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Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., Dissector of Old Money, Dies at 86

Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., an author and magazine editor who unsparingly scrutinized his fellow heirs to America’s aristocracy, primarily in “Old Money: The Mythology of Wealth in America,” which one reviewer called “a self-help book for those who have too much,” died on Tuesday at his home in North Stonington, in southeastern Connecticut. He was 86.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his daughter Liberty Aldrich said.

Mr. Aldrich also edited “George, Being George” (2008), an oral history that lionized George Plimpton, a fellow patrician and literary journalist, and he wrote “Tommy Hitchcock: An American Hero” (1985), a biography of the famed polo player.

Mr. Aldrich “was driven by a need to understand, uncover, and explain to others the class he was born into; being a writer gave him the opportunity to do that,” Ms. Aldrich said in an email.

He did that most prominently and self-reflectively in “Old Money” (1988) and in a January 1979 cover story for The Atlantic magazine headlined “Preppies: The Last Upper Class?”

While the article parodied prep school students, it also described a “Preppie ideal” as “a collective yearning; with respect to money, it is a yearning for a triumph — of class over income, of grace over works, of being over doing.”

“Gracefulness is less a gift than a standard,” Mr. Aldrich wrote, “something to measure up to, a performance.”

He went on: “The delight of the thing comes from the knowledge that it’s all contrived, that the effect of effortlessness requires a good deal of strain, that negligence requires attention, that indifference requires concentration, that simplicity and naturalness require affectation. The most delicious ‘in’ joke of Preppiedom is the anxiety everyone feels about being carefree.”

Reviewing the book in The Los Angeles Times, the author Adam Hochschild wrote, “Aldrich’s voice is that of someone in a comfortable leather armchair, telling a story during a long evening over brandy and cigars at an elegant New York or Boston club — a men’s club, definitely.” He called the book “as thoughtful a psychological portrait of America’s aristocracy as we have.”

In The New York Times Book Review, it was Jane O’Reilly who called “Old Money” a “self-help book for those who have too much,” adding that wealthy people would be delighted “to discover that someone, one of their own, has defined both the essence and the existential quandary of being Old Money.”

Mr. Aldrich wrote insightfully about the drawbacks of too much freedom, as personified by the lament of a member of a self-help group for beneficiaries of inherited fortunes called the Dough Nuts, who complained, “Sometimes I feel as if everything I’ve done in my life has been a hobby.”

Mr. Aldrich edited “George, Being George” (2008), an oral history that lionized George Plimpton, a fellow patrician and literary journalist.Credit…The New York Times

Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich Jr. was born on April 11, 1935, in Boston. His father was an architect and chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. His mother was Eleanor (Tweed) Aldrich.

“I was entitled to a IV rather than a Jr.,” Mr. Aldrich wrote in “Old Money,” but “I was persuaded that Roman numerals were pretentious.”

He dedicated the book to, among others, his great-grandfather Nelson W. Aldrich who after 30 years in politics — he was a Republican United States Senator from Rhode Island — turned a modest profit from his wholesale grocery business into a $12 million fortune thanks to good investment advice and favors from friendly robber barons.

Senator Aldrich, who was said to have become a millionaire shepherding legislation for such robber barons, was considered the father of the direct federal income tax and the Federal Reserve System. His daughter Abigail married John D. Rockefeller Jr., the only son of the founder of Standard Oil. Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, the former governor of New York and former vice president, was a cousin.

After attending the exclusive St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire and graduating from Harvard with a degree in American history and literature in 1957, Nelson Jr. held a series of jobs: reporter for The Boston Globe, New York City public-school teacher, Paris editor of The Paris Review, senior editor at Harper’s Magazine and editor in chief of Civilization, the Library of Congress magazine.

He also taught at Long Island University and City College of the City University of New York.

In addition to his daughter Liberty, from his marriage to Anna Lou Humes, which ended in divorce, Mr. Aldrich is survived by Ms. Humes’s daughter, Alexandra, whom he adopted; his wife, Denise (Lovatt) Aldrich; their daughter, Arabella; a son, Alexander Goldsmith, from his relationship with a partner, Gillian Pretty Goldsmith; four stepchildren, Alison Humes, Mavis Humes Baird, Immy Humes and Tom Martin; and five grandchildren.

For all his parodies of denizens of the upper classes, Mr. Aldrich was not above being lampooned himself. With His Crowd mourning the demise of the restaurant Elaine’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 2011 — another class-conscious sanctuary — the poet Frederick Seidel, one of Mr. Aldrich’s former Harvard classmates, wrote:

Aldrich once protested to Elaine that his bill for the night was too high.
She showed him his tab was for seventeen Scotches and he started to cry.
(Or was it eighteen?)
We were the scene.
Now the floor has been swept clean.

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