Preppy Handbooks—or, The Hidden History of the P-Word

Lisa Birnbach, Editor
The Official Preppy Handbook
New York: Workman Publishing, 1980

Margot Metroland

The Official Preppy Handbook was originally published in late 1980. It spawned many imitators and at least one quasi-sequel (True Prep, 2010), as well as various updated and deluxe editions. It also helped to launch a genre of humor books that mixed faux sociology and sartorial fun. I touched on that trend a year ago in my supercilious takedown of 1984’s The Yuppie Handbook.

But Preppy Handbook had much more influence and staying power than the other gag books. For a long while anti-hipsters took it seriously as a guide for living—a combo of Dress for Success and The Status Seekers. Clothing designers and retailers let the so-called “preppy” look dominate their product for years and years. In the 1980s, J. Crew appeared as a mail-order and shopping-mall chain, its whole purpose seemingly that of providing an endless, ready source of mid-priced “classic” clothing that you wouldn’t have to hunt around for in department stores.

The book itself wasn’t enormously funny but its promotion was hilarious. The lead author/editor, Lisa Birnbach, was herself no “preppy” by education or background, being a product of an Ethical Culture (secular Jewish) day school in the Bronx, followed by Brown University. But someone at Workman Publishing decided she was close enough; and thus she was drafted “to hold the reigns [sic] of a book we see as The Preppy Catalogue.” In addition she would play the morning talk-show circuit and explain “preppy” traditions and lifestyle.

And so there she was on The TODAY Show—early 1981, I think it was—promoting The Official Preppy Handbook, and explaining the style of Quality Folks to Bryant Gumbel. But she was a trouper, played it for laughs, and seemed to be enjoying it all. I don’t have a video of that TODAY segment, so like Captain Queeg I can only cover these things roughly, from memory. I believe it was about 8 o’clock in the morning and I was getting dressed for work. But I was riveted by the high irony on the tube: a Sportscaster-of-Color (Gumbel) in suit and tie, interviewing a young Ms. Birnbach who was all togged out in clothes that would have been perfectly at home in a 1964 advertisement for the Villager Collection in Seventeen magazine. Birnbach opened by explaining her own special “layered” outfit: Fair Isle sweater with Henley-neck collar, unbuttoned to show a single string of pearls worn over thin white turtleneck. That, she said, was “preppy.” Another “preppy” thing, supposedly, was anything in tartan or plaid design, like the red-blue-white cover pattern which the book tells us is supposed to be madras fabric. (Madras—truly? These writers thought madras was traditional and high-class? Old slides and snapshots tell me that madras was mainly for loud summer sportscoats and Bermuda shorts, circa 1964.)

In the book, affected dowdiness is the recommended fashion. The Talbots chain scored very high in the Preppy Handbook‘s estimation. In those days, at least, The Talbots specialized in overpriced, over-upholstered business suits and A-line dresses for suburban women in their fifties, not girls in secondary school and college. Preppy Handbook also informed us that the “duck motif” is a sacred emblem among preppy families. So aspiring preppy-wannabes should acquire plenty of duck-bedecked wastebaskets, keychains, toilet kits, weathervanes, etc., etc.

My takeaway to all this was that the class being described is actually just people who spend a lot of time at yard sales, thrift shops, and antique barns.

The book supplies lists of secondary schools, day and boarding; and universities where preppy style is best maintained, supposedly. It’s notable that most of the colleges are party schools, often in the South, with modest SAT needs. You are warned against setting your sights on MIT, Oberlin, Sarah Lawrence, University of Chicago, or Columbia, because they are too hard and/or too weird. When interviewed for secondary school, don’t wear a LaCoste shirt or sneakers (if you’re a boy) or a short skirt with platform shoes (if a girl). Boys at interviews should wear blue blazers; girls, plaid skirts. Loafers recommended for both. If you wish to dress weird, please wait until after you’re admitted.

As this suggests, the book often drags a bit and falls down in the humor department. Its half-dozen main contributors (there are also untold dozens of other friends & helpers in Acknowledgements) all often seem to be going off in different directions. So the university listings are full of snark, while that prep-school interview advice leans toward earnest, helpful hints. Much of the book is padded with commemorations of debutantes and prep role models. Their relevance is elusive, other than being rich and/or famous. (1938 Debutante of the Year Brenda Frazier? Gloria Vanderbilt? Dick Cavett? Where did he prep?)

There are many paradoxes in this flummery, but the biggest is that the p-word was really a derogatory term. This goes unacknowledged today because in pop consciousness the word “preppy,” noun and adjective, is mainly associated with clothing style. Its earlier, sneering connotation has been lost to memory.

The origin of the term is touched on only obliquely in the Preppy Handbook. It’s unlikely to have begun as direct reference to prep schools per se. Such institutions generally don’t call themselves that; they usually have names like “The Hill School” or “Milton Academy.” More likely “preppy” was derived from the “prep shops” that one used to see in the better department stores or menswear retailers. Usually on the third floor for whatever reason, they involved displays of snooty-looking mannequins of teenage males, dressed in ties and blazers and polo shirts, occasionally even little snap-brim fedoras—though assuredly not all in combination. (There was no female prep shop; equivalent departments would be called something like “Young Misses,” or, later on, “Juniors.” Female “preppies” would thus be a contradiction in terms, even after the leading schools went coed in the 1970s.)

Some people found the name and layout of prep shops distinctly irritating, particularly those who got suited out at Robert Hall or Barney’s Boys Town.

I recall the p-word entering popular parlance about 1970, beginning with a popular novelette called Love Story, which almost immediately became a treacly film with Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. To be precise, Love Story had actually begun life as a movie script by a Yale classics teacher, Erich Segal. After Segal sold his script, he was asked to reprocess it into a little novel—a gift storybook for Valentine’s Day, 1970, and a smash bestseller for the rest of the year. Come Christmas season, the film version was out and about, with a ready-made fanbase. It was everywhere, along with its mawkish, meaningless tagline (“Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry”) and a theme song sung by Andy Williams and a million others.

Early in the film we have a blond, bland Ryan O’Neal (rich Harvard hockey player) going to the Radcliffe College library to find a laughably ubiquitous book. [1] He immediately runs into dark, snappish Ali MacGraw. It’s oil and water. She chews him out for poaching on the little Radcliffe library instead of Harvard’s much vaster collection. She sneers and calls him “Preppie” [sic]—a studied insult, though it later becomes an affectionate nickname. Her character was softened a little for the final movie script, but when we meet her in the book, she’s a nasty, argumentative piece of work:

“Wouldja please watch your profanity, Preppie?”

“What makes you so sure I went to prep school?”

“You look stupid and rich,” she said, removing her glasses.

“You’re wrong,” I protested. “I’m actually smart and poor.”

“Oh no, Preppie. I’m smart and poor.” [2]

Wow, meet cute!

Like Lisa Birnbach and author Erich Segal, this Ali MacGraw character was originally Jewish. Segal altered that, in book and movie, possibly because of concerns that a mixed marriage of an upper-class Yankee to a lowly Brooklyn Jew would offend a great many people. So he turned the character into Jenny Cavilleri, an “Italian” from Cranston, Rhode Island. We never see her do anything Italian, unless you count listening to classical music. Her father meanwhile is the very Jewish actor John Marley, lovingly remembered today for his 1972 role in The Godfather, as Hollywood producer and horse fancier Jack Woltz. At one point in the film, the Ryan O’Neal character, Oliver, refers to Jenny as “Catholic,” but the script is emphatic that Jenny is not and never was. (Religious distinctions are such minefields for scriptwriters!) Unsurprisingly, Segal turns out to have based the character on a Jewish girlfriend of his who—we might safely infer—liked to sneer at “preppies.” [3]

So was the p-word basically a slur used by Jews of a certain type to categorize and decry Heritage Americans of a particular caste? It would certainly seem that way. I was thinking of that a few years when I reviewed Steven Brill’s Tailspin (book excerpt here). Growing up lower-middle-class in Far Rockaway, Queens, and first reading about the world of “prep schools” when he was 14, young Steven decided this was an exotic world he wanted to rise to; and so he soon headed up to the Deerfield Academy on scholarship. Brill himself doesn’t use the p-word; that would be sneering at a club he feels lucky to have joined. If he’d learned about “prep schools” a few years later, say when he got to college, the story might be different. If you can’t join ’em…you can always beat up on ’em!

  1. Which puts me in mind of the late Éva Balogh, a Hungarian-Jewish refugee from 1956 who was a professor of Central European history at Yale in the 1970s. For a while she was master of Morse College (a residential college, what is called a “house” at Harvard or Andover, or a “college” at Oxford or Cambridge). Eccentric, opinionated, and sharp-tongued, she was popular with many of her charges. One story about Éva was her denunciation of the “roommate preference” card, traditionally sent out to incoming freshmen in their matriculation packs. The idea with these was that you wrote down one or two names of secondary-school friends you want to share your freshman suite with. She wanted to get rid of the cards entirely. “Why are they still doing that? That stuff’s only for preppies.”
  2. Voilà—naked animosity, slouching toward us on all fours. Éva didn’t want preppies, with their social traditions, old-school ties and cliques of friends from St. Grottlesex.  No, she wanted the admissions committee to replace them with a mass of atomized souls—scoured from state high schools hither and yon—ready to be inculcated into your favorite ideologies. You know…Diversity! Which pretty much describes the continuing admissions scam of the last half-century and more.
  3. So there you are. The p-word was/is a slur, a word of derision for well-born, “privileged” goyim, whom you are asked to hold in contempt. I don’t believe I ever heard an actual prep-school alumnus or student refer to himself, unironically or otherwise, as a preppy. Or herself—though as I said, the term was seldom applied to females. I sometimes saw the word preppish used to describe to dress style or personal attitude (Gore Vidal used it on Jack Kennedy) but when “preppy/preppie” arrived on the scene it was clearly derogatory. Erich Segal himself admits as much in the Preppy Handbook. One of the book’s contributors asks him the etymology of the word. He says it’s short for—preposterous! And there we have it again, folks: an object of mockery, a figure of fun. [3]
  4. Notes
  5. [1] The book is The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga, originally published in the 1920s and readily available in any used-book store for 40 cents, or the Harvard Coop, or a dorm suite down the hall. The joke here is that a Harvard jock would journey over to the women’s college because he’s taking this big “gut” survey course in history, hasn’t touched the reading list, but now it’s late in the semester, and he can’t find a copy anywhere.
  6. [2] Erich Segal, Love Story. Signet Books, 1970.
  7. [3] Segal himself was said to be anti-Catholic, at least according to prospective Yale students and aspiring Classics majors he interviewed and rejected. But this could possibly be the result of turf rivalries among Classics teachers.
Author: Jane Weir. . . reads much of the night and goes south in the winter.
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