Image Credit: Elena SeibertWe all know the external signs of a preppy: Boat shoes, shirts with alligator logos, well-honed après-ski skills, and a proclivity towards all things nautical. These signposts have been general knowledge since the beginning of time, or at least since the beginning of the 1980s, when Lisa Birnbach first penned The Official Preppy Handbook, a runaway bestseller that ended up, for many people, defining the subculture it was attempting to describe. Now, 30 years later, and with the help of über-book designer Chip Kidd, Birnbach has returned to her polo-shirted roots with True Prep, a sequel that tries to help explain the preppy’s place in the modern world. We talked with the author about unfair preppy stereotypes, very fair preppy stereotypes, and everything in between.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How was your weekend?
LISA BIRNBACH: I was just up in Nantucket, appreciating the rain.
That’s certainly a sufficiently preppy answer. Why revisit The Official Preppy Handbook now, three decades later?
I’d been approached many times by people, some of whom were writers, some of whom were with publishers, asking me about it. But I just didn’t think I wanted to do it for a lot of reasons. Then I joined Facebook, a move that I might regret were it not for the fact that I saw Chip Kidd’s picture and I thought, “Ooh, that famous designer. If I click on his name do you think he’ll reject me?” So I clicked on his name, and he wrote me back immediately and said, “Are you really Lisa Birnbach? Oh my God, I’ve got to take you to lunch!” I did not know that Chip Kidd was a fan of the book. And he proposed we do a sequel. So I thought, Chip Kidd is such a great designer that if he wants to do this, let’s do it. It was all coming together, and someone told me that the book was turning 30. It became clear that this was a book that was well timed.
When did you and Chip first meet?
I think it was the last week of April of 2009.
Wow, so you guys really did pump this thing out.
Yeah. He was doing other things—he’s always doing other things—and I don’t think we even started right away, but I started noodling and I guess by early fall we were going to work.
How did you solve that dilemma of nothing changing since 1635? How did you update it?
Very easily. We the preppies haven’t changed, it’s the world around us that has. What’s interesting is, the hardest part about writing a handbook, the first book and this book both, is divining what goes in and what doesn’t go in. It’s sort of like, “I woke up this morning, what did I do that’s worth writing about? What do I have to notice out of my life that’s worth putting in? What is it that I observe all the time that, in the thirty years since, that maybe I wasn’t paying attention to, but now needs to be the subject of this book?”
You have some pretty big-name preppies as contributors, like Christopher Buckley and Edmund White. How did you get them?
From the earliest brainstorming sessions, I felt that there were some things that I just didn’t know, or just wouldn’t be the right person to write, and so wouldn’t it be cool to have distinguished contributors? Getting Chris Buckley was a real coup. Ed White, I had met earlier in the year through Chip. My daughters were also contributors: One of my daughters wrote a piece on Gossip Girl, and the other wrote one on texting.
So your daughters accept their preppiness?
They’re very concerned about it. They go to private school and they wear uniforms and stuff, but they’re not sure if…
If that lifestyle’s right for them?
[Laughs] They’re not sure if they’re preppy enough, because we’re in New York, we’re not in some grassy place. We’re Jewish. But, of course, as anyone who’s read the book knows, ethnicity doesn’t necessarily apply. WASP isn’t synonymous with preppy anymore. There are still many WASPy preppies and preppy WASPies, that is still the center of it all, but in the world in which we live now, I just don’t think it’s proper to be exclusionary.
Your book seems to straddle the line between a satire and an earnest handbook.
I think somewhere on it, it says “Humor.” Well, yes and no. It’s a little misleading because it’s a real nonfiction book. There’s a humorous voice to it, but there’s nothing in here that isn’t true. The editor that supervised the Preppy Handbook used the phrase “loving irreverence.” That is a bit of a bifurcation, but it seemed to work. Everyone who worked on it had a knowing wink. And then to our total surprise it was absorbed as an actual guide. But then responsibilities put on me, I can’t even tell you. I’ve had to name dogs, I’ve had to give babies their nicknames, I’ve had to choose between Belmont and Weston, Massachusetts for this family, between a Volvo and a Saab for that. It made my mind spin. I’m like, “How can you trust me?” I’m so young, I’m so dumb, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’ve never even been to California! I think that’s part of what made the book succeed so much. People really, really took it seriously.
It came out in 1980, so it was kind of leading into a recession. And now we’re in the midst of a recession. Do you think there’s something to that, where people are more open to scrutinizing and satirizing the rich?
The first time, in 1980, I wasn’t really paying attention to the external signs. I was living in New York, I was 21, I didn’t know people under the age of 40 who ever voted for Republicans, and suddenly Ronald Reagan was elected president and people were very excited when they had money. There was this first wave in my life of people talking about money, bragging about it, being ostentatious. Certainly, this had existed before, like in the ‘20s before the crash, but not in my lifetime. The way I was raised, one didn’t know anything. I think I once asked my mother how much my father earned, and I was so, so shamed by the answer. “Lisa! One never talks about money! Don’t mention this, I will pretend this never happened!” And that was that. It was as rough a scolding as one can get. It just wasn’t the way I was raised, and then, in the ‘80s, the excess, the money, the shoulderpads.
With Wall Street becoming sexy for the first time in my lifetime, people with per diems and expense accounts and limos and brand names, I couldn’t get over it. It’s still very uncomfortable for me. Now that we’re in a recession, I do think True Prep is timely in the sense that it’s a guide to being frugal. It’s a guide to good manners while you’re sponging off people, so you’ll be invited again. It’s a way to restore some luster to your old clothes, not by bedazzling them but…
Exactly. Suede patches. But also by looking at your wardrobe in a new way, shopping your closet. It’s also about something vibrantly American that you can feel good about in a time when there’s a lot to feel nervous about. Being prep and dressing prep is kind of like having that wonderful meatloaf that you actually secretly love, or macaroni and cheese, which are now actually popular items in good restaurants. Add the truffle oil or don’t add the truffle oil.
So there was this period of prep love followed by a period of intense prep backlash, in terms of how they are depicted in movies…
Most of which are false. Here’s the thing: Hollywood, despite the fact that there are a lot of people who went to boarding schools and college, they seem to still make somebody with a lockjaw and a limousine a preppy person, or someone with three Chanel shopping bags. If I have a soapbox, that’s my issue. It’s not about being rich, and, if you are rich, it’s certainly not about playing it up, it’s about playing it down. When I went to college, the richest kids wore hand-me-downs to school. You do anything to not appear to be spoiled or privileged. Anything. Definitely you had the most holes in your jeans. It was people who were aspiring to something that were more show-offy and wore perfect clothes and were more groomed and so on. The preppies in movies have been sometimes well-depicted, but it’s not about money. It’s about family, education, it’s about a worldview, and school, and family. And school. And family.
Is that one of the reasons it’s called True Prep? To distinguish it from this fake sense of preppydom?
You have a lot of stereotyping to battle. There’s the Preppy Killer, American Psycho, every ‘80s beach and skiing movie ever made…
I was the technical adviser on Dead Poets Society. I feel that one’s unimpeachable, that one got it right. But yeah, the ne’er do well, I’m going to drink as much as I can and ski as fast as possible and be a jerk, kind of person is one of our people too. Not everybody is W. Averell Harriman and Adlai Stevenson, sorry. We have our share of wastrels, that is for sure. So it’s both sides, I am trying to be fair about it. We’re not all Democrats, we’re not all Republicans, we’re not all good-hearted people, some of us are selfish and unimaginative and infantile. There are good qualities and bad qualities, but I don’t know if there’s been anything recently that’s really stereotyped preppies.
Just a throwback like Hot Tub Time Machine.
There was a wonderful movie that came out back in the day called Breaking Away and the preppies were the bad guys there, too. It’s easy to make a rich person unsympathetic, it’s a lot more difficult to look underneath the blazer and the Top-Siders and see the preppy for who he really is.