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Remembering Louis Auchincloss, Conscience of the Elite

Louis Auchincloss, who died yesterday at the age of 92, invited me to his top-floor Park Avenue apartment in 2005 for an interview about his 60th book, East Side Story. It was — to me — an alien world: ancestral portraits, book sets bound in custom leather, bedrooms that hadn't been occupied in years or decades. Then 87, Auchincloss, whom today's New York Times obituary I.D.'d as a "Chronicler of New York's Upper Crust," was defensive about the milieu he took as his subject. I braced myself for a musty lecture on the quality and spirit of a class long in decline. What I got was something more complicated.

I wish I had instead been interviewing him sometime last year, just to hear his thoughts on the economic collapse, because he saved his angriest indignation for another upper-class icon, the recently convicted inside-trader Martha Stewart. Once she was sprung from the pen, "everyone will greet her with kisses and love," he said. And that — not the death of the aristocracy, which was alive and well anyway — was the problem with the modern world. Presidents started unnecessary wars, and investors gambled away other people's money, and when they failed, they felt not a drop of shame.

For all of the critics' emphasis on the WASP culture in which Auchincloss was born, New York's prewar ruling elite was not just based on ethnicity. The Guggenheims and their ilk — the German-Jewish barons whose ancestors had opened their own dry-goods stores only 60 years after Scottish immigrant Hugh Auchincloss — upheld precisely the same values, even if they couldn't get into the same schools. What they all had in common was a shame culture. There were certain things one didn't do — marry outside one's class, write a vulgar book, steal from one's business partners, betray a neighbor's trust. Auchincloss published his first book under a pseudonym in order to please his embarrassed mother, and joined a law firm rather than suffer the shameful stigma of Bohemianism. But as he grew older — went through psychoanalysis, plumbed the faults of his class — he let go of the blind obedience into which he was bred, and kept the sense of moral fortitude. He wrote one novel about a white-collar crook (The Embezzler), another about a school headmaster both noble and cruel (The Rector of Justin, nominated for a Pulitzer), and still another (Honorable Men) about a wealthy heir who resigns from government during the Vietnam War. He was — because of long life and his Whartonian style — a living anachronism. But his lament was less for a vanished class than for a bygone sense of shame. He understood that, whether in a feudal world or a meritocracy, power means nothing without responsibility.

Related: Old School

Photo: George De Sota/Getty Images