Presented to the Club by Roger Linscott in 1999. Roger was, for many years, the associate editor of The Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield's daily newspaper. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing in 1973, and died in 2008 at the age of 88, having been a member of the Club since 1950. We are indebted to Roger's daughter, Wendy Lamme, for a treasure trove of Roger's Monday Evening Club papers. Photo of Cleveland Amory by Ron Bull for the Toronto Star, used under Toronto Star Photograph Archive License.
The genesis of this paper, such as it is, was a lengthy obituary that appeared in The New York Times shortly before this past Christmas. Its subject was Cleveland Amory, a writer and editor whose tireless work in behalf of animal rights over recent decades had produced several best-selling books and an impressive body of state and federal human legislation.
But before becoming an animal activist in middle age, Cleveland Amory was a social historian, and a very good one at that. His first three books. The Proper Bostonians (published just 50 years ago ), The Last Resorts, and Who Killed Society? were beautifully researched accounts of the mores and foibles of the American upper crust before it began crumbling under the pressure of the mass media and increasing social mobility.
And before that, Amory was an undergraduate at Harvard where – like a number of luminaries before him, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt ’04 – he was president of the Harvard Crimson, the undergraduate daily newspaper. In that role he was something of a mentor to me, who was admitted to the staff as a sophomore when Amory was a senior. He taught me a good deal more about newspapering that I could have learned from any school of journalism.
Our paths last crossed – and only briefly – some 30 years ago. But reading his obituary caused me to ferret The Proper Bostonians out of my library and to discover that it is still a very good read even though the society it depicts – with an insider’s eye, since being born an Amory automatically makes one a Boston Brahmin – has changed considerably with time. My interest in the subject, I should add, is more than academic. My own family, though of yeoman stock with no family ties to the local aristocracy, has lived in and about Boston for many generations, and I have always been fascinated by proper Bostonians as a breed that traditionally has carried insularity to a degree exceeding that of any other local elite in the country. Amory, or course, was not the first to mine that rich field. A wide range of observers, from Henry Adams and Henry James to Lucius Beebe and – most readably, James P. Marquand in The Late George Apley – were there before him. On a considerably more modest level, even I became marginally involved in the endeavor. A year after Amory’s book came out, the New York publishing house of Farrar & Strauss asked my father [Robert N. Linscott] – then an editor at Random House – to put together an anthology of writings by and about Bostonians, from Cotton Mather and Governor Bradford to contemporaries like Marquand and John Dos Passos. Since my father had other fish to fry at the time, while I was writing only a weekly column for the non-defunct New York Herald-Tribune, I ended up doing most of the work and receiving half of the modest royalties earned by the resulting volume, which was called State of Mind: A Boston Reader , and went quietly out of print two years later.
One of the things that made Cleveland Amory’s Proper Bostonians such good reading is its wealth of anecdotes. It opens with one that he correctly says is basic to an understanding of Boston society’s addiction to ancestor worship. In the balmy days of the 1920s, Amory reports, a Chicago banking house asked the Boston investment firm of Lee, Higginson & Company for a letter of recommendation about a young Bostonian they were considering employing. Lee, Higginson could not say enough for the young man. Not only was his father a member of the sainted Cabot family, they wrote; his mother was a Lowell. Farther back his background was a happy blend of Saltonstalls, Appletons, Peabodys and others of Boston’s first families. The commendation to the Chicago firm was given without hesitation.
Several days later came a curt acknowledgement from Chicago. Lee, Higginson was thanked for its trouble. Unfortunately, however, the material supplied about the young man was not exactly of the type the Chicago firm was seeking. “We were not,” their letter declared, “contemplating using Mr. Cabot for breeding purposes.”
In other cities, the social arbiters ask who a person’s parent are. In Boston they traditionally have asked who his grandparents were. Being white Anglo-Saxon Protestants doesn’t in itself open doors to First Family status. Boston Brahmins do have to be WASPs, of course, and they also are expected to have money. But they have to have possessed that money at a particular time in history – specifically in the first several decades of the 19th century – with Boston’s social mold was set. Those who came to Boston before then, in the 17th and early 18th century, and thrived during the Colonial era – such names as Hancock, Gore and Boylston come to mind – never made it to modern First Family status if they happened to have suffered the misfortune of exhausting their wealth before fossilization took place in the early 1800s. Likewise, fortunes that were made after the social gates clanged shut – for example, Eben Jordan’s department store riches, and Andrew Preston’s United Fruit empire – were forever denied Brahmin status. They had missed the boat.
Cleveland Amory’s Chicago anecdote not only illustrates the proper Bostonian’s preoccupation with ancestry – a trait that outsiders have irreverently labelled “grandfather of the brain” – it also illustrates how extraordinarily provincial Boston society became in the 19th and 20th centuries – though proper Bostonians could probably contend that “self-contained” would be a more suitable adjective to use in this context.
Semantics aside, the stories testifying to this insularity are familiar and numerous, though also in some cases, no doubt, apocryphal. One thinks of the Boston lady who drove to California and, when asked what route she took, replied, “Oh, I went by way of Dedham.” Or the denizen of Beacon Hill who, when chided for not traveling more, in some puzzlement asked, “But why should I travel when I’m already here?” In The Flowering of New England, published more than 60 years ago, but still the best book about Boston’s golden era culturally – that is, the first half of the 19th century, when giants like Hawthorne and Melville and Thoreau and Emerson were making Boston the intellectual hub of America if not, in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ celebrated encomium, “the hub of the universe” – Van Wyck Brooks quotes a favorite anecdote told by James T. Fields, a Boston man of letters and a partner in Ticknor & Fields, the city’s pre-eminent book publishing firm of the 19th century. The Fields story was about a Boston man who read the major works of Shakespeare late in life and found them admirable beyond his expectation. “Shakespeare’s work is astonishing,” he declared. “I dare say there are not twenty men in Boston who could have written those plays.”
Such immodesty about Boston’s intellectual – and moral – claims has always been regarded as a characteristic of its aristocracy. “Boston,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes the elder, “has opened, and kept open, more turnpikes that lead straight to free thought and free speech and free deeds than any other city of live or dead men.” To which Bronson Alcott, the great social reformer and education pioneer (as well as the father of Louisa May Alcott) added: “There is a city in our world upon which the light of the sun of righteousness has risen…It is the same city from which every pure stream of thought and purpose and performance emanates. It is the city which is set on high. It cannot be hidden. It is Boston.”
Extravagant appraisals like these were not the self-serving hyperbole of local politicians on the make. They were the genuine beliefs of rational and educated Bostonians who felt that they enjoyed the great good fortune to live in a city unique morally as well a culturally. “Principle,” wrote Van Wyck Brooks, “was a reality in Boston. Conscience was a large reality. Everyone knew the story of the merchant who, when one of his ships was overdue, found that he was more anxious about his thoughts than the money he was losing. Was it possible, he asked himself, that he had really grown to love his money more for itself than for its nobler uses? To settle the point in his own mind, he reckoned the value of the ship and cargo and gave the sum to his favorite charity. The story was typical of the Boston merchants who, between 1810 and 1840 alone, established thirty benevolent institutions. Though derided by outlanders as “the codfish aristocracy,” Boston Brahmins did tend to listen closely to the New England Consciousness they had inherited from their Puritan ancestors.
On the down side, of course, this has often tended to produce a degree of smugness bordering on outright self-infatuation – a consequence of which is that a fair number of proper Bostonians have, over the years, declined to join the local cheering section. Probably the most prominent of these dissenters have been in the Adams family, which has always been something of an anomaly in Boston society. On the one hand, it is generally regarded as the first of the city’s First Families, having produced two American presidents (John and John Quincy) plus Charles Francis Adams (who, as Lincoln’s ambassador to the court of St. James, helped save the union by persuading the British not to recognize the Confederacy) plus the eminent historians Brooks Adams and Henry Adams. On the other hand, the Adams family has always tended to exploit its pre-eminence socially by keeping its distance from the rest of the Boston bluebloods – and by speaking its mind about Boston’s insularity quite freely. On this score, my favorite Adams quotation is from a letter Charles Francis wrote some years after his ambassadorial career was over. “In this course of my life,” he said, “I have tried Boston socially on all sides. I have summered it and wintered it, tried it drunk and tried it sober; and drunk or sober, there’s nothing in it save Boston…This is the trouble with Boston – it is provincial…There is no current of fresh outside life everlastingly flowing in and passing out. It is, so to speak, stationary – a world – a Boston world – unto itself.”
Another illustrious, if more plebeian, New Englander, Henry David Thoreau, also spoke disdainfully of Boston, though his objection may have reflected his contempt for cities in general in contrast to his love for rural Concord, 15 miles to the west. “The only room in Boston that I visit with alacrity,” he wrote in his journals, “is the gentlemen’s waiting room at the depot, where I wait for the railroad cars, sometimes for two hours, to get out of town.”
Another Concord skeptic of the same era, incidentally, was Rockwood Hoar, who served as United States attorney general under President U.S. Grant and whose most famous aphorism made bold to question the moral probity of some of the pious holders of great Boston wealth. Borrowing from the “good, better, best” comparative adjectives that school children of the era were required to recite endlessly, Mr. Hoar declared that “the three stages of the enterprising Yankee are to get on, to get honor, and to get honest.”
While wallowing about in Bostonian anecdotal materials – of which there is a virtually inexhaustible supply – I cannot resist the temptation to digress for just a few moments from my main theme to mention that in the process of developing a remarkable degree of insularity, the Boston aristocracy earned a deserved reputation for both eccentricity and wit. I cite but two of many examples. Among the amiable eccentrics was Sarah Palfrey, spinster daughter of the eminent historian. She is generally accorded the honor of being the first Boston woman to ride a bicycle, an activity she took up with great zeal in her late 70s. She painted vigorously, spoke four languages fluently, and published poetry in Latin as well as in English. At the age of 88, in her final illness, she took up the study of Hebrew with great intensity. When asked why, she replied: “I do not expect to be in this world much longer. When I die, I wish to be able to greet my Creator in his native tongue.”
My other footnote to Boston wit and wisdom, also a woman, involved Helen Choate Bell, whose father Rufus Choate was one of Boston’s richest and ablest lawyers of the late 19th century. Most of her witticisms – widely quoted during her 30-year reign as a queen of Boston society – have not survived the test of time very well, but there is one that I particularly like still. “The automobile,” she declared back in the early days of motoring, “will soon divide mankind into two classes – the quick and the dead.”
There are two institutions above all others that proper Bostonians have traditionally regarded with particular reverence: The Boston Symphony Orchestra and Harvard University.
“The day of days for the Proper Boston woman,” wrote Cleveland Amory (and it’s still almost as true today) “comes 26 times a year – every Friday all winter – at ‘symphony.’ Here she blossoms in all her glory, for Symphony – one never speaks of “the” symphony but always just as “Symphony” – is not only culture with a capital “C” but is also society with a capital “S.” Friday afternoons assume the aspect of holy days dedicated to the classics and to a vast craning of necks to be certain that the Hallowells and the Forbeses are in their accustomed stalls.”
To be a true Symphony patron one must be a “Friend” of the orchestra – in other words, a contributor to its annual deficit, as well as a regular attender at the concerts. For many years Major Henry Lee Higginson (whose descendants include Sally Begley here in Stockbridge and who founded The Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881, made up the deficits himself, but he was finally persuaded to share the privilege with others of Boston’s best. Ever since the major gave in, Boston’s First Families have thrown their Yankee citation to the winds, loosened their purse strings and vied for the soul-satisfying distinction of digging deep for culture. So great was their zeal – when I was a child, from a very musical but unanointed family – that my mother and I used to stand in line on the Symphony Hall steps on Fridays – sometimes for more than an hour – in the hopes of getting two of the so-called “rush seats” in the balcony that were made available to non-subscribers.
The other institution traditionally revered by all proper Bostonians – Harvard University – is not within the city limits, of course, though Cambridge is closer to Beacon Hill and the Back Bay than are such outlying Boston boroughs such as Dorchester and Roxbury. In any event, Harvard has historically been the only thinkable place for Boston bluebloods to send their sons, and its undergraduate club system has always been a feeder for the social clubs of Boston, just as a seat on the Harvard Corporation, the University’s self-perpetuating governing body, has always been the most prestigious honor to which a Boston Brahmin can aspire.
There is indeed a feeling among a few proper Bostonians that even the Deity is very cognizant of the university’s crucial importance. Some sign of this was given on the final day of Harvard’s Tercentenary Celebration in 1936 by Bishop William Lawrence, then the state’s most eminent Episcopal divine. It was pouring rain that day and the Bishop, then at the age of 86, was observed by a friend in an automobile to be splashing his way across Harvard Square without even the protection of an umbrella. The friend begged him to enter his car and avoid such unnecessary exposure. The Bishop refused. “The Lord,” he said sharply, “will not allow me to take cold on Harvard’s 300th birthday.”
Another anecdote reflecting Harvard’s inseparability from Boston society involved Edmund Quincy, a 19th century leader who could speak with authority both as a mayor of Boston and a former Harvard president. It pleased him on occasion to tap his well-thumbed copy of the Harvard Alumni Directory and declare: “If a man’s in there, that’s who he is. It he isn’t, who is he?”
Finally, there is the story that goes back to the first decade of this century when William Howard Taft was serving as President of the United States. A visitor to Harvard sought to see the late A. Lawrence Lowell, the president of the university. Having been called to the nation’s capital on a matter of business, Lowell could not be seen, according to his secretary. “The President is in Washington,” she said, “seeing Mr. Taft.”
Like most of the social phenomena I have written about in this paper, the special relationship between Harvard and the Boston aristocracy has changed rather markedly over the past half-century – as has the character of the aristocracy itself. Harvard, like all other highly selective colleges, now draws its students from as broad a base as possible, both geographically and socially. Being the scion of a First Family is no longer a ticket of admission, nor is a diploma from Groton or St. Marks or Exeter. In my day, three-quarters of Harvard’s freshmen came from private schools. Today the proportion is more like one-quarter.
As long ago as 1960, Harvard’s then President Nathan Pusey made these points concisely in a verbal exchange that, in a way, addressed the whole changing world of social elites in general and Boston’s in particular.
The occasion was a Harvard 25th reunion banquet which Dr. Pusey, after delivering a routine speech to the Class of 1925 [sic –1935?] graduates and their wives, solicited questions from the audience. The first question came from an alumnus whose unsteady manner indicated that he had probably consumed a bit more than his share of the pre-dinner cocktails, but it also came from his heart.
“Dr. Pusey,” he said. “Let me tell you a story about a man who came to this country more than 300 years ago on the Mayflower, the Mayflower. His son went to Harvard, and in due time that son grew up and had a son of his own, and that son went to Harvard, and then, years later, that man had a son of his own and that son went to Harvard…”And so the question went on through a dozen more generations until, to the audience’s enormous relief, the unsteady questioner came to his closing line. “…And now, that man has a son and he can’t get into Harvard. What I want to know, Dr. Pusey, is what are you going to do about that?”
Dr. Pusey though for a moment. “I’m afraid,” he finally said, “there is probably nothing we can do about that. The Mayflower isn’t running anymore.”*
* Editor’s note: A variation of this story has Pusey saying, “Well, we can’t send him back. The Mayflower doesn’t run anymore.”