Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., Old Money Dissector, Dies at 86

Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., an author and magazine editor who relentlessly scrutinized his fellow heirs to the American aristocracy, primarily in “Old Money: The Mythology of Wealth in America,” which one reviewer called “a book of ‘Self-Help for Those Who Have Too Much,’ died Tuesday at his home in North Stonington, southeast Connecticut. He was 86.

The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, her daughter Liberty Aldrich said.

Mr. Aldrich also edited “George, Being George” (2008), an oral history which adored George Plimpton, a fellow patrician and literary journalist, and he wrote “Tommy Hitchcock: An American Hero” (1985), a biography of the famous polo player.

Mr. Aldrich “was motivated by the need to understand, discover and explain to others the class into which he was born; being a writer gave him the opportunity to do that,” Ms. Aldrich said in an email.

He did this most visibly and self-reflectively in “Old Money” (1988) and in a January 1979 cover story for The Atlantic magazine titled “Preppies: The Last Upper Class?”

While the article parodied prep school students, it also described a “preppie ideal” as “a collective desire; with regard to money, it is an aspiration to triumph – of class over income, of grace over works, of being over doing.

“Grace is less a gift than a standard,” Mr. Aldrich wrote, “something to measure, a performance.”

He continues: “The pleasure of the thing comes from the knowledge that everything is artificial, that the effect of ease requires a lot of effort, that negligence requires attention, that indifference requires concentration, that simplicity and naturalness require affectation. Preppiedom’s sweetest “in” joke is the anxiety everyone feels about being carefree.

Reviewing the book in the Los Angeles Times, author Adam Hochschild wrote, “Aldrich’s voice is that of someone in a comfortable leather chair, telling a story during a long evening around cognac and cigars in an elegant club in New York or Boston — a men’s club. club, definitely. He called the book “as thoughtful a psychological portrait of the American aristocracy as we have it”.

In The New York Times Book Review, it was Jane O’Reilly who called “Old Money” a “self-help book for those who have too much”, adding that wealthy people would be delighted “to discover that someone one, one of their own, defined both the essence and the existential dilemma of being Old Money.

Mr. Aldrich wrote insightfully about the downsides of too much freedom, as evidenced by the laments of a member of a self-help group for recipients of inherited fortunes called the Dough Nuts, who complained: “Sometimes , I feel like everything I’ve done in my life has been a hobby.

Credit…The New York Times

Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich Jr. was born on April 11, 1935 in Boston. His father was an architect and president of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. His mother was Eleanor (Tweed) Aldrich.

“I was entitled to an IV rather than a Jr.,” Mr. Aldrich wrote in “Old Money,” but “I was sure the Roman numerals were pretentious.”

He dedicated the book, among others, to his great-grandfather Nelson W. Aldrich who, after 30 years in politics – he was a Republican United States Senator from Rhode Island – turned a modest profit from his business into wholesale groceries into a $12 million fortune thanks to sound investment advice and favors from friendly robber barons.

Senator Aldrich, who was said to have become a millionaire by protecting the legislation from these robber barons, was considered the father of direct federal income tax and the Federal Reserve system. His daughter Abigail married John D. Rockefeller Jr., the Standard Oil founder’s only son. Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, the former governor of New York and former vice president, was a cousin.

After attending the exclusive St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire and earning a degree in American History and Literature from Harvard in 1957, Nelson Jr. held a series of jobs: a reporter for the Boston Globe, a teacher at a New York Public School, Paris editor of The Paris Review, editor of Harper’s Magazine and editor of Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress.

He has also taught at Long Island University and City College of the City University of New York.

Besides his daughter Liberty, from his marriage to Anna Lou Humes, which ended in divorce, Mr. Aldrich is survived by Mrs. Humes’ daughter, Alexandra, whom he adopted; his wife, Denise (Lovatt) Aldrich; their daughter, Arabella; a son, Alexander Goldsmith, from his relationship with a partner, Gillian Pretty Goldsmith; four stepchildren, Alison Humes, Mavis Humes Baird, Immy Humes and Tom Martin; and five grandchildren.

For all his parodies of upper-class inhabitants, Mr. Aldrich was not above being ridiculed himself. As His Crowd mourned the disappearance of Elaine’s restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 2011 – another class sanctuary – poet Frederick Seidel, one of Mr. Aldrich’s former classmates at Harvard, wrote:

Aldrich once protested to Elaine that his bill for the night was too high.
She showed him that her bill was seventeen scotches and he started crying.
(Or was it eighteen?)
We were the scene.
Now the floor has been swept.

About Bradley J. Bridges

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