How does a person get listed in the Social Register? Obviously genetics must be a factor, along with piles of money. But many people with both appear to be excluded, while others lacking one or the other are listed. Who decides, anyway? And why does such a silly institution continue in the first place?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
They leave you out again, kid? I told you they wouldn’t be impressed by that bowling trophy. Although the Social Register folks declined to be specific, I gather you have to be invited. There’s an anonymous admissions committee, and if you can get five people who are already in the book to nominate you, or, even better, if you can get married to a listee, you’ve got a chance. If that doesn’t work, your best bet is to get yourself elected president of the United States — he always gets in, whether he deserves it or not.
The concept behind the Social Register takes a while to grasp. Here we have the 30,000 snootiest families in the country, and they consent to put their addresses and phone numbers in a book available in the public library. Think of the junk mail these guys must get. On the other hand, in a society full of climbers and frauds, I suppose there’s a need for a quick-and-dirty way of distinguishing the quality from the shlubs. Screening ensures that the people who make it in aren’t merely rich, they’re Our Sort — no guarantee that a listee isn’t a heel, but at least he’s discreet.
The Social Register takes pride in not explaining itself. We know that it was first published in 1887 in New York and that there were separate editions in major cities until 1977, when everything was consolidated into one national book. Two editions are published annually — the main one in November, and a summer version in May.
The rest you’ve got to piece together for yourself, which isn’t easy. Much of the book is written in some sort of Venusian Morse code. In the 1991 edition, for example, after the entry for Charles Norton Adams (no relation), we find the following: “Unn.Nrr.Srb.BtP.Evg.Myf.Ht.Cw.” Goodness, you think, next time they ask the man for information they should untie the gag. But actually the letters are abbreviations for Charles’s clubs. If we refer to the front of the book we learn that “Nrr” is the Newport Reading Room, “Srb” is the Spouting Rock Beach club, and “Unn” is either a typo or someplace so exclusive that to have to ask about it is proof that you don’t belong there. Mr. Norton isn’t listed in the 1994 book and one can only surmise that he is Dd.As.A.Stn.
In addition to the main listing, there are various special sections such as Births, Deaths, and Marriages. (One longs in publications of this type for a section called Indictments, but no such luck.) Some sections are completely mysterious. In the front of the summer edition, for example, there is something called “Dilatory Domiciles.” Dilatory in my book means “tending toward procrastination,” which does not shed much light. One supposes that some editorial type was taking aim at “temporary residences” and missed. Equally puzzling, at least initially, is a section called “Married Maidens.” What are we trying to say here, one wonders — former virgins? On inspection, it turns out to be a cross-reference of women’s married and maiden names.
There is much in the Social Register to remind you that this is not a book meant for thee and me. In the summer edition, for instance, we find the following note: “A listing of Yachts and Their Owners is included for the convenience of subscribers.” Sure, like the subscribers are going around slapping their foreheads and saying, “Damn, what is the length, tonnage, and builder of Chumley’s boat?” That said, there is something charming in knowing that Mr. Lawrence H. Mott’s “Ellen” (home port Charlotte, Vermont) is 15 feet long with a beam of 4-1/2 feet. Would that the same honesty had been applied to summer residences, all of which seem to have names like “The Pines.” Come on, doesn’t anybody live at “The Dump”?
On getting socially registered
Regarding my column on the Social Register, Gregory Nigosian refers me to geographer Stephen Richard Higley’s recent book Privilege, Power, and Place: The Geography of the American Upper Class, which maps out where rich folks live based on their listings in the 1988 edition. Great book, not least because it explains what “dilatory domiciles” means: listings that the listees turned in too late to make it into the main book (DDs appear in the summer supplement), along with changes of address.
Higley confirms what everybody suspected: the SR is heavily skewed toward old money and the East Coast. The seaboard states from Maine to Virginia account for two-thirds of the listings, with nearly one-third located in just two states, New York (5,838) and Pennsylvania (4,200). New money is grossly underrepresented. California has 2,517 SR households, fewer than Massachusetts (3,231), although it has five times the population. Texas has just 424 SR families (it is hard to imagine Ross Perot at the polo club, although the ’94 book lists several other Perots). At the bottom of the list is North Dakota with 1 SR family, no doubt the toast of Fargo.
Higley does not have much useful advice on how you can get into the SR. (Evidently you can just apply, like you can probably just apply to be pope.) But he does point out that it’s pretty easy to get kicked out. There were 38,000 families in the 1984 book but a great purge the following year reduced that number by 3,500 and more have hit the road since. Sad evidence of this comes from H. M., an SR listee from Chicago. H. (who according to his listing is actually H. the third) got in because his mother’s side married into a Mayflower family. But his four sisters were de-listed because they married members of the steerage crowd, thereby diluting the gene pool. H.’s mom think he’ll get the boot too once he marries his sweetie, whom H. cheerfully describes as NOKD — “not our kind, dear.” He didn’t sound real concerned. Kiss up to the gentry and you might increase your social stature, but I bet hanging with us mutts is more fun.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.