Tad Friend, in his 2009 memoir Cheerful Money: Me, My Family and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor, reveals in candid detail his complicated upbringing and emotionally insular life in an illustrious family, which includes a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a president of Swarthmore College and generations of Ivy League degrees. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a graduate of Harvard University.
In the first chapter of Cheerful Money, Friend begins to unpack the meaning of Wasp and discusses why that term is not really accurate in describing old money families and their mores. Given the frequency with which the term Wasp is bandied about by fashion bloggers, and particularly in light of the recent dust up between Ivy Style and Wasp 101, I thought it might be useful to let someone with some expertise on the matter cast some light.
From Cheerful Money (pages 11-14):
The ACRONYM “Wasp,” from “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant,” is one many Wasps dislike, as it’s redundant – Anglo-Saxons are perforce white – and inexact. Elvis Presley was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, as is Bill Clinton, but they are not what anyone means by “Wasp.” Waspiness is an overlay on human character, like the porcelain veneer that protects the surface of a damaged tooth. Worse, the adjective is pejorative: “Waspy” is reserved for horse-faced women, tight-assed men, penny pinchers, and a capella groups.
I’m too cheap to spring for a new acronym. But my family and their friends, as Wasps, were circumscribed less by skin tones and religion than by a set of traditions and expectations: a cast of mind. They lived in a floating Ruritania losely bounded by L.L. Bean to the north, the shingle style to the east, Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed polar expedition to the south, and the limits of Horace Greely’s optimism to the west.
That cast of mind is excessively attuned to such questions as how you say “tomato” – a word I now find myself pronouncing both ways, usually at random and always with misgiving. In this and more important respects I seem to have become, somehow, a motley product of my famously marvelous background. Oh, sure, I don’t belong to any clannish or exclusive clubs, I prefer beer to hard liquor, I am neither affable nor peevish – the alternating currents of Wasp – and I love pop culture.
And yet. Until quite recently, I had the Wasp fridge: marmalade, wilted scalions, out-0f-season grapes, seltzer and vodka – nothing to really eat. (The Wasp fridge is like the bachelor fridge, but Wasps load up on dairy, including both 1 and 2 percent milk, moldy cheese, expired yogurt, and separated sour cream. And atop the Wasp fridge sit Pepperidge Farm Milanos, Fig Newtons, or Saltines – some chewy or salty or otherwise challenging snack). I have a concise and predictable wardrobe, and friends even claim that I inevitably wear the same oatmeal – colored Shetland sweater. I will never experience the pleasures of leather pants or a shark’s tooth on a thong dangling in my chest hair. I will never experience the pleasures of chest hair. And, like the Tin Man, I don’t articulate my upper body sections; it moves en masse or not at all.
I politely stand aside: no, no, after you. I have a soft laugh, and I rarely raise my voice. Though I have an outsize grin, and friends take pleasure in trying to elicit it, I am reserved upon first meeting (it’s Wasp women who are expected to charm). I used to like being told I was “intimidating,” because it seemed to sanction my verbal jabbing to maintain a perimeter. Making everyone a little uneasy came naturally. When I characterized a college roommate’s dancing style as “Jimmy Cracked Corn,” he nursed the wound for decades, and a woman I fooled around with in my early twenties told me years later, that she had to get a new mattress and headboard after I remarked on her “game-show bed.” I am slow to depend on people because I hate being disappointed, hate having to withdraw my trust. All this has often led people to read me as aloof or smug.
I am fiercely but privately emotional – I was embarrassed, recently, when my wife, Amanda, found me having put The Giving Tree down while reading it to our twins, Walker and Addie, because I was in tears. I married Amanda, a strong-minded food writer, seven years ago: she revamped my fridge, and some of my other disaster areas. And I convinced her to have children, the best thing we have done together.
I walk into parties with a confident air but wait to speak until I have a point to make or self-deprecating joke to offer. I can give a handsome wedding toast. I am slow to pitch in on manual labor and not particularly handy, though I pride myself on the rarely called-for ability to carve a watermelon into the shape of a whale (a sprig of parsley makes the spout). I am frugal to the point of cheapness – when out to dinner with friends, I used to contribute only for the dishes I had ordered. I dislike having to eat quail or crab, all that effort and mess for scant reward, an aversion Amanda calls “No sex in public!”
For a long time I didn’t think of myself as competitive, though my friends kept assuring me, as they pointed out where my helicoptored five-iron had landed, that I was. My belief that you shouldn’t do something you care about in a half-assed way often provokes the charge that I don’t want to take part in any activity I can’t do well, that I fear public ineptitude, which is certainly true for karaoke. Despite my standoffishness, I am a good listener, and loyal, and friends often turn to me for advice. A Wasp friend remarks that I would have made an imposing country parson.
Most of all, I am a Wasp because I harbored a feeling of disconnection from my parents, as they had from their parents, and their parents from their parents. And because, deep into my thirties, most of my relationships had the life span of a child’s balloon. I felt that I was carrying around a brimming bucket of walnut stain and that if anyone got too close it would spill all over both of us. So I ended up spending my inheritance and then some on psychoanalysis. I was in trouble, but it was nearly impossible for anyone who didn’t know me to tell, and I made it nearly impossible for anyone to know me well.
thanks for sharing. I enjoyed Cheerful Money.To be sure, there is a goodly share of self indulgence but more than made up for by some wonderful dry wit. i would also recomend “the big house” by George howe colt-
Glad you got to read Cheerful Money. I do like Friend’s dry wit as well, but I guess any memoir runs the risk of self-indulgence at times. I haven’t read “The Big House,” but I’ll look for it.
You might have also read Paul Fussell’s book, “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System.” He was from the same sort of background as Friend, but was really more caustic. Fussell, who died last summer, was a professor of English at U.Penn.