EJ. KAHN, JR. '37 seems to peer through The New Yorker logo's snooty and nostalgic lorgnette at sooty skyscrapers. To Kahn, the late multimillionaire Jock Whitney "epitomized, in a world of increasing egalitarianism, the vanishing patrician. "The era of the robber barons, that period of freewheeling economic exploitation that made the Whitneys rich, is over, says Kahn--wistfully, it seems. Hamburger sales under gold plastic arches make tycoons now. The world is a Kroc.
Kahn laces his account of aristocracy with anecdotes drawn indiscriminately from Whitney's "tidy and voluminous files "Whenever Jock is on the verge of distinguishing himself, Kahn tells us what the man had for dinner, Before leasing for England to serve as the American ambassador, for instance, Jock bought $1.078.99 worth of wine from Nelson Rockefeller.
Jock reinforces all our stereotypes of the superrich. Jock was "a playboy for a while and a redoubtable one: the wild oats he sowed were strewn from coast to coast and across an ocean. But he tired of that in due course. He could not abide the second rate--not in horses, not in paintings, not in wines, not in clothes, not in women, not in anything. "For Kahn, greenbacks keep the blueblood circulating.
As Kahn relates, Whitney's father's estate came to $178,893.655. But Jock affected a common touch. Kahn entitles one chapter "Nice if You Can't Afford Pewter," the remark Jock made in reply to a rich friend's compliment concerning the family silver. After he inherited a good part of his father's nine figures, he took a 565 a month job as a bank clerk. Commuting to work no his yacht every morning. Jock "scared the fish," a friend observed.
Wealth is not without its burdens, Kahn notes. In the same paragraph he reports that Jock had thrifty sets of golf-clubs and a servant to switch channels on his television set. Although no one bore him "jealousy or rancor," his wealth isolated him from other men. Kahn claims. But Kahn describes Whitney's social schedule as hectic and emphasizes that Jock drew friends from many walks of life. He had "a great emotional need to feel useful." Philanthropy filled the need but it raised the problem of where to send the checks. Yale or Groton?
Americans need to believe that the wealthy are loaded but human. The rich enjoy the same pleasures, but theirs are flavored with caviar. They back the same causes, but on a grander scale. Jock Whitney escaped from Nazi captors and "fought for freedom. "His paper, the now defunct New York Tribune, endorsed Lyndon Johnson for President. Demigods of glitter, the jet set lands now and then to mingle and be ogled.
THIS TABLOID SIZE humanity makes wealth easier to distribute vicariously. So long as the rich appear men of the people, we can aspire to luxury. The patrician with the common touch preserves equality of opportunity. At the same time, we like variety in our world of increasing egalitarianism. Equality may suggest mediocrity and no one seeks mediocrity openly. Instead, we want to identify with those who won't settle for the second rate. Even McDonald's had standards, though perhaps more of uniformity than excellence. the rich give us the break we deserve from sooty skyscrapers.
Their materialism, especially as incarnated in limos and jewels, reduces us into believing that it represents the sublime. Asceticism, which worked similar magic on medieval monks and more recently on Jerry Brown, just isn't fun. Reagan's inauguration. Chivas Regal ads, and books like Kahn's provide many examples of people flaunting their money Extravagance promises a ready way to self-help, to rising above the crowd. Extremism in the pursuit of riches is no vice. We link it first to priceless human virtues, like individual drive and creativity, and only later on waste and self-indulgence. Jock Whitney's insistence on thinner wine-glasses may be only frivolous arrogance, but some will admire it anyway, forgetting perhaps Mahatma Gandhi's example of resistance to oppression As Cornelius Vanderbilt said. "The public be damned."
Kahn seems determined to reduce Whitney to such a paragon of materialistic virtue. Kahn turns the two "watershed moments" in Jack's life into cocktail party epics. At Groton, the reverend Endicott Peabody delivered a sermon on "the egg who just got by." During World War II, the Nazis took him prisoner. "For once in his life, he had found himself in a situations where his privileged position was worthless. He had been forced, willy-nilly, to become a common man. "While Jock's escape from the Germans was courageous. Jock seemed to view the experience more as a picnic outing than a "sobering ordeal." He worried that the Germans had crushed the ripe pears that he was carrying. Though he spends much of his service playing cards with generals, he is surprised that his fellow prisoners view war as a chore, rather than a "sacred crusade."
Such banality in the face of danger should persuade us that the rich are ordinary people, not nobles who feel kinship with peasants. Able only to indulge their ordinariness to a greater extent than most, they mix common human altruism with much selfish silliness. But kindness, though common, resist lumping with the ridiculous mediocrity of Kahn's patrician materialism. As Whitney wrote in 1979, his philanthropic foundation helped those who "have lived with adversity in the form of poverty or discrimination. They lean toward a practical vision of helping friends and neighbors work together on common and immediate problems rather than toward grand plans for social change." Generosity balances the pettiness of affluence, although it does not excuse it. Just as we cannot buy greater personal warmth by admiring cold money, so private philanthropy. Whitney realized cannot discharge the government's obligation to care for its people. Our recognition of that duty rests on our individual humanity. As they glory in the myths of wealth, the budge-cutters might remember that.