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Birmingham seems to share at least one trait with the ""aristocrats"" about whom he writes so knowledgeably--he apparently never throws anything away. Here in his 23rd book, he stitches together a patchwork of snippets of research material gathered for his earlier Jaequeline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, a few scraps from The Right People, a swatch or two from The Grandes Dames, as well as bits and pieces from other assorted works: all rather secondhand and a trifle faded perhaps, but consistently entertaining nonetheless. One of the major problems here, though, and probably an unavoidable one, is the monochromatic tone of these tales of life among the Livingstons, Jays, Gardners, Pinckneys, Roosevelts, and the rest of these ""founding families."" ""Breeding,"" not the liveliest of human qualities, is an ever-recurring theme, whether Birmingham is telling of a guest making her own bed each morning before descending to greet her hosts, or an octogenarian lady facing down a band of teen-agers carousing on the ancestral acres. The author attempts to vary this somewhat pallid fare with anecdotes about the eccentricities of such social lions as John Armstrong Chanler, who invariably wore a pair of binoculars slung about his neck when dining in a restaurant. (He liked to keep an eye on his waiters.) There are also such supposedly enlivening revelations as the fact that the original Bouviers were French peasants and not nobility, contrary to what tabloid readers were informed during the 1960's. Birmingham's writing, as always, is smooth and sophisticated (without being either smart-alecky or sychophantic), and, though readers are unlikely to gain any flesh insights into what distinguishes ""America's secret aristocracy,"" other than it apparently has something to do with ""self-esteem,"" they won't be bored either.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1987
Publisher: Little, Brown