Alsop Ascendant

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Americans have never been comfortable with class. We like to think of ourselves as egalitarian, meritocratic. Joseph Alsop never for a moment suffered from this delusion, and his sunny, posthumous memoir, I’ve Seen the Best of It (W. W. Norton & Company, $29.95), is—among other things—an insider’s irresistible record of a time when men of the class he called the “Wasp Ascendancy” still seemed likely to remain in charge of an America that he and they believed could only improve under their steady, confident tutelage.

He was born Joseph Alsop V in 1910, the grandnephew of Theodore Roosevelt, the collateral descendant of one Tory who quit the Continental Congress because it dared sever relations with Great Britain and the direct descendant of another who, according to family legend, during the Revolution kept a portrait of George III in his wine cellar, so that he could lead his children before it in the evenings, commanding, “Bow to your master.”

Alsop’s father was a conservative insurance executive, gentleman farmer, and perennially disappointed Republican office seeker. His mother was Corinne Robinson Alsop, TR’s vigorous niece and so determined a Republican that when Joseph and his younger brother, Stewart, away at college, sent home absentee ballots marked for Democratic candidates, she tore them up, then added two Alsop votes to the GOP column, where she was quite sure they belonged.

The sheltered, comfortable life enjoyed by the three Alsop boys (John, the third son, grew up to carry on the family insurance business) and their sister was an anachronism long before they went off to school: winters at Wood Ford farm, the seven-hundredacre family place at Avon, Connecticut; summers at Henderson in Orange County, New York, a transplanted Scottish castle whose rooms were lined with family portraits and said to be haunted by the ghost of its ancestral builder.

Alsop catalogued the special pleasures of his privileged boyhood with undisguised relish. “To this day,” he wrote in his seventies, “my idea of heaven is to dress in my best garments for a wedding, sit at a table of pleasant friends, and drink champagne in an apple orchard under a New England June sun.”

Actually Alsop spent comparatively little time idling in the New England sun. After Groton and Harvard—from which he was graduated both magna cum laude and a member of Porcellian, the exclusive club whose rejection his distant cousin FDR never quite got over—he moved to Manhattan. There, thanks entirely to his parents’ friendship with its publisher, he got a job with the Herald Tribune . The city editor was not initially pleased: his newest cub reporter was fat and bookish, talked through his teeth, wore Savile Row suits in an era when the fashion standard for reporters was set by the spectacularly rumpled Heywood Broun, and once, briefly, was seen walking a Newspaper Guild picket line wearing a raccoon coat. But he could write, and a series of vivid courtroom pieces about the Bruno Richard Hauptmann trial soon got him sent to Washington, where he settled in 1936 and began to write a newspaper column—first with Robert Kintner, then with his brother Stewart, finally on his own—that ran for nearly half a century.

His only break from journalism came during World War II, when he decided that in part because all his immediate ancestors had used their power and position to avoid taking up arms in any American war, it was his duty to join up. He became an aide to Gen. Claire Chennault of the Flying Tigers, spent several months in a Japanese internment camp at Hong Kong—he used the time to master the Analects of Confucius , in Chinese—then helped Chiang Kai-shek get Gen. Joseph Stilwell recalled from China. Thereafter he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Chinese Nationalist cause and an implacable enemy of the Communists.

Like his cousin and close friend Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Alsop was celebrated for his cheerfully malicious assessments of the posturing politicians, famous and obscure, who came and went in the city he had come to claim as his own, and his memoir is packed with them.

Sen. Jim Ham Lewis, for example, “a grandiloquent Democrat from Illinois, [who] successively wore three wigs—one short, one medium, one long—to give the impression his hair was growing. For heightened effect, when the middle-length or the long wig was in use, he would sprinkle over his shoulders what I think was sawdust, finely ground, to suggest dandruff. And when Senator Lewis wore his long wig, nothing pleased him more than to be told that he was in need of a haircut.”

Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President, was “a man whose judgment could never be trusted when he strayed more than six feet from a manure pile.”

The trouble with Adlai Stevenson was that he too often defied “Alsop’s Law”: In politics “the important thing is to be able to say ‘Most oranges are round,’ and sound as if you meant it.” Stevenson, Alsop wrote, “was always remembering—he was even hinting to his audience—that no orange is absolutely round, that oranges only seem round, that they have pores on their surface, and so on and on.”