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Summer 1997
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New-Class Nuptials
David Brooks
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I'm not sure I'd like to be one of the people featured on the New York Times wedding page, but I know I'd like to be the father of one of them. Imagine how happy Stanley J. Kogan must have been, for example, when his daughter Jamie got into Yale. Then imagine his pride when Jamie made Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude. Stanley himself is no slouch in the brains department: he's a pediatric urologist in Croton-on-Hudson with teaching positions at the Cornell Medical Center and the New York Medical College. Still, he must have enjoyed a gloat or two when his daughter put on that cap and gown.

And things only got better. Jamie breezed through Stanford Law School. And then she met a man—Thomas Arena—who appears to be exactly the sort of son-in-law that pediatric urologists dream about. He did his undergraduate work at Princeton, where he too made Phi Bete and graduated summa cum laude. And he too went to law school, at Yale. Now they both work as assistant U.S. attorneys for the mighty Southern District of New York, Rudy Giuliani's old stomping grounds.

These two awesome resumes collided at a wedding ceremony on April 19, 1997, at the Hudson Theater on West 44th Street, with Rabbi Chaim Stern performing. It must have been one of the happiest days in Stanley J. Kogan's life. The rest of us got to read about it on the New York Times wedding page.

The wedding page is a weekly obsession for thousands of Times readers and aspiring Victor Hugos. Unabashedly elitist, secretive (believe me, I've tried to get information out of the page's editors), and therefore totally honest, the "mergers and acquisitions page"—as many of its devotees call it—has always provided an accurate look at an important chunk of the American ruling class. And over the years it has reflected the transformation of the American establishment.

In the 1950s the wedding section could spread out over 16 pages. Then, as now, it carefully identified the crucial elements of elite status. In those days, however, it wasn't jobs and advanced degrees. The wedding page of that time almost never listed the profession of the groom or bride, or of the parents of the happy couple. Instead, the Times listed connections: a distinguished ancestor, all the ushers and bridesmaids, colleges and prep schools, and whether the bride belonged to the Junior League, say, or the groom to the Yale Club. The wedding gown came in for description in loving detail, as did the floral arrangements at the ceremony.

As you read through the wedding page of that time, sentences jump out that would never be found on today's wedding page: "She is descended from Richard Warren, who came to Brookhaven in 1664. Her husband, a descendant of Dr. Benjamin Treadwell, who settled in Old Westbury in 1767, is an alumnus of Gunnery School and a senior at Colgate University." Or, "Mrs. Williams is an alumna of Ashley Hall and Smith College. A provisional member of the Junior League of New York, she was presented to society in 1952 at the Debutante Cotillion and Christmas Ball."

The wedding pages of the 1970s serve as a pretty reliable midpoint between the WASP elite pages of the 1950s and the high-pressure meritocratic pages of today. By 1977 the Times no longer described the wedding gown or the floral arrangements. But it still regularly mentioned Junior League memberships and which ball was the scene of the bride's entry into society. But overlaying these old-fashioned references were the résumé items that we're familiar with from the current pages. There are more couples with careers in the media, adding a little variety to the normal parade of bankers and lawyers from white-shoe firms.

Even as late as 1989, the wedding page was still tracing the decline of the WASP elite. In June of that year, Washington Post writer Richard Cohen wrote a column confessing his love for the Times wedding page. Cohen said that he read the page as a way to exercise vestigial class animosities and indulge his obsession with dynastic marriages. In his ideal wedding notice, the groom is from a family that made its fortune in the slave trade, and the bride is descended from a robber baron who made a pile abusing immigrants. Each family has two houses. One mother is an interior decorator (meaning that she feels compelled to have an occupation . . . though she mostly lunches). One father now lives in Spain (with a woman half his age, squandering the remains of the family fortune). The ideal Cohen bride went to small-college-you've-never-heard-of—where polite girls learn horseback riding—and the groom went to a huge state university and studied marketing (but mostly drank beer).

But now, eight years later, Cohen would be unable to exercise his scorn for that pampered WASP elite, for its long decline is finally complete. Nor would he be able to exercise any scorn for the new establishment—because he is the new establishment. And so are the people around him at the Washington Post.

During the 1990s a new elite has coalesced, and it is found—as much as anywhere—on the wedding page of the New York Times. Whereas the old establishment was based on birth and breeding, this new establishment rests on education and career. Whereas the old establishment had connections, this establishment has ambition. Whereas the old aspired to good manners, the new aspires to enlightened consciousness. The old establishment cultivated reticence (the 1957 page listed no ages); the new establishment cultivates candor (ages now appear, as do divorces). To put it another way, the New York Times no longer just reports the doings of the society set—it is part of the society set, along with the lawyers, brokers, publicists, architects, and gallery owners to whom high-flight journalists now tend to be married.

Episcopalians and Jews serve as tracer elements that mark the transformation from an elite based on blood to an elite based on education and brains. It's hard to track cleanly the decline of New York's Episcopalian elite and the succession of the city's Jews, because until recently Jewish weddings held on Sunday were reported separately, in the Times's Monday edition (observant Jews don't wed on Saturday, and the Times, treating weddings as news events, long would not write about them until they had occurred). Still, by looking at the raw numbers, you can see the basic trend. In the spring of 1957, 55 percent of the couples featured on the Sunday wedding page were Episcopalians. Other Protestants constituted 31 percent of the weddings, and Catholics were 14 percent. In 1977, 48 percent of the weddings were Episcopalian. Catholic weddings made up 21 percent of those listed. Jews made their appearance at 12 percent. Other Protestants were 15 percent, and non-religious ceremonies registered on the scale at 4 percent. On the wedding pages of the winter and spring of 1997, by contrast, 40 percent of the ceremonies are Jewish, only 17 percent are Episcopalian, 15 percent are Catholic, 13 percent are other Protestant, and 15 percent are non-religious or non-denominational.

Not to sound too much like Charles Murray or anything, but the rise of the cognitive elite has meant that a lot fewer Episcopalian weddings get featured in the Times.

Or maybe it is appropriate to sound like Murray, because in The Bell Curve he and co-author Richard Herrnstein describe the phenomenon that is an important cause of the transformation of the American elite. In their relatively non-controversial first chapter, Murray and Herrnstein consider the Harvard freshman class of 1952. The young men of that class were largely white and Christian, from the East Side of Manhattan, the Main Line of Philadelphia, and the most exclusive prep schools. Applicants whose fathers had gone to Harvard had a 90 percent admission rate. The average verbal SAT score was 583, good but not stratospheric.

Then they jump ahead to the freshman class of 1960. The average verbal SAT score for that group was 678, and the math score was 695—these are stratospheric scores. The average Harvard freshman in 1952 would have placed in the bottom 10 percent of Harvard freshmen in 1960. And the 1960 class was much more national. Smart kids from Queens or Iowa, who wouldn't have applied to Harvard eight years earlier, were now applying and getting in. Without much muss or fuss, Harvard had transformed itself from a school catering to the northeastern social elite to a school reaching more of the brightest kids from around the country. And as Murray and Herrnstein show, elite colleges around the country followed Harvard's lead.

Say you were a Harvard freshman in 1960. You graduate in 1964 and start having kids in, say, 1967. Your kids grow up, and when they are 25 or 30, they start getting married. That brings us to the 1990s, the decade in which we see in the wedding announcements of the Times the emergence of the second-generation cognitive elite, or CE—a class of adults who have spent their entire lives in a distinctively meritocratic culture. These are the Resume Gods.

You've heard of old money. Well, now we see old brains. The parents of men and women in this cohort went to the best schools, even though growing up they didn't have the best social connections, and then they took part in the great graduate school explosion of the 1960s. They were the pioneers of the information-age economy, going into media, communications, the academy. Their children grew up surrounded by books and educational toys rather than martinis and golf clubs. They grew up in an ethos of meritocratic ambition rather than aristocratic noblesse oblige. Their parents work with words, not machinery. Indeed, on the wedding pages of the 1970s many of the fathers of the bride or groom work in manufacturing, as plant managers and owners. Now the majority of parents have the same sort of information-age jobs as their children.

Surveying the wedding pages of the winter and spring of 1997, we find that 84 percent of the couples represent second-generation CE (or better) marrying people of similar pedigree. For example, Elizabeth Barrett, whose mother is a research scientist in gerontology at Columbia and whose father is a neurologist, married Alexander Gadd, whose mother is a psychotherapist and whose father is president of North River Press in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The new Mrs. Gadd is a senior production manager at ABC, and Mr. Gadd is education and technology manager for the Digital Exchange Group, an Internet development firm. In this sample there were no instances of non-professional parents on both sides of the wedding. A machinist's son marrying a car dealer's daughter does not make it into the pages of the New York Times.

And what are the peculiarities of this New Class (as conservative intellectuals call it)? The first thing to note about its members is that they marry old. In their twenties they put in the massive hours required to get their careers moving. Having built up some momentum, they can pair up. Count-ing only those celebrating their first marriages, the average age of the brides is 29, and for grooms it is 32. In only 10 percent of the cases was the bride older than the groom.

The second thing we notice is that while magna cum laudes often marry other magnas, you rarely see a magna marry a summa cum laude. The tension in such a marriage would be too great. In April, for example, Alina Garcia, who graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown, married Carlos Lapuerta, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. Even though they went to different schools, the shared magnas suffice to bring them together.

The defining characteristic of the people mentioned on the page, for our purposes (and no doubt for theirs), is their profession. In our sample, 18 percent of the individuals are doctors, 23 percent are lawyers, 23 percent are in media or communications, and 28 percent are in finance of one sort or another.

We can break this elite down into two large classes: predators and nurturers. Predators are the lawyers, traders, marketers—the folks who deal with money or who spend their professional lives negotiating or competing or otherwise being tough and screwing others. Nurturers tend to be liberal-arts majors. They become academics, foundation officials, writers, and artists—the people who deal with information and ideas or who spend their time cooperating with others or facilitating something. Doctors appear to be nurturers, but in reality we know better, so in weighing the ratios of predators to nurturers, we simply set medical people aside.

In my 1996-97 sample, 55 per-cent of the weddings consist of two predators marrying each other. For example, Erika Smith, a vice president at Chase Manhattan Bank, married William Brewer, a partner at the law firm of Winston & Strawn. Or Sarah Jaffe, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and went on to be-come a product manager at Nabisco, married Richard S. Eisert, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and went on to become an associate at the law firm of Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler.

Twenty-one percent of the weddings on the Times page consist of two nurturers marrying each other. For example, Gita van Heerden married Eckart Forster. She is a former Fulbright scholar who is a lecturer in humanities at Stanford. He is a former Rhodes scholar who teaches right next door in the philosophy department.

Some 34 percent of the cases are mixed marriages, in which a predator marries a nurturer. In this group the predator is almost always the groom. For example, Patrick Kaye, who graduated from Duke and received an MBA from the University of Chicago, is a financial consultant with CFX Inc. He is marrying Lori McKenna, who received a master's degree in social work from Columbia and now teaches fourth grade at the Authors' Workshop School, an alternative public school in the Bronx. One wonders how such interfaith marriages work out.

The full significance of the predator-nurturer split becomes clear in the Vows column of the Times's wedding page, written each week by Lois Smith Brady and featuring the nuptials of people we like. These weddings are always a total rejection of both the stiff, formal ceremonies customary among the WASP elite and the gaudy, overdone affairs that are the hallmark of the nouveau riche. (Indeed, the New Class defines itself by its opposition to these more dull-witted classes.)

The Vows column divides pretty neatly between predator weddings and nurturer weddings. The predator weddings feature bond traders or lawyers who always seem to have met each other while competing in a marathon, and they tend to spend their honeymoons with Sherpas in the Himalayas. Though they are athletic on the weekend and ferocious competitors in the workplace, they always have a more thoughtful side as well—well-rounded creatures that they are.

Daniel Delaney is a health-systems manager at Abbott Laboratories who spends his weekends at his family's farm in Windham, New York, reading the narrative poems of Robert W. Stevens, who chronicled the lives of early American woodsmen. As one of Mr. Delaney's friends explained to the Vows column, "Everybody in New York leaves on the weekends"—savor that everybody—"they go to the Hamptons, the Jersey shore, Newport, Millbrook. And then you've got the woods crowd, the plaid lumberjack crowd, and that's Dan." Mr. Delaney recently married Brigitte Devine, director of advertising and marketing for Emanuel/Emanuel Ungaro, a clothing line. They met at a Lincoln Center dinner and began swapping tales about skeet shooting, skiing, and scuba diving. Mr. Delaney proposed by handing Ms. Devine a diving mask with an engagement ring inside. Their honeymoon: a helicopter tour of mountain villages in Venezuela.

On the other hand, Cecile Rossant and Christian Niemitz held a second wedding in late March (after a civil ceremony months before), in what has to stand as one of the classic nurturer events of all time. The wedding took place in the living room of the bride's father, an architect, and mother, the New York Daily News food columnist. The couple made their entrance encased in a silver Mylar box the size of an elevator, which rolled slowly across the room (and which they designed and built themselves). They began the ceremony in white jumpsuits but zipped out of them after the procession to reveal flowing costumes. They made their vows with posters. "I will surprise you every morning," the bride promised while holding up a poster of an egg tumbling out of a blue book. The ceremony reached its climax when the couple took off their jackets and revealed small packs on their backs, which inflated to become giant red lips. They then turned back-to-back and "kissed."

The one elite social type almost entirely missing from the Times wedding page is the entrepreneur: almost no individuals who have started companies appear—until they feel the need to announce their second or third marriages. The young Resume Gods tend not to engage in high-risk professional activities. By excelling in high school, college, and graduate schools, these young men and women can become doctors or lawyers or professors, careers that offer relatively predictable paths to prosperity.

Moreover, members of this elite tend to be temperamentally, perhaps even hormonally, suited to low-risk work. They did well between the crucial ages of 15 and 23, when others were rebelling, feeling alienated, flying off in self-destructive directions, or just basically exploring their baser natures. These members of the cognitive elite were getting good grades, impressing teachers and extracurricular advisors, preparing for the SATs, and doing everything adults want teenagers to do.

Members of this group work and play well with others. They tend not to have the fierce spirit of independence that makes people entrepreneurs (and makes them insufferable in large organizations). If, on the other hand, you are a bad kid as an adolescent, those professions are probably closed off to you. That suspension in high school caused the Yale admissions office to send you a thin envelope, and those Cs in English at Ohio State turned off the medical schools. If bad kids are going to make something of themselves, they have to enter the high-risk professions. They literally have to make something of themselves.

The members of the cognitive elite will work their way up into law partnerships or top jobs at the New York Times, but they probably won't enter the billionaire ranks. The real wealth will go to the risk-taking entrepreneurs who grew up in middle- or lower-middle-class homes and got no help from their non-professional parents when they went off to college. As Thomas Stanley and William Danko report in their new book, The Millionaire Next Door, there is an inverse relationship between receiving financial help for college from one's parents and going on to become a millionaire. Self-made individuals take the biggest risks and go on to make the biggest fortunes. Only 20 percent of millionaires, Stanley and Danko point out, inherited their wealth.

The people on the New York Times wedding page won't make $4 million a year like the guy who started a chain of erotic car washes. They'll have to make do with, say, $1.2 million if they make partner of their law firms. Maybe even less. The cognitive elite have more status but less money than the millionaire entrepreneurs, and their choices as consumers reflect their unceasing desire to demonstrate their social superiority to people richer than themselves.

Finally, I confess that I'm one of the devotees of the wedding page who lament the absence of a divorce page. It's fascinating to see these marriages at the dawn, but as someone once wrote, this is the happy stage when all families are alike. It would be even more fun to read a divorce page enlivened by the endlessly various human drama of CE crackups. A typical item might go something like this:

"Priscilla Jones, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford and received a law degree from Harvard, is running off to Mexico with her lesbian lover, Mary Stern, a professor of sports medicine at Mt. Sinai Medical College. Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Stern are leaving husbands who between them possess four master's degrees, two PhDs, and a Neiman fellowship. Mr. James Jones, whose father is a partner at Winston & Strawn, is accused by Mrs. Jones of committing adultery with a series of salesclerks at the Barnes & Noble on upper Broadway. Mr. Jones, a professor of French at Columbia University, denies the allegations and claims that he only began lecturing in adult education programs to pay for Mrs. Jones's ongoing liposuction treatments. The custody hearings for the three children—who attend Dalton, Trinity, and Collegiate—will be September 14, Justice Myra Seymour presiding."

 

 


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