"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Filthy Rich

Donaldson Wentworth’s family was filthy rich – or at least far wealthier than any other on Adams Street in the West End of New Brighton.  Not only was the senior Bradford Wentworth the scion of New England industry and the man who put the the city on the map, but he had an inherited fortune at least 100 times the total net worth of Hartford County.  The Wentworths were seafaring entrepreneurs who harvested ice from the frozen ponds of Pawtucket, packed them in burlap and sawdust, transported them to the Caribbean where the British, French, and Portuguese settlers paid top dollar.  Jeremiah Wentworth’s trade extended far beyond the winter months, for he had devised an ingenious method of reducing the attrition rate of Rhode Island ice to no more than 20 percent including both storage and shipping.

Wentworth quickly realized that commerce in slaves was worth far more than ice, and he invested heavily in the Three-Cornered Trade.  He made millions in the years before the slave trade was outlawed in the United States. His son, Isaiah, took over the family business and did a brisk business in human cargo between the Upper South which wanted to divest itself of surplus slave labor and the Lower South which was desperate for more Negroes to work the rich bottom land of the Mississippi Delta.

Isaiah’s son, Mather, built the New Brighton factories that produced armaments, tools, and hardware for the Union Army, and was cited by Lincoln for his patriotic contribution to the Union cause.

Mather’s son, Isaac, transformed the wartime industry into a peacetime bonanza of ball bearings, locks, and precision tools.  His son had the newly-developed management skills to increase revenue and profits; and his son, Peter, the father of my classmate Mather II, could finally sit back on the laurels of his illustrious ancestors and enjoy life to the fullest.

The Wentworth family of the 1950s were members of the Sylvan Meadows Country Club, summered on the Vineyard, and wintered in Gstaad, St. Tropez, and Rimini.  They wanted for nothing, held fabulous lawn parties, and Fourth of July celebrations which were the envy of all of Connecticut.  The Wentworths had never lost their patriotism, their conservatism, and their rock-ribbed New England values of moral rectitude and thrift.

It was with shock and great surprise that old Mr. Wentworth, reclining gracefully in his tweeds and topsiders overlooking the 14th green, read about the movement attacking the so-called ‘One Percent’.

“Nonsense”, he yelled to Sinead, the Irish maid, throwing the New York Times into the rosebushes. “Sheer, unadulterated socialist nonsense”, he muttered as Sinead recovered the newspaper and replaced his overturned teacup.  “Why, we built this fucking country, goddam it; and ever dime of my one percent was earned the hard way.”

He never reconsidered exactly how his ancestors had amassed their great wealth.  All he knew was that New England from Pawtucket to Newport, to Boston, and New Brighton was better off thanks to his family’s enterprise.  “Sour grapes”, he muttered, his mouth full of macaroons. “The Sixties.  Fuck ‘em. Nixon should have nuked ‘em”.

He felt that no apologies to be offered, even in this confessional age.  Ice was fine, and the most enlightened 19th century thinkers considered Africans little removed from a life in the trees.  The slave trade enabled the American South to develop from a land of cane breaks, swamps, snakes, and mosquitoes into a rich agricultural land.  “Shit”, he yelled to no one in particular, “Socialist troublemakers have been after Columbus, Manifest Destiny, the Louisiana Purchase, and Westward Expansion for a hundred years, degrading and demeaning American enterprise and initiative. Fuck ‘em”.

Worst of all latter-day revisionists were after his claim.  The Vineyard should be opened up to New York Jewish financiers and Miami real estate developers, cutting great swaths out of marsh preserves, destroying frame and shingle cottages, and evicting three-generation grocers.  Who needs more golf courses, Starbucks, and Neiman Marcus?

It is quite common for those well-to-do children who came of age in the Sixties to turn Left to repudiate their families’ past, and to become progressive and liberal.  A private penance and a public flagellation for the sins of the fathers. 

My friend and Yale classmate, Mather Wentworth III never succumbed to the social pressure of the Sixties and maintained a steadfast allegiance to and defense of his family throughout that turbulent era.  ‘Fuck ‘em”, he said, echoing his father in sympathetic criticism of those who wanted to dislodge the fundament of American society, corrupt its history with some myopic and intellectually ignorant hostility.

No, Mather joined all the right clubs, fox hunted in Middleburg, refused real estate offers for his Gay Head Vineyard home that would have made Rockefeller weep, and outspent the Koch brothers on conservative causes.

Mather made it clear to all who would listen that he was not a flaky Right Winger, some Ozark crazy who believed in Martian terrorism and insidious Communist plots to neuter America’s spirit.  He was as logical as Kant and Descartes and as defiantly conservative as James Madison or the British House of Lords.

He was in the vast minority, however, so one had to pay attention to his subscriptions, memberships, and contributions to appreciate how insistent he was on defending the honor of his class to the socialist philistines of today; but if one did indeed have the patience to check the record, it would be found to be ideologically pure.  Mather Wentworth III was the real item – an icon of patriarchal wealth and privilege and unashamed and unapologetic for it.

Mather Wentworth could easily have been a prick, a privileged asshole who used his status, position, and wealth to sound off on the underprivileged and disadvantaged, but he never did.  While he excoriated government policy for permitting liberal creep, ill-advised tolerance, and mushy inclusivity, he never beat up on the underprivileged and disadvantaged themselves.  Yes, he thought, they should be doing more to help themselves, but one must be tolerant of those less intellectually and socially endowed.  They landed in Anacostia through no fault of their own, and even after 150 years they are still as segregated and dishonored as they were during slavery and Reconstruction. “ Have a little generosity”, he said to his brethren at the Cosmos Club.  “They can’t help it.”

His bile was saved for those who attacked the so-called ‘One Percent’, the modern day captains of finance who bankroll America.  Who cares if they have three homes, winter in St. Bart’s and are known to every maître d’ from New York to Los Angeles?  They are no different than those Frenchmen with a ‘de la’ devant’ and ‘une grosse fortune derriere’ – the guardians of patrimony, European history, art, knowledge, and culture.  True, American capitalists had none of the breeding and education of the French nobility, but their trajectory and impact was the same.

Mather was no dope, and saw how the ranks of the elite were being infiltrated and sullied by money-hungry bourgeois who cared little for building America and all about enhancing their stock portfolios.  He was sickened by the displays of crass materialism and ugly wealth.

I have remained a close friend of Mather Wentworth since our Yale days and have been a big fan of his unreconstructed conservatism and old WASP rectitude. He and his family had nothing to apologize for, no more than the descendants of Pizarro, de Soto, or Cortes who killed ever Indian they ran into; or the Crusaders who extended the reach of Christianity; or even Genghis Khan who brought civilization, although a brutal one, to most of the known world.

The One Percent movement is bullshit – my words and not those of the more graceful and well-mannered Mather Wentworth.  The One Percent are responsible for world civilization – the Greek One Percent, the Persian One Percent, the Mandarin One Percent – and through will, a sense of entitlement and destiny, extended rationality and community throughout the world.

Mather Wentworth died recently, and I went to his funeral – a quiet unimposing affair in New Brighton. Most of the old families of the town had long dispersed, and the tradition of service, enterprise, and moral severity vanished; but there were a few friends and followers who made it north for the obsequies.  The family requested that I give the eulogy, and I did not hesitate.  Mather Wentworth III was the best of us, and without his tribe, America would not be where it is today.  “God bless him,” I said.  “ A modest man from a good family in a great tradition.”

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