God, I love the WASPs.
Word arrives that the Bush family is building a 3,000-square foot, four-bedroom, four-and-half-bathroom“cottage” for scion/presidential hopeful Jeb on the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. A cottage? Isn’t that what Irish families huddled in, filling a tiny room on earthen floors, before emigrating to America?
Not where the WASPs are concerned. The sprawling Tanglewood estate, now the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Edith Wharton’s lavish home, The Mount, both in Lenox, appear on a list of“Berkshire cottages” erected by families like the Aspinwalls and the Choates during the Gilded Age. The WASPs don’t mind spending money on comfort, but God forbid you should advertise it.
Another favorite circumlocution for magnificent summer getaway: the“camp.” Bill Weld knows this one. The Adirondack mountains are full of camps owned by wealthy WASPs, some of them grandfathered inside of existing state parks. That cuts down on intrusions from the unwashed 99 percent, who often hold delusional, i.e., democratic, ideas about public lands.
Sometimes, a camp is actually a camp. Author Jhumpa Lahiri included a spot-on description of WASPish, rustic desuetude in her 2004 novel“The Namesake.” When the Indian-American protagonist arrives at his girlfriend’s family’s summer place in New Hampshire:“The house is dark, a bit musty, full of primitive, mismatched furniture. There are exposed pipes in the bathrooms, wires stapled over doorsills. . . .“
Lahiri left out the dead flies and mosquito carcasses piled up beneath every window. My girlfriend-now-wife’s family owns a similar pile in New Hampshire. Dark, musty, lovable.
Decades ago, my wife and I accepted an invitation to a soiree at a Rod and Gun Club on the North Shore. We psyched ourselves up for social-climbing heaven and dressed accordingly: black evening dress and high heels (for her); a suit and lace-up black wingtips for me. When we arrived, the assembled grandees looked as though they had back-ordered plaid shirts and moleskin trousers from the 1954 L.L. Bean catalog.
Meet the WASP elite: Ostentation isn’t us.
This no-frills club wasn’t far from the ancestral home of my favorite Boston WASP, the late Louis Agassiz Shaw. Shaw graduated from Harvard, loitered around the Somerset and Myopia Hunt Clubs after graduation, and then“did something that was highly inappropriate,” according to one of his cousins imbued with the WASP penchant for understatement. Shaw strangled his chambermaid, for no apparent reason, one evening in his 15-room Topsfield mansion in 1964. (Not a cottage.)
Shaw’s lawyer, a distant cousin named James Barr Ames, made sure Louis stayed out of jail. Instead, Shaw languished for decades in luxurious quarters at McLean Hospital in Belmont, the notorious loony-landing pad for“Mayflower screwballs,” as the poet Robert Lowell called them. Mid-20th century McLean was WASP Valhalla, with tea parties, a de facto“Harvard Club,” and of course lavish residential“cottages” – gorgeous, single-occupant homes built for the well-to-do.
I’ve visited the stations of the WASP cross: the Country Club in Brookline; the tatty Somerset Club, doubtless remodeled since my last visit; the Stygian Tavern, as Henry James’s old club is called; the Tennis and Racquet Club, with its magnificently useless, slate-walled“court tennis” court, and of course Mount Auburn cemetery, the last stop on the sedate Volvo ride of life for many eminent Bostonians.
Among other things, Mount Auburn boasts magnificent bird-watching, confirming my long-held theory that the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Episcopal Diocese are in fact the same organization. And, unlike the aforementioned clubs, Mount Auburn will have me as a member.“Premium space” is still available, starting at $75,000.
Just the place for a tasteful, understated little cottage!
Alex Beam is a Boston Globe columnist.