NEW YORK — “The older you get, the more you find there isn’t anything new,” intones Louis Auchincloss, who is comfortably ensconced in an armchair in the Park Avenue apartment he has occupied since 1955.
But the novelist has found enough — old or new — to fill the 60-odd leather-bound volumes that sit on the bookshelf behind him. Next month will see the publication of one more, the short story collection, “The Young Apollo” (Houghton Mifflin). The prolific 89-year-old says he publishes at the rate of one book a year and has another book of short stories planned for the fall. Not one to rest on his laurels, he’s also currently working on a novella.
“The Young Apollo,” like Auchincloss’ other works, concerns stories of that rarified class of New York society of which his own family is a prominent member. Not that his position has given the gentleman author any grand illusions about the way the world works. “It’s very much a society of wealth,” he says. “New York society, as it still existed in the Thirties, has long since ceased to exist. Yes, all those people are still there — all the people who were rich when I was a child are still rich — but they have been joined by masses of others. They still have a lot of money and still have a lot of clout, but they don’t have the monopoly they had.”
As familiar readers know, for years Auchincloss has turned his keen eye on exactly this struggle: the relevance of a class whose place is no longer assured.
“When I was a boy, anybody could tell you the difference between a Vanderbilt and a Van Rensselaer. A Van Rensselaer was very ‘bien,’ a Vanderbilt was very rich,” he explains, by way of example. “No young people now know the difference between two names beginning with Van and vaguely associated with New York society money. But a Van Rensselaer in the Thirties would have turned up his nose at a Vanderbilt.”
As for today’s obsession with so-called society à la Paris Hilton, Auchincloss is nonplussed — particularly because he has no idea who she is. But, he points out, “Prior to the movies, prior to radio, the so-called society paper was full of the new rich, or the old rich — it didn’t matter as long as they were rich. People absolutely ate it up. In England, you could buy postcards of the famous society beauties. What you have today is a kind of fraction of what it was.”
This story first appeared in the March 30, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
After all, social-climbing, he points out, isn’t very difficult. “If you have money and anything like decent manners, you can pretty well get anywhere you want,” he says. “Unless you are a terrible hick.”
It’s his precise observations of social mores and manners that have garnered Auchincloss comparisons to Henry James, praise at which he scoffs. “Nobody writes like Henry James. Henry James is uncopyable — he’s unique in letters,” he insists.
He will admit to having a similar process to James, however. “If you read ‘The Notebooks of Henry James,’ you’ve got as close to the process as I think you can get. A particular episode or even a phrase comes into your head and you know ‘That’s mine. I can do something with that.’ It has to come from within.”
And while he has plenty of fans, his own family did not necessarily number among them. “My mother didn’t think that I was any good,” he remembers. “She said, ‘What’s the use of being a second- or third-class writer? You can be a second- or third-class lawyer or dentist or doctor, but in the arts, it’s first-class or nothing.’ She didn’t think I was first-class at all. In the later years, she came around and granted me some talent. But not terribly much,” he says, chuckling at the memory.
Nor is he particularly concerned with thoughts that the novel of manners is a dying art: “Forms go out, but the subjects never do. There aren’t that many subjects,” he insists. “Anything can come back if the quality is right. It’s entirely in the quality.”