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TOP DRAWER: American High Society from the Gilded Age to the Roaring Twenties by Mary Cable

TOP DRAWER: American High Society from the Gilded Age to the Roaring Twenties


Pub Date: Aug. 21st, 1984
Publisher: Atheneum

Scraps from the history of High Society, 1870s-1930s, in scrapbook form. Cable's text has a certain breezy charm, but no consistency as a class portrait: the members of High Society are first likened to Kwakiutl Indians, in their anachronistic practice of conspicuous consumption; then their distinguishing traits are said to have been honor, noblesse oblige, integrity; then, we hear the story of Richard C. Whitney, who cheated all his clubby friends before going under and landing in prison for fraud. Interspersed are references to the right neighborhoods, the right schools and churches; to the pecking order among cities and, for sociological ballast, to anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. Later sections dilate somewhat more on the kinds of matters that fill English books on class distinctions: from subtleties of speech and dress, to differences between domestic splendor and vulgarity, to favored forms of philanthropy. (""Wealthy people who could not see giving any help to human beings were sometimes better disposed toward supporting the arts."") Social climbing is a recurrent topic (the book opens with James Gordon Bennett's notorious affront at a New Year's Day reception); some chronology is fitfully incorporated; the Depression is said to have Changed All--though not outdated the code-of-honor. With the many period photos, it makes for a diverting browse; as social history, it's mostly fizz--and ephemeral.