The notion that it takes three generations to make a gentleman is clearly an American one. Only a culture bred from democracy and capitalism would suggest that this lofty moniker does not require a hereditary title and a fox hunting outfit. The difference between the English and American gentleman is one of being vs. becoming. However, even in America, a country built by the self-made man, it is understood that one doesn’t become a gentleman, to borrow from another adage, through one good guess on the stock market.
The process requires progeny and time, and when the process is completed, some essential attributes characterize the American gentleman. First is education. Since our founding fathers rejected nobility in favor of meritocracy, a man with the mental dexterity of a possum is typically not considered a gentleman. A keen intellect carefully nurtured among the oak and ivy of a prestigious private school in a state where it snows is man-datory. Furthermore, a gentleman is never a specialist but is always a generalist, and a four-year liberal education is preferable to a Ph.D. in the mating habits of Amazonian beetles.
Next, a gentleman must sound like a gentleman. He does not utter profanities except in situations in which it is entirely forgivable, such as the sinking of his yacht. A Southern accent is a bonus, though in this case the message is as important as the medium. Quoting Mark Twain is preferable to asking the French chef to prepare a plate of corned beef and grits.
A gentleman will maintain the appearance of same, and without having to resort to a gold-buttoned blazer, white flannels, and an ascot. Bright colors and loud patterns are permissible, as in the case of the Duke of Windsor, whose golf attire occasionally caused him to be mistaken for a Picasso.
Even when he is properly educated, spoken, and attired, manners remain the underwriter of the gentleman’s character. A gentleman is always kind and considerate toward social inferiors, even when they burn the clutch while valet-parking his BMW Z8.
There is, of course, the issue of assets. Gentlemen do not rent studio apartments in unfashionable districts or make generous use of public transportation. “Ah,” you say, “but what about those poor European fellows who are cash poor but title rich? Is their gentlemanliness lost when creditors are pounding at the door?” At the turn of the century, many nobles found themselves in just this position, prompting a mad rush to marry American heiresses. Preeminent among these nobles was Count Boniface de Castellane, a handsome, flamboyant Belle Epoque playboy who had lost his fortune. Handsome is also an apt epithet for his bride, Anna Gould, beloved but unglamorous daughter of Jay. Their marriage gave the count access to her millions, and he immediately set upon spending her dowry at a record-setting pace, because, after all, some capital is required to be considered a gentleman.
The final virtue is perhaps the most elusive of all. It is honor, pride, and dignity—all that is expressed in the term breeding. A gentleman never allows crass self-interest to guide his way. He holds himself to higher standards, which are all the loftier for being self-imposed. The gentleman serves as a reminder that one never encounters a Bentley on the path of least resistance.
With the formula for a gentleman established, it is easy to see which generation bestows what. From the first generation comes the Old World importance of manners. Moderate success is achieved, allowing generation two to enter the Ivy League. After restructuring the family business and taking it public, he will become wealthy and, during meetings with his tax attorney, will dress and speak the part.
But it is only the third generation weaned on life’s finest that will walk with the dignified gait that comes from an inner understanding of his own self-worth and the comfort of bespoke shoes. It is in the grandson that all of the gentlemanly qualities will coalesce.
Woe are the Americans who belong to the second generation. Although possessing the requisite assets, they cannot acquire the breeding. However, unlike their continental counterparts, they can at least find solace in the knowledge that, though they may not be gentlemen, their sons will be.
From the September, 2002 issue of Robb Report.