Our longtime contributor Jamie MacGuire is out with a new book this month, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. Real Lace Revisited is an updating of Stephen Birmingham’s 1973 best seller, Real Lace, which chronicled the rise of the first wealthy Irish families in America. Jamie sat down with Lily Hoagland to talk about the new book.
QUEST: Why did you write this book?
JAMIE MACGUIRE: My publisher, Jed Lyons of Rowman & Littlefield, was surprisingly impervious to the charms of my other brilliant book proposals (e.g. Great Moments in Curling, Weather in Burundi 1742-46, and Co-Dependent Forever). Eventually he sighed and asked, “Why not swanky places and ritzy people?”
I immediately complimented him on his prodigious genius, and had the idea of updating Stephen Birmingham’s books. Our Crowd, about the first German-Jewish fortunes in America, was a huge best seller. Then came Real Lace, about the Irish, which I had discussed with him 20 years ago in Mary Lou Whitney’s box at Saratoga Racecourse. In 2015, I wrote to Steve—then in his early 80s—to propose expanding and updating Real Lace. He was very encouraging and promised to write a foreward.
Q: Then what happened?
JM: Funny you should ask—Stephen Birmingham died suddenly just a few months later, which was sad, and I never got my foreward. On the other hand, it gave me a certain freedom I might not have had otherwise.
Q: What were some of the things you learned writing the book?
JM: Quite a few really: the real first Irish family was not the Murrays or McDonnells, as Birmingham implied, but the Carrolls, who arrived in Maryland in 1687. Birmingham only mentioned the Kennedys to exclude them for their arriviste bad manners and ethics, but in this book they are treated fully for their virtues as well as their vices, and especially their long record of public service. Caroline, whom I first got to know when we were both studying in England in the 1970s, and whose ambassadorship to Japan was such a characteristically understated triumph, is a recent outstanding example.
People forget the intensity of prejudice and bigotry the Irish in America suffered at the hands of Know Nothings, Nativists, the KKK, and others, including during Al Smith’s run for President as the first Irish Catholic candidate in 1928.
Also: the geographical expansion of the Irish throughout the U.S., not just in the Northeast; the surprisingly large number of new Irish-American fortunes that have been made in the last 50 years, even as some families faded; and the decline of religion, especially after the priestly sex abuse scandals. Now, there are signs of a resilience of faith among Irish-Americans, who remain, at their core, a remarkably spiritual people.
Q: How has Real Lace Revisited been received so far?
JM: Very well, amazingly enough, and much of it undoubtedly undeserved. Al Smith IV said, “James MacGuire’s Real Lace Revisited is a must read. You will appreciate the historical accuracy and hilarious account provided by MacGuire. Dominick Dunne and Thomas Cahill could not compete with MacGuire’s mastery of the subject.”
Publisher Charlie Scribner wrote: “MacGuire does for American Irish Catholics what Evelyn Waugh did for those eccentric English recusants at Brideshead: with wit, insight, and critically engaging affection he brings several generations to a life beyond life. But this account has the added authority of a true insider who grew up with the very families he chronicles—from the McDonnells and Murrays to the Kennedys and Buckleys. His personal appraisal rings as pitch-perfect as a Louis Auchincloss novel of WASP society.”
And Michael Garvey, author of Confessions of a Catholic Worker, chimed in: “An invaluable and absorbing chronicle filled with rare, elegant historical scholarship… MacGuire is an attentive, shrewd, and incomparably entertaining companion for anyone who wishes to tour Irish America’s most curious precincts.”
Q: Is there anything in the book of special interest to Quest readers?
JM: Society Editor Emerita Hilary Ross is a member of the legendary Murray clan and the wife to our new Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur, himself an alumnus of Xavier, the outstanding Jesuit high school downtown. I was also interested to learn that, despite his predominantly New Netherlands Dutch genes, Teddy Roosevelt was an original member of the American Irish Historical Society on Fifth Avenue.
Q: Any future projects you’d like to share with us?
JM: Oh yes. My publisher showed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for my proposed Encyclopedia of Estonian Billiards, so I am considering another Stephen Birmingham sequel, this time to The Right Places. Also, with the 50th anniversaries looming, I have a tumultuous reconsideration of the late 1960s nearly ready, and I would love to bring that forward next year. Your faithful but mysterious chronicler of yesteryear, Audax, whoever he bloody well may be, is advising me on these projects, and you may shortly hear more about them from him.