Sunday, March 9, 2008

Official Preppy Postmortem For Buckley

Neglected in last week's homages to William F. Buckley, Jr. was mention of his entry in perhaps the most influential cultural reference book of the 1980s: The Official Preppy Handbook. Edited by Lisa Birnbach, TOPH was subtitled "Look, Muffy, a book for us." Unfortunately, we can provide no internet link because this classic was published 28 years ago and has fallen out of print. No revised edition has been published.

But that is no problem, for as TOPH advised: "Preppies wear clothes for twenty-five years and no one can tell the difference."

For those who grew up in that awful era of polyester and "Jimmy Carter battling the energy crisis in his cardigan sweater", The Official Preppy Handback came along just in the nick of time. TOPH was a how-to manual to revive classic American style in the year of Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency. Granted, the book's message was tongue in cheek, but it was mesmerizing, like Buckley's lockjaw accent, his studied deshabille and his way with a boat.

Which brings us to "The Prep Pantheon," on pages 196-97, which contained "An All-Time Great Alumni Association" of preppies. There were only 31 people on the list, which began with John Adams (the only Founding Father to make the cut), and included such luminaries as George Herbert Walker Bush (whose principal credential was that Reagan had called him "a Preppy, a Yalie, a sissy"), Katharine Hepburn ("Possess flawless Prep accent and full woodsy wardrobe"), Caroline Kennedy ("Her lacrosse game was ruthless, her brunch technique dazzling") and Cole Porter (for writing the Yale fight song).

Buckley's entry on this august list was thus: "St. Thomas More and St. John's, Beaumont (England), and Millbrook, Yale '50. Author, critic, publisher, television personality. Earned an immediate place in Prep Pantheon for his first book, God and Man at Yale. Would have made it anyway for his patrician demeanor, number 2 pencil, and amazing curling tongue."

Kentucky's only, somewhat tenuous, connection to the Prep Pantheon, as best as we can tell, is F. Scott Fitzgerald, who spent a year or so at Camp Zachary Taylor during World War I and whose Jay Gatsby character was inspired by a gangster he met at the Seelbach Bar in Louisville.

Buckley has now joined Fitzgerald in another Pantheon, but the legacy of their kind will never die. Indeed, TOPH included Indian Hills on its list of preppy suburbs and Louisville on its roster of 22 cities "where the preps are", and one suspects that would still be the case today. Now those are national rankings that probably won't be heard from the mayor's office.

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