Louis Auchincloss is one of those authors who exemplify the wisdom of writing about what one knows—in his case, the upper-class society that many believe still constitutes America’s ruling class. Born into privilege, educated at Groton and Yale along with the offspring of East Coast bankers and stockbrokers, as well as successful lawyers like his own father, Auchincloss proceeded quite predictably to a career as an attorney on Wall Street, where he remained for four decades. His profession gave Auchincloss an opportunity to observe the power struggles within wealthy families, which often became the subject of his many novels and of short stories such as those in his most recent collections, Tales of Yesteryear (1994), The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss (1994), and The Atonement and Other Short Stories (1997). In his fiction, Auchincloss dissects this society he knows so well—sometimes satirically, often ironically, but always with the intellectual subtlety and the profound insight that have led many critics to refer to him as a latter-day Henry James or Edith Wharton.
Even though the nine works that appear in The Anniversary and Other Stories cover more than a hundred years of American history, ranging in their settings from the Civil War era to the late 1970’s, there is no indication that the values held by the class about which Auchincloss writes have changed markedly over time. Wealth and social status are of primary importance. If an aristocratic family finds itself impoverished, as do the Peytons in “The Virginia Redbird,” which is set shortly after the Civil War, their young will be sent in search of wealthy mates. No one could hate the Yankees more than Zelina Peyton’s mother does; however, she convinces herself that Zelina’s marriage to Yankee money is a real victory for the South. If a family is prosperous but has not yet moved into the top rank of society, like the Schweizers in “DeCicco v. Schweizer,” which begins early in the twentieth century, the obvious answer is to acquire a nobleman. It does not matter to the parents of Blanche Schweizer that Count Gulinelli, whom they intend for Blanche to marry, has neither money nor ambition, that he is reputed to have a singularly unpleasant mother, or even that, as he candidly admits to Blanche, he is in love with another woman. Blanche is to become his wife not because of who he is or of how she feels about him but simply because of what he has that the Schweizers need, a pedigree.
The importance of wealth and social status to America’s upper classes is perhaps best summed up in “The Last of the Great Courtesans.” The narrator begins his story by expressing his delight at having been selected to paint the portrait of a woman who is not only wealthy and powerful, heading the board of a huge media corporation, but also still a great beauty, though perhaps not quite as lovely as she was when he first knew her. As Millicent Iglehart, the daughter of a Yale professor who prided himself on his heritage but who was always short of money, she had practiced the art of enchanting men. Although she could have had almost any of the students she knew, including the narrator, she decided to marry Paul Kelly, the captain of the football team, who had an impeccable social background, some money, and the brains to make a great deal more. However, Milly needed a challenge of her own. She broke free, took a lover, let her husband divorce her, and then, using one man after another, moved upward in the publishing field toward her final goal, marriage to Randolph Marion, a man she admired for his obsession with power. It was the daughter she abandoned as a child who called Millicent Marion the last of the “great courtesans,” the last of the women who, as Milly explains it, “were forced to use their sexual allure, or what they managed to make seem that, as the only tool available to wrest from males some fraction of the worldly loot they had grabbed for themselves.” The inherent irony in Milly’s life story is not lost upon the narrator. As he points out, she was not like real courtesans, for even though she used their methods to attain her goals, she was set upon marriage. It was not that she cared about respectability, for she had long since been branded a scarlet woman by her family and described by her daughter as a whore. Milly had her mind set upon marriage to her elderly lover in order that eventually, as his widow, she “could rank, with her plunder, among the mightiest of males.” In other words, Millicent shared the materialistic values of the society against which she had appeared to rebel, as the artist suggested in her portrait by touching it here and there with “gleaming gold.”
However, one of the dominant themes in Auchincloss’s fiction is that wealth and social status cannot ensure happiness. Women, in particular, are likely to suffer when marriages are primarily contractual in nature. Zelina Peyton, for example, finds that her rich, sophisticated Yankee thinks of her as an art object he has purchased. After Adrian...
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