Friday, August 11, 2006

High Society

No, not the film...no, not the porn mag.

I was in the library when I stumbled upon The Social Register (TSR) summer edition. I had a hunch the selection committee* may have been less than impressed with my status as one of America's preeminent lunchbox collectors. But, on the off-chance they were able to peer into my deeper, spiritual qualities, I decided to thumb through it in a (futile) search for self. This left me to muse what it would take to be among the listed, since all the coolness on permanent display in this blog and ovah at Dandyism.net is clearly insufficient, and having had ancestors in the hemisphere since 1565 and a baronet are as nothing.

Snubbing one's betters seems to me to be an enterprise fraught with cheek, so I decided to delve.

While the whole getting-in process is gilded with a glittering lack of specifics, it is a very safe wager this is one of those invitation-only things. As near as I can figure, it would seem anyone eager to get listed therein must be sponsored (and seconded and all that) by four to five people already listed therein. If time is of the essence you may, of course, marry a listee. This seems to work for far better for women marrying a listee; men who marry a listee usually see their listee metamorphose into a former listee. Why the Y chromosome is a more reliable indicator of NOKDness is something that has yet to be clarified, but we must accept it as some fact of science. Regardless of your marriage(s), you are not guaranteed squat, listing-wise. Pretty much the only guarantee of list-worthiness is winning a Presidential election. It used to be that Presidents used to--coincidentally and conveniently--be among the listed even before getting elected dogcatcher, but that changed with Harry Truman. I may be said without the slightest fear of contradiction that President Truman, on his own merits, was not really the sort of man one readily associates with TSR. Afterwards, all Presidents get themselves listed.

If you're obnoxious and impertinent as I am, you'd notice there are aspects of the Social Register which seem riddled with special sort of irony. Ponder, for example, this little factoid: There are about 25,000 families in the Republic who delight themselves on (among other things) TSR's exclusivity BUT somehow freely consent to have their addresses and phone numbers in a book available in every public library from Salmon Dick, Alaska to Palm Teat, Florida and all points in between.

Still, we live in a time of posers and arrivistes and the Social Register method, while flawed, provides something of an acid-test for separating uncouth, lottery-winnin' yokels from people of breeding and standing. The doubtlessly stringent (and almost certainly Byzantine) screening process leaves the reader confident those allowed to grace the Social Register pages aren't just wealthy, they're OKD. There isn't much carved in marble about these people except they are ostensibly tasteful, probably affluent and presumably discreet. Any other desirable (charity, kindness) or deplorable (rancor, vapidity) attribute beyond these may readily find refuge among the listees, seemingly at random.

As you will certainly not be surprised to note, The Social Register derives enormous delight in not answering to (or even just answering) anyone. This much we know to be true:

It started in 1887 in New York City**
There were separate editions for major metropolitan areas (sometimes whole regions).
In 1977 the whole shootin' match was squished into one national book. Two editions are each year (the winter one rolls out in November, the summer edition in May)
Past that, you must don a deerstalker cap and grab a magnifying glass. Oh, and drag Dr. Watson along, also, because it gets pretty complicated. The listings seem to have been composed on a diesel powered typewriter which last saw service during the Coolidge years.

Let's go to the 2000 edition and look up the entry for Thurston Zachary Howell III (names changed to protect the innocent and all that), which yields the following gems: "Bbc.Prs.Jib.CtB.Dvg.Lyf.Qt.Ww." At first you think the information was gleaned in conversation with a man talking with his mouth full. However, further investigation (i.e. at the front of the book) is repaid with the knowledge that "Bbc" is Boston's Banker's Club, "Prs" is the Prescott Reading Society, and "Jib" is one of two things:

1- An egregious misspelling (possibly a typo) or
2- A club so exclusive -- some clubs are so exclusive, they have no members -- that to ask about them serves as further evidence (as if any were needed) the reader belongs anywhere but there
Mr. Howell is absent from the 2001 (and all subsequent volumes) book. One can readily speculate, but my assumption is he is Stf.Asa.Fing.Brd.

Like any other self-respecting phonebook, this one has listings beyond the main one, including such sections as Births, Deaths, & Marriages. (The only times a private citizen, if he is to be truly well-evolved, ought appear in print.) My favorite section is called "Dilatory Domiciles." I love it partly because in a momentary twinge of dyslexia I misread it as "Depilatory Domiciles" which I understood to be houses where the Better Element goes for a full Brazilian.***

According to Dictionary.com, Dilatory means "1- Intended to delay. 2- Tending to postpone or delay," which is perfectly useless for the purposes of deciphering the riddle contained in TSR. The idea is to convey "seasonal homes" without actually using such a vulgar term. It is noteworthy most of thse Dilatory Domiciles have names. Nothing as evocative as "Tara" or "Monticello" but not anything to be ashamed of, with names such as "The Oaks" or "Walnut Crest." Still, even with misreading, this section has not as gleeful a title as the "Married Maidens" one. After you make up your own puerile jokes, you realize it's a concordance of women's married and maiden names.

This summer's edition, features listings of Yachts (and owners) "for the convenience of subscribers." Because, y'know, it'd be damned inconvenient to go around wondering how broad abeam is Mr. Jonas S. Grumby's "Minnow" (home port, Marblehead, MA) to say nothing of how many tons it displaces. "Ahoy Polloi!"

I got home, filled with naive curiosity and began to peruse the web. In delving into the details of the matter, it will be an underwhelming shock to realize TSR is pretty Northeast-heavy and (naturally) a haven for old money. The New England and Mid-Atlantic sections of the Eastern seaboard providing about 65% of the listees. Hell, 30% of the listees are located in New York (4,362) and Pennsylvania (3,138) alone. New money is clearly (and almost thoroughly) shunned. California has far fewer than Massachusetts, despite having six times the number of people. Florida doesn't fare too badly, leading the non-Northeast contingent, on the strength of sufficient numbers of people deciding, in their senescence, they were good and sick of both winter and taxes. The least represented state is North Dakota with a whopping ONE entry, denoting what simply must be, unarguably, the glittering social vortex of Bismarck.

As you would expect of such a delightfully archaic thing as TSR, the web offers precious little meaningful suggestions for getting thereinto. However, my ::cough, cough:: research clearly indicates that it's supremely easy to get kicked out. Just as easily as a you got in by virtue of some distant marriage into a Mayflower**** family you can get chucked because you married someone on whom one of the less savory characters on The Sopranos was based. Check this out: In 1984 there were 38,000 listings in TSR, but by 2004 the powers that be had effected a purgative cleansing to the tune of about 13,000 and had therefore trimmed the roster down to +/- 25,000. One can only imagine the disgrace of being excised from the listings, and the subsequent need to move, to start over, to flee the shame of it all.*****

-J.

* I'm guessing this is an anonymous bunch, and rather star-chamberish at that.

** Apparently arrivistes were a threat even then.

*** The irony being that there are damned few Brazilians in this book, AFAICT

**** Quite lenient to allow boat people. I sense a progressive spirit moving, weaving through TSR.

***** In fact, one can imagine the long lines of Volvo and MB station wagons, winding their way south out of Darien, CT and Wellesley, MA and King of Prussia, PA like a sad, preppy Grapes of Wrath.

1 Comments:

Blogger Poppy Buxom said...

I love the Social Register. Whenever I see a copy, I grab it and start snooping. (Although you can't really call it snooping when the facts therein are a matter of public record by virtue of being the facts therein.)

I can add this tidbit to the discussion. A woman can stay in it even after she marries an oik. I know this because that's how my father got in. He rode in on my stepmother's coat tails.

7:16 PM  

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