The Classicist: The History of America's Upper Class
Interestingly enough it took a foreigner - namely super-stylish British historian, author, and journalist Nick Foulkes - to realize that for most people the appeal of society swells is purely decorative. What sets his recently published book - High Society: The History of America's Upper Class - apart from the usual social history is the amazing array of archival photographs. Beginning with the early 17th century, Foulkes focuses on the famous families - the Vanderbilts, Fricks, Morgans, and Astors among them - who came to embody the American aristocracy. He also plots the social trajectory all the way to the present day, and heiresses such as the famed Miller Sisters, aka Pia Getty, Princess Alexandra von Furstenberg and Princess Marie Chantal of Greece, pictured on the book's cover, above.
Of course, you first have to accept Foulkes' premise that America does in fact have a class system, even if the current recession has painfully demonstrated that no one should take their positions for granted while Barack Obama's ascendancy proved that traditional barriers are no longer as formidable. "I am often told that 'American high society' is an oxymoron, either by those who hold the quaint belief that the United States is a classless society in which opportunity is open to all," Foulkes notes, "or by Europeans who believe themselves to be superior and look down pejoratively upon the social aspirations of a country that is younger than many families, social clubs, educational establishments, and even socks in the Old World."
The fact of the matter, however, Foulkes writes, is that "The United States is no longer a young country; it is a middle-aged nation with its own social codes and structures locked into its collective DNA. It has its prominent families, an untitled aristocracy, who exerted such a profound effect on the nation or have just been around for so long that the doings of their descendants are still a source of interest." The second pillar of American society is the plutocracy, "Men who made so much money that they simply floated to the pinnacle of the social structure on a tide of cash, building huge mansions and amassing art collections that remain among the most impressive the world has ever seen."
Gallery: High Society
Foulkes charts society's progress through its beginnings via the Stork Club and Le Cirque right up to Paris Hilton, a dubious member of the species, is chapters titled: "Social Origins: The Evolution of Class"; "The Leisure Class: Theater, Balls and Millionaires"; "Grande Dames and the Gilded Age"; "New Century, New Fortunes"; "Speakeasies, Wrecking Balls and the Park Avenue Apartment"; "A Woman's Place"; "Society's Swans"; "The Sixties: Society Swings"; "The Roaring Eighties"; and "Old Money, New Money". And he also picks up on important nuances, such as the fact that "Sentimental observers of society say that there is a sort of sympathy between the aristocracy and the lower classes, who unite in their contempt for the middle classes with their bourgeois respectability." Pick up a copy of the book for more.