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Snobs' Old Rules? Sniff.

If you want to get ahead, it's image, not money or breeding, that counts

July 05, 2002|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

According to the man who wrote the book on snobbery, Los Angeles has recently become an address one can announce with the quiet arrogance so long reserved for the denizens of a few bergs on the Eastern Seaboard. "It's still not exactly Florence, mind you, " says Joseph Epstein, an essayist and author of the recently published "Snobbery: the American Version," (Houghton Mifflin) "but if that's what hell looks like, I don't think I'll mind it a bit. And that's hard for a snobographer like myself to admit."

That L.A. is a city of power and prestige is just one of the things Epstein finds himself admitting. Quite early in his treatise, he explains the roots of his own snobbery, which is a very wise decision. Because if you're going to write a 251-page book in which you define a snob by quoting Balzac and Proust (though mercifully not in the original French) and chastise name-droppers while offhandedly quoting everyone from Mao Tse-tung to Mike Nichols, if you're going to include a bio reminding everyone that you were, for two decades, the editor of the American Scholar whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, then it is a good idea to cop to your own blind spots right up front.

"The great thing is to recognize snobbery and be amused by it," he says from his home outside Chicago. "But I still have to be on guard all the time. For instance, it pleases me to write for the New Yorker. But I have to ask myself, 'Is the pleasure genuine or is it a snobbish thing?' Is it because saying, 'I write for the New Yorker' impresses some people? You would think all my years writing about all this would have freed me from this baloney," he says, whittling his professorial voice into a petulant whine, "but it doesn't always."

The main point of what is a very amusing and insightful book is that snobbery is alive and well, but all the rules have changed. The age of the WASP, Epstein argues, is over (Someone should probably cc: Ralph Lauren, Tom Wolfe and the folks at Restoration Hardware) and in its place a new social caste system has risen, one based more on image than breeding.

After quickly working his way through a history of snobbery in America, Epstein gets down to the modern categories--including education, politics, fashion, fame--and by the time he is through, many of our modern sacred cows--from Susan Sontag and the New York Review of Books to the new hipness of middle age--have been reduced from icons to snob fetishes.

"When the style pages replaced the society pages," says Epstein, "then we knew the world was now a different place."

A place where one's car, one's profession, one's nearness to celebrity, even one's choice of balsamic vinegar can carry more social weight than one's family tree. In this new world, almost anything goes. Previous political disenfranchisement--Epstein uses gays and Jews as his examples--now conveys status. A new breed of "virtucrats" manages to trump any real understanding of political theory with sentimentality for the often ill-defined masses. And where once most Americans were happy just to send their children through college, now even the lower middle class yearns to utter a sentence that includes the words "my daughter, who's at Stanford, you know...."

The fact that there is a hierarchy of water--not of water rights but bottled water--reveals a society at once highly stratified and hopelessly flailing. The modern snob often seems to be making it up as he goes along, desperately hoping that Vanity Fair or Maxim notices in time.

Of course, none of this will come as a surprise to Angelenos.

Old money in this town is anything that predates the latest Viacom merger, and the fact that there is still a Los Angeles Blue Book would come as a surprise to most citizens (including many of those listed in it). This city was, and continues to be, a sanctuary from the repressive traditions of the East, a place where fortunes are made, not inherited, where the A-list is so elastic that one can be on it one month and off the next and the only thing that's changed is a decimal point at the box office.

If the new currency in social stature is image, then Los Angeles is Fort Knox. From baby strollers to colonics, from literature to video games, every industry has its hierarchy and if one is not available, a good snob will arbitrarily choose "the best."

"Personal trainers, stylists, hair colorists, plastic surgeons, chefs--everyone has 'their' person, and their person is the best," says Merle Ginsberg who, as entertainment editor of W and Women's Wear Daily, divides her time between L.A. and New York. "Usually because they also work for the big stars. Which makes sense because they, in turn, are going to have access to the very best things--first pick of the designers, first look at the new art. Whatever."

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