Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Ptarmigan Pie: Elites in the Western World Then and Now

It turns out that Winston Churchill’s mother may have been a more interesting person than he was, and that in itself is remarkable because Mr. Churchill was one of the towering figures of the 20th century, and was very talented in many areas (a fine amateur painter, a superb writer about history, a remarkable orator, etc.), and notable not just for the obvious political contributions he made.

Jennie Jerome was an American whose father was a successful entrepreneur who took his family to Europe where Jennie grew up. She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman who was also very smart, shrewd and charming. She married an heir , Lord Randolph Churchill, to one of the great families of England who were the Dukes of Marlborough and significant figures in English history. She set out, after the marriage, to make her husband prime minister, and she almost succeeded. Lord Randolph, however, had contracted syphilis earlier in life (he did not transmit it to his wife) and following a political scandal, finally went mad with the disease, and died at the age of 45 in 1895.

At that point, life became truly interesting for Jennie Jerome. She was now the widowed Lady Randolph and one of the dominant figures of British society of her era. Her lovers included the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), Count Charles Kinski of Austria-Hungary, and dozens of the most powerful men in Europe. Her friends included Empress Eugenie, Queen Alexandra of England,, Theodore Roosevelt (a distant cousin), Ernest Cassel and Cecil Rhodes. She had two sons, Winston and Jack, and devoted part of her life to helping them. She was easily the most significant figure in the life of her son Winston Churchill, who was totally devoted to her until her death in 1921 when she was only 65. Her circle of friends included almost the entire nobility and royal family of England, royal figures from throughout Europe, leading titans of business in Europe and the United States, generals and military legends, and the major artistic and literary figures of the era (including Mark Twain, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, Stephen Crane, Algernon Swinburne, et al). She founded and edited the most important journal in English of the era, The Anglo-Saxon Review (which published some of the most important commentary of that time). In short, she knew virtually everyone significant in the world around her, and much more than that, she was in many cases an important figure in their lives.

One of those devoted to her was Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and son of Queen Victoria, who waited for his turn to the British throne for many decades. In that period, he became the leading figure of British society, and unlike his mother, he led a self-indulgent life of excessive luxury. This continued through his short reign, and the period became known as the Edwardian Age. Lacking any real political power as prince or king, he turned his energies to the many pleasures of the time, including horses and racing, fine clothes, sexual escapades, food and wine. His interest in the latter created a food culture of its own, and wherever he went in England and abroad, a practice of fabulous dining accompanied him. This included six lavish meals a day (including morning and afternoon teas, no small repast in themselves) accompanied by the finest wines and several bottles of French champagne. Two dishes always had to be available for him each day, lobster salad and ptarmigan pie. The ptarmigan, for those who are not hunters or bird lovers, is an English game bird similar to the grouse, and the pie which was made with it was Edward’s culinary obsession. (A much more modest American version is chicken pot pie.) Kipling described him as a “corpulent voluptuary.”

Jennie Jerome’s story, fascinating in itself, also illustrates one of constants of public life in Europe and the United States. That is, the political, commercial/financial, cultural and journalistic leaders in these societies are a relatively small group of persons, socially interconnected and often members of succeeding generations of families. Royal and noble society in Europe had this built in, and it was quite difficult to break into these elite groups without substantial achievements, social attributes and lots of money. Lady Randolph had the first two in surplus, combined with an indefatigable will and energy that simply overwhelmed her rivals, critics and opponents.

Of course, frontier society in America was quite permeable, and millionaire parvenus were relatively commonplace. Imitating English society, American society developed its own elitism by the end of the 19th century, and it was routine for the children of American society to live, travel and be educated in England and Europe.

Today, royal families are thinning out in Europe. Kings or queens still sit on thrones in Great Britain, Spain, Sweden, Belgium, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, but none of them has much more than titular power. France, Germany, Austria (and its former empire that included Hungary), Italy, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Albania, each of which had monarchs at the beginning of the last century, now function as republics (although some descendants of their former royal families still campaign to be restored.).

Americans have not had royal families, but we have had major political families whose sons and daughters have often participated at very high levels of government. Such notable families include the Adamses, the Harrisons, the Roosevelts, the Tafts, the Kennedys and the Bushes. Each has had at least one president, and most of them had two. But although members of these families have often held lesser offices, there is little desire for American voters to establish permanent dynasties.

Thus, after enjoying continued attention in tabloid sensationalism following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the dysfunctional Kennedy family has begun to sputter out. A few Roosevelts held office after President Franklin Roosevelt died, but now the name is rarely heard.The last of the Ohio Tafts recently left the governor’s office there in disgrace. Jeb Bush, son of one president and brother of another, could not compete in the 2008 presidential elections, and probably won’t in 2012, because of the family name.

Although the populist, anti-aristocratic American character rejects royal dynasties, and has only a temporary interest in secular ones, the core of American public life is conducted by a relatively few persons who appear and reappear in the various political cycles which determine the direction of U.S. public policy and life. Considering that the current population of the U.S. is about 300 million, the numbers of those who make major decisions and contributions in government, business, and culture is astonishingly small, probably several thousands (but still less than one-one hundredth of one per cent of the population).

So the public culture it is not, after all, that dissimilar, one hundred years later, from Victorian England. It’s true that we don’t have any Jennie Jerome Churchills today, but then we don’t have any Winston Churchills either. Instead, we have media constructions of so-called larger-than-life figures whose real lives are often flawed and almost always uninteresting. Victorian England, in spite of its ascetic reputation derived from the queen of that name, was a period of controversy, indulgence, excess, and sexual promiscuity among the upper classes. Today we have the same type of behavior, although it is now practiced by an affluent middle class as well.

The greatest difference between then and now perhaps is that the passions of the Victorian world were conducted either in secret or within a tiny and self-serving group of aristocratic and affluent participants. Today there is no privacy left in our public life. Those who rise suddenly usually do so from an appeal based on glamor, controversy and media attraction. And if they lack the qualities which enable them to endure the blazing and ruthless searchlight of fame, they fall just as suddenly.

The internet creation was only the beginning of the end of privacy, and perhaps of character, as we know it. Almost everything now is provisional. We will not see the likes of the Churchills, mother or son, ever again.

[For those who wish to read more about Jennie Jerome, please go to Jennie: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, Volume Two, by Ralph G. Martin.]

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