MILL VALLEY, Calif. (j. weekly) — I am a WASP, the five-times-great-granddaughter of John Jay, first chief justice of the United States and one of our founding fathers. Two weeks after Yom Kippur, when Jewish Elena Kagan takes her seat at the Oct. 4 opening of the Supreme Court, no Protestant will be left on that exalted bench. As a result, some pundits have been opining that we WASPs have lost our grip on power in these United States, pushed aside by the Jews and Catholics we once looked down upon.
Those pundits are writing about my people, once America’s aristocratic ruling class. I am one of them: If ancestry showed up in the body, my blood should be very blue. In 1666, the Duke of York made my forebear Thomas Pell lord of the manor of Pelham, giving him dominion over parts of what is today the Bronx and Westchester County. After the Revolution, great-etc. grandfather John Jay contributed to the Federalist Papers before his friend George Washington named him to head the Supreme Court.
I wonder what John Jay would think about Elena Kagan if he were here now. He once wrote a clergyman friend, “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”
He believed Catholics should not hold office. There are now six Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court, and Kagan makes the third Jewish justice. So perhaps he would oppose Kagan, who had her bat mitzvah in the Lincoln Square Synagogue on New York City’s Upper West Side.
But in another letter, Jay wrote Benjamin Rush in 1785, “I wish to see all unjust and all unnecessary discriminations everywhere abolished, and that the time may soon come when all our inhabitants of every color and denomination shall be free and equal partakers of our political liberty.” And when he was governor of New York, although he owned slaves, he worked to abolish slavery. So maybe he’d favor Kagan.
While I don’t know how John Jay would have felt about Kagan’s Jewish faith, I think I know how my blueblood WASP parents would have reacted. As I describe in my book, “We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante,” my family lived in a world of country estates, servants and private clubs that banned Jews.
In fact, I was told that when a would-be member, a Jewish man, showed up on his horse at a meet of my mother’s Pennsylvania fox hunting club, an older member greeted him and said, “You’re new here — just follow me.” Riding a very experienced horse, he led the Jewish rider over fence after fence, each more challenging than the last. When the Jewish man’s horse finally fell, crashing him onto the ground, the club member glared down at the sprawled rider and snapped, “All right, you black Jew bastard! Go back where you came from.”
It was only when I grew a little older and moved outside my fox hunting, country club circles that my world and my mind gradually expanded. At Bryn Mawr College, there were many Jewish women in my class. As freshman year began in September, I was surprised one day to see empty desks. Someone explained that the Jewish girls had gone because it was their most important holiday, Yom Kippur — I’d never heard of it. At graduation, the academic star of our class was Jewish: Martha Bridge Denckla, now a prominent neurologist.
After college, my snobbish Great-Uncle Bertie — Herbert Claiborne Pell, father of my cousin, longtime Sen. Claiborne Pell, for whom Pell grants are named — tried to talk me out of marrying my first husband, a Catholic. But I disregarded his advice, married the Catholic and moved to San Francisco.
There my friend, chef and author Joyce Goldstein invited me to her home for strange foods like kugel and bagels — which, I learned, you don’t eat for Passover. Later on, my mentor, Paul Jacobs, Jewish author and magazine editor, helped me become a writer.
Around that time, I learned about a very different side to Uncle Bertie. Sent on diplomatic missions to Europe in the 1930s by his Harvard friend, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he saw Nazi atrocities against Jews that haunted him for life. After the war, anti-Semitic State Department officials got him fired because he fought to change international law so that Nazis could be punished for their war crimes. But Uncle Bertie did not go quietly. Instead, with Jewish groups, he organized to publicize the issue. With his help, genocide eventually was declared a crime.
I still wonder how one person could have been a patrician snob yet stalwart defender of the Jews, just as John Jay owned slaves yet opposed slavery.
Although the hateful attitudes of my parents’ generation have softened, and WASPs generally now know what Yom Kippur means, complicated issues of prejudice, race and religion, inclusion and exclusion, still bedevil our country. Elena Kagan, the 112th justice, will face daunting cases as she takes her seat where John Jay was first.
(Eve Pell is the author of “We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante.”)