America's Class System; My Pal Al Sharpton

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:50

    A Class System

    I recently came across a publication I assumed at first was a parody. Called British Living & Style, it purports to be a glossy magazine aimed at rich American Anglophiles. It describes a world that is completely unrecognizable to anyone who has lived in Britain in the past 50 years. An article headlined "Still Taking a Bow," for instance, chronicles the resurgence of English debutantes, while another ("Minding Their Manors") is about the discreet charm of English country homes. The editors of the magazine don't appear to be aware that six percent of the population of the United Kingdom is black or that the current government is on the verge of banning foxhunting or that the future of the Royal Family is hanging by a thread. As a portrait of contemporary Britain, British Living & Style is about as accurate as the novels of P.G. Wodehouse.

    However, far from being a parody, British Living & Style is a serious commercial proposition from Forbes Special Interest Publications. The debut issue, which was sent to the richest 50,000 Forbes subscribers, is thick with advertising. Bentley Motor Cars, Burberrys, Holland & Holland, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Cunard, Heritage Hotels and the British Tourist Authority all paid good money to appear in its pages. Clearly, there's a market for this kind of twaddle.

    Despite living in New York for four and a half years, I've yet to understand this country's attitude toward class. America prides itself on being a classless society in which any man, no matter how humble his origins, can become president. Yet the two leading presidential candidates are both scions of powerful political dynasties. You decry hereditary privilege, but you insist on adding Roman numerals after the names of your sons, as if you were breeding a race of kings. You condemn Britain for being a class-based society, ridiculing us for our obsession with good manners, and yet you devour magazines like British Living & Style, hoping for some guidance on how to behave in polite society.

    America's attitude toward class is a little like Diane Chambers' relationship with Sam Malone in Cheers: you've rejected it for embodying the worst aspects of the society you've left behind, but you're completely mesmerized by it. You're aware that it's morally reprehensible but?possibly because you know it's so bad for you?you find it irresistibly sexy. In Cheers it was Diane who represented the status-obsessed Old World and Sam who embodied raw, American virility. In reality, however, it's the unpolished citizens of the New World who are spellbound by the class systems of Europe. In spite of your egalitarian principles, you secretly want to live in a society in which everybody knows your rank.

    I'm not suggesting that America is as classbound as Britain. Many Brits unfairly assume that because American society is as hierarchical as theirs, it can't claim to be classless. The standard reply to this is that, while America is divided into different classes, those classes are accessible to all. Unlike in Britain, where the class you're born into dictates your life chances, in this country everyone starts off with an equal chance. American society may be divided into different classes, but that doesn't mean America is hamstrung by a class system.

    Now, I don't want to get into the pros and cons of this argument here, since I'm not claiming America doesn't enjoy genuine equality of opportunity. It doesn't, but that's a separate article. Rather, my point is that America's espousal of classlessness is in some sense contradicted by its fascination with class. In public you proclaim your love of equality, but in private you hanker after all the trappings of a class-based society. In the abstract you regard all men as equal, yet in reality you spend all your life struggling to assert your superiority over your fellow man.

    One of the most striking things about America's class consciousness, from the point of view of an outsider, is how unacknowledged it is. For instance, take the excesses of the recently incarcerated Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs. When Puff Daddy parades down 5th Ave. in his Bentley his success is celebrated as an example of just how egalitarian American society is. As a black rap artist who's transformed himself into a fabulously rich entertainment mogul, Puffy is the embodiment of the American dream.

    Yet in another, unacknowledged sense, Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs embodies America's obsession with class. The fact that he's become so successful may testify to America's egalitarianism, but the form his success takes testifies to just how skin-deep this principle is. Why did he buy a Bentley?the very same car advertised in British Living & Style?rather than a Cadillac? Two summers ago, as he held court in the VIP enclosure at Bridgehampton Polo, Puff Daddy appeared to symbolize America's snobbery, rather than its love of equality. The kind of success Puffy enjoys may be open to all Americans, but once they become successful they then impersonate the privileged members of a patrician class. Britain was once famously described as a nation of shopkeepers. However, it is Americans, with their hankering for status and respectability, who are the true petite bourgeoisie. Puff Daddy may have been raised in a ghetto and travel with gangster friends, but in his heart he has the aspirations of a British shopkeeper.


    Jim Holt The Tired Hedonist My Pal Al

    Having received 107 letters and nearly twice that many e-mails from readers questioning my praise of Al Sharpton's sagacity in last week's column, I feel some obligation to explain my esteem for this man. As one might have guessed, it is grounded in a warm personal friendship.

    The Rev. Sharpton and I first met quite by chance some years ago while having our hair done in the same beauty salon in Brooklyn. As it happened, I had already written a laudatory article in a local tabloid about his leadership ("This demagogic fathead must be stopped. And stopped quickly"), so we instantly became pals. Our friendship deepened when we discovered a shared interest in the journals of the Goncourt brothers and in the art of song. Many an evening we have accompanied each other on the lute and viola, singing together "Love's Old Sweet Song," "Wait Till the Sun Shines," "Nellie" and other golden oldies?he in his light tenor, I in my pleasing baritone. The Rev. Sharpton is both a wit and a cause of wit in others; I remember with fondness how his ample chest would heave with laughter as he recalled his many public jests at the expense of dim-witted politicians like Cuomo and Koch. Let me suggest to skeptical readers of this column that if they knew the Rev. Sharpton the way I am privileged to, as a chum and quaffing partner, they would doubtless hold a similarly high opinion of this doughty champion of so many a just cause.

    Now that I have got that off my diaphragm, I should like to turn to a subject of far greater importance: writing paper?or "stationery," as it is called by non-U types. With Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa having only recently passed, we have entered the dreaded thank-you-note season. Each time you send off a note of gratitude, you are exposing a little bit of your social pedigree. Are you equipped with a proper "wardrobe" of writing paper, or are you making do with a daisy-bordered pad that you found in your desk drawer?

    The universe of writing paper might seem bewilderingly complicated at first, Old Money's last line of defense against the arriviste. Surveying the vast array of writing-paper options for the discharge of essential social duties?to thank, to console, to accept and decline?can be a bit like sitting down to a formal dinner with nine pieces of unfamiliar silverware and the Queen Mother across the table. Should you opt for the "letter sheet," the "monarch sheet" or the "correspondence card"? Should your writing paper be bordered? Of what should it be made? Should your envelopes be tissue-lined? The question of color is less daunting: white or ecru is clearly the thing for formal use, and women can get away with pale blue and gray; pink is on the fringe of acceptability, and green is taboo.

    The most vexing question of all is how to personalize your writing paper. Should it be printed with your name only, your address, or both? What about monograms? Or a vignette rendering of your house, or perhaps of a beloved pet? What typeface should you use? And by what method should this stuff be printed? Engraving, introduced in the 15th century, is by far the most elegant process, and the most expensive. It involves the cutting of a copper or steel die, which is then used to stamp the inked design onto the paper. The result is a wonderful three-dimensional quality: the back of the paper is indented, and the front is "bruised" slightly and hence shinier around the print. Once your die is engraved, it can be used over and over again (Tiffany keeps more than 10,000 dies for its customers in a warehouse), so subsequent orders will be (modestly) cheaper than your first one.

    It used to be that writing paper was either engraved or it was not printed at all. Then along came thermography, a newfangled process in which the ink is bubbled on with a die. It yields raised printing, but without the indentation or bruise of engraving. Thermography is cheap and ubiquitous, but it is fakery, like wearing a cubic-zirconium ring.

    In earlier times, New York swells knew where to go for their writing-paper needs: the Madison Ave. townhouse of Mrs. John L. Strong, stationer to most of the social register. Though Mrs. Strong died two decades ago, her business carries on at 699 Madison Ave. (and at Barneys across the street). Visiting it, I have seen the most glorious specimens of writing paper: a correspondence card sporting an engraving of a house by the craftsman who designed the plates for the $5 bill; a letter sheet for Bette Davis featuring a 1930 art-moderne monogram in royal blue; a Christmas card with a striking photogravure portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor...

    Wonderful as such extravagances are, they are not necessary for the well-bred correspondent. You don't need writing paper that expresses your personality; the writing itself should do that. You can get by on a stock of single sheets with your address at the top in Old London script?or, if you move around a lot, with your initials or a monogram. The ink should be black or blue. The standard size for a man is the monarch sheet (about 7-by-10 inches); women can use this or the slightly smaller double sheet. Good paper is made of watermarked cotton with a vellum finish. Unless you are a bohemian artist, you want even edges, not ragged. A colored border of, say, royal blue or green is optional, but black-bordered paper should be reserved for letters of condolence. Tissue lining for envelopes is optional, as long as the color matches the border of the paper. A good place to go for writing paper is Dempsey & Carroll (110 E. 57th St.); the salespeople there are prim but friendly, and the prices are not ruinous.

    Now I must use a piece of my own precious writing paper to dash off a note of thanks to Al Sharpton for the lovely holiday fruitcake he anonymously sent me.