Last of the Old Guard

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Many years ago the novelist Alison Lurie assured me that while there was an upper class in the United States, it played very little part in the lives of most Americans: that was why Louis Auchincloss (1917–2010), the prolific author of novels about New York’s WASP ascendancy, remained an acquired taste over there. Or as an American critic once put it, ‘For all its merits, [his work] is out of context today.’ What nonsense! growled Auchincloss’s distant kinsman, Gore Vidal, when I mentioned this to him shortly afterwards. The caste to which ‘cousin Louis’ belonged, and about which he wrote so perceptively, was still firmly in the saddle, so he was doing Americans a favour by showing how their rulers behaved ‘in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs’.

Eventually I met the writer himself in the appropriate setting of a lawyer’s office high above Wall Street. A tall, somewhat forbidding figure, he received me in his braces, behind a desk strewn with printouts of the trust funds he administered. ‘Have you read my book?’ he boomed, sounding rather like President Roosevelt (another distant cousin). Assuming he meant his latest novel I said ‘Yes’. But it soon transpired he was referring to his slim apologia, A Writer’s Capital (1974), unpublished in Britain and largely unheralded in the States. In this he explains how, against the odds, he managed to reconcile being born a writer and brought up to be a Wall Street lawyer.

Devoted though his comfortably off parents were, their example convinced him, from an early age, that whereas women led a cushy life at home, men were ‘doomed to go downtown and do dull, soulbreaking things to support their families’ (shades of the Forsytes). Seeing where his father worked, which he did one day as a small boy, gave him the creeps: ‘Never shall I forget the horror inspired in me by those dark narrow streets and those tall sooty towers . . .’ And yet Wa

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About the contributor

Michael Barber is planning to write a book about Gore Vidal from an English perspective.

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