Literature: From ‘True Prep’ to ‘New Prep’

by John Arundel

Three decades after the publication of Lisa Birnbach’s seminal Preppy Handbook, the author says that being a preppy may just be a state of mind.
By Stephanie Green

Old Prep, Ben Bradlee, vs. New Prep, Philippe Cousteau.

Thirty years ago writer Lisa Birnbach co-authored The Official Preppy Handbook defining for the general public the world of “prepdom,” that mystical universe of Northeast boarding schools, navy blazers worn with everything, and a dialect that uses “summer” as a verb.

I was just a toddler when the book was published, but in the late eighties and early nineties films like Dead Poets Society, television characters like Alex P. Keaton, and the prominence of the Bush family dynasty, brought prepdom to my consciousness.

Of course, it never occurred to me that I, in fact, could be a preppy.

As far as I was concerned, preppies were “Yankees” (I was born and bred in the Deep South), and had decidedly conservative political leanings (I am rather agnostic in this regard), among other key cultural differences.

Apparently, the definition of preppiness is in a constant state of evolution, which prompted Birnbach to follow up her handbook with True Prep: It’s a Whole New World, published last fall, so that the “facebook generation” can see who the “new prep” really is, and, much to my bewilderment, the “new prep” looks a lot like me, and a whole host of other Washingtonians.

"True Prep: It's a Whole New Old World is the follow up to The Official Preppy Handbook.

When I chatted with Birnbach by phone, she dispelled one myth I had about prepdom after another, including the geographical ones.

“Oh, Jacksonville is very preppy,” she cooed after I told her I was from North Florida, a long way away from Kennebunkport.

“In fact, I think the South is even preppier in many ways. They wear brighter colors, “she informed me.

Then we ventured into the prickly terrain of preppy politics, which has perhaps changed the most since 1980.

According to Birnbach, the GOP was the natural habitat for preppies because so many of prepdom’s princes were

Republican leaders like Bill Weld, Nelson Rockefeller, John Chaffee, and, of course, George H. W. Bush, all of whom were turned out by the poshest New England schools, and looked like they could be models in a Brooks Brothers catalog.

But today, the art of preppiness is not limited to one political party.

In fact, Birnbach lists President and Mrs. Obama in the pantheon of preps, due to their fondness for J. Crew and Ivy League educations.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton passes the prep-o-meter for her “prodigious use of headbands”.

(Sorry Bill, you don’t quite make it, although you did look handsome in a tweed blazer at Oxford.)

As for Mitt Romney, a much-talked about presidential candidate in 2012, Birnbach says she and his squeaky clean family might fit the bill, but for one shortcoming.

“The Romney family has a drinking problem. They don’t drink,” she deadpans, referring to Romney’s Mormon faith prohibiting the drinking of alcohol, a favorite pastime of the prep.

“What? No bloodies?” Birnbach asks about a possible Romney state dinner.

As for former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Birnbach explains she is the “antithesis” of preppy, because of her “really vulgar” decision to star in a reality television show, which violates the prep’s code of discretion above everything.

“Once upon a time, nice people did not speak of money, “ Birnbach writes.

In the end, Birnbach says that the new preppiness is not necessarily about old-guard status, but adhering to classic rules of behavior and decorum, transcendent of politics, geography, and even economics.

So wear Lily Pulitzer prints, drink vodka cocktails, call your mother “mummy,” and remember your manners.

You can be a preppy too. It’s now just a state of mind.

Old Prep vs. New Prep

The Old Preps:
Ben Bradlee ( St. Mark’s School), George Walker Bush ( Andover), Bunny Mellon, Gore Vidal ( St. Albans, Sidwell Friends)

The New Preps:
Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Christopher Buckley, Philippe Cousteau ( St. George’s)

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