Pamela Fiori, editor of Town & Country, which for a century had catechized its readers on the
manners of the Eastern estab lishment, found me useful as her house WASP, a writer born
into that milieu who knew its curious customs. One day she asked me to write a piece about
my lifelong rebellion against my WASP heritage and my difficulty in coming to terms with it. I
tried to beg off, but she was adamant.
“How many words?” I asked. “A thousand words,” she said.
“You’re asking me to write the story of my life in a thousand words!” I said.
“Yes,” she said. She had no pity. I went and tried to write the story of my life in 1,000 words,
but it came to 1,800 words, all awkwardly born. I took it home and told Caroline I was hope
lessly stuck. She went off to read it, and when she came back she said, “The good news is, it’s
salvageable.” That’s all any writer really wants to hear, and I wrestled the piece down
to 1,000 words. Called “A Reluctant WASP” in Town & Country, it had an early passage that
mentioned some of my old resentments:
My parents had great humor and charm. In a word, they were attractive. Their house was
attractive and everything in it was attractive. That was the point of being a WASP: to be attractive. The laws were coded into my metabolism at an early age. Gaudy clothes and flashy
cars were out. Understatement was in. A sweater the color of oatmeal was as attractive as you
could get. I was careful never to be seen in a green jacket or tan shoes, or to use the wrong
language. I said “curtains,” not “drapes.” I said “rich,” not “wealthy.”
Still, attractive as I was, I hated the word. “Is he attractive?” or “Is she attractive?”
my mother or my sisters would ask when I talked about someone I had met. “Why don’t you ask whether they’re interesting? Or smart?” I would snap, crabby as an old socialist. But the
word has never stopped following me around. Nor has the incessant naming of names. When I run
into my WASP friends I know I’ll soon hear the tinkle of tribal connections. “You’ll never guess
who I saw last week. Muffy Pratt! She knew your sister at Smith, and her sister Cissy was
my roommate at St. Tim’s. Wasn’t her brother Chip in your class at Deerfield?” Even if he
was, I don’t admit it. I deny all memory of the people mentioned in these conversations.
But I knew I couldn’t get off that easy. Anybody can complain, and many writers
do, especially memoir writers, masters of retroactive blame. The hard job is to get beyond
the ancient grievances and arrive at a larger point—some moment of acceptance and healing.
Without such a point my piece could never succeed; it would be mere whining, not helpful to anyone else. Caroline had long urged me to stop knocking my heritage and to acknowledge its strengths,
which had shaped my values. Of course she was right, and so was Pamela Fiori. It was time to
Here’s how my piece ended:
And yet . . . who am I kidding? My origins leak through every effort to conceal them. I look like
an old WASP (horn-rimmed glasses) and I have the habits of an old WASP. I always wear a tie and a jacket in the city and on planes and trains. (The jacket comes from J. Press.) When I see a
picture in the newspaper of a businessman without a tie, I just know I wouldn’t want him
handling my business. I always wear a hat. I have very few clothes. I don’t own any
electronic gadgetry. I drive what my wife calls “an incredibly self-effacing car.” I’m punctual.
I never make a scene in public. I write personal letters by hand.
I’m aware that WASPs are a dying class. They are the only ethnic minority that other Americans
may safely deride. But I also know that no class has so deeply imprinted its core values on the
national character: honor, hard work, rectitude, public service. By today’s standards of civic
and corporate governance those values look good, and I’m proud to be associated with them.
Today I often recognize fellow WASPs of my generation on the sidewalks of New York. They are always “nicely” dressed—old men and women facing the day with vigor and good cheer,
disregarding the infirmities of age as they hurry to their next hospital board meeting or
school tutoring session or fund-raising event for some underfunded worthy cause.
There’s something about them that’s—well, attractive.