“Is that spelled A-N?” “No, it’s spelled A-N-N. Like the standard spelling of the English woman’s name Ann.”
“And your last name, M -A- R- L-O?” “W-E. Like Christopher.” Silence. “Or Philip—you know, the detective?”
“Thanks, I’ll give her the message that you called.”
I have gone through some version of this exchange at least once a month in the last few years. Leaving my name with a secretary, which used to be a routine exchange involving only the question of whether my first and last names ended with an “e,” has become much more complex in the last few years. Some of it is creeping illiteracy, as the silences following the reference to well-known Marlowes suggest. But some of it is also creeping diversity. We now live in a city where it’s likely that I would be a half-Vietnamese, half-Italian named An Marlo.
If I were what I think of as a real Ann Marlowe—a WASP—this de-Anglicization of my name would probably make me angry. As it is, I find it ironic. My paternal grandfather’s brother, a lawyer, went to some effort to secure us a prestigious-sounding last name, Marlowe, in place of our incorrigibly Jewish Marlowitz. My parents chose equally carefully, not laying it on too thick, as “Anne” would have done, but giving me a decorously WASP-y first name and a typically ethnicity-revealing, but still classic, middle name, Rachel.
Now all of this social climbing has been undone by subsequent waves of immigration and ascent to the middle class. Presumably, 40 years ago, the chances of a secretary at a top Manhattan law firm encountering an An were slim. Though Asians are making inroads, Italian-Americans are still scarce at the kinds of firms where I conduct my business as a legal recruiter. Jews, however, are common—and dominant at many top firms and investment banks. Some days, when calling an Ira Rabinowitz or Chaim Levy with a Brooklyn accent, I think we should have stuck with Marlowitz. Confiding a bit of gossip to a lawyer with this kind of name, I’ve even found myself telling him that despite my WASP-y name, I’m actually a member of the tribe. It breaks the ice.
This de-Anglicization goes far beyond names. The whole edifice of WASP culture, which aspirational Jews of my generation were schooled to infiltrate, is now on the verge of collapse. Harvard final clubs—when I went there in the 70’s, the last citadel of WASP-dom, with a few stray minorities for the sake of P.C.—are now full of Jews and motley foreigners. In recent years, I’ve even been asked if I came out. This was not a reference to my being an unmarried woman living with two cats in the West Village, but an equally off-base assumption that I might have been a debutante. The New York Times wedding announcements, once the domain of girls who did come out, are now given up to yet more Jewish lawyers marrying Jewish lawyers’ daughters like me. And they didn’t even have to Anglicize their names to get in.
Sometimes it seems to me that no one except we first-generation, upper-middle-class ethnics preserve WASP culture. We’re the last ones to write thank-you notes (on engraved stationary), send our kids to classical-music lessons, subscribe to the symphony and opera, and play tennis (now, as far as I can tell, a Jewish and Asian sport on the club level).
We may even be the last ones to give our kids WASP names; I’ve known Jewish Elliots and Courtneys and even other Jewish Marlowes. (Come to think of it, I’ve never met a Marlowe who wasn’t Jewish, though one day, when I was a kid, my mom saw a department-store chocolate assortment called the Anne Marlowe Collection.) I have a high-WASP friend whose three names are all taken from the Manhattan streets named for his ancestors, and when he finished B-school and got interviews at a bank, faces fell when he entered the room. They’d assumed that anyone with a name like Clinton Warren Harrison III (not his real name) was an upwardly mobile genius from the projects, not another entitled white kid who wanted to work at Morgan Stanley.
We arriviste ethnics may be the last ones to worry about being understated and not tacky—after all, plenty of today’s young WASP socialites do everything Jews used to be criticized for. They’re flashy, exhibitionistic conspicuous consumers and, often enough, shopkeepers to boot. In a truly weird twist on the Jewish scheme of things, today’s haute WASP’s use their names for a quick entrée to the rag trade that Jews have traditionally used as an escape route to the upper class. The most amusing détournement of this is, of course, Ralph Lauren, a lower-middle-class Jew who used his faux-WASP name to sell other Jews the trappings of landed gentryhood.
Maybe somewhere in the heartland there are tiny enclaves of WASP’s who maintain the old ways, but as far as I can tell, WASP’s here have abandoned them. I was stunned when a Mayflower-descendent friend with the highest of high-WASP credentials proudly showed me the breakfast bar in her newly remodeled kitchen. “It’s the greatest thing,” she explained. “You can eat right here.” Yes, you can eat in the kitchen—amazing discovery! I was dead certain she’d been raised in the kind of house where there is no table in the kitchen because only the cook goes in there. Then again, I’d been raised to aspire to not eating in the kitchen.
Ann Marlowe is the author of How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z. Her next book, The Book of Trouble, will be published by Harcourt in January 2006.