Our Kind of People
In which is described the emergence of a new and distinctive culture among a highly influential segment of American society.
ON SEPTEMBER 29, 1987, ABC premiered an hour-long dramatic series
with the cryptic title thirtysomething. The opening scene is set in a
bar. Not a Cheers bar, where Cliff the mailman perches on a bar stool
alongside Norm the accountant and Frasier the psychiatrist, but an
airy room, perhaps attached to a restaurant, with sunlight streaming
in through paned windows onto off-white walls.The room is crowded with
an upscale clientele gathered for drinks after work, nattily uniformed
servers moving among them. Two women in their late twenties or early
thirties wearing tailored business outfits are seated at a table. A
vase with a minimalist arrangement of irises and forsythia is visible
in the background. On the table in front of the women are their drinks-
both of them wine, served in classic long-stemmed glasses. Nary a peanut
or a pretzel is in sight. One of the women is talking about a man she
has started dating. He is attractive, funny, good in bed, she says, but
there's a problem: He wears polyester shirts. "Am I allowed to
have a relationship with someone who wears polyester shirts?" she
asks.She is Hope Murdoch, the female protagonist. She ends up marrying the
man who wore the polyester shirts, who is sartorially correct by the time
we see him. Hope went to Princeton. She is a writer who put a promising
career on hold when she had a baby. He is Michael Steadman, one of two
partners in a fledgling advertising agency in Philadelphia. He went to the
University of Pennsylvania (the Ivy League one). Hope and Michael live
with their seven-month-old daughter in an apartment with high ceilings,
old-fashioned woodwork, and etched-glass windows. Grad-school-like
bookcases are untidily crammed with books. An Art Deco poster is on the
wall. A Native American blanket is draped over the top of the sofa.In
the remaining forty-five minutes, we get dialogue that includes a
reference to left brain/right brain differences and an exchange about
evolutionary sexual selection that begins, "You've got a bunch
of Australopithecines out on the savanna, right?" The Steadmans buy
a $278 baby stroller (1987 dollars). Michael shops for new backpacking
gear at a high-end outdoors store, probably REI. No one wears suits at
the office. Michael's best friend is a professor at Haverford. Hope
breast-feeds her baby in a fashionable restaurant. Hope can't find
a babysitter. Three of the four candidates she interviews are too stupid
to be left with her child and the other is too Teutonic. Hope refuses to
spend a night away from the baby ("I have to be available to her
all the time"). Michael drives a car so cool that I couldn't
identify the make. All this, in just the first episode.The culture
depicted in thirtysomething had no precedent, with its characters who
were educated at elite schools, who discussed intellectually esoteric
subjects, and whose sex lives were emotionally complicated and therefore
needed to be talked about. The male leads in thirtysomething were on
their way up through flair and creativity, not by being organization
men. The female leads were conflicted about motherhood and yet obsessively
devoted to being state-of-the-art moms. The characters all possessed a
sensibility that shuddered equally at Fords and Cadillacs, ranch homes
in the suburbs and ponderous mansions, Budweiser and Chivas Regal.In the
years to come, America would get other glimpses of this culture in Mad
About You, Ally McBeal, Frasier, and The West Wing, among others, but
no show ever focused with the same laser intensity on the culture that
thirtysomething depicted-understandably, because the people who live in
that culture do not make up much of the audience for network television
series, and those who are the core demographic for network television
series are not particularly fond of the culture that thirtysomething
portrayed. It was the emerging culture of the new upper class.Let us once
again return to November 21, 1963, and try to find its counterpart.The
BaselineThe World of the Upper-Middle ClassTwo conditions have to be met
before a subculture can spring up within a mainstream culture. First,
a sufficient number of people have to possess a distinctive set of
tastes and preferences. Second, they have to be able to get together and
form a critical mass large enough to shape the local scene. The Amish
have managed to do it by achieving local dominance in selected rural
areas. In 1963, other kinds of subcultures also existed in parts of the
country. Then as now, America's major cities had distinctive urban
styles, and so did regions such as Southern California, the Midwest,
and the South. But in 1963 there was still no critical mass of the
people who would later be called symbolic analysts, the educated class,
the creative class, or the cognitive elite.In the first place, not enough
people had college educations to form a critical mass of people with the
distinctive tastes and preferences fostered by advanced education. In
the American adult population as a whole, just 8 percent had college
degrees. Even in neighborhoods filled with managers and professionals,
people with college degrees were a minority- just 32 percent of people
in those jobs had college degrees in 1963. Only a dozen census tracts in
the entire nation had adult populations in which more than 50 percent of
the adults had college degrees, and all of them were on or near college
campuses.In the second place, affluence in 1963 meant enough money to
afford a somewhat higher standard of living than other people, not a
markedly different lifestyle. In 1963, the median family income of people
working in managerial occupations and the professions was only $61,500
(2010 dollars, as are all dollar figures from now on). Fewer than 5
percent of American families in 1963 had incomes of $100,000 or more,
and fewer than half of 1 percent had incomes of $200,000 or more.This
compressed income distribution was reflected in the residential
landscape. In 1963, great mansions were something most Americans saw in
the movies, not in person. Only the richest suburbs of New York, Chicago,
and Los Angeles had entire neighborhoods consisting of mansions. The
nature of the change since then can be seen by driving around suburban
neighborhoods where the affluent of the 1960s lived, such as Chevy Chase,
Maryland; Belmont, Massachusetts; or Shaker Heights, Ohio. Most of the
housing stock remaining from that era looks nothing like the 15,000-
and 20,000-square-foot homes built in affluent suburbs over the last few
decades. No reproductions of French chateaux. No tennis courts. No
three-story cathedral ceilings. Nor were the prices astronomically higher
than the prices of middle-class homes. The average price of all new homes
built in 1963 was $129,000. The average price of homes in Chevy Chase
offered for sale in the classified ads of the Washington Post on the
Sunday preceding November 21, 1963, was $272,000, and the most expensive
was $567,000. To put it another way, you could live in a typical house
in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the nation for about twice
the average cost of all houses built that year nationwide.There was a
difference between the houses of the upper-middle class and of those
who were merely in the middle class. An upper-middle- class home might
have four bedrooms instead of two or three, two bathrooms and a powder
room instead of one bathroom, and two floors instead of one. It might
have a two-car garage, maybe a rec room for the kids and a study for
Dad. But it seldom bore any resemblance to a mansion. For an example
of elite housing in 1963, download an episode of Mad Men that shows
the Drapers' suburban home- that's the kind of house that
the creative director of a major New York advertising agency might well
have lived in.The members of the upper-middle-class elite did not have
many options for distinguishing themselves by the cars they drove. You
could find a few Mercedeses and Jaguars in major cities, but even there
they were a pain to keep up, because it was so hard to get spare parts
and find a mechanic who could service them. Another factor was at work,
too: Executives and professionals in 1963, especially outside New York
and Los Angeles, were self-conscious about being seen as show-offs. Many
people in the upper-middle class who could have afforded them didn't
drive Cadillacs because they were too ostentatious.Another reason that
the lifestyle of the upper-middle class was not dramatically different
from that of the middle class was that people who were not wealthy could
get access to the top of the line for a lot less in 1963 than in 2010,
in the same way that you could live in Chevy Chase for not that much more
than you would pay for a house anywhere else. It seems paradoxical from
the perspective of 2010. Day- to-day life wasn't cheaper then than
it is now. In Washington newspaper advertisements for November 1963, gas
was cheaper, at the equivalent of $2.16 per gallon, but a dozen eggs were
$3.92, a gallon of milk $3.49, chicken $2.06 a pound, and a sirloin steak
$6.80 a pound. The best-selling 1963 Chevy Impala cost about $26,600. At
Blum's restaurant in San Francisco, not an expensive restaurant,
you paid $12.46 for the hot turkey sandwich, $13.17 for the chef's
salad, and $5.34 for the hot fudge sundae. Pearson's liquor store in
Washington, DC, had started a wine sale two days earlier, advertising its
everyday wines at prices from about $6 to $12. All of these prices would
have looked familiar, in some cases a little expensive, to a consumer
in 2010.But the most expensive wasn't necessarily out of reach
of the middle class. In 1963, one of the most expensive restaurants
in Washington was the newly opened Sans Souci, just a block from the
White House and a great favorite of the Kennedy administration. The
Washington Post's restaurant critic had a meal of endive salad,
poached turbot, chocolate mousse, and coffee for a total of $44.91. The
image of a luxury car to Americans in 1963 was a Cadillac. Its most
expensive model, the Eldorado Biarritz, listed at $47,000. That same
Pearson's advertisement selling vin ordinaire for $6 to $12 offered
all the first-growth Bordeaux from the legendary 1959 vintage for about
$50 a bottle (yes, I'm still using 2010 dollars).And so there
just wasn't that much difference between the lifestyle of a highly
influential attorney or senior executive of a corporation and people who
were several rungs down the ladder. Upper-middle-class men in 1963 drank
Jack Daniel's instead of Jim Beam in their highballs and drove Buicks
(or perhaps Cadillacs) instead of Chevies. Their suits cost more, but they
were all off the rack, and they all looked the same anyway. Their wives
had more dress clothes and jewelry than wives in the rest of America,
and their hairdressers were more expensive. But just about the only
thing that amounted to a major day- to-day lifestyle difference between
the upper-middle class and the rest of America was the country club,
with its golf course, tennis court, and swimming pool that were closed
to the hoi polloi. On the other hand, there were lots of municipal golf
courses, tennis courts, and swimming pools, too.The supreme emblem of
wealth in 2010 didn't even exist in 1963. The first private jet, the
Learjet Model 23, wouldn't be delivered for another year. Private
and corporate planes consisted mostly of Cessnas and Beechcrafts, small
and cramped. Only a few hundred large private planes existed, and they
were all propeller-driven. The owners of even the poshest of them had
to recognize that an economy seat on a commercial DC-8 or Boeing 707
provided a smoother, quieter, and much faster ride.The World of the
RichStill, a private plane is a major difference in lifestyle, even if it
is not a jet, and private planes did exist in 1963. Shall we look for a
distinct upper-class culture among the wealthy?In 1963, millionaire was
synonymous with not just the affluent but the wealthy. A million dollars
was serious money even by today's standards, equivalent to about $7.2
million in 2010 dollars. But there were so few millionaires- fewer than
80,000, amounting to two-tenths of 1 percent of American families. The
authentically wealthy in 1963 comprised a microscopic fraction of the
population.Some portion of that small number had no distinct preferences
and tastes because they had made their money themselves after growing
up in middle-class or working-class families. They hadn't gone to
college at all, or they had attended the nearest state college. They
might live in duplexes on Park Avenue or mansions on Nob Hill, but
they were the nouveaux riches. Some acted like the stereotype of the
nouveaux riches. Others continued to identify with their roots and lived
well but not ostentatiously.The subset of old-money millionaires did
have something resembling a distinct culture. Besides living in a few
select neighborhoods, they were concentrated in Boston, New York, and
Philadelphia. They summered or wintered in a few select places such as Bar
Harbor, Newport, and Palm Beach. They sent their children to a select set
of prep schools and then to the Ivy League or the Seven Sisters. Within
their enclaves, old-money America formed a distinct social group.But
besides being a tiny group numerically, there was another reason that
they did not form an upper-class culture that made any difference to
the rest of the nation. Those who hadn't made the money themselves
weren't especially able or influential. Ernest Hemingway was right
in his supposed exchange with F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1963, the main
difference between the old-money rich and everybody else was mainly that
they had more money.Take, for example, the woman who was the embodiment
of the different world of the rich, Marjorie Merriweather Post. Heiress
to the founder of the company that became General Foods, one of the
wealthiest women in America, she owned palatial homes in Washington,
Palm Beach, and on Long Island, furnished with antiques and objets from
the castles of Europe. She summered in the Adirondacks, at Camp Topridge,
surrounded by her private 207 acres of forest and lakes. She took her
sailing vacations on Sea Cloud, the largest privately owned sailing
yacht in the world, and flew in her own Vickers Viscount airliner,
with a passenger cabin decorated as a living room, probably the largest
privately owned aircraft in the world.Hers was not a life familiar to
many other Americans. But, with trivial exceptions, it was different
only in the things that money could buy. When her guests assembled for
dinner, the men wore black tie, a footman stood behind every chair,
the silver was sterling, and the china had gold leaf.