October 2009

Secrets from the upper crust

By Tad Friend
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The economy has tanked, unemployment’s up and we’ve all got better things to do than read about the woes and ruminations of prep school-educated rich folks, right?

Not if Tad Friend has anything to say about it.

In Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor, Friend, a staff writer at The New Yorker, writes a multi-generational portrait of his family, an impressive set of Wasps whose ancestors include a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Clearly an expert on the breed, Friend sprinkles hilarious aphorisms throughout the text: “Wasps name their dogs after liquor and their cars after dogs and their children after their ancestors”; “Wasps emerge from the womb wrinkly and cautious, already vice presidents, already fifty-two.”

Through it all, Friend falls in (and out) of love—multiple times—and deals with the knowledge that when his kids are grown, they won’t be Wasps . . . the family money will be gone. The memoir is most engaging when he keeps closest to home; the scenes with Friend’s parents are touching and poignant.

At the beginning of the book, Friend writes, “I am a Wasp because I harbored a feeling of disconnection from my parents, as they had from their parents, and their parents had from their parents.” Cheerful Money is Friend’s funny and enlightening way of piecing together that disconnect. 

Eliza Borné recently graduated from Wellesley (and is not a Wasp).


An excerpt from Cheerful Money:

When I graduated from Shipley, a small prep school in Bryn Mawr, my father’s mother, Grandma Jess, wrote to congratulate me on my academic record: “A truly tremendous achievement — but then I could expect nothing less due to your marvelous background — Robinson, Pierson, Holton, Friend!” I remember scowling at her airy blue script, noting the point — after the first dash — where the compliment turned into a eugenic claim. As my grandparents happened to constitute a Wasp compass, the way ahead was marked in all directions: I could proceed as a Robinson like Grandma Tim’s family (loquacious, madcap, sometimes unhinged); a Pierson like Grandpa John’s family (bristling with brains); a Holton like Grandma Jess’s family (restless, haughty show ponies); or a Friend like Grandpa Ted’s family (moneyed, clubbable, and timid).

I believed, then, that my family was not my fate. I believed my character had been formed by charged moments and impressions — the drift of snow, the peal of church bells, the torrent of light cascading through the elms out front into our sunporch. Though my parents gave me love and learning and all the comforts, I believed I could go it alone. My grandparents were distant constellations, and as they wheeled across the sky I felt unshadowed by their marriages, their affairs, their remarriages, or their quarrels. On the question of how to pronounce “tomato,” for instance, the family was split. On my father’s side, the Friends and Holtons unselfconsciously said “tomayto.” On my mother’s, the Robinsons were staunchly in the Anglophile “tomahto” camp, while the Piersons, on the even more superior view that “tomahto” was pretentious, were ardently pro-“tomayto.” At the family beach house on Long Island, my great-uncle Wilson Pierson would rebuke my mother, a Robinson in such matters, if she asked for a “tomahto.” “Would you like some potahtoes with that?” he’d say.

Chapter 1 excerpt from CHEERFUL MONEY: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor by Tad Friend (Little, Brown and Company, hardcover, also available in e-book; pub date:  9/21/09).

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Cheerful Money

Cheerful Money

By Tad Friend
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316003179

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