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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

In the New York Times today, read the sad story of a once grand property belonging to a once grand family. "Rokeby," a 195 year-old 42-room house sitting on 420 acres overlooking the Hudson River in upstate New York, is owned and occupied by the tenth generation of the family that built it, the Livingstons, who played a prominent part in the founding of this country and distinguished themselves for many generations to follow, over the years marrying into other distinguished clans. Alas, it appears at Rokeby the dynasty is nearing its end. From the article:
Populated by a colorful but mostly impecunious cast of Livingston and Astor descendants — who are struggling, sometimes with each other, to keep the house from falling down while tending to their own deeply individual destinies — Rokeby is a study in contrasts, a lively dialogue, as one inhabitant put it, “between the creatives and the historians."


Not many venture into the vast, shadowy front rooms, which are kept as a shrine to previous generations — a practice that irritates some members of the younger generation — and the French wallpaper is pocked with moisture stains and peeling off in sheets. In the shuttered, paneled Gothic library, Teddy Roosevelt’s photograph sits on a shelf thick with dust (Roosevelt was a pal of great-uncle Wintie Chanler); in a parlor, a bust of Julia Ward Howe, the abolitionist, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and a great-aunt, is propped on a chipped radiator. A marble plaque in the front hall is “in memoriam” to Stanford White, a family friend, who orchestrated a series of additions to the house in 1894.

Real life occurs in the rabbit warren of kitchens, pantries and servants’ bedrooms, and the small village of outbuildings — barns, cottages and carriage houses — through which family members, friends and tenants career like characters in a French farce.

Rokeby’s patriarch, Richard Aldrich, 69, the eldest in the 10th generation of Livingston descendants on this land, presides over them all with laconic humor.

“Maybe we are the museum,” said Mr. Aldrich, whose bent figure and stained clothes are testament to four decades’ worth of wrangling with his drafty, unwieldy house. “Part of the show, part of the exhibit. Like those people in period costumes doing those little vignettes. Except we’re not learning our lines. We have our roles set up for us.”
And this is priceless:
It slowly dawned on [Richard Aldrich's wife] Ania that while her husband’s family did not want any changes to the house or the crumbling objects in it, no one was cleaning much, either.

“I still think they think there is a servant hiding somewhere,” she said. “They are hoping if they wait long enough the servant will appear.”
The decline of Rokeby is symptomatic of the general decline of Anglo-American patriarchy in this country. Ruling classes come and go, of course, but the WASPs must surely have been the first to voluntarily cede their exalted rank rather then have it wrested from them, essentially walking away. So many WASPs, starting with my generation, the baby boomers, while prepping at St. Grottlesex and continuing onto Old Ivy just like their daddies and granddaddies before them, rather than then entering industry or business, threw it all up instead and became potters or cabinet makers; or signed on with non-profits or the government, or turned on, tuned in and dropped out, becoming life-long hippies like Mr. Aldrich (Harvard '63) above. For whatever reasons (I suspect it has much to do with their educations, regardless they received them at institutions like Andover and Exeter), my generation of WASPs and those following them have seemed all too willing to chuck the leadership generations before effortlessly assumed.

I find that sad but not achingly so. The revolutionary ideas of our founding fathers are as fresh and vibrant today as they ever were, perhaps more so these past two years. It matters little if many if not most of our forefathers' descendants have become dissipated, there are plenty of others, many quite new to this country, who are more than willing to take their place.

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