The Death Of WASP Culture
NEAL CONAN, host:
On his blog at vanityfair.com, Jaime Johnson reported that at least some of America's super rich welcome economic troubled times, because difficulties will winnow out many of the arriviste billionaires who reduced the possession of Bentleys and yachts to the commonplace. Johnson knows whereof he speaks. He's one of the heirs to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, and started to chronicle the culture of old-money WASPs in the film, "Born Rich."
For the past few months, he's been blogging about the lives of the top one percent, and focuses on the old-guard establishment. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, he says, are still obsessed with exclusivity and creating distinctions to support a sense of superiority. Yet, it's a culture that, he argues, is on a decline. If you'd like to talk with Jaime Johnson about old and new money and WASP culture, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Jaime Johnson joins us from NPR's bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. JAIME JOHNSON (Filmmaker, "Born Rich;" Contributor, vanityfair.com): Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask you about a conversation you overheard at an intimate little bar in the West Village of Manhattan, you wrote about in an article called "The Unbearable Dullness of Luxury Goods," overhearing a conversation between two multibillionaires.
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, well, I was discussing in general that spending habits of vastly wealthy people in the recession, and essentially saying that, as far as I've observed, the many of them aren't really concerned about the recession at all, and their spending habits haven't changed much. Within that discussion, I mentioned two individuals who represent a small group of people who have now become frustrated because they feel that luxury goods are too accessible to too many people, because there're too many vastly wealthy people at the top of the economic ladder. So, they feel, as you said before, that Bentleys have become common place, and they look forward to a time when their private yachts and jets and things like that will mean something again.
CONAN: They were talking about they're flying to London the next morning. One of them asks the other, are you taking the BBJ?
Mr. JOHNSON: The BBJ, yes, which refers to Boeing Business Jet, which is the most expensive private jet you can buy.
CONAN: It's like a 757, fitted out as - well, it's got a theater in it, and probably a spa, too.
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. I believe they make them to any - customize them to fit any specific request.
CONAN: But they were being sarcastic about this, because only, clearly, at this point, in these particular economic times, one of these newly-arrived billionaires would stoop to such a gross show of wealth.
Mr. JOHNSON: Yes, in their minds, that purchasing of BBJ and flying to London at the spur of the moment in a Boeing Business Jet is to them considered gauche and in bad taste. The two individuals I'm speaking of could both afford to that themselves, but they would choose not to, because they think that it suggests something about a person that is undesirable.
CONAN: So - and instead of buying a Bentley, you talk to one multibillionaire who brought a Prius.
Mr. JOHNSON: Yes, who absolutely brought a Prius. I know several multibillionaires, actually, who drive Priuses.
CONAN: When they can drive anything they want, why?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I think that it goes back to what we are just speaking about before. They feel that it's not enough distinction anymore to have a private jet or to have a Bentley, and that they feel that those material goods don't say as much about someone's prominent position in society. So, they are defining themselves in different ways.
CONAN: We should all have such problems.
Mr. JOHNSON: Exactly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: When - obviously, you've become known for talking about such, well, cultural items. Are you still accepted in these circles?
Mr. JOHNSON: To a degree. It depends. They are times when I am not accepted, and there are times when I am.
CONAN: What's the difference? Old friends or people who resent you, what you've written about, and what you made movies about?
Mr. JOHNSON: I think there are certain people, certain members of the old guard, you know, what we might call old money, that feel my behavior is inappropriate and that it's inappropriate to talk about wealth in the way that I do.
CONAN: Hm. Now, for a lot of these families, the inherited money is running out, if not gone altogether. Their institutions are less and less exclusive. Is this a dying culture?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. That's one of the things I've been writing about. The WASP culture is a dying culture in this country, and I think I've seen evidence of that over the course of my lifetime.
CONAN: Give us some examples.
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, there - I feel like - the WASP community obviously used to control a majority of the political and financial and cultural institutions, in Manhattan, specifically, and they really no longer do. And one of the examples that I wrote about was the renaming of the New York Public Library at 4nd Street for Stephen A. Schwarzman, who is the CEO of Blackstone Group. And he recently donated 100 million dollars to the library's fundraising campaign, and in exchange for his gift, he's going to have the building - his name incised on the exterior of the building. This caused a great deal of outrage within the old-money, WASP community in New York.
CONAN: Because, well, first of all, that building, that grand building there on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, well, it's been an emblem for a long time.
Mr. JOHNSON: And it was originally given - it was originally funded by the Astor family and a number of other Protestant families at the beginning of the 20th century.
CONAN: Forgive me. The Astor family made their money in fur pelts. Weren't they arriviste at one time? And frankly, not to put too fine a point on it, weren't the Johnsons?
Mr. JOHNSON: Absolutely, and that's the great irony to this discussion, that it's - you know, society is constantly changing that way. So, these snobberies only - are only - really, make no sense at all, is what I'm trying to say. And at any given time, you know, you have a group of - you have individuals or families that are considered upstarts, and over time, they'll start to establish themselves, and they won't be considered that way. But absolutely, at one time, the Astors were upstarts and the Johnsons certainly were.
CONAN: And at various points, are there still debutante balls and those sorts of things? Are the clubs that were established, are they still exclusive?
Mr. JOHNSON: They are still exclusive, and I think one of the things that I - in continuing to speak to about the example of the renaming of the Public Library building at 42nd Street - one of the things I encountered was WASPs voicing their resentment over the renaming of this building. And I really think that's about WASPs and the WASP community feeling threatened by new money coming in and pushing them out of the positions they held in the city.
CONAN: Is there a tinge of anti-Semitism there?
Mr. JOHNSON: There absolutely - there is. There are prejudices, a number of prejudices, and anti-Semitism is one of them.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with Jaime Johnson about his blog on vanityfair.com. And let's begin with Matt, Matt with us from Kansas City.
MATT (Caller): Good afternoon.
CONAN: Good afternoon.
MATT: I was just calling because I've married into money.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MATT: Yeah. Well, it was a startling rise and fall. You were mentioning anti-Semitism. Just very quickly, I'm Jewish, and I'm married into a WASP-ish family, and it didn't go rather well. But the reason I called in is I've been in transportation for 27 years, and there was a time when I had my truck and my trailer - I was an independent. I was hired to haul two buckets of paint, five gallons each, from a Farmington Hills, Michigan, to the Hamptons, on Long Island, because a woman was giving a party, and she needed the right shade of green for the tennis court.
CONAN: That's an awful truck for two pots of paint.
MATT: Forty-three hundred dollars was the total bill. And they hired my 53-foot trailer, you know, 80-foot of truck altogether, to haul this paint all the way from Michigan to Long Island. And it had to be there within, you know, 48 hours in order for it to dry in time for the party.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: It's kind of "Smokey and the Bandit" in reverse, isn't it?
MATT: Ah, yeah, it really is. It was - I don't know. They didn't think anything of it. It was, like, sort of a...
CONAN: Ah, I think Matt's phone line just went away. Initially when he said he was in transportation, I figured he was going to tell us about his Boeing Business Jet, his BBJ.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: In any case, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Craig, Craig with us from Elkhart, Indiana.
CRAIG (Caller): Ah, yes, sir.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
CRAIG: I'm thrilled to be on your show. I listen every day.
CONAN: Thank you for that.
CRAIG: I went to college in Fulton, Missouri, at Westminster College. I went during the early to middle '70s, and I went with a lot of blue bloods from the East Coast who had a lot of money, whose kids did not get in to Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, that type of place. I ended up in a lot of conversations where, with these same kids, it always came down to the same thing. The finger in the chest: another depression would be good for the U.S., because it would teach all you little people how to live without money again. We know what to do with money. You don't. We deserve to have it. You have no right to have it, because you are irresponsible with it.
CONAN: And what year was this, Craig?
CRAIG: This was '73 through '77.
CONAN: Jamie Johnson, I've read a couple of responses to your blog saying, you know, are you really writing about now, or are you writing about 1973, 1974, or '75? Is this sort of thing still going on?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I think this sort of thing happened in the past and it's still happening today. I think when you have a family that's had money for generations and generations, people in that family tend to feel a sense of entitlement and a superiority over others around them. And that sounds like what you're describing when...
CRAIG: Now, can I say something else?
CONAN: Go ahead.
CRAIG: Where was George Bush really from?
CRAIG: And where did he graduate?
CRAIG: And is his family old money or new money?
CONAN: For that, I have to ask Jamie Johnson.
Mr. JOHNSON: I would say that they're old money.
CRAIG: Well, could this all have been preplanned? And even though there is no conversation along this line, could this have been start - because when Carter was elected, there was all sorts of black armbands worn, and Ronald Reagan seemed to usher in a brand new emphasis on giving the old money...
CONAN: You could accuse Ronald Reagan of a lot of things, but coming from old money is not one of them?
CRAIG: No, no, but giving the money back to the people who had the money could have represented kind of a voting bloc of the type of money that he took in for...
CONAN: Will you excuse me, Craig? Jamie Johnson, maybe an extraordinary amount of power out of proportion to their numbers, but not a lot of votes.
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, yeah. I mean, I don't see that there would be any conspiracy to - you know, I don't - I'm not a believer in any conspiracy theories suggesting that, you know, the Bush administration was put in power by some unseen puppeteer or something like that, but I would certainly say that, yes, people that have had the privileges of going to fancy boarding schools in New England, and great universities, and have social connections to people that are in the highest places in society, running the best and most powerful institutions, they certainly have a leg up. And that is - the example you're mentioning is an example of those traditional privileges.
CONAN: And finally, Jamie Johnson, what are you doing in Manhattan in August? You're supposed to be at the Hamptons.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I actually really enjoy being in Manhattan this summer. It's - there are people here that are from out of town, and it's a fun time for me personally, although sometimes it does get a bit hot. So, I understand what you're saying.
CONAN: Jamie Johnson, thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.
CONAN: Jamie Johnson blogs for vanityfair.com, and he joins us today from NPR's bureau in New York. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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