The New Brahmins

Murray Forbes III is out of breath. Dressed in a square-shouldered tweed jacket accented with a navy handkerchief, plaid oxford shirt, and paisley tie, he surges forward, dark bangs flopping over widened eyes and smoothly sculpted cheekbones as he pulls his arms back and shakes his balled fist almost maniacally. “I was nearly killed!” he booms.

This is not a life-or-death emergency. It's not cocktail-hour bluster. For the son of F. Murray Forbes Jr. who grew up on the exclusive flat side of Beacon Hill in a townhouse overlooking the Vincent Club and “a statue of an angel casting bread out into the water,” this is simply another conversation about society's desperate need for art.   

Forbes is a dyed-in-the-tweed Brahmin. His great-great-granduncle was John Murray Forbes, patriarch of the “long-tailed” branch of the Forbeses, which means the relatively bohemian side of the venerable family, a branch historically given to supporting–and, in Murray Forbes's case today, embodying–art and drama. Forbes himself has spent his life painting and overseeing the Navigator Foundation, which finds and brings underappreciated art from Eastern and Central Europe to the Boston public.  

If he seems to exude a certain larger-than-life persona, Forbes has a right to. His ancestors made some of the country's first fortunes in shipping, built the transcontinental railroad, went on secret missions for Abraham Lincoln, helped create the Robert Gould Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial on Boston Common, and made millions investing in Alexander Graham Bell's experiments with a little something called the telephone. One of Boston's first families, the clan has continued its good works in recent generations, doing everything from heading up Boston's State Street Bank and Trust Company (Allan Forbes in the 1950s) to running for president this election year (F. Murray's second cousin, John Forbes Kerry). It's no wonder Forbes is so theatrical.

Not that he lives under the spell of his own charm. He likes hamming up the part of the grand storyteller, resuming the tale of how he was almost killed by an oncoming car while searching for art in Poland during the Cold War. And, frankly, he's working it. “These were important societies!” he says with the swoosh of an outstretched palm. “They had a great deal of love of art–playwrights, poets, painters–even under communism. They came out of–if you'll excuse my language–bloody nations with a considerable culture, because society continues even under duress.” His deep voice, infused with a vague dash of the BBC, is not marked by money in the crass Fitzgeraldian sense, but with something equally abstract: history. Listen to him long enough, and you can almost make out layers of ancestry, thick with both privilege and responsibility.

Without warning, Forbes clears his throat. “Now I'm going to ask something naughty,” he says through a smirk. “If our idea of culture in Boston is something predicated on the understanding that Boston had an upper class devoted to maintaining its culture”–he pauses for a moment for effect–“I wonder what that leaves us now?”

If Boston is, in fact, the Athens of America, the Boston Brahmins hover over our city like the gods of Greek mythology. Not only were they the ones responsible for molding Boston into a version of Athens in the first place, but their reputations are parallel: deities in history, enigmas in the modern day.

Rumors about the Brahmins' influence in old and modern Boston are as plentiful as they are contradictory. Without a doubt, the Brahmins were (and, some believe, still are) the shadowy cabal that pulled the city's strings from on high. Others say their wealth and power have dried up, that all they have left are their names and what's left in their trust funds. Admirers retort that the Brahmins are this city's caregivers, lovers of culture and education; detractors claim that they are elitist and provincial Boston royalty. What's undisputed is that, despite their generations of wealth, the Brahmins were notoriously averse to the crass shows of wealth on display in places like Palm Beach or Newport. They are distinctly Boston creations, who actively shun glamour and attention in spite of their fortunes.

Many of their family names are easily recognized: Lowell and Ames. Adams and Cabot. Forbes. Shaw. Appleton. Crowninshield. Saltonstall. But mostly, we non-Brahmins know the institutions they created and left behind and, in a few cases, still sustain: the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Peabody Essex and Isabella Stewart Gardner museums, WGBH, the Museum of Fine Arts. In fact, most of us know these institutions better than the names of the benefactors who founded them because, by their nature, Brahmins don't like to chisel their names onto buildings. “The Brahmin mystique was that they were very quiet,” says society columnist Jonathan Soroff. “You never knew that they had a dime.” In a sense, they were the originators of shabby chic; even today, there might be a Brahmin right under your nose, and you wouldn't even know it.

The remaining Brahmins, comparatively relaxed by historical standards, closely guard their privacy, rarely ask that the hospital wings they pay for be named for them, and (believe us) do not rush to consent to interviews. As one Brahmin (who, of course, asked not to be named) put it: “My dear, a Brahmin should only be in the newspaper when he is born, when he marries, and when he dies.”

That ethos, almost unheard of in a culture of reality TV and Paris Hilton, was built up over generations of quiet community building. More than anything, the history of the Boston Brahmin is the history of philanthropy in Boston. And the sense of noblesse oblige that became the hallmark of the original Boston Brahmins was arguably a result of the fact that many of them started out with nothing and became rich.

Even people as Old Money as Brahmins were nouveau riche once. And the means by which they got that way were, if not always illegal, not always ethical, either.

Most first families–that description notwithstanding–did not arrive here on the Mayflower. “If everybody who says they came over on that boat really had,” says one Boston woman who is a friend of many Brahmins, “it would have sunk.” (Nor are Brahmins, for the record, merely WASPs. Even old-family white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, however wealthy they may be now, are looked down on by authentic Brahmins as “swamp Yankees.”)

In fact, most Brahmin names of note belong to old New England families of Anglican origin, many of whom settled in Boston at varying points before the 17th century and made their fortunes by the mid-19th.

“What the family forebears were doing in the 150 years from 1630 until 1780 or so makes little difference,” wrote Cleveland Amory in his landmark book The Proper Bostonians. “Neither the accurate identification of the first bearer of the name to 'come over'–the Lees and the Holmeses have never satisfied themselves on this point–nor where the family originally settled–Boston's Gardners came from Maine, its Hallowells from Pennsylvania–are important considerations.” What mattered was that each family had what Amory terms a merchant prince–a patriarch to build the fortune and launch the family name in society before the 1860s.

For many–the Lowells, the Cabots–that meant making money in industry, beginning with textiles. Seafaring was also a common pursuit, and that's where things grew lucrative–and often dubious. Many of the original Brahmins' dealings would make Enron look squeaky clean. Rum-running and opium trading were not uncommon lines of business.

Cabots, Derbys, Searses, Endicotts, Peabodys, Crowninshields–all were “men who, if not actually pirates, were at least Vikings in their methods,” wrote Amory. “To ease their New England consciences, rum was technically known as 'West Indies Goods'; the label 'Groceries and W.I. Goods,' was a familiar one on Boston's Merchants' Row.”

On land, some well-respected Brahmins were not above downright swindling. When Harrison Gray Otis and Samuel Cabot learned that the Massachusetts State House was to be built on Beacon Hill, they bought the artist John Singleton Copley's 15-acre estate at a ridiculously low price while Copley was away. When he returned, Copley was outraged–not only because he believed the land was stolen from him, but because, not long after, it became worth more than he would make from selling paintings for his entire life. He never got any satisfaction–primarily because the most powerful Brahmin families at the time allied themselves against him.

  Many Brahmins never forgot how they came by their wealth and took measures to redeem themselves. “A big part of the Brahmin sense of giving to the community came from their guilt over the source of their money,” says society writer Soroff.

Whatever their reasons for giving, the Brahmins gave big, founding and funding institutions and dedicating not only their fortunes to them but also in many cases much of their lives. Henry Lee Higginson, who founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881, made up the orchestra's annual deficits out of his own pocket, several times risking personal bankruptcy, and paid for the construction of Symphony Hall. In 1918, a handful of Brahmins–Judge Frederick P. Cabot, Frederick E. Lowell, and Bentley W. Warren among them–took up the cause, continuing to cover the symphony's deficits. This tradition didn't end until 1966, when the BSO began its first fundraising campaign.

Then there's the historically Brahmin stronghold of the Museum of Fine Arts. In 1869, the proprietors of the Boston Athenaeum–one of the nation's most outstanding private libraries, headed by the Cabots–agreed to give over a part of its impressive art collection for a museum dedicated to “the preservation and exhibition of works of art.” The MFA was a receptacle of Brahmin goodwill from the start, receiving money and art from Brahmin family collections and presided over by men like Martin Brimmer, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, Ralph Lowell, and Edward Jackson Holmes. When, in 1875, John Lowell's heirs gave artifacts he had collected on his travels through the Middle East, they later became part of the Egyptian wing.

The gifts were staggering. “If you look at money that the museum's wealthy philanthropist founders put up in today's terms, that was an enormous amount,” says Bob Henderson, the current chair of the MFA's capital campaign. Yet the Brahmins who founded the museum took measures to involve the public. “It was not a museum for the six or eight families who founded it,” says Patricia Jacoby, who heads up the MFA's ongoing fundraising campaign. “So instead of funding it entirely themselves, they built a subscription program, asking hundreds of people to give nominal amounts so they would feel like it was their museum, too.”

Boston's suburbs also were nourished by the first families. In Salem, the Peabody family was so prominent, it was said there that you were a “Peabody or nobody.” (Today, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem still draws the support and involvement of Brahmins like Saltonstall descendant George Lewis.) In and around Easton, Oliver Ames started manufacturing shovels in 1803, building a fortune that by the 1860s was enough to underwrite the Union Pacific Railroad. “Once that money was invested, they became big players,” says Greg Galer, curator of the Industrial History Center at Stonehill College. “Frederick Lothrop Ames was an original stockholder of General Electric, and they had huge real estate interests, which is how they ended up building so much of Boston–including the Colonial Theatre, parts of MIT, and the Ames Building,” the tallest building in Boston when it was completed in 1893 and for 26 years thereafter.

The Lowell family took up another cause: public education. From that would eventually come WGBH, today the country's largest public television producer, which has harvested literally hundreds of Emmys, Peabodys, and even Oscars. The station's roots took hold when Ralph Lowell and Harvard president James Conant offered public lectures–along with other local universities. Realizing the power radio would soon have, Lowell got himself a broadcasting license, and the symposium started airing lectures on the radio and, later, on television.

It was also a Lowell who gave Isabella Stewart Gardner, perhaps the best-known Brahmin icon, her entrée into Boston society. Neither a true Brahmin nor a native Bostonian, she came here from New York to marry John Lowell “Jack” Gardner Jr., whose father was considered the last of the East India merchants. Not that she had any trouble making her mark: Gardner was as famed for her eccentric behavior as she was for her philanthropy. She drank beer instead of tea, for instance, and was rumored to walk down Tremont Street with a leashed lion. Once she openly flouted Brahmin shabby chic by wearing two enormous diamonds–not as jewelry, but on gold springs hovering above her head. Her wealthy contemporaries were not amused.

That didn't keep the Gardners from hosting lavish dinner parties with luminaries such as Henry James and John Singer Sargent. Nor did it dampen Gardner's love of art or philanthropic spirit–not only in her Fenway mansion but also in the other causes she championed, including the Boston Public Library, the New England Conservatory, and the New England Home for Little Wanderers. “Mrs. Gardner's legacy is that she amassed people around this amazing collection of art, horticulture, music, and education,” says Barbara Hostetter, now president of the Gardner's board of trustees. “But she also knew that having wealth meant you had a responsibility to your community.”

Historians consider the death of John Lowell Gardner in 1878 the date that entry to the club was ended. If you weren't a first family by then, you weren't going to become one. From the 1860s until the 1950s, being a Brahmin became more about who you married. (Intermarriage with a family whose status paralleled or eclipsed your own was so important that the only Brahmin families not known to have married each other are the Saltonstalls and Lowells, and marrying a cousin was not at all uncommon.) This was but one way of preserving wealth. Trust funds, used creatively by the Brahmins, were another. Offspring could also draw from the profits of a family copper mine–like the ones owned by the Shaws, Agassizes, and Ameses. But these were, in one form or another, all remnants of the initial fortune. The time of the merchants was ending.

“The Brahmins?” asks Eleanor Spaak, sounding surprised to even hear the term. “The Brahmins are nowhere right now.” Socialite and society columnist for the Newbury Street and Back Bay Guide, she's watched the last vestiges of Brahmin clout shift to new families and new groups–Irish, Jewish, Italian. “They don't have the power they once did, and they simply aren't giving money like they used to because they just don't have it.”

She's not the only one who thinks so. “Certainly there are still Honeywells and Cabots, but by and large most of the money that's being donated in town is coming from newly rich Irish, Jews, and Italians,” says Soroff. “Look at the board of the Symphony–that was once a Brahmin haven. Now Peter Brooke is the chairman, Tom Stemberg from Staples, George Krupp, Chad Gifford, Nancy Fitzpatrick: These are not Brahmin names. So, yes, the Brahmins are the social history of Boston, and there's still a strong thread of that tradition, but they are not what they once were.”

Of course, just because they don't have a monopoly on power anymore doesn't mean the Brahmins have left town. It's just that much of their family money is gone, and many have moved away or married non-Brahmins. You can still find their descendants, gin and tonics in hand, at the Chilton and Vincent clubs or the Myopia Club. (The Forbeses still weekend on Naushon Island.) And there remain plenty of Saltonstalls. Some of them have moved to other cities; others have stayed and gone into teaching.

A handful of Brahmins still are active philanthropists. Henry Lee keeps the Higginson family's tradition alive with his tireless work for the Public Garden. William Lowell still looks after WGBH and the Lowell Institute. There's Martha Crowninshield, who has made her own small fortune at Boston Ventures, and gives both her time and admirable sums of money to the United Way and Boys & Girls Clubs. Sylvia Pope–a Thorndike and a Saltonstall–is a force behind the Boston Ballet. Jack Gardner, Isabella's great-great-grandnephew, is chair of the Gardner Museum's board of trustees. And Bill Ames and other family members have continued to support Stonehill Industrial History Center at Stonehill College. Then there's Linda Cabot Black, who has labored for years to keep the Boston Lyric Opera going. And Helen Spaulding, says Boston Foundation board member Ira Jackson, “has done more for the poor and those normally forgotten about in Boston than you can imagine. She's the best essence of that old and much misunderstood group, the Boston Brahmins, for whom caring and giving back to the community were vital.”

There are whispered stories of the hangers-on–descendants of Brahmins who live off dwindling trust funds and go to all of the social events but contribute none of their time and money to the community. “Some of these families will come to a cocktail party, and all they talk about is their kids' prep schools,” sniffs one non-Brahmin socialite.

Even more frustrating to many of the city's new philanthropists are the Brahmin descendants who use their names to join boards, then do little or no work for the cause. “So many of these Brahmin families, their money dried up years ago, and the current generations are utter failures,” says one active philanthropist who moved to Boston several years ago. “They're in your social circle because their last names get them on the boards, but they don't do anything. They don't raise money, they don't stuff envelopes, and they don't help organize.”

That may be true, says 30-year-old Emily Webster, a member of the Webster Brahmins, who is herself involved with the Young Friends of the Public Garden and the Nichols House in addition to working in her family design business, Webster & Company, and running an accessories business called Pilgrim Road. But, she says, “the reality is, sometimes you need a name.” And the truth is those names get other people to buy tickets to an event or donate a lot to a cause.

Still, there's no doubt that the face of giving in Boston has changed. “A lot of the Brahmin money has been diluted over generations,” one socialite says. “There's a new sphere of people who now have huge fortunes, so the groups of people who are giving have just diversified. What happened at the Wang Center in the '70s was a perfect example. Its board was all names of people who founded it, but the center was struggling financially. So when [Helen Spaulding's son] Joe Spaulding took over, he changed that by requiring a $2,500-a-year donation in order to be on the board, and a lot of people resigned. Now the board is made up of African-American and Latino names.” Linda Cabot Black agrees that things have changed. “It used to be the Brahmins that supported the city,” she says. “But that's just not true anymore. Now it's many different people.”

While new groups may have supplanted the Brahmins in wealth and power, it's the Brahmins who have shaped how people give in this town. Matthew Santangelo, a trust and estate specialist for Merrill Lynch, handles the philanthropic giving of many wealthy Boston families today. He sees a resurgent Brahminlike philosophy among the newest non-Brahmin donors. “In previous generations, there was giving among the pillars of the community,” Santangelo says. “They would always reliably give to local, established institutions. Beyond those families, most people gave out of a sense of obligation and peer pressure. But now younger wealth creators are instead really interested in the impact of their money. They feel wealth has no meaning at all–it needs to be given meaning by doing something with it for the community. They want to make sure their children and grandchildren appreciate that.”

That means giving time along with money, an old-fashioned Brahmin-style approach that institutions like the BSO, the MFA, WGBH, and the Boston Foundation confirm is on the rebound. “We're seeing a demise of checkbook philanthropy,” says Paul S. Grogan, president and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “People are much more apt to give money, but also volunteer and be personally involved with their causes.”

That makes sense to Linda Cabot Black. “I just love opera,” she says matter-of-factly. “It's that simple. And without the Boston Lyric Opera, Boston wouldn't have an opera house at all. We're a world-class city, and the people who live here shouldn't be without that.” Then there's Murray Forbes, who in his quest to keep his Navigator Foundation properly funded, summons the spirits of not only his, but two other Brahmin families. “You don't want to become old Henry Higginson,” he chuckles, referring to the patriarch's flirtation with bankruptcy in keeping the Symphony alive. “But,” he says, this time echoing Ralph Lowell's affinity for public education, “art and the humanity it represents are how we understand each other, and it must be made available to everyone.”

It was once said that in New York they ask how much a person is worth, in Philadelphia who his parents were, and in Boston how much he knows. If that's so, Forbes may be the best living example of the collision of the old Brahmin ethic and the new world. “It's about content,” he says. “I'm not saying people aren't giving today. They are. But do their passions come across to the rest of the public? Because that is where the culture lies–not just in impressions or reviews or seeing our name in print, but in the art itself, and in fresh, new presentations of ideas to invigorate the civilization.”