When I graduated from Shipley, a small prep school in Bryn Mawr, my father’s mother, Grandma Jess, wrote to congratulate me on my academic record: “A truly tremendous achievement—but then I could expect nothing less due to your marvelous background—Robinson, Pierson, Holton, Friend!” I remember scowling at her airy blue script, noting the point—after the first dash—where the compliment turned into a eugenic claim. As my grandparents happened to constitute a Wasp compass, the way ahead was marked in all directions: I could proceed as a Robinson like Grandma Tim’s family (loquacious, madcap, sometimes unhinged); a Pierson like Grandpa John’s family (bristling with brains); a Holton like Grandma Jess’s family (restless, haughty show ponies); or a Friend like Grandpa Ted’s family (moneyed, clubbable, and timid).
“I will never experience the pleasures of leather pants or a shark’s tooth on a thong dangling in my chest hair. I will never experience the pleasures of chest hair. And, like the Tin Man, I don’t articulate my upper body in sections; it moves en masse or not at all.”
I believed, then, that my family was not my fate. I believed my character had been formed by charged moments and impressions—the drift of snow, the peal of church bells, the torrent of light cascading through the elms out front into our sunporch. Though my parents gave me love and learning and all the comforts, I believed I could go it alone. My grandparents were distant constellations, and as they wheeled across the sky I felt unshadowed by their marriages, their affairs, their remarriages, or their quarrels. On the question of how to pronounce “tomato,” for instance, the family was split. On my father’s side, the Friends and Holtons unselfconsciously said “tomayto.” On my mother’s, the Robinsons were staunchly in the Anglophile “tomahto” camp, while the Piersons, on the even more superior view that “tomahto” was pretentious, were ardently pro-“tomayto.” At the family beach house on Long Island, my great-uncle Wilson Pierson would rebuke my mother, a Robinson in such matters, if she asked for a “tomahto.” “Would you like some potahtoes with that?” he’d say.
It was unclear why such nuances should matter to me. The deeper history, the cultural history, filtered down only piecemeal: My father was embarrassed by some of his forebears, and my mother blithely assumed everyone knew all about hers. She might mention, in passing, the lace she’d worn at their wedding, lace handed down from mothers to their firstborn daughters for 13 generations, beginning in England with Goodith Constantine in 1629 and continuing through such delightfully named ancestors as Lettice Beach and Damaris Atwater. A poem that accompanies the lace reads, in part:
Guard it, dear child, as these have done, Good women, pure and true, Who hand it, with their own fair names Unblemished, down to you. Keep ever in the one straight path Of duty they have trod; And guided by the same pure light Of love, for man and God.
That sort of exacting heirloom, which my sister, Timmie, later wore at her wedding, contributed to a sense that we should hold ourselves apart, in readiness. But what for was never declared. The mission was a jigsaw puzzle of watchwords, affiliations, expectations, furniture, clothes, habits, rituals, empties, and stories that lacked one key detail: Why?
Three years after my mother died, I published a piece about her in The New Yorker. In it, I tried to describe her aspirations and disappointments and her search for consolation; what she had taken from her parents, and handed on to us, and the gifts she herself brought to the party. I thought it was a loving portrait, but it was also unsparing, perhaps even more than I’d intended. Anger can impeach you. The piece rattled my family in ways that slowed the writing of this book yet clarified its true subject. Some of my relatives felt I was ungenerous, and some simply wondered, Whose side are you on?
Yet apostasy is in our blood, too. Every so often in my family, someone writes a candid book or gets knocked up by the wrong guy. Now it was my turn.
The acronym “Wasp,” from “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant,” is one many Wasps dislike, as it’s redundant—Anglo-Saxons are perforce white—and inexact. Elvis Presley was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, as is Bill Clinton, but they are not what anyone means by “Wasp.” Waspiness is an overlay on human character, like the porcelain veneer that protects the biting surface of a damaged tooth. Worse, the adjective is pejorative: “Waspy” is reserved for horse-faced women, tight-assed men, penny-pinchers, and a cappella groups.
I’m too cheap to spring for a new acronym. But my family and their friends, as Wasps, were circumscribed less by skin tone and religion than by a set of traditions and expectations: a cast of mind. They lived in a floating Ruritania loosely bounded by L.L. Bean to the north, the shingle style to the east, Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed polar expedition to the south, and the limits of Horace Greeley’s optimism to the west.
That cast of mind is excessively attuned to such questions as how you say “tomato”—a word I now find myself pronouncing both ways, usually at random and always with misgiving. In this and more important respects I seem to have become, somehow, a motley product of my famously marvelous background. Oh, sure, I don’t belong to any clannish or exclusive clubs, I prefer beer to hard liquor, I am neither affable nor peevish—the alternating currents of Wasp—and I love pop culture.
And yet. Until quite recently, I had the Wasp fridge: marmalade, wilted scallions, out-of-season grapes, seltzer, and vodka—nothing to really eat. (The Wasp fridge is like the bachelor fridge, but Wasps load up on dairy, including both 1 and 2 percent milk, moldy cheese, expired yogurt, and separated sour cream. And atop the Wasp fridge sit Pepperidge Farm Milanos, Fig Newtons, or Saltines—some chewy or salty or otherwise challenging snack.) I have a concise and predictable wardrobe, and friends even like to claim that I invariably wear the same oatmeal-colored Shetland sweater. I will never experience the pleasures of leather pants or a shark’s tooth on a thong dangling in my chest hair. I will never experience the pleasures of chest hair. And, like the Tin Man, I don’t articulate my upper body in sections; it moves en masse or not at all.
I politely stand aside: No, no, after you. I have a soft laugh, and I rarely raise my voice. Though I have an outsize grin, and friends take pleasure in trying to elicit it, I am reserved upon first meeting (it’s Wasp women who are expected to charm). I used to like being told I was “intimidating,” because it seemed to sanction my verbal jabbing to maintain a perimeter. Making everyone a little uneasy came naturally. When I characterized a college roommate’s dancing style as “Jimmy Cracked Corn,” he nursed the wound for decades, and a woman I fooled around with in my early 20s told me, years later, that she had to get a new mattress and headboard after I remarked on her “game-show bed.” I am slow to depend on people because I hate being disappointed, hate having to withdraw my trust. All this has often led people to read me as aloof or smug.
I am fiercely but privately emotional—I was embarrassed, recently, when my wife, Amanda, found me having put The Giving Tree down while reading it to our twins, Walker and Addie, because I was in tears. I married Amanda, a strong-minded food writer, seven years ago: She revamped my fridge, and some of my other disaster areas. And I convinced her to have children, the best thing we have done together.
I walk into parties with a confident air but wait to speak until I have a point to make or self-deprecating joke to offer. I can give a handsome wedding toast. I am slow to pitch in on manual labor and not particularly handy, though I pride myself on the rarely called-for ability to carve a watermelon into the shape of a whale (a sprig of parsley makes the spout). I am frugal to the point of cheapness—when out to dinner with friends, I used to contribute only for the dishes I had ordered. I dislike having to eat quail or crab, all that effort and mess for scant reward, an aversion Amanda calls “No sex in public!”
For a long time I didn’t think of myself as particularly competitive, though my friends kept assuring me, as they pointed out where my helicoptered five-iron had landed, that I was. My belief that you shouldn’t do something you care about in a half-assed way often provokes the charge that I don’t want to take part in any activity I can’t do well, that I fear public ineptitude, which is certainly true for karaoke. Despite my standoffishness, I am a good listener, and loyal, and friends often turn to me for advice. A Wasp friend remarks that I would have made an imposing country parson.
Most of all, I am a Wasp because I harbored a feeling of disconnection from my parents, as they had from their parents, and their parents had from their parents. And because, deep into my 30s, most of my relationships had the life span of a child’s balloon. I felt that I was carrying around a brimming bucket of walnut stain and that if anyone got too close it would spill all over both of us. So I ended up spending my inheritance and then some on psychoanalysis. I was in trouble, but it was nearly impossible for anyone who didn’t know me well to tell, and I made it nearly impossible for anyone to know me well.
When I was 12, my father, looking around the dinner table meaningfully, repeated a biblical quotation a Swarthmore student had reminded him of earlier in the day: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” “That lets me out,” I said, and my parents laughed. In Swarthmore, the dinner table was where we performed, auditioning for attention. We’d sit at the round butcher-block table Mom had commissioned in Buffalo, eating her quiche Lorraine and waiting for my parents to stop discussing college business—and at last Mom would turn to us for brief accounts of our days. My younger brother, Pier, who in memory always wore a striped rugby shirt, would remark that his team had won its Little League game—he was the star pitcher—and beam at the resulting praise. Our sister, Timmie, the youngest, would excitedly announce that she’d had six hot dog halves at Oonie Ryan’s half-birthday party. “I can see that you did,” Mom would remark, smiling; in those days Timmie was a little chubby. Timmie would blink and crimson, then bolt from the table. Mom would exchange a chagrined glance with my father—she always hoped for a blithe, Noel Cowardish return of serve—and then stand in exasperated remorse and fold her napkin and go find Timmie.
We were expected to appreciate what we’d been given and make conspicuous use of it. (Wasps are credentialists, but my father particularly so: He thumbnailed people by their résumés: “A very able guy with a Ph.D. in microeconomics from Stanford … head of the Asia Society … served on the National Security Council.”) Yet my parents had also sought, in different ways, to escape the way of life that had sustained their own achievements. So we received a tricky set of imperatives: Meet the unspoken standard without thinking about it too much. Brooding on ancestral benchmarks could suck you into a life on the couch, the long parenthesis; Wasps don’t rebel so much as drink, sink, and drop away.
My parents would mention our parenthetical relatives (John Anthony Walker, Tisha Pierson, various Robinsons) in tones of sorrow and then change the subject. Only much later would I learn that John Anthony Walker, my father’s cousin, never held a job before dying in India of a kidney infection he’d treated with Ayurvedic medicine. And that Mom’s cousin Tisha Pierson disowned us all, changed her name to Molly Morgan Miller, and disappeared. And that Mom’s uncle John Trumbull Robinson Jr., known as Wassa, turned on his sons in a manic rage in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant near their home in Wayne, Illinois, sending Donny fleeing into a cornfield and leaving David holding on for his life in the open back of the family station wagon as his father gunned off, pursued by demons that would hound him into the electroshock ward. And that Wassa’s oldest son, Johnny, went even further astray. (As children, all we knew was that if he rang up collect from an institution, we shouldn’t accept the call.) One night in the late 1970s, Johnny showed up at Donny’s apartment in Manhattan and belligerently demanded money for his cab fare. When Donny refused, Johnny darted for the knife rack in the kitchen. Donny tackled him, and Johnny clamped his teeth on Donny’s forearm and didn’t let go until Donny punched him repeatedly in the head, breaking his own finger. When the police arrived, Donny went to Lenox Hill for the bite, and the cops took Johnny to Bellevue and then to Ward’s Island, where he kept declaring, “I am John Trumbull Robinson the Third,” incredulous that the storied name didn’t precipitate his immediate release. He died in Baton Rouge, in 1996, broke, crazy, and alone.
They were us, too. That you must carry everyone with you, swelling the ranks, is a hard-ridden Wasp hobbyhorse. My father remembers (with dismay) his prep school class at St. Paul’s being charged by the rector to have lots of children and go into politics, lest they be overwhelmed by the outsiders massing at the gate. Charles W. Eliot, Harvard’s president from 1869 to 1909, boiled that imperative down to “produce and reproduce,” observing that: “The family, rather than the individual, is the important social unit. If society as a whole is to gain by mobility and openness of structure, those who rise must stay up in successive generations, that the higher level of society may be constantly enlarged, and that the proportion of pure, gentle, magnanimous, and refined persons may be steadily increased.”
For generations—the three centuries when Wasps ran the country—my family rose and stayed aloft. After my various forebears came to America in the mid-17th century as weavers or constables or tavern owners, it was their descendants who made good: signing the Declaration of Independence (the trembly penned John Morton) or leading the Union Army (the shilly-shallying George McClellan). The branches of my family tree were bowed with squires, judges, ministers, senators, and colonial dames. Yet no one grew really wealthy until the turn of the 20th century, when the Friends made enough from steel, coal, and banking to become—briefly—smashingly rich: chauffeur rich, yacht rich, $350,000,000-in-today’s-money rich. On the whole, we were attendant lords, the seat-fillers in historical paintings who look on approvingly as those whose names are taught in school read a ringing speech or charge a well-garrisoned hill.
My great-great-grandfather Henry Cornelius Robinson was in this way typical. An eloquent and energetic mayor of Hartford in the 1870s, a man who greeted male friends by gripping their shoulders and crying, “Comrade!” a passionate man moved to tears by stirring music, a burly man with a scimitar nose and sideburns that swept into a forked beard worthy of ZZ Top, he was also a man who liked to lie on his red sofa after a hard day and have his daughter rub his forehead with a sponge dipped in bay rum. He wrote Christmas carols—“Exult, ye sons of men, ’tis clearest morn! / Exult, ye sons of men, the child is born!”—and kept two Union flags from the Civil War draped over his piazza and a huge American flag above them. When Ulysses Grant died, Robinson consoled Hartford’s citizens with a speech recited from memory: “It is a great thing to have lost such a man; it is much greater to have had such a man to lose,” he declared. “He was a child of the people, he was a type of the people, and the hearts of the people are keeping sad time to the funeral march of 20,000 soldiers. The nation pauses in its activities. The reaper and the loom are at rest, and even the money-changers have locked their vaults.” Yet when President Benjamin Harrison asked him to serve as minister to Spain—a step toward becoming such a man himself—he declined: “What, leave Hartford?”
In latter years, as the money that had buoyed flotation leaked and then flooded away, my family, like many others, tried to caulk the seams. In a country built on growth and transformation, on the appetite for more, the ambition to preserve things as they were is peculiar to the modern Wasp. All we ask is to maintain. So success, while vital, came to be understood not as blazing a trail but as waging a culture- or comfort-preserving rearguard action. Prep school faculties teem with Wasps who majored in English or history, as brokerage houses do with Wasps who majored in finance. Wasps serve as the caretakers of tradition in publishing, foundations, university administration, lexicography, antiquarian societies, nature conservancies, and trusts and estates law. Nearly empty of Wasps, however, are electric-car manufactories, Internet startups, and the X Games.
Figures like Henry Cornelius Robinson saw their duty as leading without fanfare. Wasps continued to see this as their role even as they began to follow, and even as, shortly after I was born, they fell so far behind they lost touch entirely. Their accelerating crack-up was like a sonic boom: You heard it only after the Concorde was gone.
I now see that the charged moments I prized, my earliest memories, were always linked to those distant family constellations. When I sat by our kitchen sink in Buffalo and my mother touched me lightly in passing, like the Holy Spirit, I felt the cool linoleum below and the ensuing solitude but couldn’t know then that my ancestors, and the amassed weight of their expectations, had crowded the room to keep Mom intent on her chores. What her parents thought and felt and did was alive in her, and so alive in me. Or mostly it was; not everything connects. Sifting through our overstuffed attics and well-guarded memory banks, I try to fit the pieces together in time, hopscotching among decades and mashing up friends and mentors, girlfriends and grandparents, in search of a larger design. Love enters into it, too, muddying everything.
Life is a scavenger hunt run backward as well as forward, a race to comprehend. But with Wasps, the caretakers lock the explanatory sorrows away, then swallow the key.
Copyright © 2009 by Tad Friend
Chapter 1 excerpt from CHEERFUL MONEY: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor by Tad Friend
Tad Friend is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he writes the magazine's "Letter from California." Prior to that, he wrote regularly for Outside, New York, and Esquire, and wrote travel stories from all seven continents. He plays golf and squash and watches a lot of television. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Amanda Hesser, and their children, Walker and Addie.