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Big Town
Chapter Twelve


Chapter 12: With a Capital “S”
          In the pagers which record the early history of the city, there will be found the names of the community’s leading millers, traders, small merchants, tavern keepers and farmers, together with a scattering of professional men. A rough and ready crew: most of them uncouth in speech and unencumbered with learning, given freely to strong waters and eating-tobacco, pious of a Sabbath and profane of a week-day, and employing a rather broad code of business ethics.
          Few of these early worthies laid any great stress upon social prominence or aristocratic lineage, being far more concerned with the needs of the present than with the deeds of the past. In fact, some of them employed a certain reticence in speaking of their earlier careers. One such, the founder of one of the larger fortunes and of one of the distinguished families, originally settled in the city to avoid the annoying consequences of bankruptcy proceedings in a neighboring state.
          Yet they were destined progenitors of glory. For as they prospered, either through their vocations or through a shrewd foresight in the matter of property values, they laid, all unwittingly, the foundations for the present resplendent structure of the local aristocracy.
          The current generation of these early families are inclined, for the most part, to take a somewhat different view of the matter of ancestry. Pursuing the popular theory that inherited wealth argues the existence of superior qualities in those who accumulated it, and assisted by the kindly perspective of time, not a few of them have succeeded in building up legends of early family grandeur which would doubtless abash the founders of their dynasties. There hangs, for instance, in the dining room of a most aristocratic home, an oil portrait of a strong-featured great grandfather. His descendants are fond of referring to him as one of the pioneers in the development of the vast network of railroads which today covers the Middle West; and it is quite true that, as a section hand, he was personally responsible for the laying of many miles of track on one of those great arteries of travel and commerce. There are even some of the local elite who lay claim to more or less plausible lineal connections between themselves and the exalted company to be met in Burke’s Peerage. They not infrequently make some display of that most priceless of all democratic possessions, the family crest.
          Others of the ancient noblesse are content to take their social eminence pretty much as they find it, without concerning themselves greatly as to the distinction of their forebears. There are even a few who are frankly refreshed by the contemplation of humble beginnings and the distinctly human iniquities of those to whom they are indebted for their present social security. Occasionally these two points of view are found in a single family. Thus one matron spends extensively of both time and money in tracing out the branches of her family tree, displaying a strong preference for those older limbs which reach across the Atlantic. Her husband, on the other hand, has been known to remark frequently that he regarded as sufficiently distinguished any member of his own family who had succeeded in staying out of jail.
          Today these older families are not alone on the social scene. From time to time newcomers have appeared to assault the citadel. Armed with recently acquired wealth and a sense for social strategy, they have gradually insinuated themselves into the inner circles, their ultimate success being marked by intermarriage with the leading families of the haut monde, and their assimilation following as a matter of course.
          This process has been ever bewailed by the representatives of the older order, most of whom have been disposed to hold firmly against the invaders, preserving the sanctity of the inner circle.
          While this resistance has not been highly successful, it has resulted at least in a wondrously complex pattern of intermarriage between the older families. Consequently in a social gathering of any size, today it is almost impossible to broach a juicy scandal without offending a close relative of some person actively involved in the scandal itself.
          Until the beginning of the present century Society pursued a course of leisurely aggrandizement. Wealth accrued slowly through the manufacture of agricultural implements, paints and varnishes, carriages, sewing machines, bicycles and other mechanical products; through the sale of groceries, dry-goods and coal; through the growth of banks; and through the practice of law and medicine. As this wealth accumulated, it was reflected in the erection of spacious mansions along the tree-shaded lengths of First and Second Streets within a block or so of the center of town. Large square houses of brick or stone, topped by Mansard roofs of slate, they were frequently of depressing ugliness in architecture, though occasionally of considerable charm.
          Their high-ceilinged parlors saw formal afternoon calls, receptions and musicales; heard stilted Victorian gossip; and enfolded the romances and tragedies of generations now passed or swiftly passing. From their doorways rolled handsome carriages, bearing languid ladies in frills and ruffles or in sealskin – carriages drawn by sleekly groomed bays and driven by negro coachmen who were not infrequently butlers and gardeners as well.
          The City Club, located at the head of First Street, was the scene of the annual holiday balls. Stringed orchestras discoursed slow waltzes behind screens of potted palms; and the dowagers appeared, clad in their most elaborate gowns and adorned with the family jewels. Festoons of smilax abounded, and in the lounge off the ballroom, champagne flowed freely throughout the evening.
          Just across the street was the opera house where stars now long dead trod the boards. Here, by inviolable custom, the elect occupied seats on the left of the center aisle; and woe to the suitor who conducted his socially-minded beloved, or to the husband who led his socially-minded wife, to the other side of that aisle and thus into the company of those one simply didn’t know.
          Scandal cropped out with healthy regularity and frequency. Occasionally a substantial citizen departed the city, taking with him the wife of one of his socially prominent neighbors; more often it was rumored that the amorous pair had not felt it necessary to conduct their affair in such an obvious manner. Of the fashionable weddings, a few were said to be of the sort at which, in lower social strata, one of the bride’s male relatives carried a shotgun. Finally, there was nothing particularly furtive about those who were addicted to the wassail bowl. It was not uncommon to see a gentleman of exalted social standing weaving his way down the street at midday in a state of magnificent intoxication.
          With leisure there was a certain simplicity, for wealth was limited. There were a few fortunes of perhaps a quarter of a million; and there was one of between two and three million which made its possessors the objects of almost breathless awe. But changes were imminent – new products to be manufactured and sold in new ways at larger profits; new luxuries to establish new living standards for the wealthy; and, most important of all, the new horseless carriage which was destined to transport the elite to new homes beyond the city’s edge, leaving their former mansions to become dismal lodging houses.
          Wealth was increasing more rapidly during the decade before the World War; but it remained for that happy event to bring the blessings of true opulence to many of the most distinguished families.
          Since manufacturing was the source of income upon which the majority of them depended, it was quite natural that they should profit handsomely through the munitions boom. Harvesting juicy contracts from the frantically distressed Allies, they proceeded to convert their factories to the making of shells and other implements of war. Many of the socially prominent leaders in the munitions crusade also provided their less wealthy relatives and favorite satellites with sub-contracts which were in themselves highly fruitful.
          Generosity of this sort, however, was not always permanently beneficial, as some of the beneficiaries had been schooled more thoroughly in the spending of money than in the keeping of it. One family of distinguished social standing of even more distinguished penury, was permitted to embrace a war bride, which is said to have netted the family one hundred and fifty thousand dollars within the space of a year or two. Apparently entertaining no suspicion as to the difference between capital and income, they embarked immediately upon a meteoric career of splendid expenditure, arriving but a short time after the coincident termination of the war and their subcontract at precisely the same impecunious estate from they had so recently emerged. For the most part, however, the town’s elite prospered as never before.
          This state of affairs may account for the fact that early in 1915 all traces of neutrality were expunged from the Society mind. The divine right of the Allied cause became the only tenable theory for anyone who made the slightest pretence to social prominence; and the expression of any doubt on that score became sufficient reason for ostracism.
          Patriotism became a fashionable emotion in April, 1917, and most of the city’s gilded youth donned the olive-drab. In a few cases, however, the heroic devotion to the Allied cause, which had been so socially popular ever since the launching of the munitions boom, did not lead those young gentlemen, who strongly professed it, as far as the front-line trenches. It was necessary for a few scions of wealth, who were of military age, to remain at home and help with the stupendous task of raking in the profits; and this practice was, for a time, a source of rather bitter recrimination between families of prominence.
          Fortunes were made in months, or even weeks. Twin-Six Packards began to emerge from garages which had formerly harbored Buicks. Matrons who had once contented themselves with a few days of autumn shopping in New York were reported in the local society columns as having taken a suite at the Ritz for the month of October and as entertaining lavishly in the distinguished atmosphere provided by that hostelry. Debut balls at the Country Club took on a new magnificence. And in more than one home which had previously been staffed by one or two colored servants, additional maids, chauffeurs, and even properly dignified butlers appeared.
          At the end of the war, smart Society having done its bit toward making the world safe for democracy, turned its attention to the needs of aristocracy.
          Others than the socially prominent had been rising to opulence during the era of hostilities, and many of these were seeking admission to the once sacred precincts of the Country Club. Since golf was becoming increasingly popular, and the financial demands of the greens committee correspondingly larger, the board of directors was displaying an increasing tendency to admit new members who could well afford to pay increased dues, even if they were not listed in the social register. In view of this deployable leniency, the more elevated of the elect withdrew and organized the new Hunt and Polo Club. It was located much farther from town than the Country Club and so limited its membership as to establish new and very clear distinctions between the peerage and that much larger group which included the newcomers of the previous decade or so. In addition to whatever satisfaction the elect may have felt in the social distinction of membership, the new club also provided them with an opportunity to relax quite informally, and occasionally with considerable abandon, in the discreet company of their more intimate friends.
          In 1920 a chapter of the Junior League was formed. Its announced purpose was the rendering of a wide variety of community service, which took the form in the early days of providing a visiting housekeeper whose duty was to instruct prolific washladies in the niceties of household management. As a means toward effecting such services, the League established membership qualifications of the most austere social rigidity. Apparently it was felt that the maintenance of these exalted standards would assure to the League’s welfare work the splendid asset of noblesse oblige; though there was some difference of opinion, particularly among professional welfare workers, as to the exact value of that asset. In the last few years, however, the League has been inclined to relax a little in the matter of social qualifications for membership; and while this is said to have been the source of some dismay to various of the older members, it seems to have brought into the League not a few young women to whom the privilege of participating in social service is an opportunity rather than an accolade – as a result of which the activities of the League are today characterized by increased range and effect. Not that social qualifications have been thrown overboard; it is still generally agreed that the serene social assurance which the League confers upon of its members is something for which the socially ambitious maid or matron would cheerfully exchange her immortal soul.       
          In general, the war-won prosperity of Society has continued and even increased during the past ten years. Beginning in 1926, the rising tide of Wall Street enabled more than one socially prominent family to greatly increase its already large fortune, though the lamentable events of the autumn of 1929 seriously depleted a number of exchequers and even caused obvious retrenchments in the living standards of a few homes.
          With increasing wealth have come new and palatial homes for many of the families comprising the local nobility. Throughout the wooded rolling hills which lie to the south of the city there have appeared large rambling structures designed, for the most part, by architects whose reputations have been gained in the effete east. In some cases the owner’s appetite for size has caused a home modeled on a French or English cottage original to be enlarged to a size which produces an effect of weird and distressing distortion. Usually, however, the architect is better able to avoid such unhappy results in the exterior treatments than in the interior, where the owners often display a catholic enthusiasm for the styles and periods of several different countries, thus combining Spanish hallways, French drawing rooms, and English libraries.
          Tapestries, rugs and furniture are often imported from far lands at quite astonishing expense; and some of them are genuine antiques. Portraits, usually of someone else’s ancestors, and other objects of art, are frequently best enjoyed when subjected to rather casual scrutiny. Occasionally the decorators, having been given carte blanche by matrons who did not know exactly what they wanted but knew that they wanted a lot of it, have produced effects which suggest showrooms rather than living rooms; though the results usually been quite as satisfactory to the customers as to the decorators.
          It is customary to mark the completion of one of these new estates with a housewarming. Plans are made weeks in advance, and invitations are positive marks of social distinction. A famous and very expensive orchestra, composed largely of saxophones, is imported from afar. Also imported are some of the guests, the food, and as much liquor as the host thinks can be consumed between mid-evening and dawn. A carnival atmosphere permeates the affair from the start, becoming distinctly bacchanalian as the evening wears on. As dawn tints the morning of another day, sausages, eggs and coffee are served – a repast which is thoroughly enjoyed by all present, with the exception of those more bibulous guests who are by that hour sleeping peacefully on the more comfortable pieces of furniture or under the shrubbery on the terrace.
          Some of the leading matrons of Society participate, either actively or through the efforts of their aspiring satellites, in a considerable variety of activities other than entertaining and being entertained. Usually they are strongly disposed to play the lion’s part in whatever undertaking they espouse; and occasionally this marked preference for the leading role produces what appears to an outsider as a vacillation or even reversal of interest. Some years ago, one of the more distinguished social leaders was at first numbered among the strongest adherents of a community movement of considerable importance. She displayed a most commendable devotion to this cause, together with a robust desire to direct it toward a successful culmination. Unfortunately, however, another matron was elevated to the permanent leadership of the movement, whereupon she organized and headed another group which opposed the undertaking with no small measure of skill and address.
          As a general rule, however, the ladies and their gentlemen participate almost exclusively in those diversions and entertainments which are everywhere recognized as the prime interests of smart Society. These activities, varying with the seasons, achieve a hectic fortissimo during the Christmas holidays, when debutantes emerge almost nightly from their alleged social seclusion, and when the Bachelor’s Ball explodes at the Country Club. Then, and during the rest of the year, except for less formal evening affairs, the ladies are given to appearing in as much Paris or near Paris finery as their husbands can afford. Among the gentlemen, however, it is generally held that the sack suit meets most costume requirements, and that the dinner coat is amply formal as well as festive, and that the tail coat and the top hat, except for the most formal affairs of the Christmas season, indicate a leaning toward effeminate affectation.
The most popular of Society’s indoor sports unquestionably is drinking. To this sport the elect bring a magnificent amateur enthusiasm and a degree of devotion which have quite clearly been increased rather decreased by the Volstead regime. But gambling is also popular. At the moment backgammon is the dernier cri, and no one really smart touches a card except at contract; just as, a few years since, no one really smart played anything but mah jong. Occasionally, however, there are brief epidemics of red dog. And with fair frequency the nobility may even be seen dallying with the wrist cubes.
          Outdoor sports are largely those which suggest some measure of exclusiveness. Golf, which formerly engaged many of the socially prominent, seems to have lost much of its popularity with them, while it has been increasing in popularity with the proletariat. Tennis, on the other hand, it played extensively, though generally on private rather than club courts. Many of the finer homes have their own swimming pools. And a few of them have squash-racquet courts on which, in recent years, the bucks have been wont to perspire at once freely and fashionably. Eight or ten of the wealthier gentlemen play polo – noisily, at great expense, and not without winning some fame for the city in Middle-Western polo circles. Occasionally, too, the Hunt and Polo Club holds a drag hunt; though riding to hounds seems to be so little bred in the bone of most of the aristocracy that the hunt breakfasts with which these affairs are terminated are usually more successful than the hunts themselves.
          What time they are not adding luster to the local scene, many of the elite indulge in travel. Florida receives many of them in the winter, though at Miami rather than at Palm Beach. A few appear at Nice, Monte Carlo and Biarritz during the season, stopping en route at the Ritz in Paris. In the summer they scatter to resorts in the Adirondacks, Michigan, Canada, to the more comfortably appointed dude ranches in the once wild and woolly west, and to various European watering places. The high point of such social pilgrimages has been reached on those sublime and breathless occasions when debutantes have been resented at the Court of Saint James’s.
Polite interest in travel is largely restricted to these paths and resorts of fashion. A lady who had paid an extensive and highly observant trip to Soviet Russia was, upon one occasion, a guest at a most select dinner. During the evening she was asked to tell something of her voyage, and was so ill advised as to take the request seriously. Somewhat to her dismay, though to the obvious relief of the rest of the company, another guest stepped into the breach with an enthralling account of the titled personages and distinguished events which had enlivened the last session on the French Riviera.
          A safe and simple conservatism is employed in determining the educational careers of each younger generation of Society. Daughters of the elect are sent to the more exclusive finishing schools in the east or abroad. And in the case of male heirs it is universally felt that the proper preparation for life’s battles is to be found only at one of the three or four more prominent eastern universities. If there is  a choice in the matter, it may be said to favor the suave sophistication of Yale, at which seat of learning a few of the lads have so distinguished themselves as to win the ineffable and hushed glory of Skull and Bones.
          With a few notable exceptions, association with either large or small groups of Society is not to be regarded as intellectually onerous. Rarely if ever does the conversation of most of them stray beyond such safe and familiar limits as the last hand at contract, the goings-on at the most recent housewarming, the fortunes of market speculation, or the virtues of the new Cadillac. With such matters as science, religion, ethics, esthetics and literature the great majority are concerned scarcely at all. In fact, the whole world of ideas is a domain into which one may venture only at the risk of embarrassing one’s companions – a hazard which in many cases quite closely approaches certainty.
          Season after season, and year after year, the city’s world of fashion spins gayly upon its way. Dinners, dances, luncheons and teas follow each other with pleasing frequency. There are always new clothes, new homes and new motors, if not new ideas or new purposes. There are the old virtues and old vices ever new. There is the easy certainty of being ever well housed, well fed, well groomed and well amused. Finally, these favorites of fortune enjoy the serene confidence arising from a realization that their order is most surely civilization’s finest flower.

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