Gin without the Tonic

Article excerpt

Byline: Susan Cheever

Go on, act like Gatsby this summer. But real aristocrats had a code.

Summering used to go with trust funds and prepping at St. Paul's and double-barreled names that ended in Roman numerals. These days summer at the beach has become an American right that we hold to be self-evident. We are an intensely WASPirational society. Things that were once associated with the Protestant establishment--vacations; golf and tennis and fly-fishing; boats; schools like Andover, Harvard, and Yale; Lilly Pulitzer shifts and flood pants from L.L.Bean--are now what almost everyone seems to want. We have internalized the Preppy Handbook and devour novels that describe the beaching rich. The 1 percent behave outwardly more like the headmaster of Groton than like their own grandparents.

But Peter Pan collars, leaky catboats, boating moccasins, and trust funds are not the secret to becoming an elite. The ideas and convictions that went with all that stuff--the Breton red slacks, the clambakes, the plummy accents, the tennis prowess--have somehow been lost in the traffic on the Long Island Expressway. These days, money is wasted on the rich.

American aristocrats were raised to ski hard and tie a mean Royal Coachman, but they were also often raised in a tradition of service--noblesse oblige it was called--that led them to give away lots of their money and to behave in ways that helped those who had less. John D. Rockefeller famously spent more time at the end of his life giving away money than earning it. It wasn't because he was so rich. At the beginning of his life, he gave away 10 percent of the $200 a year he earned as an Ohio bookkeeper's assistant. …