Jan. 27, 2000, The National Post
In the U.S., the new rich are penetrating deep into the old money’s territory. Frank Moher, returning to his old hometown of New Canaan, Conn., discovers that what was once a birthright — a place among the American ruling class — is now a purchasable commodity
By Frank Moher
By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums. The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs; the cars are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors, and hair shorn in strange new ways, and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
That’s pretty much the way I saw New Canaan and remembered it in the years after I left, though I lived there as a teenager and our parties were more likely to be accompanied by Grace Slick on a stereo than oboes and trombones. Fitzgerald was, of course, writing of Long Island and the Twenties; I lived in New Canaan, Conn., a small, influential community northeast of New York City, in the early 1970s. But just as Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, had come from the Mid-west to live in a “weatherbeaten cardboard bungalow” on the fringes of opulence, I had arrived with my family from Edmonton to live in an unprepossessing semi-detached townhouse on the way out to the highway, in one of the richest towns in America.
Like Nick, I was dazzled by the elegance of the place, with its looming maples and colonial homes, and by the grace of my new friends, who wore their privilege nonchalantly and seemed cut from some more lustrous cloth than I. And, yes, there were times when we played at being grown-ups, and someone would throw a party on the lawn of their parents’ mansion (Were they mansions? So they seemed to me.) and there would be what Fitzgerald might have called “gay chatter” by the side of a luminescent pool, and expensive cars sweeping up long, curving driveways.
So maybe I was expecting chandeliers and valets, trumpets and oboes, as I recently made my way to a reunion of some of those high- school friends in Manhattan on a rainy Friday night. I had lots of time to think about what lay ahead; midtown was so packed with flush Christmas shoppers that it was impossible to hail a cab, and I had to tramp 40 blocks to get to the hotel where my friends were already gathering.
As it was, party central looked more like a Day’s Inn than the Trump Plaza, and the only music as I entered was the thump of slightly past-the-curve pop songs coming from the bar off the lobby. And my first thought as I stepped into Salon A, where our function was being held and where the ceiling was too low to accommodate a chandelier, was: Aren’t my friends supposed to be here? Who are all these saggy, middle-aged people? These must be our old teachers, right?
But no, “they” were us.
But I’m not really here to tell a story about how young people don’t stay young forever, and reunions can be pathetic/funny, and life doesn’t always turn out the way you expected. That story’s been told. What I learned that rainy evening in Manhattan was, for me at least, quite a bit more startling than that.
I had written about New Canaan earlier, in a piece for Saturday Night magazine, not long after the movie The Ice Storm came out. Like the novel on which it was based, The Ice Storm was set in New Canaan at almost precisely the time I lived there, and its teenage characters were contemporaneous with my friends. Both film and novel depicted them as aimless and sexually virtuosic, and their parents as moral dumbbells, and I wrote to say that that wasn’t how it seemed to me at the time.
To be sure, The Ice Storm overstated its case, but it was clear to anyone who read my response, just as it must be clear to anyone who’s reading this, that I romanticized New Canaan all to hell.
I expected to go back to my reunion 25 years later and discover that my former schoolmates had settled into lives of inherited stolidity, and become the responsible, power-wielding lawyers and CEOs and publishers and political kingmakers their parents had been. Ah-hah, we would all say, see how the levers of influence have been passed to the next generation; see how America’s ruling class, patrician and unabashedly self-serving as always, sustains itself.
Some of my friends, as it turns out, have stuck to the prepared text. Vic, an affable, gentle-mannered beanpole of a kid in high school, has become the affable, gentle-mannered general manager of an enormous American magazine — enormous enough that he was aware they had gotten into “some trouble” up in Canada lately over split runs. He’d just come from a meeting to renegotiate fees with the magazine’s photographers, and would be leaving our modest affair to attend Enormous American Magazine’s Christmas party later in the evening. Maybe that’s where the chandeliers and valets were.
Another guy had become a high mucky-muck in the news division of a Chicago television station. Another was some sort of mover-and-shaker in Washington, although, being a Democrat, he’d departed from the script slightly; New Canaan is the sort of town where a seat on the town council for a Democrat has to be mandated by law, lest the Republicans run the place as a fiefdom.
“You people must be getting nervous these days,” said one of the GOP faithful to him, referring to the upcoming presidential election. (Apparently she hadn’t heard that the Republicans still haven’t really recovered since Newt Gingrich took a powder.) The Democrat just smiled graciously and stuck his square jaw out a little farther. He was the closest thing to a golden boy in the room.
Otherwise, we seemed to be the usual collection of reunion stereotypes: the school “stars” for whom things hadn’t quite worked out; some slightly brittle divorcees; former geeks who’d shown up to flaunt their now gym-hardened bodies; the quiet kid who’d caught everybody by surprise by becoming a big name — in his case, in the world of Broadway design.
All of which was expected — I knew the rich weren’t protected from the vagaries of life, good or bad — and the universe was unfolding as it should, until I ran into somebody I’ll call “Jerry.”
Jerry was the “guy who’d had a bit too much to drink” at the reunion, the one who seemed to have come with some emotional baggage to offload. But the story he had to tell me had more to do with New Canaan and change and the passing of the American aristocracy than with himself, and it was anything but what I thought I’d hear.
I asked him how things were back at home. (Jerry still lives in New Canaan.) “Too many rich people,” he grumped.
I had to laugh. “There always were,” I said.
“No,” he said. “Really rich.”
Jerry told me that newcomers were now buying up the five- and 10- acre lots on which many of my friends’ homes had roosted, tearing down the homes, subdividing the land into two- and three-acre parcels and building “monster homes” on them. So much Wall Street money was pouring into the community now, he said, that it was literally tearing it apart.
Jerry teaches at one of the local schools. “I’ve never met the parents of a lot of my students,” he said. “I’ve only ever met their nannies when they come to pick them up.
“At least,” he continued, “when we were going to school, there were some middle-class kids around, like us. Now the only kids who aren’t rich are the children of the hired help.”
I realized two things in that moment: That I had always assumed that all my friends were wealthy (Jerry, as it turned out, had lived in circumstances similar to my own); and that even those who had been “blessed,” as their Methodist and Lutheran parents might have put it, were being displaced now by a new breed of super barons, incubated in the perfervid economy that had seen the stock market grow for 10 years straight, and hatched by various internet IPOs, corporate mega-mergers, and media “synergies.”
Jerry seemed bitter about this. I could understand why — it was, after all, his community being turned upside down — though I also wondered if it wasn’t because, as one of New Canaan’s relative “poor,” he understood the top of the ladder was growing yet farther from his reach.
As for me, it never really was my home — we lived there just two years before returning to Alberta — and I live now on an island in B.C., in a country where wealth-building seems a little pointless, and so am spared the galling displays of opulence that Jerry has to put up with every day. As well, I have to admit the Irish in me likes the idea of seeing the aristocracy brought down a notch (even if it means the creation of a whole new uber-gentry).
But I did, suddenly, understand why the streets were so full-to-bursting that evening. It wasn’t just that Christmas was coming; It was that the American economy is erupting (or, if you prefer, metastasizing). All that richness tends to flow into pockets like Manhattan and, dammit, somebody has to spend it. But it is a prosperity that largely seems to be passing the grandees by. And, while I’m sure my friends eventually got in some Christmas shopping of their own, and many of them probably feel themselves well out of the fray, I did, in that moment, feel a little melancholy for them.
It’s worth remembering, perhaps, that Jay Gatsby’s great wealth was created through rum-running and counterfeiting — i.e., in much the same entrepreneurial way that fortunes are being built today. Perhaps what we’re seeing — almost certainly what we’re seeing — is the creation of a new aristocracy, and maybe we should be grateful that this time it’s based on ingenuity rather than malfeasance (well, some of the time, anyway).
But it’s also based on a certain gleeful rejection of the past, and the past is what the old families of New England do well — witness our Gatsbyesque high-school parties. And their bred-in-the- bone values of civility and understatement and — to a degree they are rarely given credit for — social obligation may simply not play in a culture where sizzle and self-advancement count for more. It could be that their inheritance has become their biggest liability.
For that matter, it could be that I, or you, or just about anybody else — the accountants and brokers partying in the bar off the lobby, the men who sell leather coats from tables along lower Broadway, the woman still selling flowers on 28th Street as I tramped back to my lodgings — are better prepared to prosper in this canine new world. That notion — that ambition had become a privilege, that I might in some ways be more fortunate than the children I had once regarded as touched by magic — struck me with a sort of gale force that night.
Maybe it was just the champagne talking. (There may have been no trumpets or oboes at our reunion, but we did, at least, have champagne). But Jerry’s wasn’t the only world that had suddenly been turned upside down.