Stephen Birmingham, Chronicler of the Rich and Other Elites, Dies at 86
By SAM ROBERTSNOV. 18, 2015
Stephen Birmingham, the prolific novelist, purveyor of popular sociology and raconteur of the rich and famous in best-selling books like “ ‘Our Crowd’: The Great Jewish Families of New York” and “The Right People: A Portrait of the American Social Establishment,” died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.
His son Carey confirmed the death on Wednesday, saying that the cause was cancer.
Mr. Birmingham was not to the manner born himself, but to manners bred. He was often mistaken for being Jewish because of his trilogy of social histories of American Jews. The others were “The Grandees: America’s Sephardic Elite” and “The Rest of Us: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews.”
Mr. Birmingham made more than a dozen literary excursions into pop sociology, including a group portrait of the Dakota, the exclusive Manhattan apartment building, and explorations of the Irish-American and African-American elites.
To be sure, some of his books were embraced neither by the academy nor by some of the individuals, families or ethnic groups whose social climbing he chronicled.
Roger Wilkins, the civil rights leader and journalist, dismissed Mr. Birmingham’s “Certain People: America’s Black Elite” in scathing fashion in 1977 in The New York Times Book Review, writing of its “snippets of elementary psychology, flawed sociology, half-baked history and, to spice it all up, bits and pieces of plain mean gossip.”
Reviewing “Our Crowd” for The Guardian, Mordecai Richler wrote that Mr. Birmingham was “glossy and entertaining, but that’s all.”
For many readers, that was enough. His books were often best sellers — “Our Crowd” was on the Times list for 47 weeks, — and most of his nine full-length novels were acclaimed by critics, too.
His first, “Young Mr. Keefe,” about young people transplanted from Connecticut to California, was published in 1958, before he was 30. Other novels he wrote appeared to have been inspired at least in part by his research for his nonfiction books.
One, for example, was about the offspring of a Canadian liquor baron fending off scandal and anti-Semitism; another was about the moral decay of a marriage in a small town dynasty.
“ ‘Our Crowd’ ” was Mr. Birmingham’s first nonfiction book. He embarked on it, he explained in the preface, not simply to write about the rich.
“As a novelist,” he wrote, “my interest has always been in the romance of people, and I suppose I am always a bit more concerned with what people are than what they do.”
Stephen Gardner Birmingham was born in Andover, Conn., east of Hartford, on May 28, 1929, to Thomas Birmingham, a lawyer, and the former Editha Gardner. His parents sent him to the elite Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, where, he recalled, “there were no blacks, maybe one Chinese person, who was the son of a missionary, and a quota on Jews.”
One story he liked to tell was about the time, when he was 15, that he confided to a dowager his embarrassment at having a committed a faux pas at his first formal dance the night before. While balancing his and a female friend’s dinner plates and glasses of Sauternes, it seems, he slipped and poured the food up his sleeve. The dowager was aghast.
“Do you mean they served Sauternes and not Dubonnet?” she sniffed. “How dreadful!”
After graduating from Williams College in 1950 with a degree in English, Mr. Birmingham worked as an advertising copywriter in New York for Needham Harper Steers (now DDB Worldwide). His accounts included the department store Gimbels and Ladies’ Home Journal, for which he was credited with writing the slogan “Never underestimate the power of a woman.”
His Army service was sandwiched between ad agency work, which he left after finding success with magazine writing and his first novel. The book was recommended to a publisher by the novelist John P. Marquand, with whom he shared a literary agent.
In 1973 Mr. Birmingham moved to Ohio, where he taught creative writing at the University of Cincinnati and continued to write.
Until their divorce in 1974, Mr. Birmingham and his wife, the former Jane Tillson, lived in Rye, N.Y., where they raised their three children.
In addition to his son Carey, survivors include Mr. Birmingham’s partner, Edward Lahniers; another son, Mark; a daughter, Harriet; his sister, Susan Losee; and a granddaughter.
The idea for “Our Crowd” was suggested by Roger H. Klein, an editor at Harper & Row, and Mr. Birmingham was persuaded to pursue the project after the mother of a former schoolmate showed him an unpublished memoir by Adolph Lewisohn, the investment banker and philanthropist.
As he did with all his books, Mr. Birmingham pecked it out with two fingers on a Royal typewriter. His photo on the jacket was taken with a Polaroid camera by 12-year-old Carey.
The book began: “By the late 1930s the world of Mrs. Philip J. Goodhart had become one of clearly defined, fixed and immutable values. There were two kinds of people. There were ‘people we visit’ and ‘people we wouldn’t visit.’ ”
The ones that the German-Jewish aristocracy would visit were “our crowd.”
Mr. Birmingham went on to recount the time one of Mrs. Goodhart’s assimilated sisters-in-law was turned away by a hotel in the Adirondacks “because, of all things, the hotel politely said it had a policy and did not accept gentiles!”
The book also delivered historical footnotes, like the fact that until 1924, nearly 75 years after it was founded, all the partners at Lehman Brothers were named Lehman.
The success of “ ‘Our Crowd’ ” led to other ethnic studies, including “Real Lace: America’s Irish Rich” and “Life at the Dakota: New York’s Most Unusual Address,” as well as biographies of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Wallis Warfield Simpson.
Reviewing “The Right People,” William F. Buckley Jr., himself a charter member of the social establishment portrayed in the book, lumped Mr. Birmingham with “the panting taxonomists” who “sweat up pseudo theses around which to drape loose talk about rich and squirish Americans.”
The book critic Phoebe-Lou Adams once described Mr. Birmingham in The Atlantic as “a persistent explorer of ethnic byways provided they are paved with gold.”
He did not disagree. “Yes,” he told an interviewer from Publishers Weekly in 1984, “I think rich people are more interesting than poor people, don’t you?”