One of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant)’s tenets is not drawing attention to yourself, so as I write this piece I hear my school friends’ parents voices in my head saying, “Oh for heaven’s sake! Why do this? It’s so tacky.”
WASP culture can trace itself in a direct line back to the Puritans who disembarked, bewildered, from the Mayflower. They clutched their British civility to their chests in New England, a foreign, savage and chaotic land, and clung to their motherland’s habits: modesty, manners, lawfulness and stoicism. Of course they deviated somewhat by slaughtering Native Americans and burning and drowning women they thought were witches, but it was their fault for being so noisy and sticking out like a sore thumb.
If you’ve ever spent time in a WASP’s home, you will notice that they generally buy cheap toilet paper. Why spend money on something so basic and frankly distasteful to talk about? Charmin is for arrivistes. Utter nonsense to waste income on something you’re just going to throw away.
Similarly with food. Why be fancy about it? Maybe if one is taking a business client out to dinner or celebrating after Opening Night at the opera, but on a day-to-day basis food is just for sustenance and there’s no point in lingering and making a fuss about it.
WASP food is another holdover from old-school British culture: bland, over-cooked and monochromatic. WASP sex is generally similar: bland, overcooked and monochromatic.
There are so many unwritten rules to being a WASP that until they are ingrained in your heart, soul and brain, they seem as ornate as those at Louis IVth’s court:
Fold towels in thirds so the monogram will be displayed when one hangs them in the bathroom.
Use pretty but useless linen hand towels for guests. Not paper napkins. In the kitchen one’s housekeeper should give one’s children paper napkins (never paper towel) to use but adults should always use cloth napkins in the dining room.
No one sits in the living room unless one throws a cocktail party. Use the den instead.
Please don’t be a showoff about one’s body. Womens’ chest should be small but shapely. A size 36B is perfect. A large chest is too distracting and doesn’t look good in a Lilly dress.
Be thin but don’t talk about it or diets. If one must, one can make oneself throw up, but please keep that quiet and make sure one’s breath doesn’t reek.
Women do not wear miniskirts unless they’re playing golf or tennis. Wear a bathing suit only in the water or by the pool. Also if one is on the swim team. One piece is the right suit. Bikinis are somewhat scandalous. They’re for divorcées going through a tough period. Ladies, keep an eye on your husbands.
Also please don’t talk about sex unless we’ve had a few and then mercifully no one will remember.
Men should never wear form fitting clothes unless they’re in a tuxedo or about to dive off the side of a yacht. Even then, none of those tasteless bathing suits that look like something one would wear under tennis shorts. Good god, no. have you no shame?
Eccentricity is allowed up to a point. One may cultivate an outré character. For example, if one is in the closet. One should not speak about it, but we know and tolerate it within limits. Men are allowed to love the ballet, women are allowed to play sports at an semi-expert level. We do not acknowledge you if you’re trans. We do not know what to do with that and so those people, in our minds do not exist.
Also, one is allowed to be outrageous when one is drunk, even be more outrageous in the bedroom. We will look the other way unless it is a semi-constant state and then we will speak in hushed tones behind closed doors.
In New York City, the best address is Fifth, Madison or Park Avenue. Ideal streets are 66 through 92th. Higher and lower than that and it gets a bit iffy. Lexington and Third are close, but no cigar. One must live on a higher, rather than lower floor unless one lives in a townhouse. Then one must own the whole townhouse. Central Park West is fine, I suppose.
Do not walk and smoke at the same time. It’s unbecoming. Especially for ladies.
One may have money, but one should never boast about it. Don’t be like that horrible man, Trump, with all that fake gold furniture and that awful Queens accent of his. He got his daughter into Chapin, but it’s not as easy as that. He thinks he can buy his way in with us but he’s vulgar and gauche and we wouldn’t even want him as our janitor. He’d probably let himself into our apartments and steal our audio equipment or something.
Children should be seen and not heard. They should be clean and well dressed and have delightful manners. At dinner parties, if they have to be there at all, they sit in the kitchen with the other children. The boys should look grownups in the eye, shake their hands and call them “Mr. and “Mrs.” Even when they grow up, they will still call them “Mr.” and “Mrs.” until they are told they may call their elders by their first names. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if little girls curtsied.
When one’s children develop into teenagers, they will want to be a little rebellious. We will let them be wild to a certain point. They will smoke and raid our liquor cabinet while we’re away in Europe and dilute our alcohol so we don’t notice. But we do.
Sometimes the cops will be called but we have taught them manners and they can probably talk their way out of it. As long as they’re not in such bad shape that they fail out of Deerfield or Middlesex, it will be tolerated. They should be able to play a set of tennis by 2pm the next day.
Speaking of tennis, play it at an almost professional level. In fact, do all sports at an almost professional level. But do not become professional because your father is planning for you to make partner at his firm four years after you go to Yale Law.
One doesn’t have to be good at chess, but it is helpful to be good at backgammon.
Show almost no warmth for one’s children, but lavish one’s large dog with affection. Accept the dog’s failings as “personality” See one’s children’s failures as a personal affront and an embarrassment to one’s family. One should be remote with them so their heads don’t get too big. When one has a nice buzz going, start a long-fulminating, quietly savage fight with someone close to you. It can devolve into screaming if you are in private, but always continue to caress the dog so he or she knows one loves them and he or she isn’t frightened.
Ship one’s children off to boarding school. It’s prestigious and then they’re someone else’s problem for four or more years.
Keep one’s figure trim unless one is a man. He’s allowed to go to seed a bit and develop gin blossoms because, well, he’s a man. And Brooks Brothers jackets are cut generously to hide a paunch.
Drink rather than eat if one is upset. Alcohol can loosen one up and one can be delightful and witty at parties. Food just makes one fat.
Never use the word “classy” or “rich.” “Classy” and “rich” are tacky. Use the word “tacky” a lot. It can apply to so many things and people.
I have a tortured relationship with WASPs. I attended a school from first through twelfth grade that was the bastion of WASP culture. I was a Jewish kid from the Upper West Side air dropped into an entirely different country: The Upper East Side. Two miles apart but a world away. Not that my family was poor—we were very comfortably middle class—but I felt like a country mouse in comparison. Summers, we rented in the Springs (which now is prohibitively expensive and deluxe but then was considered the sticks). My friends had indoor and outdoor pools and sometimes horses at their houses in East Hampton, Watermill and Southampton. I had to learn to adapt, so I was watchful and I did.
I read the Preppy Handbook without irony. I bought Faire Isle sweaters even though wool makes me itch, Brooks Brothers striped button down oxfords and L.L. Bean duck boots. I was relieved that I at least had straight blonde hair and light eyes. When my friends came back from Spring Break with raw, peeling noses from being exposed to sun and wind on the slopes in Vail or Gstaad, I was filled with admiration and envy.
I wanted to be a debutante like many of my friends were. I asked my dad if I was going to “come out” and he replied, “No, you’re going back in.” I wish I found what he said then as funny as I do now. But I didn’t and felt underprivileged and misunderstood.
I am loathe to admit it, but I was embarrassed to be Jewish. It seemed to be a curse to be from the Upper West Side where so many of us lived. Back then, the Maidstone and the Meadow Club in East and Southampton didn’t allow Jews. Or people of color. Supposedly now they do, but why would we want to join where we’re not wanted? Unless you were me. When I was a teenager, that’s what I aspired to.
The Maidstone is a grand, imposing building lording over miles of pristine golf course, the beach on the other side. Civility and self-control battling the wildness of the Atlantic Ocean. The Maidstone is beautiful, but intimidating and unwelcoming. The Meadow Club hides its lush grass tennis courts behind tall privet hedges. You can only catch a glimpse of the deep green and hear the echo of balls hitting against racquets from a distance, so far away that it seems to be a dream. The allure of exclusivity and the knowledge that no matter how hard I tried I would never truly be allowed in other than as a day guest, overwhelmed me with longing.
A friend invited me to one of these clubs in Southampton one day during the summer. I was in the pool with friends and other kids. One girl I knew called out, “Raise your hand if you’re a member!” I didn’t. She looked at me and said “Oh, of course you’re not a member, Zandy. You’re Jewish.” Instead of telling her to fuck right off like I hope I’d do now, I was ashamed that I was, in fact, Jewish. I was a smart girl, but had no idea that there was something deeply corrupt about WASP Country Club life and because I was brainwashed into thinking I was less than.
I thought this exclusivity meant access to beauty, grace, civility and taste. In fact, in so many ways it’s the opposite.
Yes, the houses were grand and wondrous, with acres of land nobody used unless they were walking towards the pool, but inside many of them were rotten.
Some of the saddest kids I knew were from wealthy families. They wanted for nothing except ambition and the love of their parents. Loneliness, abandonment and neglect are traumatic, no matter if you’re a child of privilege or of poverty.
I saw many people who kept these homes running, treated terribly. Most often ignored, but sometimes spoken harshly to in front of me. And parents taught their kids by example to talk to “the help” the same way. Most of my friends were decent people, but I certainly witnessed this behavior and it was disturbing.
There is something relaxing and comforting about a culture that never really changes. WASPs have pretty much stayed the same. They dress the same, patronize the same restaurants, attend the same parties and charity events. Dutiful, yes, but fealty to charity is more often an excuse to see and be seen than it is to be generous.
I’ve seen “noblesse oblige” thrown around the past week in reference to George H.W. Bush. The term was used as a compliment, but it’s not. It implies you are nice to people beneath you. Literally that you are obliged as nobility to be gracious to the “little people.” This is very different from being generous to people who are less fortunate. The latter we should do because it’s right, and not because we think we’re nobler than the poor, nor should it be considered virtuous to help make people’s lives better.
WASP culture is a sedate form of capitalism. After all, the Vanderbilts and the Carnegies were once robber barons. WASPs’ homes aren’t tasteless like Trump’s, but their country estates are protected by hedges that whisper “Look but don’t touch” to the unwashed masses. Non-white people allowed inside are more often than not, staff.
There is also a low-level hum of misogyny running through WASP culture. At my all-girl school, we were expected to achieve and excel in every way, in academics and sports and socially, so we would be accepted to an Ivy League or at least an Ivy League adjacent college. But it wasn’t to become scientists or philosophers or teachers. It was really to meet a pedigreed, acceptable, eligible man who might later go into finance or corporate law or if he must, politics. It was still very much the way it had been forever—get pregnant, try to look nice and be supportive. Have a brief, illicit affair if you get too bored, but keep it quiet and don’t let it throw you too far off-track. You must keep up appearances. Your husband is probably having affairs too. Just remember to give generously back to your alma mater and write positive things about your life in the alumni newsletter.
Sometimes that hum is more like a scream. Even though he is Catholic, Bret Kavanaugh is the poster boy for entitled WASP misogyny. The Prep school culture, particularly on the East Coast, can be deeply toxic. Preparatory for college fraternities. This has been the gist: girls aren’t equals, they are conquests. If they won’t give into you, they’re bitches. If they do give in to you, they’re sluts. If they’re drunk or just vulnerable, they’re for the taking. And many of these schools, who have prided themselves on their civility and reputation, look the other way, because boys will be boys.
I was walking on the Upper East Side a few years back with a friend of mine who had gone to a prestigious all-male school in that neighborhood. We saw a group of boys in their prep school uniforms—khakis, button-down oxford, blazers and red ties—and my friend said, “Ah yes. Here are the date-rapists-in-training.” He went to that school. He knew the culture inside and out. After the Kavanaugh hearings, I heard his sentence over and over in my head. He’s right. And this culture has to end.
I am all for politeness and civility. I try not to curse and make sure my two young boys don’t either. I tell them they have to have good manners. I want them to dress with care —I even bought them navy blue blazers and fishermen sweaters— excel, and go to great colleges. And I hope they will be excellent tennis players. But I have no interest in them aspiring to be WASPs.
This summer I went back to same country club where I was told I couldn’t be a member. Nothing really had changed, except those kids in the pool had become middle aged, with kids of their own who were that same age we were that summer. These women were wearing the same things their mothers wore—Jack Rogers sandals, chunky gold seashell earring and Indian print blouses—and were acting the same way,—polite, but chilly. Of course it was only one drink in and if I had stayed longer and had a few more G and T’s I would have relaxed and they would have been chummier. After all, I look the part.
But that evening, I finally realized the allure of WASP culture was slipping for me. The only people of color I saw were serving behind the grill line at the snack bar. I had brought my sons with me and my little one, who is has no shortage of joie de vivre, had started doing a dance on the patio where the grownups were drinking. I received several sharp looks and realized I’d rather be with my sons than banish them to the beach where the other kids at the club were so I could get tipsy with people who didn’t fascinate me anymore by their exclusiveness. They actually seemed quite boring.
There is a connection from the civility of George Herbert Walker Bush to the chaos of the Trump Presidency, as much as pundits the last couple of weeks are loathe to admit it. Jeb! was supposed to be successor to the throne, but much to the GOP’s surprise, nobody was falling for this thinned out bloodline anymore. So Republican voters chose Trump: the antithesis of a WASP.
Fortunately there seem to be more positive forces breaking up the WASP’s hegemony as well. The 2019 Congress will have more minorities than it ever has. And young people. Our House of Representatives will finally look something like the citizens it represents. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been tweeting out photos and videos during her freshman orientation. Her transparency and excitement is in direct contrast to WASP moderation and exclusivity. This is the exact vitality we need to inject into our bloodstream. To open the window and let fresh air into a stuffy, dark room. Hopefully this new sensibility will help make our Government work for us, rather than it act like stern fathers who tell us we’re unruly, uncivil and that we must respect our elders.
Despite its surface charms and my nostalgic pull toward it, WASP culture should fade away. Evolutionary theory says only species willing to be flexible can adapt and survive. Flexibility is not in a WASPs’ repertoire. WASPs want to stay the same and not admit the world is changing around and moving ahead of them. In this way, they are a gentler, more subtle and polite form of MAGA, Their prosperity and longevity has been based on the work of those who have toiled beneath them. Their dominance isn’t because of ingenuity or strength of character, but because these elites have always protected each other and made sure no one “unfamiliar” is admitted into their private club. WASPs’ rigidity and airlessness might be the death of them, but maybe this is ok