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Thursday, November 11, 2021

Stairway To Heaven–The Annals Of An American Social Climber

Fielding Barrett was born into a well-to-do, but recently faded New England family.  Hartford Fielding, Fielding’s maternal grandfather, had made his money in brass fittings, lost most of it in the Depression, but thanks to investments from friends who had put their pre-1929 money into gold, returned to the brass business and bought a small factory in Waterbury.  In a short time Hartford was once again on top of his game, profitable, and well-liked.

After he saw that the factory was running smoothly under the tight supervision of his floor manager, he returned to his family homestead on Long Island Sound; and there he remained until his early death at fifty-five.  His son, Laurence took over the factory, but without the enterprise, canny judgment, and ambition of his father, presided over its gradual demise.  Fielding Brass Fittings, once an industry leader, had to be liquidated; and given the increased competition from the Japanese and the Chinese who controlled much of the copper interests in Africa, it profited little. 

Image result for images wealthy homes on long island sound in fenwick ct

Laurence with the weak heart valve of his father also died young, but unlike old Hartford Fielding who had left his young family with a good income, the son, thanks to his bad management and the unfortunate turn of international commerce, left his own with very little, far less than they had anticipated, and not enough to keep them in the manner to which they had grown accustomed - a comfortable life in a wealthy, privileged, old monied New England town.  

In fact, shortly after his death his wife and young daughter, Fielding, were forced to move to a much less acceptable address.  The town was still within Fairfield County, the richest in the nation, an easy commute to New York, Madison Avenue shops, and the Fifth and Park Avenue society to which Mrs. Barrett felt they still belonged.

“What happened, Mommy?”, young Fielding asked her mother as the movers came.  “Why are we leaving?”.  She was too young to appreciate the vicissitudes of business and far too young to understand men like her father, their predictably bad judgment, and the shuffling about that their decisions caused; but she was not too young to appreciate what was being lost.  

The grand lawn sloping down to the Sound, the sailboats in the harbor, the fine china, linen, and silver tea settings, tuxedos, pearls, and Bentleys, especially in contrast to their new surroundings, seemed like a lost paradise. 

Fielding’s mother, chagrinned by her sudden loss of fortune, refused to give in to mediocrity.  Her home might not be far from the awful housing developments on the highway and far too close to the new shopping centers in Stamford, but it was still her home, the residence of the descendants of Hartford Fielding, his fabled ancestors from Northumberland, and their ancestors who served in the court of Henry VIII. 

The Barretts, the family into which she married, were no social slouches.   While not of the same pedigree and lineage as the Fieldings, they were still properly English, early American, and noted in the social register. Finchley Barrett’s portrait hung on the wall of the Connecticut state legislature, and he was a principal in the history of Massachusetts Bay colony and the New Haven plantation. 

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Unfortunately the Barrett family money went as fast as that of the Fieldings –  bad luck of the draw, weak DNA from a badly diluted gene pool (the story of Micah Barrett’s dalliances in New Orleans were legion), and Wall Street interests all contributed to the depletion of the Barrett treasury.

However, the current Mrs. Barrett, Fielding’s mother, was doubly motivated to keep up the families’ legacy, to demonstrate the breeding, manners, and taste she had inherited, and to hold her head as high if not higher than the other matrons of her set.  As such she became an unbearable snob. 

Her daughter caught the infection, and despite her family’s reverses, was determined to show that she still belonged to one of America’s best families, far above the technocrats and newly-rich land developers, builders, and entrepreneurs that were accorded social status by a newly commercial American society. 

She was prepared well for the journey.  Her mother, still with some standing in Connecticut society and thanks to deep-debt borrowing, financed one of the most elegant debutante balls of the area and the era.  The lovely Fielding was introduced to society, met the right young men, and was proposed to many times over even at the tender young age of eighteen.

While not quite Ivy League caliber, she was easily admitted to what had once been called a ‘finishing school', a place where a fine polish was put on native good breeding, but was now a legitimate, accredited college, a place to which girls like her had been sent to secure a respectable B.A. and a husband.

Image result for images  women of new england finishing schools early 20th century

Fielding, however, was caught between high social aspirations and an unavoidably unimpressive reality.  There was no way to get to her home without driving past strip malls and big box stores.  Her home was too modest, without property and servants to be a serious residence.  The old paintings of Barretts and Fieldings on the walls cut no ice with the lively crowd of new, proper debutantes.  They had equally impressive backgrounds and the money to go along with it. 

All of which motivated the young Fielding even more.  She became more outspoken about her ancestry, the kings, queens, and courtiers of her past, the early settlers of America, and the captains of industry who made it great.  However the more she spoke out, the less she was listened to.  She had become a bore.

There is something for everyone in America as long as you have the enterprise, patience, and good fortune to find it.  In Fielding’s case it was Obépine de la Marquette, the daughter of a faded aristocratic French family who had come to America in the footsteps of Tocqueville and Lafayette, testing the waters of the New World, never severing ties with the Old, and finally deciding to stay.

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Fortune had not smiled upon them however, and they suffered the same classic reverses as the Fieldings – bad investments, bad judgment, and an overweening, unfortunate belief in the innate, irresistible force of breeding.  Obépine like Fielding Barrett did not take these misfortunes lying down.  Although both women could do nothing to restore the wealth and privilege of their former families, they could let the world know that they came from superior stock – men and women who had ruled France and England and who had helped create America. 

They began to see each other frequently, to reminisce about the past, and to plead their cases before the boards of the best clubs of New York, Boston, and Washington.  These redoubts of class and privilege, most of whose members didn’t have two pennies to rub together, were accepting and gracious.  The members were all in the same boat.  They no longer had houses in Spring Valley, Beacon Hill, or Park Avenue; and their husbands who had frittered away whatever wealth they had inherited, were long dead, so all that was left was surname, escutcheon, portraits, and memories. 

There was no social ambition in Fielding’s and Obépine’s club.  All the women there had ‘arrived’ long before, and they had proud tales to tell.  Of course there was bitching and a social one-upmanship, for despite their camaraderie there were still social distinctions among them; but in general it was a congenial old lot. 

Image result for images old fashioned aristocratic women's club early 20th century

Whenever emerging from these friendly confines, Fielding and Obépine were insufferable.  They simply could not help themselves when they saw opportunity.  So many of their colleagues in ordinary life were beneath them in social station that it was their duty to show the banners of fine lineage.  

They were a happy couple in a friendship which was the legacy of the great Franco-American alliance of Lafayette and Tocqueville.  The two women knew who they were, what they stood for, and what the responsibilities to their heritage and historical legacy were.  However no one in this riotously ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’ America seemed to care a whit about anything before the year they were born.  The women were supernumerary, irrelevant, and lost.

It was too bad that so many had to put up with Fielding’s hammering.  Her inspiration came from a good place – too little indeed is paid to European civilization, empire, and the builders of America – but the America that gave her forefathers opportunity and possibility was not the America of today. 

Fielding spent more and more time in her club, her refuge, her solace, and her community.  A community of well-heeled bores might be only bores to outsiders, but to each other, they were champions.

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