 1960s, their old guard parents lived so well and succeeded so consistently that it appeared effortless. Well-off boomers had great expectations; they assumed they would ease into lives of power and prestige, then pick up when and where their parents left off. These assumptions proved to be largely false, as Old Money boomers were unprepared for the upheavals of the '60s and beyond. Today, with their expectations dashed, most old-family boomers wonder what went so terribly wrong. There are a marginal few who sail in the same serene waters as their parents; one cannot begrudge that some rich boomers are remarkably smart and able to spin new gold. This tiny minority grabbed the brass ring that most Richie Rich boomers missed.
No old guarder was entirely sheltered from the exigencies of the Great Depression or World War II. Practicality informed their choices. Their boomer children did not feel these constraints. Treading their fathers' footsteps into law, manufacturing, or Wall Street was one possibility, although more intriguing things beckoned in the '60s and '70s. For boomers, to follow one's bliss became a mantra. Even the ultimate boomer went adrift: John Kennedy eschewed politics to play magazine editor, tabloid star, and amateur pilot. Though his story is particularly tragic, it illustrates many of his ilk. True, middle-class boomers also heard these calls to so-called fulfillment. Luckily for them, they lacked great expectations. Most eventually landed in safe jobs and were content to live better than their parents had.
Those from-money boomers who did seek traditional careers rarely found dazzling success. In a nation that increasingly demanded diversity, the old order lost its stranglehold on law, medicine, and finance. Being just smart enough was no longer smart enough, and good things no longer existed for the taking. Top-drawer boomers found themselves in third-drawer jobs. Keeping up appearances became a charade; the big house, private schools, and club dues were ruinous. Other burrs under the saddle were old guard parents. Myopically, the old guard took power and success for granted, and their expectations often edged on the insane. A young father with three kids and just hanging on might find himself criticized for not being in the Senate.
In the early 1980s, just as well-heeled boomers were making career toeholds, the landscape of wealth changed. Astonishing riches came to corporate raiders who played by new rules that the establishment class loathed. For gracious people, the ethics of hostile takeovers, junk bonds, and greenmail were beyond the pale. To their credit, few members of the old regime jumped onto the new frenzy. To their discredit, they took no hard stand against the madness. As people they considered hopelessly crass bounded ahead, patricians did little more than harrumph. Old Money squandered an opportunity to exert leadership. Born-wealthy boomers neither enriched themselves from the change in corporate mores nor enhanced their prestige by demanding openness and fair play.
Worse, as Old Money professionals neared retirement their milieu went ass-over-teapot. The upheavals of 2008-2009 stunned us all. Former gilt-edged securities tanked and white-shoe careers abruptly ended. Scions saw their inheritances wither. Blue-blood professionals feel they have dedicated their lives to jobs they did not like, for security they did not secure, while hoping to obtain what they could never afford. Although middle and working-class boomers also suffered from the 2008 debacle, they were not raised believing an inheritance and a pedigree would see them through.
Those boomers who chose hobby careers flew high for a while. In the 1970s and '80, they set up as horse breeders, gallery directors, or any number of pursuits that had been only recreations for their parents. When times were good these endeavors made profits and were part of an expanding economy. Nevertheless, hobby jobs are contrary to the laws of making fortunes. Old wealth grew from providing practical things to mass markets. Providing specialty things to niche markets has significantly less gravitas. With the 2008-2009 crash, luxury ventures suddenly look like fluff. As their charming shops or spiffy offices are closing, former hobby careerists are at loose ends. At least the hobby careerists attempted something; there were plenty of rich-kid hippies who never even pretended to have careers. They have financed ashrams, trekked Asia, followed every micro-macro-lacto-vegan-bionic diet, and were prey for scammers. Ever adrift, Old Money stoners continue to wander in sunny climes, ponytailed, looking as wrinkly as Ramses and wearing kilos of Navajo jewelry.
My appraiser work was a hobby career, though I did not plan to be self-employed. I walked out of college into the massive 1974 recession and cooked up the appraisal business from desperate necessity. I loved that work. However, forces were against me. All my best clients were born in the 1920s and '30s, or even earlier. As they died off, so did my business. After years of diminishing returns, I abandoned the appraisal business for a job as a foundation director. I am content, not that I had such great success, only that I made no fatal mistakes. A glass half full is the new great success, considering how many of my fellow boomers have no glass left at all.
Excerpted from Old Money America by JOHN HAZARD FORBES Copyright © 2010 by JOHN HAZARD FORBES. Excerpted by permission.
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