By Tad Friend
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Tad Friend's family is nothing if not illustrious: his father was president of College, and at Smith his mother came in second in a poetry contest judged by W.H. Auden — to Sylvia Plath. For centuries, Wasps like his ancestors dominated American life. But then, in the '60s, their fortunes began to fall.
As a young man, Tad noticed that his family tree, for all its glories, was full of alcoholics, depressives, and reckless eccentrics. Yet his identity had already been shaped by the family's age-old traditions and expectations.
Part memoir, part family history, and part cultural study of the long swoon of the American Wasp, Cheerful Money is a captivating examination of a cultural crack-up and a man trying to escape its wreckage.
Copyright © 2009 by Tad Friend
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Little, Brown and Company
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First eBook Edition: September 2009
Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The Little, Brown name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
I have changed the names of a few people: the Viscontis and Giovanna Visconti's boyfriends; Sally Cottone and her family; Melanie Grayboden and her family; Francesca; and Christine Wells.
Portions of this book were previously published, in different form, in The New Yorker and The Paris Review.
Copyright acknowledgments appear on page 351.
For my family
We said good-bye with a highball
Then I got "high" as a steeple.
But we were intelligent people
No tears, no fuss,
Hurray for us.
So thanks for the memory,
And strictly entre nous,
Darling, how are you?
And how are all the little dreams
That never did come true?
— RALPH RAINGER AND LEO ROBIN,
"Thanks for the Memory"
Tad Friend's Family Tree *
FROM AN UPSTAIRS window, I see my father walking away down his snowy lawn. He moves uncertainly, his hands cupped around his eyes like an Arctic explorer in a whiteout. It takes a moment to realize that he is peering through my mother's old Olympus camera, aiming it here and there. The set of his shoulders suggests dissatisfaction with what he sees this Christmas season: the bare apple trees, the frozen pond. Turning to face the house at last, he lowers himself onto one knee like a hopeful fiancé and pans across the stone exterior, slowly now. Watching him out there leaves me lonely.
My father, Dorie Friend, is a historian and a highly rational man; his Easter Island–size head is stuffed with knowledge. In our family, he was in charge of logic and money. He husbanded our declining fortunes, a decline that, as he recognized, mirrored the broader Wasp ebb: the outflow of maids and grandfather clocks and cocktail shakers brimming with gin.
My mother, who utterly ignored this decline, was in charge of everything else. She set the tone. Elizabeth Pierson Friend was Lib to her oldest friends, classmates at Smith who possessed all the graces. They were stylish and sparkling women, prepared by birth — and since birth — to charm the Burmese or Nigerian ambassador, but Mom was particularly conscientious. She took occasions so seriously. "After much ado," she e-mailed her friends about one party, "I had settled on a periwinkle blue dress: Fortuny-like silk pleats in a tea-length skirt, horizontal tucks in a long-sleeved tunic top. A necklace of eight strands, each a different size, of silver-gray freshwater pearls, twisted to almost choker length …" Slim and vivacious and determined, with a pouf of chestnut hair and snapping blue eyes, she drew you out at the table, exclaiming at just the right moment, and her own conversation built to jubilant punch lines.
There was the story about how she had received a terrific rush in her early twenties, with a date every night, including a series with a tremendously tall young man who later supervised the secret bombing of Cambodia. And then, suddenly, the phone didn't ring for two weeks: "And I thought, So this is menopause." There was the story about a trip to India, during which it became necessary for her to hide a suitor's turban in an icebox. Before you could wonder, Why an icebox, exactly? she cried, "So there I was, dancing cheek to cheek with a Sikh!" When my father first heard that story — overheard it, actually, from an adjoining booth in a New Haven diner — he thought, Who is that horrible woman? When he heard it for the second time, years afterward, it was too late.
She pounced past your defenses. When I was in my twenties, a married woman I'd been idly flirting with at a gallery opening in New York introduced herself to my mother as we all took the elevator down and said, "I've been talking to your son all night. He's fascinating." I reddened, embarrassed but pleased.
"You should see the rest of the family," Mom replied, instantly. You had to love her for that.
She spelled basic words as if she were Corsican (snug was "cosi"; gloves were "mittons"); trespassed wherever a stylish driveway beckoned; sobbed if she caught a bad cold. Her character was chatoyant, like a cat's eyes, candid and then suddenly bleached and desolate. But her darker recesses were usually masked by virtuosity: a gifted cook, painter, and designer, she had also shown early promise as a poet. As a sophomore at Smith, she came in second to Sylvia Plath in a poetry contest judged by W. H. Auden (who, when my mother was introduced to him a year later, delighted her by saying, "I believe I have read your verse"). She longed to best Plath, her nemesis. Later, though, she would toss her head and say, "Just as well I didn't win. Head in the oven, and so forth."
From time to time, I find myself studying a photograph of her taken in the summer of 1962, when she was pregnant with me, the first of her three children. She stands on the lawn in a blue maternity dress, looking pale and watchful. A soccer ball rests under her bare right foot. Soccer was my father's sport, and would be mine, but she liked to flash out into the yard and perform "the high trap." He would fling the ball into the air, and Mom would judge its fall perfectly and smother it with her right sole. And then, in triumph, she'd depart to rule her own realm, which consisted of tennis, tomato sandwiches, gossip, bread-and-butter letters, chore lists, conviviality, wit, and worrying. It all fell under the heading of keeping the house in order, wherever the house was. Her last campaign began in 1989, with this house in the Philadelphia suburb of Villanova: the one being photographed by my father.
After years without a home to make her own — in Buffalo, in the sixties, my parents had no income to speak of, and then for nearly twenty years they lived first in an imposing pile belonging to Swarthmore College, when my father was the college's president, and later in a rented bungalow — the Villanova house was her epic work. An anonymous fieldstone relic at first, the place soon grew thick with her, with the snares and honeypots she concealed in plain sight: the bottom kitchen drawer pull that rewarded you with a small collapsible stepladder; the closets stuffed with Christmas gifts, so that you couldn't approach a doorknob without having her call out, from three rooms away, "Ooh, ooh — don't go in there!" Walking through the Villanova house was like reading a series of Rorschach blots that inked out her emotional history (except that she hated blots of any sort). She had it all planned, having long considered how best to arrange a house and its contents, including us.
Since she died, suddenly, a few years ago, my father has taken to photographing what remains. From his vantage on the lawn, he can see three facets of her hexagonal dining room; the stone wall rebuilt to set off two new decks of weathered moleskin-colored ipe wood; and the glint from the nine windows on the south-facing "gallery," a sun-shot passageway lined with her own paintings. When the contractor installed bamboo blinds there, she exclaimed that the filtered light made the house look "so Japanesey!" From the next room, my father observed, "Elizabeth, there is no such word as 'Japanesey.' "
He can see the second-floor deck railing that she had rebuilt after she found her excitable Tibetan spaniel, Sam, poking his head between the palings — or, as she insisted, "poised to hurl himself to his death!" She took a tape measure to his five-inch-wide head and then had the pickets established a prudential three and a half inches apart. Sam lived a long life untroubled by further barks for help, and is now buried beneath the cutleaf maple in the back, alongside his toy bear. And my father can pick out the porthole window in his study in the former garage, a window placed low on the wall so that he could lie on his futon and look west at the very spot where he is now. The study appeared ten years into her campaign, a Trojan horse that surprised no one but him, for her clear intent had long been to surround his makeshift office in the entry hall with beauty until he surrendered the position. There was something inexorable about her, something of the Emperor Augustus, who said, "I found Rome brick, and left it marble."
My father, leaning now against Sam's maple, lowers the camera and closes his eyes.
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 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 thirteen 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 twenties 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 thirties, 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 twelve, 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 PhD 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-seventeenth 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 twentieth 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.
- "Cheerful Money is side-splittingly funny and touching, without being the least predictable. It has the verve of Nick and Nora Charles with their silver martini shakers, and some insights mournful as Kafka's. This will become a classic."—Mary Karr, author of Lit and The Liars' Club
- "In Tad Friend's stunning memoir about the lost world of the Wasp elite, the Hamptons' Georgica Pond comes to seem as Edenic as Thoreau's Walden. Friend animates a deeply private, aristocratic way of life with detailed, moving intimacy." —Susan Cheever
- "Cheerful Money, by a self-stinging Wasp, is sharp as well as blunt about this problematic caste, but also rather proud of its salty aspects. An insightful, highly humorous memoir, exceptionally well-written."—Peter Matthiessen, author of Shadow Country
- "[A] splendid book.... Tad Friend does fall far enough from the tree to give us a delightfully rendered account of not only his self-discovery but an examination of "The Last Days of Wasp Splendor." It is gorgeously written.... Oh, reader, you are in for a treat."—San Francisco Chronicle
- "Mr. Friend has written an elegiac family history-cum-cultural taxonomy of a declining empire."—Wall Street Journal
- "Friend's talents are well suited to his material.... The tone he strikes is elegaic, even tender (at times) as he chronicles the futile pursuit of gracious living, now sinking into the "ruinous romance of loss.""—The Christian Science Monitor
- "Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor is taxonomy-as-memoir, an absolutely brilliant gift to the reader, wherein Friend essentially holds open the door to the exclusive club."—The Oregonian
- "Friend's memoir, called "Cheerful Money," is a droll, psychologically astute and sometimes nostalgic look backward at the WASP world that was.... Recognizing that it's his inherited duty to entertain and amuse his audience, even as he's occasionally serving up grisly confessions and nut-hard kernels of emotional truth."—Maureen Corrigan, NPR
- "American Wasps are now as rare as black truffles, and rarely has their story been told so candidly or entertainingly as it is in Tad Friend's wonderful new memoir, Cheerful Money.... Friend's book is such a winning family chronicle that the decline he describes is less a fall than an exhilarating ride, less sad than heartwarmingly comic."—Washington Post
- On Sale
- Sep 21, 2009
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown and Company