In the Shallows

Once in a while you read articles in the same sitting that seem to be parts of larger narrative, or maybe it’s that the second one is a clap-back to the first.

This happened recently when I read an archived article by A.J. Liebling that the New Yorker online reprinted after the death of Prince Philip. Liebling’s post from November 29, 1947, looked at how the press was covering the royal wedding of the future queen, honing in specifically on reportage by one correspondent billed as “Noted American Society Woman and Authoress.”

Here’s her take on a Buckingham Palace reception: “I did not realize there was so much splendor left in this battered old world. And do you know, I was so overwhelmed by the size and beauty of the jewels worn by the women present that I can scarcely remember so much as the color or cut of a single gown I saw.”

And this: “One of the persons I ran into at the reception was Lady Astor. In a white gown with a great coronet and other matching diamonds, she was one of the most distinguished-looking women I have ever seen. . . . Queen Alexandra of Yugoslavia wore the most beautiful emeralds, all the size of pigeon’s eggs, that I have ever seen.”

Liebling allowed the “breathless” Mrs. Cobina Wright to speak her place for the ages. There’s nothing here we haven’t long known about Anglo-American culture circa 1947, but I was struck by how far we’d moved from a culture where the possession of commodities classifiable as “jewels” could be considered intrinsically associated with beauty and personal worth.

There was no guilt to be had by the obsequious, solicitous Mrs. Wright, and even Liebling held off on skewering some of these mostly female correspondents he surveyed (including Rebecca West). Maybe that’s because 1947 society accepted the trope that jewels and especially diamonds were the carat on the stick that men with money dangled before women they sought to possess. It was only two years later that Carol Channing sang “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” on Broadway.

The evolution of practiced democracy has led to many regressive things since 1947, but the retreat of jewels as social fixation—probably beginning with the swish of Nancy Reagan’s Oscar de la Rentas—was not one of them. Millennial and Gen Z tastes were partly the reason for Zales and Kay Jewelers closing many dozens of stores last year. Getting opal earrings for Christmas is no longer a thing for high school girls. They don’t even want a Tiffany tennis bracelet. The last gasp of “jewels” was that period when single women woman bought big diamond rings for their right hand. But that, too, died out.

I’d like to think we’ve turned a corner on public complicity in what we’d today call aristocracy porn. We’ve worn sneakers and sweatpants throughout the pandemic. But the clap-back article that I coincidentally read shortly after Mrs. Wright’s breathlessness makes me think not so fast.

It was an “On Location” piece for the New York Times real estate section (that somehow gets incorporated into the local news feed). The author, Tim McKeough, whom I think of as Mr. Shallow, writes about home design and renovations, which is basically what 85 percent of white Americans share an interest in.

The article profiles a lawyer who’d spent a lot of money renovating a Brooklyn brownstone that he bought from the Roman Catholic Church for $5.5 million. Nuns had been living there since 1969. Per the Times: “The Greek Revival house, once home to the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, needed more than just a simple renovation to function in the 21st century.” (Yes, erasing any remnants of the poors is always a challenge!)

When the lawyer first went to look at the property with his friend, he said that “there was a dreamcatcher on a door and a rock carved with the word ‘hope.’ ” And his friend said, “Oh my God, the nuns’ hopes and dreams are still here.” (I’m not making this up.)

The lawyer hired an architect “to help restore the home to its former glory while updating the interior to reflect 21st-century living.” “Former glory” in Times parlance means repossession by people with money. The building’s desecration had come at the poor-working hands of those messy, cluttered nuns, whose living arrangements “stripped [the building] of many period details” and “cut [it] into a warren of tiny rooms.” And “21st-century living” in Times parlance means one man living alone on four floors/4,900-square feet.

You could argue that the property was already on the market; it wasn’t like the lawyer was kicking out the nuns. And you could argue that it’s the Catholic Church, for heaven’s sake. No love lost there. Only—nuns working with the poor are probably the only aspect of the Catholic Church in line with the teachings of Jesus. The symbolism in this story that the writer presents as period-detail justice served! looms like a gaping wound.

In 1947, you had excessive jewels-swooning at a royal wedding, but if you were a white American veteran, you could buy a Levittown house for $8,000 with no down payment and a 30-year mortgage. In 2021, real estate is becoming out of reach for regular people of all races and colors. One survey last year found that median-priced homes are now technically unaffordable for average wage earners in 75 percent of the country. And investment firms like Blackstone and Apollo are even buying up trailer parks, where the average mobile home is 1,100 square feet.

Mr. McKeough’s fawning over mantels “adorned with thick monumental slabs of Grigio Carnico marble” is no different from Mrs. Wright’s fawning over emeralds the size of pigeons’ eggs. And we are OK with that because the New York Times says it’s OK. Why is it OK? Is it because a nuns’ barracks turned into “21st-century living” is tasteful and minimalist, the antithesis of the faux-Buckingham of Trump Tower? I don’t know. But despite all that has changed since the day Phil slipped the royal rock on Liz’s finger, we haven’t got very far. §