06/28/2007 12:32 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Putting On Airs

A confession: I was a junkie. A website devoted to the antics of the latest so-called 'it girls' in New York City, was a bitchily hilarious little beehive, a window into a sphere of truly fevered striving. When it went black that fateful morning not long ago, I felt like a kid who'd been deprived of a favorite toy.

The most prominently-featured figure in these vituperative electronic halls was Mrs. Tinsley Mortimer, a 30-something 'socialite' who resembles a rather aged-gouda version of Paris Hilton. Mrs. Mortimer hails from a perfectly respectable and aspirational middle-class background in Virginia. She married her college classmate Topper Mortimer, great-grandson of Henry Morgan Tilford, a founder of Standard Oil of California.

Many of the readers -- who claimed intimate knowledge and participation of the '10021' enclave -- loathed Mrs. Mortimer, who proved to be a master of ubiquity and lavish self-promotion. The detractors viewed her charity-circuit mug shots with despair.

"Is she even from an old family?" one of them sniffed.

"Her dad sells carpets in Virginia," answered another. "So much for society."

Goodness! The very idea! Someone sullied by commerce barging into the pristine waters of American society.

First of all, the concept of 'American society' remains a counter-intuitive one to me in certain respects. 'Society,' in the most stodgily colonial, British sense of the word, is predicated on impenetrable, inherited exclusion.

It seems to me that, when placed within this context, American society has been a centuries-old work in progress, struggling to gain a secure foothold and sense of identity. My suspicion: it's a futile struggle. American society never has been and never will be 'society' in the European sense -- because Americans have always railed against that sort of caste-like organization. Good, old-fashioned American tenacity has always rendered the country's top one percent porous and infinitely accessible.

And the origins of America's society, as it were, have certainly never been regal (well, at least not until European landed aristocrats started going broke and grudgingly consented to marry the daughters of American industrial tycoons). Rather, American society has been rich -- and that is entirely a different thing altogether.

Most of our 'old money families' came, quite frankly, from dirt. Farms and such provided the roots of more than one of our industrial patriarchs. Two or three generations later, their daughters wore rubies and diamonds the size of peach pits, and they built marble temples for self-worship in Newport.

From dirt to marble temples in a couple of generations.

That's American 'society'.

Now, try this exercise: see if you can identify the subjects of these biography excerpts:

1. "Son of a village butcher, he could barely read and write ... he ate peas with his knife ... and was not averse to using a guest's sleeve as his napkin. A visitor from England was appalled to see him remove his chaw of tobacco from his mouth and trace patterns on the window with it."

2. "[He] took to peddling, walking miles on foot, sleeping in the cheapest lodgings, with robbery and abuse a constant worry. His bestselling line was a form of blackhead polish used to clean stoves, and [he found] a way to make his own ... and stayed home to produce it, using a secondhand sausage-stuffing machine."

3. "His father scratch[ed] a subsistence living on a small plot of land, ferrying vegetables to market on a flat-bottomed sailing boat ... As a young boy, [he] worked on ferries in New York City, quitting school at age 11 ... [Later], New York society preferred to keep him at a distance. There was, it was felt, altogether too much of the farmyard about him. He was even rumoured to have spat out tobacco plugs on Mrs. Van Rensselaer's carpet."

The answers:

1. John Jacob Astor, the founder of the Astor dynasty, American's first millionaire, founder of the first American trust. When he first arrived in America, he scraped, cleaned, and cured undressed pelts. He later turned this venture into a spectacularly successful fur business and moved on into real estate (and according to some sources, a side line in opium).

2. Meyer Guggenheim, patriarch of the Guggenheim family, who made a vast fortune in importing, mining, and smelting. Without him, we would have no snapshots of Peggy Guggenheim in those divinely horrid sunglasses at her Venetian palazzo.

3. Cornelius "The Commodore" Vanderbilt. Shipping, railroads, etc. Distantly related to Anderson Cooper, among other accolades.

And that's just the men.

Pauline Potter (i.e. Pauline de Rothschild) spent much of her childhood living in seedy hotels with a mother who eventually married a taxi driver and ultimately shot herself. The father of venerated decorator Elsie de Wolfe (who became Lady Mendl) was a doctor who compulsively gambled (and lost) his family's security on financial markets. When he died, leaving behind no money, Elsie became a professional actress to support herself and wangled her way into Manhattan's elite circles through the backdoor. And so on and so forth.

Again and again: good old-fashioned American tenacity.

When you look at it through this prism, suddenly the invasion of contemporary New York 'society' by a 'carpet seller's daughter' doesn't seem so deplorable.

So, the bottom line is this: if you're going to sneer at Tinsley Mortimer, do it for the right reasons.

Recoil at her hamster-wheel over-attendance at every store opening in Manhattan. Vigorously disapprove of her dubious decision to traipse about with porn star Jenna Jameson in an overt publicity stunt.

In other words, hate her choices, hate her persona -- but don't hate her because of where she came from.

Admittedly, a proper rags-to-riches story seems more glamorous than the middle-class-to-riches narrative that Mrs. Mortimer embodies. But America is a big, fat, bourgeois country, one that offers all of its citizens the dream of moving into the big, fat, rich, putting-on-airs-about-being-called-society class.

Mrs. Mortimer has been called many things on and elsewhere.

I'm going to call her something new.

Inadvertently patriotic.