[Here is the second installment of a series of posts by Benjamin Railton that originally appeared on his blog AmericanStudies.]
Like so many evocative American places, the Newport, Rhode Island mansion The Breakers
contains and connects to numerous histories, stories, and themes worth
sharing. So in this series, I’ll highlight and analyze five such topics.
As always, your thoughts will be very welcome too!
While I hope that yesterday’s post complicated some of the simplest narratives about a figure like Cornelius Vanderbilt II, it was nonetheless, I admit, still pretty crazy to use the phrase “rags to riches” to describe Commodore Vanderbilt’s grandson. But how about Rudolph “Rudy” Stanish, who began life as the seventh of thirteen children born to an Eastern European (Croatian and Serbian) immigrant couple in Yukon, Pennsylvania, and ended his life as the world famous Omelet King, chef to some of America’s most prominent people and families? A young man who was brought to Newport’s mansions before he was 16 (in 1929) to work as a kitchen boy with his godmother, and who through a combination of talent, hard work, luck, timing, and more found himself making John F. Kennedy’s inaugural breakfast? Yup, I’d say that just about defines rags to riches.
The principal question when it comes to such rags to riches stories has never been whether they’re possible at all, however, but whether they’re representative of something larger than their singular existence—whether, that is, they offer any sort of more general blueprint for success. As part of the audio tour of The Breakers (which is not where Stanish began his career but where he received his first big break, filling in as head chef at the last minute for a dinner party and impressing the hosts sufficiently to stay on) Stanish is quoted as saying precisely that his story was indeed exemplary; that in a world like that of The Breakers, those among the servants (“The Staff,” as the Vanderbilts insisted on calling them) who worked hard and gave it their best and, yes, were gifted at their jobs could make their way to something far beyond the cramped and hot upstairs quarters where they lived at The Breakers. And it’s hard to disagree: without at least the possibility of such mobility, more than just Stanish’s own story would lose a good bit of its appeal—the story of America would as well.
But even if we accept that Stanish’s story is not only individually possible (which of course it was) but communally achievable, there remains at least one other significant criticism that can be levied against such stories: they are not so much narratives of meritocracy, of opportunity, or, even more radically, of challenges to the existing hierarchies of wealth and class as they are reflections of our society’s unquestionable emphasis on and celebration of fame. That is, Stanish became famous for how well he served the nation’s powerful elites. But even if that fame granted him a place among those elites, it neither equated his identity with theirs nor (especially) led to any questions about the world in which they all operated. To be clear, that’s not the role of any individual, and I’m not critiquing Stanish in any way. But if his story is a uniquely American one, it is at least in part because it highlights the often superficial nature of success in our society.
Next Breakers story on Monday,
P.S. What do you think?