Early in A Voice from Old New York, a posthumous memoir by Louis Auchincloss, who died last January, the author relates, in typically breezy manner, an anecdote about "my richest friend and contemporary, Marshall Field IV." The Chicago newspaperman's death in 1965, from a drug overdose, was the result of Field's "tragic inheritance," writes Auchincloss. He's not referring to the hand-me-down wealth and privilege that so often hollow out great families, but to the "nervous troubles" that plagued Field's father and presumably led his grandfather to suicide. "The story of the Fields is like that of the House of Atreus," Auchincloss writes. Fin. "I draw the curtain."
Field is obviously long gone; Auchincloss, as he writes this, is a nonagenarian memoirist tucked safely away on Park Avenue. Isn't this the perfect time for him to open the curtain? Alas, the prolific chronicler of the old-money Manhattan elite is as stingy as ever with the juicy details. "A fine stylist but no puncher," Newsweek decided way back in 1954. His most trenchant works were still to come, but for all their virtues, 1964's The Rector of Justin and 1966's The Embezzler (both finalists for the National Book Award) didn't exactly inflame readers outside the author's tight-knit circle of Groton grads and white-shoe firms.
Auchincloss had an insatiable curiosity about his class, and that is what made him an exception to it. As he relates in these latest tales from his youth, Auchincloss alarmed his parents with his interest in vulgar displays of wealth and loved debutante balls, although he preferred talking family history with the older guests to flirting with their daughters. "Gossip-prone" is how his friend (and, perhaps inevitably, onetime in-law) Gore Vidal once described him.
But Auchincloss never traded in the sort of tawdry or humiliating tales that Truman Capote did, to the ultimate destruction of Capote and others, in Answered Prayers. When a friend Auchincloss considered "a bit of an ass" recognized himself in one of his characters, the author recounts, "he was deeply hurt, and I resolved never to do that again." Nor did his mother encourage him—quite the opposite. With evident disgust, Auchincloss admits that he "weakly succumbed" to her request that he publish his first novel under a pseudonym—pointlessly, considering that a gossip column soon reported he was the author, and as Auchincloss relates in hindsight, his fellow lawyers at Sullivan & Cromwell "didn't give a damn."
In the '60s, however, emboldened by the sense of independence he'd gained from sessions with a "brilliant" psychiatrist, Auchincloss wrote a string of novels that did, comparatively speaking, rock the yacht—among them The Embezzler, based on the life of disgraced former New York Stock Exchange president Richard Whitney. It seemed just the kind of book that would put his mother into a panic. But when Whitney's sister-in-law, Martha, asked Auchincloss to kill it, he tells us that "Mother" unexpectedly took his side.
It wasn't what Auchincloss wrote about Manhattan's ruling blue bloods that alarmed women like Martha Whitney so much as the fact that an insider was offering their world up for general discussion. The Rector of Justin did just that for Groton, illuminating the gulf between the school's lofty ideals and the snobbery and self-interest of its graduates, and Auchincloss seems nervous revisiting those "hallowed halls" once again, even in old age. "I must be careful," he warns.
At first, it's unclear why. Auchincloss recycles several Groton episodes from his 1974 memoir, A Writer's Capital, at times barely bothering to change the language. Then comes a revelation: He was "subject to a sexual violation that would have created a major scandal today." But where other authors would take a deep breath and tell all, Auchincloss again draws the curtain and abruptly turns to describing a respected senior master who was known during class to "sometimes pause before a particularly robust boy and rub the back of his neck casually and sometimes even slip a sly hand down the back of his trousers, his fingers approaching the backside."
You can almost feel poor Auchincloss squirming in his seat. It all seems so coy and timid, and his sniffy allusion to schoolboy circle jerks ("I was perfectly aware that many boys played games in the cubicles at night") makes it painfully obvious how out of step he was with the literary generation that produced Portnoy's Complaint. In the chapter titled "A Hang-up," Auchincloss determines that an overpowering "identification of sex with sin" made him almost pathologically prudish throughout adolescence.
So perhaps Auchincloss deserves credit for unzipping, however tentatively, in this last of his many volumes. He sheds some of the old insecurities about telling tales out of school and, in the Groton passages and elsewhere, provides illuminating commentary on polite society's attitudes toward homosexuality. When he was at Yale in the '30s, for example, it was "tolerated but discountenanced." Today, we're likely to think the same of a memoirist who balks at the good stuff. Auchincloss is a funny and not uninteresting paradox: a writer who always seemed proud to belong to a time and place in which "there was more not discussed than otherwise."
Darrell Hartman is a freelance writer in New York and a regular contributor to Style.com.