Thursday, June 18, 2009

We used to own the Bronx

The author's wedding day, May 16, 1959. Photo: Stephen Colhoun.
by Michael Thomas


I cannot imagine any regular reader of New York Social Diary, or of the novels of Louis Auchincloss, who will not find this first-rate book absolutely fascinating.

Click cover to order.
As much as any work I know, including my own, it captures with style and exactitude what a life of privilege felt, sounded, looked and even tasted like in the late1950s and early 1960s – a period which was, let's face it, the last golden hurrah of what social historians might characterize as "the WASP Ascendancy."

That said, let me enter a few disclaimers or confessions of interest and commonality. "Topsy" Pell, as the author was known during her schooldays and young married life, was my date for the Spring Dance at Exeter in 1953. No young woman of that time was prettier or brighter or carried off long white gloves with greater aplomb.

Later, for a brief period, I went out with a divine Vassar girl who would become Topsy's sister-in-law. In 1950, my father and stepmother moved from Park Avenue to Old Brookville, on Long Island's North Shore, to a place not far from the estate owned by Topsy's mother and stepfather, where she led the life she describes with bittersweet precision in the first half of We Once Owned the Bronx. Her mother was a Mortimer, which is a clan I know one or two things about; one of Topsy's uncles has been among my closest and dearest friends for more than fifty years.
The author riding Greybud at Piping Rock Horse Show, about 1946.
What makes this book stand out is how totally right it gets its subject matter, both as to fact and as to tone. You can take my word for this because, in the words of a great vaudeville comedian, "I was there , Charlie." I know these places, these clubs, these people, these conventions, these attitudes, these prejudices. I even had a Foxcroft mother who, like Topsy's, succumbed to dementia. Take it from me, she gets it right.

She left that world after her first marriage dissolved and became for a while embroiled in the homicidal racial politics of the Bay Area. Her account of this period in her life is gripping stuff, but it's not the central panel of her life's triptych (which I would characterize as "Girlhood and Marriage" – "Black Panthers" – "Coming to Terms") that makes this book the standout that it is.
The wedding of the author's parents, June, 1936, in Tuxedo Park. The author's mother and stepfather, 1954.
With mother at her coming-out party. Dancing with her father.
We Used to Own the Bronx is written from a rare combination of inside and outside. Both are essential. One must see that world plain: its graces, its defects, its smallness, its style – and then try to set down what one has seen and reflected upon for the best part of a lifetime. To do so well, as Topsy has realized, as Gore Vidal once notably remarked of Louis Auchincloss, one must be prepared to betray it. The betrayal, however, is, if not exactly "loving" (and what betrayal can be?), at least enlightening – and, in a balanced way, decently nostalgic. It was a world that, for all its alcohol-soaked narrowness and clubland triviality and lousy parenting techniques, had a style and way of doing things that makes it live with a certain rueful fondness in the memory of those of us who lived there.

I was crazy for Topsy fifty-five years ago. This remarkable book renews my grasp of why that was. As old friends and acquaintances of my age reflexively say to one another, "We really did have the best of it!"

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for NYSD Contents