The Secret Lives of Wasps

From late icon Bobby Scott to present-day Biddles and Pews, Philadelphia’s elite families share — in their own words — the well-bred secrets of privilege, high stone walls, turtle soup, martinis and, believe it or not, “poontang”

The Foundations of Waspdom
Tony Biddle: The Biddle family was here since one year before the city was founded in 1682 — we got here in 1681. William Biddle and William Penn were good friends — Biddle helped William Penn get out of debtors’ prison in England. Penn said, “I want to repay you, and the good news is, I have a lot of land. The bad news is, it’s about 3,000 miles that way.” [points right, at an imaginary America]

Nicholas Biddle was the president of the Second Bank of the United States, and the editor of Lewis and Clark’s journals; he traveled to Greece and brought back an appreciation for Greek architecture. So you have Greek Revival buildings in America, and he rebuilt Andalusia [the Biddle estate in Bucks County] in the way it is now. Nicholas Biddle’s grandson married A.J. Drexel’s granddaughter Emily in about 1872 in a big, big wedding right out on Rittenhouse Square. There were 2,000 people on the Square for the wedding.

Virginia Baltzell: My father will tell you that the way the word “Wasp” was coined was that Uncle Digby was writing ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’ repeatedly. He got tired of writing it out. …White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, it’s a marketing tool now. People like to have an identification of sorts. What goes along with it is good manners; I think it’s funny that people associate “Wasp” with money.

William Baltzell: Most sociologists didn’t understand what Wasps were, because they weren’t Wasps. My brother had a unique point of view, and no ax to grind.

Glenn Edgar Pew: I knew Digby from St. A’s [St. Anthony Hall, the exclusive Penn fraternity]. He didn’t make up that term, he popularized it. It was used before that.

Virginia Baltzell: There’s a catalog, J. Peterman, that had a tweed jacket with vents and called it the Digby Baltzell jacket. Without anyone’s permission.

Tony Biddle: Aunt Cordelia Biddle was a Philadelphian who grew up at 2104 Walnut Street and married a Duke [the tobacco Dukes], and moved to New York. The story of Aunt Cordelia’s marriage to Angier Duke was made into The Happiest Millionaire. The book was written by Aunt Cordelia; it was a play on Broadway, and then Walt Disney picked up the phone and called Aunt Cordelia. Her father, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, was extremely eccentric; he’d go down to Florida and capture alligators and bring them up and keep them in tanks in the conservatory at 2104 Walnut.

He also ran the Biddle Bible School, where he would bring what we would call street people into his carriage house, which he turned into a boxing gym where they would do calisthenics while singing hymns. And he wrote children’s fairy tales. Aunt Cordelia learned to box. … All of which horrified Aunt Mary Drexel around the corner. He was then enlisted by the Marine Corps in World Wars I and II to run their hand-to-hand combat training. He wrote a book about it, Do or Die; I was just talking to Ollie North and he said, “Oh my God, I have that book!”

Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians, 1963: “The last Old Philadelphian townhouses were built around 1900, and from then on, fashionable city life was doomed. The 1920s saw the almost complete removal of upper- and middle-class Philadelphia from the city to the suburbs. … Meanwhile, in the bosky bumps and dells of the Pennsylvania countryside, up the rushy glens along the west bank of the Schuylkill as far as Valley Forge, out along the railroad tracks to Paoli, up the Wissahickon to Chestnut Hill, in the more flat and open reaches of Whitemarsh, Bryn Athyn, Ambler, Penllyn, Philadelphians from 1880 to 1930 built up their private dream world, a rural fantasy … of vast estates surrounded by miles of walls, with miles of driveway leading to great craggy mansions. …

Paul Fussell, professor of English at Penn, in his book Class, 1983: “Because the desire for privacy is a top-class sign, high walls — anything higher than six or seven feet — confer class, while low ones, or see-through fences, or none at all, proclaim the middle class. … If you’re not able to find some people’s driveways at all, you are safe to infer that they’re top out-of-sight [socially].”

Alfred Putnam Jr.: Chestnut Hill is older. The Main Line is a joke. [joking] The reason that there is a Main Line is the Pennsylvania Railroad told their executives that they had to live there. No one lived there in the 19th century. They lived in Chestnut Hill. It’s not got an age to it at all.

Virginia Baltzell: Chestnut Hill is a village. The Main Line is so different. We used to pick up Alfred Putnam Sr. every morning. I’d climb in the back of my father’s little sports car, and then Mr. Putnam would get in front and go downtown with my father.

Nancy Grace, socialite and writer: I was told that some old families in Chestnut Hill still considered the Main Line nouveau. Chestnut Hillers played golf at Sunnybrook; Main Liners, at Merion or Gulph Mills.