Like many of you, I’m sure, I like to read obituaries. There are many details of human foibles and forgotten chapters of history unearthed in those few paragraphs that sum up a person’s life.
Stephen Birmingham, an author whose frothy books of social history, such as ‘‘Our Crowd’’ and ‘‘The Rest of Us,’’ were best-selling sagas of American aristocracy, often viewed through the lens of ethnic minorities, died Nov. 15 at his home in New York City. He was 86.
The cause was lung cancer, said his longtime partner, Edward Lahniers.
No problem there. Thots’n’prayers and all that.
Mr. Birmingham began his literary career as a novelist, dissecting the manners of the prep-school class, before turning his attention to what he called New York’s ‘‘other society’’ — the German-Jewish dynasties that had dominated Manhattan’s banking and brokerage circles for a century.
‘‘Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York’’ became a No. 1 bestseller in 1967, was made into a musical, and launched a literary franchise for Mr. Birmingham as a chronicler of wealth and celebrity.
He wrote other nonfiction accounts of life among the upper echelons of Jewish, Irish, African-American, and old-line Anglo-Saxon society. He also published biographies of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and socialite Wallis Warfield Simpson, as well as several novels.
‘‘Our Crowd,’’ which focused on the little-known world of German Jewish families in New York, proved to be something a landmark and was hailed in Newsweek as a ‘‘sprightly, delightfully gossipy social history.’’
Mr. Birmingham, who was of Irish and British ancestry and was not Jewish, had attended the exclusive Hotchkiss prep school in Connecticut with descendants of several families who controlled financial empires established in the 19th century.
He became fascinated with the idea of exploring the social and commercial lives of the Lehmans, Warburgs, Guggenheims, Schiffs, and other families he called, correctly or not, ‘‘the closest thing to aristocracy that the city, and perhaps the country, had seen.’’
He followed the same breezy formula in ‘‘The Grandees: America’s Sephardic Elite’’ (1971) and ‘‘The Rest of Us: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews’’ (1984), which looked at the rise of such 20th-century figures as movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn and gangster Meyer Lansky.
Mr. Birmingham’s books flew off the shelves and made him something of a celebrity in his own right, with appearances on Johnny Carson’s and Merv Griffin’s talk shows.
That’s great. I haven’t read any of his books, but if a WASP (or whatever) wants to write about rich Jews, have at it. I’m glad people wanted to read it.
When he turned to other social groups in ‘‘Real Lace: America’s Irish Rich’’ (1973) and ‘‘Certain People: America’s Black Elite’’ (1977), Mr. Birmingham began to lose his footing.
‘‘Certain People,’’ in particular, met with hostile reviews as critics questioned Mr. Birmingham’s conclusions and the premise of a white man writing about the inner workings of black society.
’’ ‘Certain People’ is so flawed that it is hard to decide where to find fault first,’’ critic Le Anne Schreiber wrote in Time magazine in 1977, saying Mr. Birmingham ‘‘remains insensitive to the tragic involutions of identity that make the black elite very different from — and much more vulnerable than — its white counterpart.’’
Again, without having read the books it’s hard to comment, but he can write about Jews without being Jewish, about Irish without being all Irish, and about Jackie O and Wallis Simpson without being either one. But let him dare to put pen to paper to write about black people—successful black people—and the liberal literal elite—a race unto themselves—scream bloody murder. If that’s what “tragic involutions of identity” means; I haven’t a clue.
That’s pretty weird, even for liberals.
Curious, I went to the late Mr. Birmingham’s Amazon page to see if the book is even available and how it is has been received. A certain Dr. Kenneth Holden wrote:
Certain People is a classic study of the black upper class in America. Researched by one of the most impressive social historians of the day. Mr. Birmingham has produced works documenting the social history of almost every cultrue in this country and he has not fallen short with this study. I first read the book in 1978 and it opened up a whole world of information that I was unaware of even though I grew up in a black upper middle class environment.
Thank goodness for this book and others like [several titles named].
This book has introduced me to a vast world of research that dates back to the middle of the 19th century. In his introduction Mr. Birmingham explains how the book came about and the numerous persons that contributed to the success of his work.
He does an excellent job of tracing the origins of such affluent organiztions as the Links, Boule, Jack & Jill, and other prominent fraternal and social oranizations that the black upper class hold membership.
Certain People is one of the finest examples of black social history, the kind of work that makes a difference in the study of Black America.
Dr. Holden’s identity sounds anything but tragically involuted. I think he liked it.
It must be said, however, that this review was more typical:
This cultural climate has much to do with the appearance of Certain People, Stephen Birmingham’s poorly conceived and clumsily presented attempt to describe America’s black elite. The book has already received much unfavorable notice. Perhaps we should have seen it coming: The Right People, The Right Places, “Our Crowd“—Birmingham’s previous titles suggest a lamentable hobby. Recently, Vogue carried a Birmingham article on black fashion queens, and its giddy approval of highly refined brown sugar governs most of Certain People. Militancy as a style among visible blacks has subsided, creating for writers like Birmingham a new kind of accessibility and coverage. The niceness of the race is redeemed. Andy goes on the red clay Georgia trail; Andy goes to Washington; Andy goes for the heads of Her Majesty’s diplomats. This is the year of the Bionic Black, and porkchop nationalists have lost prestige.
That’s worse than “tragic involutions of identity”, but at least this reviewer was black. As unintelligible as that is, it reveals two truths. One, that Birmingham’s “lamentable hobby” of writing about socio-ethnicity raised hackles only when he turned his attention (favorably) to black people. Two, the Bionic Black sounds like the progenitor of the Magic Negro, some thirty years before Barack Obama was declared one.
Even a blind squirrel…