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A Cheerful Take On 'Wasp Splendor'

TERRY GROSS, host:

Tad Friend is a staff writer for the New Yorker. But by birth, Friend is also the uneasy member of another kind of elite club: he's a purebred WASP. Friend's new memoir, "Cheerful Money," reflects on his WASP heritage. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: F. Scott Fitzgerald was, of course, right. The rich are different from you and me, and not just because, as Hemingway said in his famous slapdown of that remark, they have more money. For me, the difference was clarified many years ago by a cocktail appetizer. I was teaching at a college on Philadelphia's WASPy Main Line and one evening, I was summoned to a cocktail reception for the college's visiting trustees. At least the food and drinks will be good, I thought. I was half right. The top-shelf liquor flowed freely, but the only food I remember was an appetizer consisting of a limp, glistening bacon strip, wrapped around a chestnut and secured with a toothpick. What was this? On the rare occasions that my blue collar family entertained, my mother anxiously served appetizers on celery stalks and saltines topped with American cheese slices. At least they were edible. But the difference was the manner in which these grotesque, bacon chestnut pellets were offered. As though all of us at the reception were above food and other pedestrian bodily necessities. As though, if need be, we could live for decades stoked only by clever remarks and gin fumes.

Like Fitzgerald, Tad Friend finds the ways of the rich, specifically the WASP rich, to be infinitely mysterious and romantic. Friend has a leg up on Fitzgerald, however, because he was born one of them, a purebred son of old money, someone whose birthright gave him entree to elite schools and summers at the family cottages in the Hamptons and Vermont, where in one, the mouseholes in a mattress were stuffed with back issues of Country Life magazine. Fortunately, for literature, if not for Friend personally, the piles of cash and cachet accumulated by his robber baron forefathers have largely evaporated, just as WASPs themselves have waned in power as the ruling class in this country.

Friend's memoir, called "Cheerful Money," is a droll, psychologically astute and sometimes nostalgic look backward at the WASP world that was. Friend does much more here than just crack exquisite, Bertie Wooster-ish jokes at the expense of his bloodlines. He takes readers on an anthropological journey deep into the consciousness of a class. And in so doing, mulls over the question of whether all those motley, ancestral genes have mattered more than he would like to think in shaping his life and identity. At the beginning of his memoir, Tad Friend supplies an extended family tree, full of androgynously named relatives, that allows him to structure his story in chapter-length visits backwards and forwards among members of the clan.

Friend's father, Dorie, served for a time as president of Swarthmore College. Friend describes him as sporting an Easter Island-size head, stuffed with knowledge. His mother, Elizabeth, known as Lib, came in second to Sylvia Plath in a poetry contest at Smith, judged by W.H. Auden. In retelling the story of that near-myth, she would demonstrate the brittle brio for which WASPs are noted, by saying: Just as well I didn't win, head in the oven and so forth. Throughout the memoir, Friend points to himself and his family to bolster the many crisp generalizations he makes about WASPs. For instance, in mulling over his early writing career and the WASP aversion to surrendering oneself completely, Friend says, I felt uncomfortable thinking of myself as a writer or an artist.

Serious art, rife with feeling and conflict, is not encouraged among WASPs. Andrew Wyeth's painting, "Christina's World," is about as near as we care to get to the abyss. But it's the WASP trait that Friend identifies as most defining, that is, his feelings of disconnection from his parents and his subsequent disconnection from the many women he dates, that compel him to spend all his lovely trust fund money in psychotherapy. As befits a WASP to the manner born, Friend tells his personal and familial tale without self-pity. Recognizing that it's his inherited duty to entertain and amuse his audience, even as he's occasionally serving up grisly confessions and nut-hard kernels of emotional truth.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor," by Tad Friend.

Singer Al Martino, who was born in Philadelphia and was a friend of Mario Lanza, died yesterday of a heart attack at the age of 82. His most popular records included "Volare," "Cara Mia," and "Here in My Heart." But to many people, he was best known for playing the part of the Vegas entertainer, Johnny Fontane, in "The Godfather." We'll close with his performance in the film.

I'm Terry Gross.

Mr. AL MARTINO (Actor, Singer): (as Johnny Fontane) (Singing in foreign language) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.