Shelf Life

A look beneath the WASPish veneer

Kai Ryssdal Oct 15, 2009
Shelf Life

A look beneath the WASPish veneer

Kai Ryssdal Oct 15, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: After Tad Friend’s mother died, he wrote a piece in the New Yorker magazine about her. He’s a staff writer there. He talked about her life, her house and what it was that drove her. She, like his father, had come from a long line of wealthy and influential East Coasters. The kind of people that ran this country at one time. By the time Tad’s parents got together there wasn’t much money and even less power left. They were a very particular kind of American — white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. Tad has turned that column into a book exploring the history of his family and its WASP-ness. It’s called “Cheerful Money.” Thanks for coming on the show.

TAD FRIEND: Great to be here.

Ryssdal: The definition, of course, of WASP is white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, we all know that. But it is somehow more than that, right? What’s the difference between popular perception and the actual definition of the word?

FRIEND: People who consider themselves to be WASPs feel like people who are technically WASPs, Elvis Presley or Bill Clinton, don’t really fit into the definition that WASPs have of themselves, which would be basically people who have fancy names, like my own theater reporter friend, and who went to fancy schools and who never talk about their feelings.

Ryssdal: Like you, right?

FRIEND: That’s me. I don’t even know why I’m here talking to you today.

Ryssdal: You wrote a whole book about not talking about your feelings, so you know.

FRIEND: Yeah, I guess I have a foot outside the camp now.

Ryssdal: There is this air of money that always seemed, in my mind anyway, to go along with WASPishness. Does that apply? Is that true?

FRIEND: Nelson Aldridge wrote a book about 20 years ago, a great book called “Old Money,” in which he argues that the whole point of being a WASP now is to have once had money. And I think for my family and our friends, we don’t have any money left, what we have in the place of money is what that money once bought. So we have ratty old rugs, and sort of falling-apart desks, and we have one house that’s still in the family on the shore of Long Island we have to rent out pretty much the entire year in order to pay for it.

Ryssdal: You might not be the guy to answer this question, but what did you do with all the money, Tad?

FRIEND: I’m going to say that it wasn’t my fault because it was gone before I came along. My father’s father, Ted Friend, who was an extremely charming man, he kind of lived out the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of evaporated capital. He was a broker, and he not only put his clients into certain firms, but he also put the family money into certain firms, such as Hygienic Telephone, and Nerlip Mines, and Red Rock Cola. None of which, of course, are around today. He had a very poor sense of what the future held.

Ryssdal: There’s a great shot of him in the book, if I’m remembering correctly. He’s sitting at a lawn party or something, in a linen suit, he’s got these great spectator shoes on, with a cocktail and the grass at his feet, right? Is that him?

FRIEND: Exactly. And that was a very characteristic pose. And he’s looking at his watch sort of like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. That seems very metaphorically resonant to me, wondering where the time went and what happened.

Ryssdal: There was this point in the ’60s where WASP became this sort of semi-official term and at the same time really that’s when the influence started to decline. What do you suppose happened there?

FRIEND: Digby Baltzell wrote a book in 1964 that really popularized the term WASP called “The Protestant Establishment.” And I argue in the book that actually the following year, 1965, was the sort of pivot point where WASPs’ power, which had already been waning, began to really sharply drop off. Nineteen-sixty-five was the first year of affirmative action, was the year of the Watts riots. A lot of things that had been sort of lingering for years, suddenly fell off a cliff, even down to my dad that year deciding to give up his Roman numerals after his name. The idea being, Theodore Wood Friend III no longer seemed like something you would sport proudly, but something you wanted to bury and just become Dore Friend, which he did.

Ryssdal: This is in a lot of ways a coming-of-age memoir. It’s the story of your life. And you begin with your childhood, and you end with your two children. What do you think they will think of their family when they eventually read this book?

FRIEND: That’s a question I was thinking about as I wrote the book. Often they were on my lap actually typing in random syllables, which is very helpful. I want them to know everything about me. I want them to feel like they understand me fully. But I also, at the same time — and I know it’s a bit of a mixed message — don’t want them to feel the impress of WASP culture that I felt, to feel like I have to behave in a certain way. We skipped giving them godparents, or christening cups, or even a christening. We did give them these WASPy names — Walker and Addy. We actually gave them each four names, so they have two middle names. So they’re going to have that little bit of a burden. But I think the main thing I want them not to have from my upbringing is the sense of emotional restraint and the sense that you cannot ever talk about sex or anger or feelings of shame or inadequacy or being picked on in school, or any of those things that I felt were just impossible to raise with my parents.

Ryssdal: Tad Friend is a staff writer for the New Yorker. His book is called “Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor.” Tad, thanks a lot.

FRIEND: Thanks so much.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.