Sunday, October 22, 2006

Old Money Wanted

Yesterday, I passed a shop with a sign that read "Old Money Wanted." My first thought was, who wouldn't want old money? The shop just turned out to be a rare coin dealer.

But it reminded me of a story by business writer Steve Bailey that I saw in The Boston Globe the other day about a couple whose application to move into a co-operative building on Beacon Hill was denied. The story fascinated me for a couple of reasons.

For starters, I live just a couple of doors down from this building, and have never really noticed anything all that swanky about it. (I'll have to start looking more closely.) Another thing was the purchase price for the apartment in question, which was given as $700K. Now, anyone who has ever looked at a real estate ad for this neighborhood could tell you that this amount of money won't buy you that much, and certainly is infinitesimally low for a floor-through with over 2000 square feet of space - no matter what condition it's in and how much restoration is required. So that raised a flag for me.

But what was really intrigued me was the "No Irish Need Apply" element of the story - it could have been written 100 years ago - a successful, wealthy, self-made Irish American trying to by in to a co-op building apparently occupied by old, Mayflower money. I mean, this is the kind of lore I grew up on, but it just doesn't sem to happen all that often these days. Certainly, the Boston Irish are firmly entrenched at these points in the Boston ruling class - so entrenched that they don't even bother with the mayor's office anymore, they let the Italians have it. But it's sure an interesting story.

John Walsh thought he was living the American dream. Until, that is, he ran head-on into Jonathan Winthrop. The two men come from very different worlds -- and Jonathan Winthrop has every intention of keeping it that way.Winthrop's family came to Boston on the Arbella in 1630 (which followed the more modest Mayflower expedition by a decade), and he is a direct descendent of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

[Walsh] grew up in a Somerville housing project, and when his father, a laborer, drowned at the age of 47, he left his wife with six kids and no life insurance. Neither of his parents went beyond the eighth grade. Walsh himself dropped out of Westfield State College to go to beauty school.

Well, the Walshes wanted "in" to 68 Beacon, but their interview was larded with all kinds of questions about their backgrounds, their kids' educations, etc. What else did they ask? When to use a finger bowl? Whether they cooked cabbage and praties on St. Patrick's Day? Were they papists? I'd love to have been a fly on that wall, although come to think of it flies are probably not allowed on walls at 68 Beacon.

Anyway, the Walshes were turned down and little Johnny Walsh from Somerville is not going quietly. (If the jut-jawed snobs in this building didn't like little Walsh before The Globe article, they're sure not going to like him any better now. (By the way, co-operative boards can turn you down without disclosing why.)

I'm sure there was a complete element of snobbery in this, but it's probably not so much that John Walsh is Irish - it's the hairdresser business, the Westfield State drop-out "thing" - I can see that the co-op people must have been thinking 'he's just not our kind.' If he'd been a poor Irish kid from Somerville who made it out and gone to Bowdoin and "the B-School", and made his $$$ as an investment banker, learned the rules of polo and forgotten he ever knew how to bet a quinella at the $10 window at Suffolk Downs, I'm sure he'd have made his way in.

No, John and Kathleen, snotty and off-putting as the co-op members are, you're probably not their kind. And guess what: you probably wouldn't like the Winthrops much, either.

I'm sure the Walshes will be able to find someplace to live on Beacon Hill. They may have to pay more than $700K for something they'd like. But they'll be more than welcome. (If there were a unit in my building up for grabs, I'd love to see them here - we're only a few doors down from 68 Beacon, but the condos in our building are a lot smaller.)

With apologies to William Shakespeare. Some are born old money, some achieve old money, and some have old money thrust upon them.

And sometimes new money just isn't as good as old.


BlackX said...

Came upon this post while searching for more info on the topic and, the link I found shortly before this was about a collection of Benjamin Franklin's papers that included correspondence with both a Winthrop (likely ancestor of current snob-nose) as well as multiple ones with one "John Walsh". May not be related to the current John Walsh but it would be interesting if his local ancestry was about as old as the blue-bloods.

Maureen Rogers said...

Interesting find! The Irish may not have come over on the Mayflower, but there have certainly been Irish immigrants to America from the 1700's on. I have a plaque that's a reproduction of a New England grave stone that marks the grave of a man who was "murdered by Ed. Fitzpatrick, an Irishman" in 1744. (I'm sure there are more illustrious early American Irish immigrants as well.)

Of course, for most of us with Irish ancestry, "real" emigration began with the famine (and lasted until just recently).

doug winspear said...

I found it amusing, since I'd spent a little time at that address back in the late sixties. I had an acquaintance whose uncle, a Brahmin banker lived there. And this friend used to mention NINA to me. The old banker had an Irish maid named Ellen, and he and the nephew would go on about "Irish wenches." And it being the late sixties, and rather an egalitarian time, my friends and I had found these people to be historical curiosities. Tout ca change, n'est pas?

Maureen Rogers said...

It really sounds more like the 1860's than the 1960's, doesn't it? Still, old prejudices die hard.

John Walsh is just in the news again for having made a donation to a politician now under indictment, supposedly to help him out with his application into the co-op...