Auchincloss, Louis. Tales of Manhattan.

Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1967.

When he died in 2010 at the age of 92, Auchincloss had been the recognized literary chronicler of American upper-class mores and privilege, especially the Manhattan variety, for more than sixty years. Like himself, his characters are most often the products of Groton and Yale or Harvard, or at least Columbia. Wealth is their birthright. (One of the wives depicted here, in the mid-1960s, is appalled to discover that her husband has allowed his fortune to dwindle to less than a million dollars. However will they be able to live?!)

He was best known for his novels (especially The Rector of Justin) but he also turned out quite a few short stories, which have been gathered into several collections. Most often, those stories revolve about a few themes, with repeating characters, on which Auchincloss essentially plays riffs. The thirteen stories in this volume divide into three sections.

“Memories of an Auctioneer,” narrated by an expert dealer in a Park Avenue auction house, consider examples from the range of artists and authors whose paintings and books come under his purview, and the moneyed collectors to whom he sells them. He’s the classic middleman, but far from an unobservant one.

The stories in “Arnold & Degener, One Chase Manhattan Plaza” concern the older, more senior partners of a law firm, those who have lived through considerable history, each seen through the eyes of one of the other partners for the writing of a history of the firm. Auchincloss was himself a corporate attorney (he never really quit his day job) and his delineations of these cynical, self-satisfied mandarins are razor-like.

“The Matrons” is a set of four portraits of the rulers of Old New York society. Most of them are old themselves, naturally, because it takes a lifetime to become so entrenched in power through the judicious application of wealth and family connections. Theirs is a very small world and they control all the highways through it, even if that tight grip leads to self-destruction.

In addition to being a master of characterization, Auchincloss was prized particularly for his ability to turn a phrase. Mr. Jordan, the auctioneer, for instance, comments on his move from paintings and furniture to the Rare Book Department, that when he first began, it embarrassed him to go to dinner or cocktail parties because he never knew when the Dresden centerpiece on his hostess’s table might show up in his “jurisdiction” — but that books were different; “a book is not as personal as a dish or a chair or a picture. A book, in its way, belongs to everybody.” This is a sentiment that any book-lover will understand. Elsewhere, when someone says “Can’t you take a joke?” the narrator reflects that “I have always believed that if one takes every joke literally one is more often right than wrong.” And, of a law partner who served in FDR’s brain trust, “his great career and his great ego go together like the beautiful wings and less beautiful body of a butterfly.”

I suggest you read this volume slowly, one story at a time, with a break for reflection after each of them. Very high quality stuff.

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