An insider's look at a secretive world behind the closed doors of a prominent New York law firm. Through interwoven tales of family members, clients, and such notables as Teddy Roosevelt and the Astors, also an intimate portrait of a poignant friendship between two men.
If you like this sort of thing and haven't discovered Louis Auchincloss, you have a treasure trove awaiting you. Auchincloss, a Manhattan native of the Upper East Side set, is well situated to tell tales about the moneyed and Mayflowered. He was born in 1917 to a wealthy family ("We were not as rich as the Rockefellers or Mellons, but we were rich enough to know how rich they were"). A Groton and Yale alumnus who retired from the white-shoe law firm of Hawkins, Delafield and Wood in 1986, he currently occupies a three-bedroom top-floor apartment on Park Avenue. His literary output is astonishing -- over sixty books and counting, most of which were written during his 30-odd year career as a fully employed attorney.
His most recent novel, Last of the Old Guard, follows only one year after his previous book, "The Headmaster's Dilemma," a favorite of mine which I briefly reviewed in my 4/7/08 blog. Last of the Old Guard is a penetrating character study of two founding partners of a New York law firm formed during the turn of the century. The story is narrated by the surviving partner, Adrian Suydam, upon the death of his best friend and law firm co-founder, Ernest Saunders. Suydam's painstaking exposition of Saunders' strengths and foibles reveals as much about Suydam and it does about Saunders. In his attempt to accurately express the core of Saunder's personality and define Saunder's ultimate legacy to his family, profession, and community, Suydam (and Auchincloss?) projects his own values and beliefs with understated skill.
The Last of the Old Guard is a quiet little book. If you're looking for a flashy page-turner, look elsewhere. If you're seeking an honest exposition of the inner thoughts and motivations of a rare and dying breed, however, it's invaluable. It's all there: personal tragedy, children that disappoint, cool-headed marital bargains, law firm maneuvering, conflicting loyalties, a sense of duty, defense of honor, the triumph of pragmatism over passion (and sometimes not!), man-to-man chats over brandy and cigars, and an overarching conviction that one's life can actually make a difference to an entire country. Sound interesting? Settle down into a leather club chair, put your feet up on a tufted ottoman, and read this book (if you're an avid fan of this kind of novel, I'm betting you already have these items of furniture in your home).
If you're going to read only one Auchincloss book, many readers suggest The Rector of Justin, a "school book" in the lighter vein of The Headmaster's Dilemma. It is considered by some to be Auchincloss's greatest (and most entertaining) book.