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Auchincloss goes wide, not deep on family matters

Louis Auchincloss, patrician New York lawyer and novelist, kicked the bucket at age 92 in January 2010. After graduating from Groton and attending Yale, he took a law degree from the University of Virginia, spent his life in the law (retiring at 69) and in fiction and nonfiction, enlarging our vision of ourselves through his words.

His memoir of his youth makes it clear he was raised lovingly in a sheltered environment. Intellectually, he does not appear to have considered major spheres of activity, sex or religion, in his adult life.

Auchincloss, born into a wealthy Manhattan lawyer's Protestant family in 1917, may have dented the bucket as he left this orb with a size 11 Brooks Brothers' loafer. Loafing was not his style in life. He seems to have been a serial responder, rather than an initiator.

Louis Auchincloss' father, Joseph Howland Auchincloss, was a successful partner of the New York law firm Davis Polk. His mother, the former Priscilla Stanton, was a daughter of a socially active family, the Dixons. They had four children, John, Priscilla, Louis and Howland.

Joseph earned $100,000 a year, hardly a millionaire's money even then. It did afford a brownstone in Manhattan, a house on Long Island, a rental in Bar Harbor, Maine, four housemaids, two children's nurses and the Long Island place. The family had a chauffeur and four cars, belonged to a number of social clubs and sent the children to private schools.

Nobody outside the family knew that Joseph had debilitating depressions that sometimes prevented him from practicing law for as long as a year. Louis Auchincloss notes that his father "remained charming and popular with the world at large, whatever the cost to himself."

The author describes the social structure that some called "Society" in the 1920s and '30s in New York City. Society members knew who belonged. No Social Register existed, as today, big as a phone book. Society members "resided on the East Side of Manhattan (never west except below Fifty-ninth Street) as far south as Union Square and as far north as Ninety-sixth Street."

These society types -- men -- controlled the private schools, clubs, churches, banks and law firms. There was no snobbishness among the boys at Groton, for example, because they all came from the same background. Auchincloss tells us that as time went by, these people were supplanted by a generation of nouveau riche who copied and enlarged their style, as any Ralph Lauren ad suggests.

Earlier, however, the big hitters were WASPs, White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, except for the occasional Catholic or non-practicing Jews, included if they were rich enough. The most important families were the Astors and the Rockefellers, as they were of very early New York City origin and possessed immense fortunes. Auchincloss thought the Vanderbilts a bit vulgar because of their "too-palatial residences." The Auchincloss forebearers themselves were Johnny-come-latelies who brought their woolen business from Scotland in 1803.

Society gave its women informal authority and prominence. This was certainly the case with Jackie Bouvier, Louis' cousin, because she was the daughter of Janet Auchincloss and stepdaughter of Hugh D. Auchincloss. She confided with apparent modesty to Louis at a weekend family dinner in Washington in the early 1950s when he wrote his novel, "Sybil", "about a rather dull girl" that "You've written my life." This was before she married John F. Kennedy.

About his life Auchincloss is alternately spare with detail, confessional and, surprisingly, not very insightful in his views about sex and religion. He doesn't talk about his brother, Howland, still living, because, he says, Howland can speak for himself. The author indicates that he was molested at Groton. One wonders if this episode in his life became transmogrified as part of the plot of "The Headmaster's Dilemma," his late novel that includes a boy raped at boarding school.

Auchincloss falls for the 1930s' psychiatrist spiel that he was confused about his sexuality because of an early life experience that he could not remember without expensive medical help. He says he was "cured by a brilliant psychiatrist." The author thinks that when he was 2 years of age, his 4-year-old sister masturbated in front of him, causing him untold frigidity in later life. This expostulation reads like a script from a Groucho Marx or Woody Allen film.

Auchincloss says he had little interest in religion after his school years, preferring to live like a Christian, as he puts it, rather than to be one. His view is that organized religion causes a lot of trouble, a not uncommon complaint.

Nevertheless, Auchincloss tells us that one can have ideals, as he does, and as his roommate Bill Bundy and his brother, McGeorge, had, to make the world better. (The Bundys were advisers to President Johnson, among those called the "best and brightest," who got the United States enmeshed in the Vietnam War.) "I used to say to my father," Auchincloss writes, 'If my classmates should ever run this country, all would be well.' The irony of my life is that they did indeed have a hand in it."

It seems clear that his classmates did a botched job.

A better job should have been done in the editing of this book. This memoir lacks cohesiveness. It is a hodge-podge of circling back repetitiously. One example: the same sentences about law clerks at his firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, appear in different chapters on pages 129 and 141; there are a couple of pages about married life to Adele Lawrence, whom he wed in 1958, but Adele seems a stock character in a book, not a real person.

It is a pity for Louis Auchincloss, to whom words meant so much, that he is let down by his publisher, who did not do more to shield him from the inevitable carelessness of old age. Auchincloss' last words in his memoir are "Society matters not so much. Words are everything."

This doesn't seem good form even for one who spent his life poring over wills and trusts. Words are important, but not as important as people. The people at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt should have taken better care of their trust.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer of American literary fiction and memoir.


A Voice From Old New York: A Memoir of My Youth

By Louis Auchincloss

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

203 pages, $25

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