Old Money Ponders the New Recession

“So you log on, and you get served up a term and vote on it. And you give it either a negative five, which is a full cringe, or a plus five, which is a cheers, meaning you really like the expression,” said Mr. Van Rensselaer. There is also a function where you can send someone an anonymous e-mail to let them know they’re using an unpopular expression.

He says the fact that he’s his own man is also demonstrated in the way he makes a dinner reservation these days.

“A lot of times now if I’m making a dinner reservation, or if I do something, it’s really just Van,” he said. “Now with the way databases work, and since the name is really not that common anymore, it’s 13 letters long. So while I appreciate the heritage, and I want to be proud of the origins of family, if I’m making a reservation at a restaurant, it’s really easier to say the last name is Van.”

Ms. Menniken nodded. “Actions speak louder than anything else, and knowing him and—it’s sort of like making dinner reservations and just saying Van.… Not anything relying on the name, just relying on the person you are and what you stand for,” she said. “It’s so much more important than anything else.”

Mr. Van Rensselaer lives in a townhouse he owns on the Upper East Side and still hangs out with many of the friends he made at St. George’s. During the summers, he spends a lot of time at his parents’ house in Newport; his folks now spend most of their time in Jupiter Island, Fla.

He occasionally dons a traditional mess jacket for some of the charity events in Newport and still puts on the monkey suit for the Society of the Cincinnati events every year.

“Sometimes you can feel like a real jackass,” he said. “Like, ‘What am I doing standing around with a bunch of medals around my neck.’”

I asked him if coming from a family that has surely endured its share of booms and crashes was heartening in these dire times. 

“I think these things are cyclical, and great families survive if they’re intelligent. And again, if they have a lot of members of the family who are actually out there trying to make something of themselves,” he said. “These things are horrible and they destroy wealth and they destroy opportunity for a lot of people, but hopefully great families who have more than one person who have done some great things can continue to preserve capital and build new wealth—so when something like this happens, you’re not destroyed, you’re set back.”

Then Mr. Van Rensselaer and Ms. Menniken hopped in a chauffeured SUV and headed down Park Avenue.

smorgan@observer.com