Louis Auchincloss, a Wall Street lawyer from a prominent old New York family who became a durable and prolific chronicler of Manhattan’s old-money elite, died on Tuesday night in Manhattan. He was 92.
His death, at Lenox Hill Hospital, was caused by complications of a stroke, his son Andrew said. Mr. Auchincloss lived on the Upper East Side.
Although he practiced law full time until 1987, Mr. Auchincloss published more than 60 books of fiction, biography and literary criticism in a writing career of more than a half-century. He was best known for his dozens and dozens of novels about what he called the “comfortable” world, which in the 1930s meant “an apartment or brownstone in town, a house in the country, having five or six maids, two or three cars, several clubs and one’s children in private schools.”
This was the world he came from, and its customs and secrets were his subject from the beginning. He persisted in writing about it, fondly but also trenchantly, long after that world had begun to vanish.
Mr. Auchincloss’s last book, published in 2008, was “The Last of the Old Guard,” and though it was set at the turn of the 20th century, the title in many ways fit the author himself. Mr. Auchincloss had a beaky, patrician nose and spoke with a high-pitched Brahmin accent. He had elegant manners and suits to match, and he wrote in longhand in the living room of an antiques-filled apartment on Park Avenue.
Admirers compared him to other novelists of society and manners like William Dean Howells, but Mr. Auchincloss’s greatest influence was probably Edith Wharton, whose biography he wrote and with whom he felt a direct connection. His grandmother had summered with Wharton in Newport, R.I.; his parents were friends of Wharton’s lawyers. He almost felt he knew Wharton personally, Mr. Auchincloss once said.
Like Wharton, Mr. Auchincloss was interested in class and morality and in the corrosive effects of money on both. “Of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs,” Gore Vidal once wrote. “Not since Dreiser has an American writer had so much to tell us about the role of money in our lives.”
His detractors complained that Mr. Auchincloss’s writing was glib and superficial, or else that his subject matter was too dated to be of much interest. Writing in The New York Times in 1984, Michiko Kakutani said that while Mr. Auchincloss “is adept enough at portraying the effects of a rarefied milieu on character, his narrative lacks a necessary density and texture.”
“Like the shiny parquet floors of their apartment houses,” she added, “Mr. Auchincloss’s people are just a little too finely polished, a little too tidily assembled.”
The author Bruce Bawer, writing in The New York Times Book Review, said that Mr. Auchincloss had the bad luck to live “in a time when the protagonists of literary fiction tend to be middle- or lower-class.”
“These days,” he added, “the general public, though fascinated by the superficial trappings of privilege, seems to have little interest in the deeper truths with which Mr. Auchincloss is passionately concerned — with, that is, the beliefs, principles, hypocrisies, prejudices and assorted strengths and defects of character that typify the American WASP civilization that produced what was for a long time the country’s undisputed ruling class.”
“Class prejudice” was Mr. Auchincloss’s response to his critics. “That business of objecting to the subject material or the people that an author writes about is purely class prejudice,” he said in an interview in 1997, “and you will note that it always disappears with an author’s death. Nobody holds it against Henry James or Edith Wharton or Thackeray or Marcel Proust.”
Louis Stanton Auchincloss (pronounced AW-kin-kloss) was born on Sept. 27, 1917, in Lawrence, on Long Island, joining an upper-crust clan of Auchinclosses, Dixons, Howlands and Stantons. Since 1803, when Hugh Auchincloss left Paisley, Scotland, to establish a New York branch of the family dry goods business, the families all lived in Manhattan — all with money, all with high social positions.
Louis was the third of four children of Priscilla Stanton and Joseph Howland Auchincloss, who, like his father, was a Wall Street lawyer; he was also a third cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Louis was a cousin by marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who worked with him when she was a book editor later in life.)
Born Into Money
Mr. Auchincloss grew up in a world of town houses, summer homes on Long Island and Bar Harbor, Me., private clubs and servants, debutante parties and travel abroad. Yet as a child he thought of himself as neither rich nor aristocratic.
“Like most children of affluence,” he said in his 1974 autobiography, “A Writer’s Capital,” “I grew up with a distinct sense that my parents were only tolerably well off. This is because children always compare their families with wealthier ones, never with poorer. I thought I knew perfectly well what it meant to be rich in New York. If you were rich, you lived in a house with a pompous beaux-arts facade and kept a butler and gave children’s parties with spun sugar on the ice cream and little cups of real silver as game prizes. If you were not rich you lived in a brownstone with Irish maids who never called you Master Louis and parents who hollered up and down the stairs instead of ringing bells.” [CONTINUED...]