An examination of WASP culture through the lives of some of its most prominent figures. Envied and lampooned, misunderstood and yet distinctly American, WASPs are as much a culture, socioeconomic and ethnic designation, as a state of mind.
From politics to fashion, their style still intrigues us. WASPs produced brilliant reformers—Eleanor, Theodore, and Franklin Roosevelt—and inspired Cold Warriors—Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, and Joe Alsop. In such dazzling figures as Isabella Stewart Gardner, Edie Sedgwick, Babe Paley, and Marietta Tree they embodied a chic and an allure that drove characters like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby mad with desire.
They were creatures of glamour, power, and privilege, living amid the splendor of great houses, flashing jewels, and glittering soirées. Envied and lampooned, they had something the rest of America craved.
Yet they were unhappy. Descended from families that created the United States, WASPs felt themselves stunted by a civilization that thwarted their higher aspirations at every turn. They were the original lost generation, adrift in the waters of the Gilded Age. Some were sent to lunatic asylums or languished in nervous debility. Others committed suicide.
Yet out of the neurotic ruins emerged a group of patriots devoted to public service and the renewal of society. In a groundbreaking study of the WASP revolution in American life, Michael Knox Beran brings the stories of Henry Adams and Henry Stimson, Learned Hand and Vida Scudder, John Jay Chapman and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to life. These characters were driven by a vision of human completeness, one that distinguishes them from the self-complacency of more recent power establishments narrowly founded on money and technical know-how.
WASPs shaped the America in which we live: so much so that it is not easy to understand our problems without a knowledge of their mistakes. They came to grief in Vietnam and through their own toxic blood pride, yet before they succumbed to the last temptation of arrogance, they struggled to fill a void in American life, one that many of us still feel.
For all their faults, they pointed—in an age of shrunken lives and diminished possibility—to the dream of a new life.