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The Straight Dope


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How does a person get listed in the Social Register? Obviously genetics must be a factor, along with piles of money. But many people with both appear to be excluded, while others lacking one or the other are listed. Who decides anyway? And why does such a silly institution continue in the first place? --Fania, Washington, D.C.

They leave you out again, kid? I told you they wouldn't be impressed by that bowling trophy. Although the Social Register folks declined to be specific, I gather it's like the Masons--you have to be invited. There's an anonymous admissions committee, and if you can get several people who are already in the book to nominate you, or, even better, if you can get married to a listee, you've got a chance. If that doesn't work, your best bet is to get yourself elected president of the United States--he always gets in, whether he deserves it or not.

The concept behind the Social Register takes a while to grasp. Here we have the 30,000 snootiest families in the country, and they consent to put their addresses and phone numbers in a book available in the public library. Think of the junk mail these guys must get. On the other hand, in a society full of climbers and frauds, I suppose there's a need for a quick-and-dirty way of distinguishing the quality from the shlubs. Screening ensures that the people who make it in aren't merely rich, they're Our Sort--no guarantee that a listee isn't a heel, but at least he's discreet.

The Social Register takes pride in not explaining itself. We know that it was first published in 1887 in New York and that there were separate editions in major cities until 1977, when everything was consolidated into one national book. Two editions are published annually--the main one in November, and a summer supplement in May.

The rest you've got to piece together for yourself, which isn't easy. Much of the book is written in some sort of Venusian Morse code. In the 1991 edition, for example, after the entry for Charles Norton Adams (no relation), we find the following: "Unn.Nrr.Srb.BtP.Evg.Myf.Ht.Cw." Goodness, you think, next time they ask the man for information they should untie the gag. But the letters are abbreviations for Charles's clubs. If we refer to the front of the book we learn that "Nrr" is the Newport Reading Room, "Srb" is the Spouting Rock Beach club, and "Unn" is either a typo or someplace so exclusive that to have to ask about it is proof that you don't belong there. Norton isn't listed in the 1994 book, possibly on account of being Dd.As.A.Doornl.

In addition to the main listing, there are various special sections such as births, deaths, and marriages. (One longs in publications of this type for a section called "indictments," but no such luck.) Some sections are completely mysterious. In the front of the summer edition, for example, is something called "Dilatory Domiciles." Dilatory in my book means "tending toward procrastination," which doesn't shed much light. One supposes that some editorial type was taking aim at "Temporary Residences" and missed. Equally puzzling, at least initially, is a section called "Married Maidens," a title I guessed was used in preference to "Former Virgins." On inspection, it turned out to be a cross-reference of women's married and maiden names.

There's much in the Social Register to remind you that this isn't a book meant for thee and me. In the summer edition, for instance, we find the following note: "A listing of Yachts and Their Owners is included for the convenience of subscribers." I have a hard time imagining a social milieu in which I would need to have regular reference to the length, tonnage, and builder of my friends' yachts. That said, there's something charming in knowing that Lawrence H. Mott's "Ellen" (home port Charlotte, Vermont) is 15 feet long with a beam of four and a half feet. Would that the same honesty had been applied to summer residences, all of which seem to have names like "The Pines." Come on, doesn't anybody live at "The Dump"?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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