Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., an author and magazine editor who unsparingly scrutinized his fellow heirs to America’s aristocracy, primarily in “Old Money: The Mythology of Wealth in America,” which one reviewer called “a self-help book for those who have too much,” died on Tuesday at his home in North Stonington, in southeastern Connecticut. He was 86.
The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his daughter Liberty Aldrich said.
Mr. Aldrich also edited “George, Being George” (2008), an oral history that lionized George Plimpton, a fellow patrician and literary journalist, and he wrote “Tommy Hitchcock: An American Hero” (1985), a biography of the famed polo player.
Mr. Aldrich “was driven by a need to understand, uncover, and explain to others the class he was born into; being a writer gave him the opportunity to do that,” Ms. Aldrich said in an email.
He did that most prominently and self-reflectively in “Old Money” (1988) and in a January 1979 cover story for The Atlantic magazine headlined “Preppies: The Last Upper Class?”
While the article parodied prep school students, it also described a “Preppie ideal” as “a collective yearning; with respect to money, it is a yearning for a triumph — of class over income, of grace over works, of being over doing.”
“Gracefulness is less a gift than a standard,” Mr. Aldrich wrote, “something to measure up to, a performance.”
He went on: “The delight of the thing comes from the knowledge that it’s all contrived, that the effect of effortlessness requires a good deal of strain, that negligence requires attention, that indifference requires concentration, that simplicity and naturalness require affectation. The most delicious ‘in’ joke of Preppiedom is the anxiety everyone feels about being carefree.”
Reviewing the book in The Los Angeles Times, the author Adam Hochschild wrote, “Aldrich’s voice is that of someone in a comfortable leather armchair, telling a story during a long evening over brandy and cigars at an elegant New York or Boston club — a men’s club, definitely.” He called the book “as thoughtful a psychological portrait of America’s aristocracy as we have.”
In The New York Times Book Review, it was Jane O’Reilly who called “Old Money” a “self-help book for those who have too much,” adding that wealthy people would be delighted “to discover that someone, one of their own, has defined both the essence and the existential quandary of being Old …….