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A Voice from Old New York: A Memoir of My Youth
by Louis Auchincloss
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010
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The Gothamist By Sarah Towers (from the New York Times, Dec. 24, 2010) Early in Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth,” Lily Bart is offered some wisdom about how to live in the dazzling yet potentially deadening realm of the rich and well born: “The real alchemy,” her suitor, Lawrence Selden, tells her, “consists in being able to turn gold back again into something else; and that’s the secret that most of your friends have lost.” It’s a secret that Louis Auchincloss, who died this past January at the age of 92 and who, like Wharton, was born into the upper echelons of New York society, did not forget. This was a man, after all, who wrote more than five dozen books (including a novel, “The Rector of Justin,” that was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1965), worked as a trust and estates lawyer at one of New York’s most prestigious law firms, was a husband and a father to three boys and, for good measure, was awarded the status of “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. As he said in 1974 in his first memoir, “A Writer’s Capital,” “a man can spend his whole existence never learning the simple lesson that he has only one life and that if he fails to do what he wants with it, nobody else really cares.” Auchincloss’s second memoir, the posthumously published “Voice From Old New York: A Memoir of My Youth,” recycles perhaps too many of the same anecdotes covered in the first. But Auchincloss had an irresistibly cheerful and generous nature, and it’s hard to blame him for saluting, one last time, the people and experiences that shaped his work and life. Moreover, the characters are lively, especially the ones who quip at us from the butter-creamy Park Avenue apartments of old New York. Daisy, an alcoholic, art-loving lesbian friend of the family, abhorred the idea of leaving the city and liked to say, “If you see a tree, give it a kick for me.” Maggie, Auchincloss’s beloved Irish nurse, could talk his brilliant but neurotic mother down with a broguey cry of “Woman, dear, are you mad?” Even Brooke Astor, whom Auchincloss befriended as an adult, shows up with a fine retort to critics who scolded her for dressing in her best jewels when she visited poor neighborhoods for her charities: “They want to see Mrs. Astor, and I’m not going to disappoint them.” In his introduction, Auchincloss promises the reader the book will not “be a record of my terrors or complaints,” and indeed, it’s a relief to be taken back to an era when people “were not raised to show our problems or disappointments in public.” Still, one can’t help marveling at the way Auchincloss turns away from certain crucial nuances: the atmosphere created by his father’s recurrent depressions, the sour heart of male fear on a naval vessel in World War II, his wife’s issues with his mother (O.K., I get that one) and, especially, his own darker side. He recalls, for example, an incident that occurred when he was 8 and his family was summering in Maine. One day, he impulsively vandalized a playhouse that had been built for a neighbor’s daughter, a little girl who had died young: “I broke into it, smashing every piece of china in the little place. Why this madness seized me I shall never know. Was there some sort of anger that I had not otherwise acknowledged? What on earth was I feeling?” Auchincloss’s lips are sealed. Instead, in this final work, he concentrates on bringing back to life — literary alchemy, after all — the people who loved him: his mother, father, aunts, uncles, school friends and colleagues. He understands how lucky he was to have them, and “A Voice From Old New York” is his thank-you note. Sarah Towers teaches creative writing at the Bard Prison Initiative.

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