Money and Class in America


LEWIS H. LAPHAM

With a New Foreword by the Author

And a New Introduction by THOMAS FRANK

“Without doubt our greatest satirist—elegant, honorable, learned and fair. I love reading him.”
—Kurt Vonnegut


“Lewis Lapham—born of Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken—is the most provocative and engaging essayist in the country.” —George Plimpton

“We should honor and respect Lapham, and all his works . . . Like Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens, in whose ballpark he is worthy to play, the predicament is of the civilized man who has become a relentless chronicler of the awfulness of American politics.”
—Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian


“Amusing and provocative.” —The New York Times

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About the Book

In the United States, happiness and wealth are often regarded as synonymous. Consumerism, greed, and the insatiable desire for more is an American obsession. Following the native tradition of Twain, Veblen, and Mencken, the editor of Lapham’s Quarterly here examines our worship of Mammon.

Focusing on the wealthy sybarites of New York City, whom Lapham has been able to observe firsthand in their natural habitat, Money and Class in America is a caustic, and often hilarious, portrait of a segment of the American population who, in the thirty years since the book was originally written, have become only further removed—both in terms of wealth and social awareness—from everyone else.

Revised, and with a new introduction by What’s the Matter With Kansas author Thomas Frank, this skewering of America’s super-rich is perhaps still more pertinent today than when it first appeared.

352 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-682191-57-6 • E-book 978-1-682191-58-3

About the Author

lewis lapham author photo

Photograph © Joshua Simpson

Lewis H. Lapham is the founding Editor of Lapham’s Quarterly and the Editor Emeritus of Harper’s. His columns received the National Magazine Award in 1995 for exhibiting “an exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity,” and, in 2002, the Thomas Paine Journalism Award. He was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame in 2007. His other books include Money and Class in America, Fortune’s Child, Imperial Masquerade, The Wish for Kings, Hotel America, Waiting for the Barbarians, Theater of War, The Agony of Mammon, Gag Rule, Pretensions to Empire, and Age of Folly.

Read an Excerpt

Note – all monetary values here are in 1985 dollars, less than half of the amount adjusted for inflation in the period to 2018.

At Yale University in the middle 1950’s the man whom I prefer to call George Amory I knew chiefly by virtue of his reputation for wrecking automobiles. He was the heir to what was said to be a large Long Island fortune, and I remember him as a blond and handsome tennis player embodying the ideal of insouciant elegance seen in a tailor’s window. During the whole of our senior year I doubt that I spoke to Amory more than once or twice; we would likely have seen one another in a crowd, probably at a fraternity beer party, and I assume that we exchanged what we thought were witty observations about the differences between the girls from Vassar and those from Smith. At random intervals during the 1960’s and 1970’s I heard rumors of Amory’s exploits in the stock market and the south of France, but I hadn’t seen him for almost thirty years when, shortly after President Reagan’s second inaugural in the winter of 1985, I ran across him in the bar of the Plaza Hotel. He seemed somehow smaller than I remembered, not as blond or as careless. Ordinarily we would have nodded at one another without a word of recognition, and I remember being alarmed when Amory carried his drink to my table and abruptly began to recite what he apparently regarded as the epic poem of his economic defeat. Presumably he chose me as his confessor because we scarcely knew each other, much less belonged to the same social circles. I wasn’t apt to repeat what I heard to anybody whom he thought important enough to matter.

“I’m nothing,” he said. “You understand that, nothing. I earn $250,000 a year, but it’s nothing, and I’m nobody.”

Amory at Yale had assumed that the world would entertain him as its guest. He had little reason to think otherwise. Together with his grandmother’s collection of impressionist paintings and the houses in Southampton and Maine, he looked forward to inheriting a substantial income. Certainly it never had occurred to him that he might be obliged to suffer the indignity of balancing his checkbook or looking at a bill.

Things hadn’t turned out quite the way he had expected, and in the bar of the Plaza he looked at me with a dazed expression, as if he couldn’t believe that he had lost the match. He had three children, but his wife was without substantial means of her own, and somehow he failed to generate enough money to carry him from one week to the next. He explained that most of the paintings had been sold, that he had been forced to rent the house in Southampton for $40,000 during the season, and that the property in Maine had been stolen from him by his sister. He had been busy in the bar making lists of those expenses he deemed inescapable. Handing me a sheet of legal foolscap, he said:

“You figure it out. I can’t afford to go to a museum, much less to the theater. I’m lucky if I can take Stephanie to dinner once every six months.”

His list of disbursements appears as he gave it to me, the numbers fig¬ured on an annual basis in 1985 dollars and annotated to reflect the narrowness of the margin on which Amory was trying to keep up a decent appearance:

Maintenance of a cooperative apartment on Park Avenue: $20,400
Maintenance of the house in Southampton: $10,000
Private school tuitions (one college, one prep school, one gram¬mar school): $30,000
Groceries: $12,000
Interest on a $200,000 loan adjusted to the prime rate: $30,000
Telephone, household repairs and electricity: $12,000
A full-time maid and a part-time laundress: $25,000
Insurance (on art objects, the apartment and his life): $8,000
Lawyers and accountants: $5,000
Club dues and bills: $5,000
Pharmacy (cosmetics, medicine, notions): $5,000
Doctors (primarily for the children): $4,000
Charitable donations: $6,000
Clothes for his wife: $5,000
Clothes for his children: $7,000
Cash expenditures (taxis, newspapers, coffee shops, balloons, etc.): $8,000
Maintenance of children’s expectations (stereo sets, computers, allowances, dancing school, books, winter vacations): $30,000
Maintenance of his own expectations: $3,000
Taxes (city, state, federal): $75,000
Total: $300,400

It was no use trying to play the part of a niggling accountant or to suggest that it might be possible to lead a presentable life on less than $250,000 a year. Amory was too desperate to fix his attention on small sums. When I remarked that he might cut back on his children’s expec-tations he said that these were necessary to allow his children to com¬pete with their peers, to give them a sense of their proper place in the world. In answer to a question about the club bills and the charitable donations, Amory pointed out that he allocated nothing for luxury or pleasure, no money for dinner parties, for paintings, for furniture, for a mistress, for psychiatrists, even for a week in Europe.

“As it is,” he said, “I live like an animal. I eat tuna fish out of cans and hope that when the phone rings it isn’t somebody dunning me for a bill.”

Not knowing what else to do, Amory had resolved to leave New York, maybe for Old Westbury or Westport, “someplace unimportant,” he said, where he could afford “to stay in the game.” He couldn’t do for his children what his parents had done for him, and his feeling of failure showed in his eyes. He had the look of a man who was being followed by the police.