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 self-help book for those who too much,” died Tuesday at his home in Southeast Connecticut’s North Stonington, aged 86.
The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, his daughter Liberty Aldrich said.
Mr. Aldrich was also the editor of “George, Being George” (2008), an oral history that glorified 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 driven by the need to understand, discover and explain to others the classroom in which he was born; being a writer gave him the opportunity to do that,” Ms. Aldrich said in an email.
He did so most prominently and self-reflectively in “Old Money” (1988) and in a January 1979 cover article for The Atlantic magazine with the headline “Preppies: The Last Upper Class?”
While the article parodied prep school students, it also described a “Preppie ideal” as “a collective desire; with respect to money, it is a desire for triumph—of class over income, of grace over works, of being over.”
“Grace is less of a gift than a standard,” wrote Mr. Aldrich, “something to measure by, an achievement.”
He went on: ‘The enjoyment of the thing comes from the knowledge that it is all contrived, that the effect of effortlessness requires great effort, that negligence requires attention, that indifference requires concentration, that simplicity and naturalness require affection. Preppiedom’s best “in” joke is the fear 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 armchair, telling a story over a long evening of brandy and cigars in an elegant New York club or Boston – a men’s club, for sure.” He called the book “an as thoughtful psychological portrait of the American aristocracy as we are.”
In DailyExpertNews 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 of their own, has defined both the essence and the existential dilemma of old money.”
Mr. Aldrich wrote insightfully about the drawbacks of too much freedom, as personified by the lament of a member of a self-help group for beneficiaries of inherited fortunes called the Dough Nuts, who lamented, “Sometimes I feel like all I have what I have done in my life has been a hobby.”
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 instead of a Jr,” Mr. Aldrich wrote in “Old Money,” but “I was convinced Roman numerals were pretentious.”
He dedicated the book to, among others, 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 grocery wholesale business into a $12 fortune. million thanks to good investment advice and favors from friendly robber barons.
Senator Aldrich, rumored to have become a millionaire managing legislation for such 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 only son of the founder of Standard Oil. Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, the former New York governor and former vice president, was a cousin.
After attending the exclusive St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire and graduating from Harvard with a degree in American History and Literature in 1957, Nelson Jr. a range of jobs: reporter for The Boston Globe, public school teacher in New York City, Paris editor of The Paris Review, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Magazine, and editor-in-chief of Civilization, the Library of Congress magazine.
He also taught at Long Island University and the City College of the City University of New York.
In addition to his daughter Liberty, from his marriage to Anna Lou Humes, which ended in divorce, Mr. Aldrich leaves behind 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; and five grandchildren.
For all his parodies of the upper class denizens, Mr. Aldrich was not shy about being castigated himself. As his crowd mourned the 2011 demise of the restaurant Elaine’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side—another class-conscious haven—poet Frederick Seidel, one of Mr. Aldrich’s former Harvard classmates, wrote:
Aldrich once protested to Elaine that his bill for the night was too high.
She showed him that his bill was for seventeen whiskeys and he started to cry.
(Or was it eighteen?)
We were the scene.
Now the floor has been swept.