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Swellboy on… The Preppy Handbook

Celebrating the book that changed the world

Swellboy on… The Preppy Handbook

Image: Brijesh Patel

May 21 2011
Nick Foulkes

One of the interesting parlour games with which the Swellboy family fritters away idle moments is informed debate as to which books have changed the world; of course, I adhere to the sensible view that the best novel written in any language is Vanity Fair. In Rawdon Crawley, Thackeray created a truly human and rather tragic anti-hero, a loving father, a bit of a cad and a simpleton too. I am not sure if Thackeray’s masterpiece changed the wider world, but it had a profound impact on me.

However, when it comes to non-fiction the field is wide open, with numerous books jostling for a claim on posterity, and as a schoolboy winning English prizes I used to ask for such books to help me form my view of the wider world beyond the cloisters and the solemn tolling chapel bell of my pedagogical years. One such book, presented to a young Swellboy by the governors during the Michaelmas term of 1981, was The Official Preppy Handbook. At that time in my life I had not visited America and on the whole entertained a fairly dim view of the place: it was all right for black and white films, zoot suits and hand-painted kipper ties from the 1940s, but that was about it.

The Official Preppy Handbook changed all that. It was not so much that I wanted to become a preppy, but rather that the book was incredibly funny and so knowing. It also blew the lid off the whole myth of classless America; after all, posh Americans are forever showing off their first-class return ticket stubs lovingly preserved from when they sailed over on the Mayflower, and if George Washington stopped at their house for a gin and tonic on the way home from the Battle of Lexington (the first one) you soon know about it.

But, more important than that, it was a textbook on the semiotics of objects. Not since Ian Fleming had a writer been able to deconstruct an entire society using its choice of such items as patterned trousers and motor vehicles with such mordant effectiveness. Without The Preppy Handbook there would have been no Sloane Ranger Handbook and I would have probably gone on to enjoy a noble career in archaeology or architecture (the latter a choice based entirely on Paul Newman’s suede safari jacket in The Towering Inferno); instead I think it pointed me in the direction of a working life spent writing about the meaning of things, usually nice things such as cigars, expensive watches, well-tailored suits and so forth.

So imagine my pleasure 30 years later to find myself seated next to the author of The Preppy Handbook, Lisa Birdbath, a disarmingly attractive and unfeasibly young-looking woman in a pretty frock. How, I asked, could she have written this book and not now be at least 70 years old? The answer was the rather obvious one that she had written it when she was 21. Apparently in the late 1970s everyone in America wanted to be a journalist because of Woodward and Bernstein (much as I like Robert Redford, the Watergate burglars always struck me as a more interesting bunch). Lisa actually succeeded, graduating from the Ivy League to a job on the Village Voice. Here she wrestled with the problem of whether to stay on as a junior reporter not uncovering scandals at the very highest levels of public life, or to retire from journalism and write a worldwide best-selling genre-defining work.

Fast forward 30 years and she was on a Preppy world tour, promoting the sequel to the original with Tommy Hilfiger. Tommy and his wife Dee, by the way, are a delight, great company and not at all grand: she pretty and witty; he managing that ease within his own skin that is perhaps le summum of human achievement. He is also a shrewd judge of the zeitgeist – after all, he is not Tommy Hilfiger for nothing – and part of the Prep world tour involves pop-up shops, the one in Covent Garden looking like a Hamptons beach house (I strongly recommend the trousers with small anchors printed on them).

The Preppy Handbook is a work of genius, a late-20th-century classic that has, I hope, made its author rich beyond the dreams of avarice and I think that Tommy’s move to launch not just a clothing line, but an entire nomadic retail concept on the back of it is inspired. As an author in a small way myself I heartily applaud this mingling of literature and fashion; I wonder if I can interest Tommy in opening a range of pop-up stores themed around my last book, Gentlemen & Blackguards, about gambling in the 1840s, which is now out in paperback. After all, I have yet to see a pop-up shop specialising in top boots, stovepipe hats, frock coats, cravats and large stickpins.

See also

People, Books