Old Money Ponders the New Recession

Indeed, Mr. Van Rensselaer was introduced to the club life at a young age. When he was 17, his father got him going at the super-exclusive Society of the Cincinnati; George Washington and Alexander Hamilton were early members.

“In order to be in that society, you have to be a direct descendent of somebody who was an officer in the Revolutionary War,” he said. “And it’s different from Sons of the Revolution and some of these other societies because your ancestor has to be an officer.”

Back then, dressing up in white tie and tails and donning ribbons and medals was a chore. Over the years, it’s grown on him: “I sort of appreciate that it’s a lost cause to have that appreciation.”

He understands that such traditions don’t always sit well with the uninvited. “On the one hand, gosh, you know, what great appreciation for these people, many of whom gave their lives for our freedom,” he said. On the other hand, to embrace that tradition in this day and age, “you come off as someone who thinks they’re better than everybody else, who is trying to be partitioned off from the rest of New York.” 

It’s a dilemma that Mr. Van Rensselaer has learned to accept since moving to New York and joining the various clubs his forefathers patronized or had in some cases helped found. There is the Racquet & Tennis Club, where he plays squash, and the Yacht Club, which brings back fond memories of his father’s sloop placing third in the annual regatta when he was a boy. These days, his father keeps more modest, recreational boats at their home outside Newport. Mr. Van Rensselaer gets less use out of the Holland Society and the Brook Club, where he maintains a membership more as a nod to his ancestors, whose portraits hang on their walls. He understands that not everyone who’s born into the legacy of old New York shares his interest in the club life, but he finds it silly that so many get caught up feeling uncomfortable about their wealth.

“Nobility is defined by your actions; it’s not a birthright, and it doesn’t really matter what you’re born with. You’re judged by your actions and how you see your purpose on the planet,” he said. “There are plenty of people who have been born with a lot of wealth and great names who have done great things. And there are plenty of people that have been born with so much that has been given to them that they have totally screwed it up. And there are some amazing rags-to-riches stories. I think if you’re a person who’s confident in themselves, who’s trying to figure out their place in the world….You know, none of us decide how we wind up here.

“To go off and get all hung up on all that stuff is a distraction from—and whether you have means or not, or have a name or not—you’re still going to have to get off your ass and go figure out what you’re going to go do with your life.”

After college, Mr. Van Rensselaer had an idea of where he was going and managed to get there with the ease of a dandelion floating on a summer breeze. First he did a stint handling marketing for Hay Day, then took a job in the city at a small advertising firm. Next he moved to Cleveland and handled brand management for the Heinz Corporation. He wound up at Cingular Wireless, now AT&T, where he was eventually promoted to executive director of national marketing and commuted to Atlanta. One of the things he handled was youth markets. At an event held at the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Van Rensselaer gave a speech to a group of teenagers. “It is often said,” he told them, “that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is one of the most important historical texts. Texts. And now you have the power to change the course of the political discourse in the next election with the power of the text.”

In February, Mr. Van Rensselaer left Cingular AT&T to found Van Rensselaer Enterprises; he plans to unroll a number of small digital media sites. He recently launched his first Web venture, icringe.com.

“We came up with this idea that every group of friends has a bunch of statements or terms that they love and hate,” he explained. “So my least favorite in the world is this expression ‘happy camper.’ When I hear someone say ‘happy camper,’ I want to punch them in the face.”

“Mine is ‘good for you,’” said Ms. Minneke. “I’m German, and when someone says, ‘Good for you,’ it’s like”—she did her best cringe face. She said she also dislikes the word “moist.”