October 26, 1987 12:00 PM

by Stephen Birmingham

America’s secret aristocracy, says social historian Stephen (Our Crowd, Real Lace) Birmingham, never talks about the upper class or about any other sort of class. Furthermore, America’s dynasties—the Jays, the Livingstons, the Ingersolls, the Randolphs, the Winthrops, the Gardiners (who were forbidden to play with the Rockefellers because they were the “grandchildren of a gangster”), the Lowells, who speak only to Cabots, and the Cabots, who speak only to God—shun publicity as assiduously as they once shunned parvenus like John Jacob Astor and August Belmont. Too bad things couldn’t have continued in that fashion; the secret aristocracy, at least in Birmingham’s hands, does not make for compelling reading. Maybe people with money are just bores. Maybe Birmingham tries to cover too much territory—in 309 pages he moves from the aristocracy of New York all the way out to San Francisco. Matters are complicated by the fact that America’s upper crust has done such a fine job of keeping itself hidden that one has little frame of reference in reading about the Philadelphia Ingersolls or the Charleston Pinckneys. When there is a frame of reference, for instance, the information that Thomas Jefferson was a member of the Randolph family of Virginia, Birmingham turns it into a banality: “Of course Thomas Jefferson was an extremely complex man…. It was obvious that such a many-faceted personality would be seen by different people in different lights.” The book does have a few bright patches, such as a passage from an etiquette book cautioning ladies that “you will derive no pleasure from making acquaintance with females who are evidently coarse and vulgar, even if you know that they are rich.” Such pleasures, however, are few. Certainly Birmingham is no match for Edith Wharton or Louis Auchincloss in chronicling the life-styles of the rich and media shy. (Little, Brown, $18.95)

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