by Nicholas Prychodko
Ever since the earliest days of the Social Register, and well before it moved into its longtime Park Avenue South offices in the early twenties, press clippings pertaining to the Association and its membership have been collected and preserved in scrapbooks. For the most part, these consist of items inspired by the semiannual publication of its listings. They reflect a popular fascination with the “ins” and “outs” of Society. But this periodic media spotlight, and the aura of glamour it generates, has resulted also in publicity of a different order: commercial usage bearing the tacit but illegitimate imprimatur of the Social Register.
The Association has, from its inception, resisted the temptation to issue potentially lucrative endorsements of products and services, irrespective of the reputation they might command, as well as discouraging the unauthorized use of its name in advertisements. Instead, reputable companies wishing to reach subscribers to the Social Register have been provided with discreet access in early editions of the Social Register and special publications (most notably the Social Register Observer), which have provided more suitable vehicles for advertising aimed at its select audience. As early as 1888, some two years after its first publication, a notice in the New York Daily Tribune observes, accurately, that the Social Register “is in reality what its name implies,” but not quite accurately that this is due in part to the fact that it is “free from advertisements, which have always been the bugbear in previous undertakings of this kind, as it is impossible to seek patronage in that direction without corrupting the legitimate contents.” The Association continues to strictly adhere to its policy of insulating the listings of the Social Register from outside pressures, strongly discouraging the commercial exploitation of its contents while continuing to include advertisements in its own publications. It is ironic that this very incorruptibility, which helps assure reliability in listing Society, also attracted the attention of purveyors of various goods and services, who have found it difficult to resist adding the cachet of the Social Register to their offerings. Involuntary and unwitting though this seeming collaboration has been on the Association’s part, it was perpetrated in good humor by those responsible—copywriters and artists alike—whose creations are now offered in the same spirit. (It will be noted that there seems to be little agreement among them as to the correct rendition of Social Register. While it is customary to capitalize proper nouns, and to underline or italicize titles, some would appear to be of the opinion that the expression has become so basic a part of the English language as to merit only the lower case.)
Who, for example, could object to the Association’s affirmative decision regarding the listing of the fictitious Mr. A. Potter Livingston, a gentleman of impeccable taste exhibited in the fact he “always serves Calvert Reserve”?
Clearly, “he’s in!” On the other hand, one cannot but concur with the outraged “Duchess” who, as she consults her copy of the Book, cries “OUT! She served PLAIN tomato juice at dinner!” when “everyone knows the correct appetizer before dinner is tomato juice cocktail.”
The reinforcement of taste literally as flavor, by taste as Social grace, is a recurrent theme, “Refreshing” and “healthful” Pepsi, “a nickel drink worth a dime,” is purported to be “in the Social Register of drinks.” Penn Maryland Whiskey is “a worthy member of aristocracy” displayed on a shelf alongside a copy of the New York Social Register and other Society directories of the mid-1930s. Hamburger at Longchamps, however, is more modestly a mere “candidate for the Social Register.”
Well-nourished and well-dressed, one needs a pied-à-terre. To this end, in New York, Tishman Realty & Construction Co. Inc. offers “Fine Living” in “The Social Register Area”; and at The Park Central Residency, “the list of prominent guests reads like a combination of the Social Register and Who’s Who! It’s really the swankiest address in town.” You are invited to “consult the Social Register for a list of your neighbors” at the Buchanan, and to “Register Socially” at the Hotel Delmonico. Should the furnishings be inadequate, why not join “The Social Register at Curtis,” where “many of our best people come…for their furniture.” Or sample the fine antique and reproduction accessories at Wm. H. Jackson Company of New York and Chicago, which “Began to Serve the Prominent Families in the Social Register” some 60 years before its first publication.
When shopping for those special occasions chat inspire “that gleeful little gurgle” and require “addressing lists of envelopes in long-hand and checking addresses from Social Registers,” an excursion to Ovington’s on Fifth Avenue is just the ticket—“’Pon my soul there are brides hereabouts and ’pon my soul Ovington’s has the gifts for them!”
The accumulation of possessions to be cleaned and polished naturally suggests a need for the services of an enterprise discreetly billed as “The Social Register of Household Agencies.” And at least one early classified ad, placed by a self-styled “loafer” but “potential hard worker,” includes a listing in the Social Register among credentials offered those in search of an employee exhibiting “industry, mental ingenuity, tact.” This inappropriate reference has more recently been noted in at least one personal ad in New York magazine.
Travel, on business or for pleasure, is so much more appealing when endorsed by those listed, as implied in the New Haven Railroad’s notice of its Yankee Clipper and Merchants Limited service between Boston and New York (“All Pullman Deluxe Trains—Fully Air Conditioned”), which features the 1936 New York and Boston books superimposed over a speeding train and the inscription “Among Those Present.” A direct mailing by the Cadillac Motor Car Company brought to the Association’s attention by a subscriber during the same year also displays a copy of the Social Register, and poses the question “What’s in a Name?” before announcing that “Cadillac is reserved for the Royal Family of Motordom” characterized by a “nobility won by achievement and performance” with which the addressee is “qualified to be identified.” A similar tack is taken by the Cunard Line, “whose passenger lists combine the Hall of Fame with the Social Register.” Not to be outdone, North German Lloyd insists that its “passenger lists are more than ever the transatlantic Social Register.”
Entertainments—whether literary or dramatic—have often incorporated references to the Social Register, some explicitly enough to feature it in their publicity. The 1931 play The Social Register, by Anita Loos and John Emerson, in which Sidney Blackmer is a Society playboy who falls in love with a musical comedy soubrette played by Lenore Ulric, and the 1934 screen version starring Colleen Moore and Alexander Kirkland, would of course have been hard-pressed not to. But some might consider a trifle risqué The Housekeeper’s Daughter’s teaser: “Her number’s not in the Social Register…but all the Social Register boys have her number!” The “Heir Minded” young lady pictured with the 1929 edition in hand on the cover of the April 19,1929, issue of Life (no relation to the magazine familiar to modern readers) represents perhaps a more genteel variant of the same phenomenon.
Members of Society are of course distinguished not only by what they imbibe but by how they look. Through the years, a “distinguished group of dashing debutants and brilliant society women…follow a regular course of beauty treatments at the salon of Helena Rubinstein,” which suggests: “Perhaps you will add your name to the social register of beauty?” Newly acquired pulchritude may be enhanced by a visit to the New York women’s shop of Jane Engel, which offers dresses “in the Social Register area” priced from $7.95 to $39.95. And a lady is not properly equipped for her Social rounds unless she is sporting a pair of “Social Register” Hand-Stitched Kislav White Doeskin Gloves from Best & Co. Aware that, unlike the world of business with its precise credit information, “there are no graded ratings in the social register,” and “social standing is based on intangible impressions,” one takes care to be accoutered at D’Andrea Brothers Inc., Men’s Tailors in New York. Or perhaps at Rogers Peet Company in the same city, which under the heading of “THE SOCIAL REGISTER” avers that “The social register reads like a list of our steady customers, for gentlemen who know value in smart clothing know that we sell everything the best dressed men wear.” Temporarily embarrassed? Walk a few blocks to Roger Kent (“Registered with the Social Register”), which promises “to satisfy the standards of men of good taste and fashion awareness at a fraction of what they previously paid for their apparel” by providing “Suits, Overcoats and Formal Wear for Men at the one $38.50 price.” For a more casual look, “At Broadstreet’s Denim Climbs The Social Register.”
Left: A scene from the 1934 screen version of The Social Register
© 1934, renewed 1962 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
A far less savory association is to be found in John Waters’ 1981 film Polyester, starring the celebrated Divine as Francine Fishpaw, obese wife of an X-rated movie theatre owner. Francine’s best friend, a woman in the terminal stages of late middle age who has recently inherited a fortune and is preparing for her debut in polite Society, is shown seated in the back seat of her chauffeured limousine…hiding behind a copy of the 1979 edition of the Social Register.
Should aliens of the extraterrestrial variety be monitoring the airwaves, they no doubt are quite familiar with the Association. References to it have regularly, over the years, been released into the ether. Mrs. Thurston Howell III (Lovey Wentworth), the somewhat scatterbrained Social butterfly on “Gilligan’s Island,” for example, is reported to have lamented, “I don’t know how we’re going to explain to our friends that we spent several years with people who aren’t even in the Social Register.”
The Book was essential to the resolution of a 2-hour “Christine Cromwell Saturday Mystery” TV movie puzzler which aired on ABC in 1990. The heroine, unable to locate the murderer, asks her associate to look him up in the Social Register. Naturally, he is listed. Ah, but does he own a boat? A glance through the list of “Yachts In Commission And Their Owners” identifies it, and the list of “Yachts and Tenders” conveniently provides its location. The rest is simple enough. The miscreant must be hiding out on his vessel, where he is, of course, apprehended.
Literary references to the Social Register abound in a variety of genres. A self-styled “classy quiz,” which contains a collection of shibboleths intended to distinguish those who have it from those who don’t (The Status Game: The Ultimate Challenge for the Up, Up, Upwardly Mobile, by Dan Carlinsky and Edwin Goodgold, 1986), asks for a translation of the following statement.
“More good news: We just bought a fabulous town house with a billiards room, a music room, two libraries, and darling quarters for an au pair. I hope we don’t miss the deadline for Dilatory Domiciles.”
The correct response? “I hope our new address can be listed in the supplement to the Social Register.”
And the Book turns up in the most exotic places—such as Lebanon in Patrick Dennis’ Around the World with Auntie Mame (1958). Mrs. Cantwell, “a tall, rawboned, high-rumped American matron of uncertain age,” who “was the absolute Führer” of a coterie of fellow expatriates “made up of lackluster Americans and English of middle age, middle income, and middle class,” employs the Book as a prop. Her house is an ill-advised attempt at recreating the ambience of Massachusetts in a Middle Eastern architectural setting. “Horsehair love seats and American Chippendale chairs lurked among the tiles and arches, ruffled Priscilla curtains hung at the keyhole windows, and the walls were liberally salted with samplers and clipper ships and portraits of grim ancestors who looked as though they had terrible trouble with their bowels. Placed on a pie-crust table, ever so casually but where no one could possibly miss it, was a copy of the Boston Social Register—many years out of date—which sprung open, as though by some complex mechanism, to the page where the Cantwells were listed. With a certain amount of amusement, I watched Auntie Mame calmly turn the book face down, only to have it instantly righted by Mrs. Cantwell.”
A generation removed, Dominick Dunne’s 1985 novel The Two Mrs. Grenvilles testifies to the enduring quality of the Social Register’s appeal. A casual recent rereading turned up seven references. An example: “It filled Ann with inordinate pleasure when her name appeared for the first time in the New York Social Register.”
The Social Register and its denizens have not escaped the notice of cartoonists either, appearing in popular periodicals such as The New Yorker. A volume of cartoons that draws its inspiration directly from the Book, William Hamilton’s brilliant Anti-Social Register, merits special mention. (An interview with the author, focusing on the way social cartoons have changed over the years, will appear in the Winter 2016 issue of the Observer.)
Many of the clippings in the Association’s scrap books, particularly those whose ability to amuse has been sharpened by the passage of time, date to an earlier, in some respects perhaps a gentler era. Interest in the institution and its membership continues and, as before, surfaces periodically in the press and elsewhere. It also continues to be reflected in advertising copy, a recent example of which, offered by The Waldorf Towers—“The Social Register, our guest book. People are always getting the two confused.” —recalls, in tone and content, the commercial appeals of times past. And lest there be uncertainty as to the ability of the Social Register to fascinate the arbiters of 21st-century society, whether of the demimonde or of the haut monde, two recent additions to its scrapbooks will serve to dispel any doubt. An episode of the “reality show” The Real Housewives of New York City that aired in 2009 featured a discussion of the Social Register which, if it reflected some confusion about what exactly it is, nonetheless affirmed its status as something to which to aspire. In one scene, Jill and Ramona bicker about whether Jill’s intention to promote her fabric company in a particularly egregious way would be tacky, when Ramona offers, “You want me to bring you up to the social register?” and Jill counters, “Do you know where it is?” “Of course,” responds Ramona, and offers to take her there. Both, however, appear to be unaware that the Social Register is a book, and not a place. But those in the know do not require a roadmap to find it. The Social Register makes an appearance in Number Two on a list of “The Preppiest Pick-Up Lines” published in the June 2014 Town & Country: “I’m interning for the Social Register and we’re updating our records. Can I get your number and address?”