Tuesday, May 20, 2008

WASP Anti-Semitism Still Common

from Vanity Fair's VF Daily: Jamie Johnson: Wasps Stung over Renaming of the N.Y. Public Library

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“It is an act of the worst kind of buffoonery. Schwarzman is horrid.”

This statement was made to me by a member of New York’s Protestant establishment in reference to the renaming of the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue at 42nd Street after Stephen A. Schwarzman, C.E.O. of The Blackstone Group, a private equity company. In March news broke that Mr. Schwarzman had agreed to lead the library’s current fundraising campaign by pledging a $100 million gift—the largest the institution has ever received. In recognition, the library announced, his name would be would be carved onto the exterior of the lion-guarded building.

Within senior Wasp circles, Schwarzman and the distinction he has received for his gift have set off a great deal of concealed outrage. Perhaps the best way I can describe it is to say that when I sat and talked with several Wasps about the diminishing influence of their clan, they often waited until the interview was winding down and I had folded up my notebook, and then they jumped back into conversation about Schwarzman and the library.

Old-guard Wasps appear to feel threatened by the newly rich and their growing influence around the city, and dismiss new money as “tasteless and gauche.” When discussing vastly rich people who are Jewish, it is not uncommon for them to use anti-Semitic slurs.

“Come on, though, it’s not Wasps giving Jews a bad name, it’s Jews giving Jews a bad name,” one said. Another told me, “The Astors knew to put their name on the inside. It’s good taste, that’s the difference between old and new.” A third said Schwarzman, who is Jewish, “is cleaning himself up, that’s what new money does. I suppose my family had to do the same thing hundreds of years ago, but look at us now, we’re like deities.”

The comments reveal the extent to which elitism, and, even more disturbingly, anti-Semitism still exist in certain quarters of Wasp society. There’s absolutely no basis to the claim that renaming the library edifice for Stephen Schwarzman represents a new form of philanthropy. Wasp patrons have had buildings at Manhattan’s cultural institutions named after them for centuries. The Frick Collection and The Peggy and David Rockefeller Building at The Museum of Modern Art are two examples in this tradition. Additionally, Schwarzman indicated that the building was renamed at the library’s request, not his.

Many of the affluent Wasps and affluent Jews I chatted with on the subject preferred not to openly acknowledge the traces of snobbery and elitism that still exist within the Wasp community. When I asked directly, Wasps told me that although their community had excluded people on cultural, ethnic, or economic grounds in the past, it certainly didn’t happen anymore. Affluent Jews responded to my question by saying that they didn’t feel discriminated against at all when hanging around their Wasp friends.

Eric Richman (35), a successful attorney and New York social fixture who counts the great-grandchildren of William Randolph Hearst and the children of Saul Steinberg among his many friends, was quick to tell me that ” I don’t think about it, being Jewish doesn’t come up when I’m around my Waspy friends.” But as our discussion continued, he remembered an awkward incident he had had with one of his closest friends (a Wasp). They were out drinking and once they had gotten a little drunk they started to talk about religion. He recalls a moment when the tenor of their conversation changed and his friend looked at him and said, “what’s interesting about you is that you have no idea how much we really hate you.” Eric told me that it was probably intended to be a joke, “yet there was something in it that seemed like a real residual sentiment. After a few drinks, it came out.”

Schwarzman himself would comment neither on his gift to the library, nor on any old-money resentment or anti-Semitic sentiments it may have provoked. Peter Rose, the managing director of public affairs for The Blackstone Group, responded to my request for an interview on the matter by saying that Mr. Schwarzman was “very unenthusiastic about that.”

The library also preferred to sidestep the issue. A spokesman for the institution acknowledged that there was some controversy over the renaming, but added, “you’re not likely to get much out of the library on this.”

What does it mean that a generous gift to the cultural future of the city is being condemned? Apparently, that old prejudices and insecurities have not entirely disappeared from our society. Wasps haven’t come up with a Schwarzman-sized gift to the library since the Astors and a handful of other families founded the library in 1911. Now Wasps are watching their establishment crumble, and generations of elitism and exclusionary behavior are hastening the collapse as power shifts away from them.

5 comments:

The back of the hill said...

100 million gift? For that price, they ought to name the entire damned street after him, not just the library.

Joanne said...

Frankly, I although I have no sympathy for bigoted WASPS, I think naming a landmark after a contributor IS vulgar. I understand that Schwarzman didn't ask for the honor, but he should have had the good taste to demur, and just ask for a plaque inside.

But new money is always like that, I guess. I figure the newly rich want to let the world know they've arrived. And that desire is not just limited to us Jews. You'd just think that, by now, people would have more sense.

I think the WASPS should have a better sense of history. As one pointed out, their own ancestors were the arrivistes just a short century ago. God knows, the robber barons of the Gilded Age wrote the book on vulgarity. Hearst? Have you seen his "castle" in California? A joke!

So these WASPS should have more sense and understanding. That comment about being deities was particularly inane. If all it takes is a few generations to become deities, that's not much. So they shouldn't look too much askance at new money.

Sure, they may resent newcomers, but that shouldn't stop them from getting on with their lives, achieving in their own right, and thereby being secure enough to let others into the club. That doesn't only mean Jews, but also Indians, Chinese, etc.

But one quote you had really did send a chill down my spine: the one where, after a few drinks, a WASP friend say that we Jews didn't know how much they really hated us. As the expression goes: "Many a truth is said in jest." I don't care how many WASPS and Jews say how well they get along; I don't care if they swear it up and down. Who would admit otherwise? And many will be too thick-skinned to see it. In any case, it isn't hard to put on a friendly face. No one likes confrontation.

I would have loved to hear what the WASP friend said afterwards to excuse himself from that statement. It must have been a doozy.

Joanne said...

I followed the article on the Vanity Fair site, and found this comment: "Speaking as someone who is part-wasp, and from Connecticut, everyone I know in wasp culture is deeply and quite openly antisemitic."

Great.

Rebecca said...

I'm distinctly reminded of the movie "Gentleman's Agreement."

I'm not terribly surprised, however, given the occasional anti-semitic statement I have also heard from upper-class WASPs.

Anonymous said...

Well not all WASPs are from robber barons, some of us came over here rather well to do. We don't share the same level of tact as Hearst, or the other who found wealth. Sorry for my elitism there. Still there is a difference, between them and us.

My family used to be wealthy, my mother was always an ant-Semite since I can remember. We were old guard. Dutch related to aristocracy, were here before the Mayflower. Our bloodline goes back very far. There is this peculiar pride we take in lineage.

She would never say anything in front of anyone Jewish, anti-semitic, always behind their back. She would often jokingly call them "Das Juden", while a democrat, she contended that Lieberman, because he was a Jew should never run for any higher office. She would also say that the Jew are not white, there Jews. The contempt is deep, I was always astounded by the fact she could be "friends" with someone whose people she deeply hated. We went to the Bronx zoo once on a Wednesday, and she saw all "the hacide", she would call it Jew Wednesday. When at one point I was gaining some what she would say "You don't want to be Heimy". At that age I didn't really realize how she is was biases. It was just sort of, the Jew are odd, greedy, clumsy, and ill mannered. Sort of like the some children's book character.

While I would say it is tacky of him to accept such an offer, it is also generous of him to give such a gift to the city. Lets call him gauche,vulgar. For being that, not for being Jewish. Blomberg is Jewish, Kerry is technically, they are not crass.

The strange thing is after my father died (he was Irish), she remmaried to an African American. For her, her bigotry is very specific, towards the "Jews". I think there is resentment that they are on the up, and we are on the decline. Also I think that many of us resent the fact, they are trying to be WASPy, by trying to take the traditional jobs, and be part of that society. There is a resentment with new money in general, that they do not have the right to be pretentious.

As Joanne said, in the quote she raised, I think that for the most part is sadly true. To be honest, I at times have probably been anti-semitic, once I was reading some statistic' "It says the majority of people here are white, but I heard allot of Jews go there", it was something I said without thinking. I am trying to make sure I am not a bigot, it can be hard to overcome when that is what you are raised with.

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