There are no great families in America anymore. And few, if any, worth heralding in the dynastic sense. A great family needs more than tremendous wealth. It needs an organizing principle by which parents and children dedicate themselves to the development of the family’s intellect, followed by a devotion to the community and to “good” work, in contrast to the original founders of the family fortune whose only priority was “hard” work.
An enlightened, good-neighbor state of family affairs hardly seems possible in an age long ago sacrificed to the triumph of the individual and the accommodation of the ego. Money no longer is the means to culture, it is culture. Self-actualization, fetishized child-rearing rituals, isolationism and serial divorce have replaced philanthropy as the leading form of expression for the moneyed classes.
The upper classes used to meet to roll bandages. Now they meet to roll in yoga classes, and blame the press for the chronic harsh treatment they say has hastened their retreat from public life. But how can you resist when, as witnessed the other day at that great Upper East Side anthropological center, Zitomer’s Pharmacy, you find the Zoloft father, the Prada mother and their 10-year-old son barking orders for sundries at the checkout counter while yelling down the mouthpieces of their cell phones?
Once upon a time, a great effort was made by privileged families to insure their demeanor and unity as upstanding citizens. To that end, in the extreme, Consuelo Vanderbilt’s mother insisted that a metal rod be placed at the back of her daughter’s corset so she would sit properly. Consuelo Vanderbilt never forgot the pain of the metal rod jabbing her as her carriage coursed a rough patch on the road to Blenheim Palace in 1894, home of the Duke of Marlborough whom she married in 1895.
The Vanderbilts are the subject of two new books by first cousins Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Conner and Flora Miller Biddle, granddaughters of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the founder of the Whitney Museum. Ms. Conner, a talented painter, has written and illustrated Those Early Years , published by Turtle Point Press. Ms. Biddle’s memoir, The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made , will be published next month by Arcade Publishing. Different as these books are in genre, they are united by their depiction of a world of American aristocracy that seems like ancient history compared to the brusque standards of today’s meritocracy.
Ms. Conner, or Gerta, as she is known to friends, has painted landscapes since she was 15. An exhibition of her work took place at the New York Studio School this past spring. About five years ago, Ms. Conner felt called to paint images from her early life. A friend who saw this initial work encouraged the artist to paint her memoir, examining her solitary childhood, her adolescence and early adulthood, and one especially nightmarish episode. About 40 years ago, Ms. Conner’s first husband kidnapped her young children, a son and a daughter, and took them to Spain where, because of Napoleonic laws, he was able to keep them from seeing their mother until the oldest child escaped to the United States at the age of 16.
Those Early Years is told in few words, and two dozen lyrical illustrations, bright and colorful. On the other hand, The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made narrative might remind some readers of Katharine Graham’s memoir, Personal History . Ms. Graham tells about her inherited role in the newspaper business; Ms. Biddle writes about inheriting the Whitney Museum, which grew from a small studio on Eighth Street to the institution it is today under the direction of her, her mother and her grandmother.
“It’s the story of a journey from childhood to age, from illusion to reality. It tells of a change in an institution and a change in me,” writes Ms. Biddle.
To compete, or simply stay afloat, the Whitney has had to expand its community of supporters beyond the family court. Ms. Biddle tells of several of her calls to raise funds and make new museum friends.
“One spring day in 1987, I went to lunch at Susan Gutfreund’s magnificent home on Fifth Avenue,” Ms. Biddle recalls. “Alfred Taubman had called me, after John Gutfreund had left Salomon Brothers, suggesting it would be a good time to show warm feelings to these acquaintances we’d never brought close to the museum. They’d be pleased, and the Whitney would be the beneficiary. So I called Susan. She showed me up the curving staircase, past a gorgeous Monet, into a vast living room overlooking Central Park. Turning left, she seemed to await a special response, and suddenly I noticed my favorite chair, formerly in my parents’ yellow library, covered in the same fabric we’d used for” a book about her mother compiled after her death in 1986.
“Surely she thought I’d be delighted to see it again,” Ms. Biddle writes, “but it was hard to be polite, imagining Mum’s reaction, wishing I could have kept that particular chair.”
The chair, along with much of her mother’s things, had been sold to pay estate taxes.
Followers of the trials and tribulations of the Whitney Museum have awaited Ms. Biddle’s book to see how she would regard Leonard Lauder, now president of the Whitney. He had been instrumental in ousting in 1990 museum director Tom Armstrong, whom Ms. Biddle continues to champion in her book–including her account of Larry Tisch’s wrongful charge that Mr. Armstrong blackballed one of his children from entry into a New York co-op building because the Tisches are Jewish. Despite Mr. Lauder’s position against Mr. Armstrong, Ms. Biddle writes fondly of the gentleman, his commitment to the Whitney and his inspired ability to “unite the board and raise the funds necessary for the museum’s survival.”
But she also includes a recollection of a breakfast at the Plaza Hotel with Mr. Lauder at which she was “feverish with incipient flu.” She writes, “All with a smile but devastating nonetheless” Mr. Lauder told her “I had no clout like Blanchette Rockefeller [the president of the Museum of Modern Art] … the collection was terrible, curators inept … the board didn’t have enough contributing trustees or the right ethnic balance, the museum had no status or quality–but great potential!… I thanked him, and tried to respond, but as I said later to Tom one shouldn’t have a meal with Leonard unless one is feeling perfect.
“Tom said, one shouldn’t pass Leonard on the street unless one feels perfect!”
Billy’s List: Quiz time!
1. Why are people talking about Quillacas in Bolivia?
a. Calvin Klein has rented a ranch there for the holidays.
b. There seems to be some evidence that scientists have found the lost city of Atlantis there.
c. It’s where Evita Perón’s vast collection of couture clothes has been kept in cold storage since her death, auction pending.
2. The May issue of Interview will be devoted to:
b. Barbra Streisand.
c. Bruce Weber’s houses.
3. What is the “Bodyguard Bra”?
a. Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs’ slang for a black, stretch Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt.
b. Puff Daddy’s slang for a dog collar of “ice,” meaning diamonds.
c. A “smart” bra being developed to trigger an alarm when the wearer’s heart rates rises because of danger.
Answers: (1) b; (2) a; (3) c.
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