New York’s skyline tells the story of the city, its towers etched clear against the clouds like letters on a pale page, or so said Henry James in his elegant 1906 essay “New York Revisited.” The city’s skyscrapers, James observed, are plain planks of stone, ornamented only by their own lights, “each light having a superlative value as an aid to the transaction of business,” the combined brilliance of all these well-lit windows both enabling and shining out in some “general permanent ‘celebration’” of man’s pursuit of wealth. The landscape affirms that what matters in Manhattan is money. In the shadows that one of these “vast money-making structure[s]” cast over Trinity Church, James saw the path down which New York was proceeding: It was an avenue into a future where beauty would be smothered and “new landmarks [would crush] the old”; an avenue whose name was Wall Street. The eternal flames that flickered all night in office windows provided both the message and the light by which to read it: New York would never “produce both the maximum of ‘business’ spectacle and the maximum of ironic reflection of it.” There would be, James concluded, no New York equivalent of Emile Zola. An author who hoped to observe the place with a clear eye would end up squinting, his vision of the city dazzled and deflected by its diamond lights.
If there was to be a Zola of New York, it might have been Louis Auchincloss. Born in 1917 to a family of impeccable pedigree, Auchincloss made a career out of documenting the professional arrangements, private derangements and social displays of New York’s old elite. The author of more than 60 books, Auchincloss described in his fiction the privileged, Protestant society that had dominated New York for centuries and the forces that encroached upon that society as he grew older. The basic contours of his charmed life are well known–his Upper East Side childhood; his school years at Groton, Yale and the University of Virginia; his work as a lawyer at a prestigious Wall Street firm–but Auchincloss brings to them new detail and great seriousness in his latest book, the posthumous memoir A Voice From Old New York.
The mood is at once lighthearted and sober. Family events often inspire Auchincloss to reflect on such subjects as the role of Jews in New York society or to provide enjoyable etiquette lessons, which lay bare the tacit agreements and occasional accidents that underpinned public behavior. In the odd, charming chapter “Animal Encounters,” Auchincloss tells us how to ship an elephant: “In transporting one of them by air to a zoo, it is wise to prevent their dangerous stamping by placing small animals in their compartment, as they dislike crushing them. On the other hand they will kill a rhino for no reason at all, and a rogue elephant is always to be avoided.”
In another book, such excursions would seem like detours from the primary plot, but A Voice From Old New York lacks a central organizing avenue of thought. Chronology is generally but not faithfully adhered to. Rather than arrange his memories into a single narrative, Auchincloss slices his short chapters into smaller pieces, which permits him to skip easily between bits of family lore and personal reminiscences. There is no point to be made, only moods to be indulged; hence such oddities as “Animal Encounters.”
AS INVITING AS this casual, conversational arrangement of associations can be, it proves frustrating when the leap is particularly large, or guided by impenetrably private logic, or to an idea Auchincloss has already discussed. The problem is not that he presumes interest where there is none–every memoirist is entitled to assume some–but that he takes advantage of the politely offered ear.
Auchincloss’ indifference to his reader is matched by a coldness that emerges in chapters about his less fortunate acquaintances, such as the Yale roommate who had “neither money nor social position.” When Auchincloss reprimanded him for conspiring with his father’s mistress to conceal from the insurance company the fact that his father’s death was a suicide, his friend “blubbered but kept the money.” Auchincloss takes this event as evidence of his friend’s “bad side.”
A number of anecdotes will come as old news to readers familiar with Auchincloss’ work or biography, but Auchincloss has a closet full of durable scenes, cut from well-made cloth and sturdy enough to hold up to repeated airings. In one, his wife wonders why they don’t socialize with writers more often. Well, if she wants, they can go to Norman Mailer’s next party. But, he warns her, not only is it in Brooklyn, it is also on a Wednesday and won’t get started before midnight. “Midnight!” she exclaims. “In the middle of the week! No thanks. We working folk will be beddy-bye well before that.”
Auchincloss’ attachment to this exchange is telling. He saw himself as isolated from other authors, an outsider in their world because he was an insider in another, and both he and his admirers–including his cousin Gore Vidal–often emphasized the unique vantage point his pedigree provided. He stood witness not only to the bedrooms and ballrooms of the rich, but their banks and boardrooms, the places where power was conferred and preserved and compounded. He was a native speaker of the language of our country’s rulers and therefore, theoretically, an ideal translator. He could, it was suggested, tell the rest of us how things really happened: Follow the money, and Auchincloss, and find the truth.
His best work bears out such predictions, but even in his finest achievements, such as the exquisite 1964 story “The Landmarker,” he proves himself better at observing the manners and dwellings of the rich than understanding the origins and meaning of their influence. There is often in Auchincloss’ work a slight missing of the point. To see what he omits, one has only to consider an earlier memoir, in which Auchincloss recalls visiting his father’s office, a trip that takes him to the same dark intersection that so disturbed James: “There was Morgan’s, there was the stock exchange, there was Wall Street itself. Never shall I forget the horror that was inspired in me by those dark narrow streets and those tall sooty towers and by Trinity Church blocking the horizon with its black spire–a grim phallic symbol.” James apprehended the true measure of the towers, seeing in the shape of the city a record of its interests and investments, the bets it was taking on itself. Auchincloss, on the other hand, sees only himself. His visit to his father’s firm confirms his belief that the women of his time, like his mother, had one over on the men. As lovely as this description might be, it is not “ironic reflection” but self-reflection.
But it is perhaps the blind spots in Auchincloss’ vision that clarify for the reader certain facts about the city where he lived. What he reveals, however accidentally, is how one’s own physical and financial security can seduce one into believing that this world is the best world. Insurance becomes assurance, an easy, trusting take on life. The very structure of A Voice From Old New York, which assumes its readers ought to be honored to follow Auchincloss wherever he might go, says as much about the world he inhabited as his words. The somnolent repetitions and arcane allusions, and the patchwork form in which they are presented, show that Auchincloss did not set out to earn his reader’s interest. He felt himself entitled to it.