“When I hear the phrase ‘Bright Young Thing,’ ” Brooke Astor, a grand society lady who’s famously managed to be a real mensch as well, remarked, “I think of the good old days, when we girls read Tolstoy and Henry Adams and thought more of our reading than of our dressing.” As it happens, Mrs. Astor’s nostalgic comment appears in a new book by another Brooke: Brooke de Ocampo’s lavish new coffee-table peek at the lifestyles of some Society youngsters. There’s no question that Bright Young Things has the vaguely pornographic appeal that all coffee-table books do. (Like porn, it’s a genre filled with a minimum of text and a maximum of color-saturated pictures of things you fantasize about but aren’t likely to rub up against in real life.) But this book hardly supports its lofty claim that its subjects constitute “a new social order organized around the privileges of meritocracy, not aristocracy.” Here is a group of people who seem to think that “politics of inclusion” means “mixing a Gap T-shirt with a Bill Blass ballgown skirt.”
Ocampo’s title invokes the name given to the generation of English youth who, after the First World War and before the Second, breathed some vivacity into a dying empire: Diana Cooper, Evelyn Waugh, the Mitfords, Noël Coward, that lot. After reading up on this new generation, one isn’t persuaded that a new Brideshead Revisited or Design for Living is in the offing. If anything, Shax F. Riegler’s (seemingly) idiot-proof questions have not, let us say, brought out the best in the younger generation of Laurens, Lauders, Herreras, and Guinnesses – to say nothing of a trio of sisters whose marital careers put you in mind of the more morally depressing Henry James novels. One young man considers the “lowest depth of misery” to be “a destructive dry cleaner” (and goes on to equate male pattern baldness with losing a child); a young woman, after plumbing her own apparently not considerable depths, sees “bad eyesight” as her “principle defect”; for the painter Damian Loeb (most marked characteristic: “random perfectionism”), the lowest misery is “self-awareness.”
Bright Young Things wants to show the really rich as hip, aware, and even funny – not only to alleviate their guilt about having so much, I think, but also to alleviate our guilt for wanting to see just what they have. But in the end, its all-too-obviously staged pictures suggest an overly optimistic answer to a question (quoted in the book, with a hilarious lack of self-awareness) that was once put by David Brooks: “How do you live at the top of society without becoming an insufferable snob?”
I have no idea what Mrs. Astor thinks of the Things in Bright Young Things, but I do suspect that she’d really love Picturing New York, Gloria Deák’s richly narrated, lavishly illustrated tour of New York and all of its classes. Here’s a book that clearly has brains as well as beauty – one in which, alongside the many beautiful illustrations, you’re likely to find casual allusions to the royal astronomer Ptolemy and lovely old-fashioned words like “terpsichorean.”
What makes Deák’s book so much fun to read is her style, which is that of the true amateur – in the best sense of that abused word. Like another New York cultural grande dame, the art historian and lecturer Rosamond Bernier, Deák swoops you up and takes you along for a narrative ride that she herself is clearly enjoying, never bothering to hide her quirks and prejudices. (When she tartly notes that the city now has the same low number of daily English-language newspapers that it did in the eighteenth century, you can almost hear her tongue cluck reproachfully.) Some of the best passages here are lovingly assembled lists that betray an endearing collector’s mania – bits and pieces of the city’s past that Deák has dug up and can’t resist showing off: the names of nineteen popular dances that used to be performed at concerts, or 37 kinds of fabrics that used to be familiar to city-dwellers and are now forgotten.
Forgoing the ho-hum chronological approach, Deák gives you a tour of fourteen thematic neighborhoods: There are chapters on commerce, merchant princes, politicians, architecture, and communications, and – my favorite – a terrific and typically idiosyncratic chapter about Broadway (the street where Martha Washington felt “like a state prisoner” when she lived there as the first First Lady). The result is a book that feels, in the end, like the city it depicts with such eccentric charm and enthusiasm: a patchwork that ends up being much, much more than the sum of its very bright parts.
Bright Young ThingsBy Brooke de Ocampo. Interviews by Shax F. Riegler; photographs by Jonathan Becker. Assouline; 192 pages; $50.
Picturing New York:
The City From Its Beginnings to the Present
By Gloria Deák.
Columbia University Press; 416 pages; $50.