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John Brooks

John Brooks whose most recent book is Showing Off in America, is a staff writer for the New Yorker.

Riches to riches

John Brooks, 20 November 1986

‘The plutocracy in a democratic state,’ wrote Mencken in a passage Robert Lenzner has chosen as epigraph for his book, ‘tends to take the place of the missing aristocracy … It is, of course, something quite different. It lacks all the essential character of a true aristocracy: a clean tradition, culture, public spirit, honesty, courage … It stands under no bond of obligation to the state; it has no public duty; it is transient and lacks a goal …’ The subjects of these two books, the second Duke of Westminster and the American oil billionaire J. Paul Getty, almost too perfectly exemplify, at least on the surface, the dichotomy pointed to by Mencken. One a British peer of ancient lineage, the other a self-made man who, through investing skill and fanatical diligence, became the richest of all Americans, in ‘essential character’ they were poles apart. True, they had certain obvious things in common: each had many marriages (four for Bend’Or, five for Getty); each was a major public figure in his country; each was accused of favouring Hitler and the Nazis during the Thirties; each was an important art-collector. But there the resemblance ends.

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