Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

Flight of the WASP

The Rise, Fall, and Future of America’s Original Ruling Class

by Michael Gross

Fifteen families. Four hundred years. The complex saga of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite in America’s history.

  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 480
  • Publication Date November 14, 2023
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6186-4
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $30.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Publication Date November 14, 2023
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6188-8
  • US List Price $30.00

For decades, writers from Cleveland Amory to Joseph Alsop to the editors of Politico have proclaimed the diminishment of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who for generations were the dominant socio-cultural-political force in America. While the WASP elite has, in the last half century, indeed drifted from American centrality to the periphery, its relevance and impact remain, as Michael Gross reveals in his compelling chronicle.

From Colonial America’s founding settlements through the Gilded Age to the present day, Gross traces the complex legacy of American WASPs—their profound accomplishments and egregious failures—through the lives of fifteen influential individuals and their very privileged, sometimes intermarried families. As the Bradford, Randolph, Morris, Biddle, Sanford, Peabody and Whitney clans progress, prosper and periodically stumble, defining aspects in the four-century sweep of American history emerge: our wide, oft-contentious religious diversity; the deep scars of slavery, genocide, and intolerance; the creation and sometime mis-use of astonishing economic and political power; an enduring belief in the future; an instinct to offset inequity with philanthropy; an equal capacity for irresponsible, sometimes wanton, behavior.

“American society was supposed to be different,” writes Gross, “but for most of our history we have had a patriciate, an aristocracy, a hereditary oligarchic upper class, who initiated the American national experiment.” In previous acclaimed books such as 740 Park and Rogues’ Gallery, Gross has explored elite culture in microcosm; expanding the canvas, Flight of the WASP chronicles it across four centuries and fifteen generations in an ambitious and consequential contribution to American history.

Praise for Flight of the WASP:

“Illuminating . . . It is the virtue of his book that it brings the now defunct patricians to life in all their doubleness, begetters of American prosperities who drove themselves crazy trying to heal American hysterics.”—Michael Knox Beran, Air Mail

“A formal, sincere and rather crowded portrait gallery of about a dozen significant Old Names—Biddles, Peabodys, Whitneys, et al.—that sternly accounts for their evil deeds while also tabulating their noble ones.”—Alexandra Jacobs, New York Times

“Delightfully provocative . . . The book’s real delight lies in its brisk biographies of the people who illustrate the ascent and descent of WASP hegemony . . . Well-researched and well-written, Gross’ portrait gallery will, if nothing else, illuminate the odd corners of the lives of our nation’s elite and American history itself.”BookPage (starred review)

“A thoughtful deep dive into the history of the country and who has wielded power here, but is kept lively thanks to Gross’s ability to spin yarns that make even the Pilgrims feel exciting.”Town & Country

“An immersive and nuanced group portrait of New England’s elite from 1609 to today . . . Gross takes detours into extended considerations of areas in which his subjects had a hand, such as the displacement of Indigenous peoples and the study of eugenics. Striking an expert balance between the big picture and intimate thumbnails, this is an enlightening study of American culture.”Publishers Weekly

“A critical history of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant cohort of American society, once dominant, now descending . . . Readable and engaging.”Kirkus Reviews

Praise for Michael Gross:

“Does not skimp on the gossipy goods. There are descents into madness, prolific drug use, orgies, blackmail photos and suicide attempts . . . Also smart, well-researched and written with an insider’s eye . . . Engaging and on point.”—New York Times Book Review, on Focus

“A delicious read. Sweeping . . . Thoughtful.”—Daily Beast, on Focus
“I thought I knew practically everything about the fashion industry, but Michael Gross has corrected me. His thoroughly absorbing narrative dazzles with the most profound investigation and research. Focus is an enthralling and riveting read!”—Tim Gunn

“Michael Gross . . . rules[s] the school of literature you might call Books About Buildings Where Lots of Rich People Live.”—Vanity Fair, on House of Outrageous Fortune

“[Tom] Wolfe’s gift was in summing up an era through his description of [Sherman] McCoy and his environs. Michael Gross has done likewise by taking us inside the most expensive, most powerful address in the world . . . Stunning.”—CNN, on House of Outrageous Fortune

“Michael Gross, an author with a delicate appreciation for bloated egos and wealth, makes them glitter in House of Outrageous Fortune: Fifteen Central Park West, the World’s Most Powerful Address. The intersecting strands of money, politics, greed, taste, ambition shine brightly.”—Bloomberg News

“Compulsively readable.”—Liesl Schillinger, New York Times, on 740 Park

“A blockbuster exhibition of human achievement and flaws.”—New York Times Book Review, on Rogues’ Gallery

“Gross demonstrates he knows his stuff. It’s a terrific tale . . . Gossipy, color-rich, fact-packed . . . What Gross reveals is stuff that more people should know.”—USA Today, on Rogues’ Gallery

“Michael Gross has proven once again that he is a premier chronicler of the rich. Rogues’ Gallery is an insightful, entertaining look at a great institution-with all its flaws and all its greatness.”—Gay Talese

“One long, scurrilously detailed dish. The first comprehensive history of modeling and a chewy read.”—Harper’s Bazaar, on Model

“Gossipy, bitchy and probably seminal. Gross pulls no punches. Model is a litany of skullduggery and dirty dealings.”—San Francisco Examiner

Read an excerpt:

Excerpted from Flight of the WASP © 2023 by Michael Gross. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

The decline into irrelevance of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, first posited by WASPs, has been a generally accepted trope since 1960, when Cleveland Amory (Milton Academy, Harvard) published Who Killed Society? In the final pages of The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America, E. Digby Baltzell (St. Paul’s School, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Harvard) described his 1964 classic as “an attempt to analyze the decline of authority in America,” an authority personified by the WASP elite, who “may still be deferred to and envied” but were “no longer honored in the land.”

A few years later, outright mockery superseded serious inspection. WASP, Where Is Thy Sting? was the title of a 1977 book by the WASP humorist Florence King. In 1980, the Jewish humorist Lisa Birnbach’s bestselling The Official Preppy Handbook (“Look, Muffy, a book for us”) turned what some thought tragedy into farce. The people that invented America had become a joke.

In 1992, Joseph W. Alsop, the late political columnist and, by his own description, a “minor member of this now-vanished group,” attempted to fine-tune, and narrow, the definition of the living-dead WASPs in his memoir, I’ve Seen the Best of It. Alsop proposed the primacy of a smaller and highly self-conscious subset of the species, which he called the WASP Ascendancy. Defined by “the right kind of origin and the right kind of name,” it was led by both colonial families and those with fortunes made “just a little further down the line, like the Astors.” It was, he wrote, “an inner group that was recognizable as a group that was, on average, substantially richer and enjoyed substantially more leverage than other Americans.” These WASPs served as role models to others “who were on their way up in the world.” Typically Episcopalian, they were “highly recognizable” by, in Alsop’s own order of precedence, their “fairly extreme but regional New England/ New York accent,” odd pronunciation (tomahtoes), and use of “the earliest English name for anything” (WASPs had curtains, not drapes, and died rather than passed); their ownership of family summer homes, “large rural tribal dwellings” that smelled of beeswax and fresh-cut flowers; a strict dress code; a “high tolerance for eccentricity”; a snobbishness based primarily in lineage; a tendency toward conservatism and even intolerance; and “a certain provincialism and an all-too-common hostility to the intellectual life.” They were still America’s elite, its haves, solid, established, decorous, and enviable, as opposed to its have-nots and the vast throng of in-betweens, who either didn’t care about their place in the national hierarchy or were still engaged in striving accumulation.

If that was the opinion of a member of the clan, it’s no wonder that WASP-bashing remains a mass-market bromide. The National Review’s Richard Brookhiser, a German Catholic, began his 1991 book The Way of the WASP recounting how the campaign that elected his former boss George H. W. Bush president in 1988 set off a wave of WASP abuse, and he concluded that we now live in “the post-WASP world.” In his review of that book in the New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who would shortly discover his own hidden Jewish roots, stated flatly, “A WASP renaissance is not going to happen.” In 2000, David Brooks observed that WASP culture, once “so powerful” and now “so dated,” had been “crushed” by a new, highly educated meritocracy.

Obituaries of America’s former ruling class, whether melancholy or celebratory, stay evergreen in this century. In 2014, Politico published “The Death of the WASP,” an essay premised on the notion that “the New England WASP has all but disappeared from its natural habitats—gone, almost, from the region’s 12 Senate seats, vanished from its six governor’s mansions.” Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse (St. Paul’s, Yale, Virginia Law) was cited as the exception that proved the rule of “extinction . . . retreat . . . departure.” And in spring 2019, in “A Farewell to the WASPs,” Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, used a memorial service for Barbara Bush (Rye Country Day School, Smith), wife of the aforementioned forty- first president and mother of the forty-third, as his news hook, declaring, “The days of the WASP power brokers are gone.”


WASPs dominated America for its first 350 years, but the ruling class wasn’t the monolith many imagine they were and George Washing- ton hoped they would be. The predecessors of Alsop’s WASP Ascendancy led the American Revolution and wrote the Constitution, but by the time Thomas Jefferson was elected the third president in 1800, WASP cohesion had fractured, the urban-centered Federalist Party that had formed around Alexander Hamilton was failing, and the agrarian Democrats who supported Jefferson were rising, supported by the South and the West.

That didn’t mean Alsop’s top WASPs abandoned power, even as they were slowly edged out of national political leadership in the late twentieth century; in the Industrial Revolution, after the Civil War, they pulled the levers of law and finance, and “retained a strong grip not so much on industry itself, but on the banking and financial system on which industry depended for credit.” Then, Alsop continued, corruption led to an inevitable downfall due to their “grossly selfish mismanagement of the nation’s credit structure in the 1920s.” Though WASPs still won elections and stalked the corridors of power throughout his lifetime, and the powerful columnist, a relative of Theodore Roosevelt, began his career during the WASP Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and died just after the WASP George H. W. Bush was inaugurated, Alsop ultimately came to believe that “the whole view of the world, and of history, the personal culture and the private manners that produced these men, have all gone by the board.”

But there are many ways of looking at the American WASP, and they are not merely the wealthy, powerful members of the Episcopal Church who formed Alsop’s inner circle. The Protestant Reformation churches that were their cradle encompass both mainline churches, which emphasized ceremony, rich vestments, rituals, sacraments, and clerical authority, and so-called conservative churches, which, ironically, took a freer, less structured, more evangelical approach to worship, focusing on the congregation more than the clergy. While the first families of America came from both traditions— the Anglicans of Virginia, for example, representing the most mainstream of churches, and the Puritans of Massachusetts, taking a more conservative approach—their religious differences would fade into the background by the time of our Revolution, and be overshadowed by socioeconomic distinctions.

Strictly speaking, WASPs were descended from the Germanic peoples who settled the British Isles; they usually worshipped either as members of the Church of England or as Presbyterians. But though Dutch and English colonists were, in the main, America’s first families, to reflect the national reality its founding WASPs should be defined more broadly. As noted, they included those Puritan and, later, Congregationalist first families of Massachusetts; the Separatist Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony; the so-called New Puritans of Rhode Island and Connecticut; the English-born Anglicans of Virginia and Maryland; Swedish Lutherans, who became the first Scandinavians to settle in America when they established New Sweden in 1638

after landing near what is now Wilmington, Delaware; Dutch Reformed church-goers who dominated Nieuw Amsterdam; the French Protestants known as Huguenots and their French-speaking Belgian counterparts, Calvinist Walloons, who fled religious suppression, first in the Netherlands and England and then in several American colonies; and the Quakers of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Many of those colonists, who dominated social and political life in early America, would ultimately join the Episcopal Church, a new, American religion formed in large part as a political repudiation of the unacceptably royalist Anglican Church.

But there were also the Methodists (who split from the Anglican Church in 1784), Lutherans, and Baptists. Unlike the mainstream WASPs of northwest European origin, many of these more conservative WASPs came to the Western Hemisphere somewhat later, often from the borderlands between Scotland and England, from Ireland, and from Germany, and were more likely to head to what were then backwoods on the American frontier than its more settled, sophisticated, and urbanized eastern coast. They and the agrarians of the original southern colonies, particularly Virginia, dominated the country’s politics, if not its social and financial life, through the first half of the nineteenth century.