I have a friend who’s lived in San Diego for more than 20 years but grew up in the Old Money enclave of Washington, D.C. I’ll call him Andrew. He claims his parents weren’t Old Money, meaning (by his definition) possessors of family wealth that predates the 20th Century. He says in the nation’s capital, such people are known as “cliff dwellers” or “cave dwellers” (because “they’ve been there forever”). His parents arrived in Washington during the Second World War. After many years, they did get into the Chevy Chase Club and the Social Register, and Andrew attended St. Albans School, one year behind Al Gore. Had Andrew remained in Washington, had he married and raised a family there, he still wouldn’t have been considered Old Money because of his family’s recent arrival. But his credentials in the Old Money circles would have been impeccable.
Andrew disliked the complacency he detected in some of his peers. He says he “didn’t want to end up in my 60s, lounging around the pool at the Chevy Chase Club and feeling that I couldn’t have made it on my own.” So he moved to San Diego. It seemed free of the kinds of social “filters” that abounded in his hometown. Today he thinks there’s no such thing as Old Money here. All the wealth was created after 1900, and he deems it all “nouveau.”
Andrew’s standard for what constitutes Old Money is the most stringent I’ve encountered. Less restrictive is the one spelled out in Old Money, a 1988 treatise by Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. The scion of an old Rhode Island family, Aldrich asserts that “in the last analysis,” Old Money is “the imagination working on money to create the impression of a social class that is different from other classes.”
One of the best-marked entrances to this estate, Aldrich suggests, has been to render service to the class. The fastest way (“and the only one available to those who are merely, newly rich”) is to “give money to the welfare and cultural institutions that are Old Money’s extended patrimony,” he writes. The “service” may be rendered in other ways, performed from “family offices, law firms, and banks” or more personally, by “teachers, horse trainers, gardeners, architects, art dealers,” and others.
The closest Aldrich comes to California in his book is a few brief references to San Francisco; the southern half of the state appears to be beyond the edge of his world. But I’ve found support here for the notion that, within the San Diego context, second-generation wealth can be considered Old Money. “If you’re in Philadelphia, you have to date yourself back to Thomas Jefferson. But I think the further you move west, the shorter the time that it takes to be considered Old Money,” says Maryl Weightman, the immediate past president of La Jolla’s prestigious Las Patronas group. Weightman comes from a small town in Texas, where “if you had family that dated back to the late 1800s or early 1900s, that’s old.” In San Diego, she thinks, the line might be drawn as recently as World War II.
A good-natured woman with a strong Texas accent, Weightman is proof of the loose grip exercised by San Diego’s Old Money upon the town’s social institutions. Weightman and her husband and daughter arrived here in 1988, and she says, “I was very aware from the moment I got here that this was a really social setting. You’d have to be blind and stupid not to realize it. I mean, from the first moment I came in, we heard about the Monte Carlo Ball or the Jewel Ball or the Ritz party at the zoo. You heard about these big parties. And it was hard to get an invitation. And I thought, well, I’ll never be invited.”
As she settled into working as a realtor, Weightman came to believe that San Diego’s Old Money families were “pretty entrenched” in the local social scene. But she says she found “that they’re not cold, as far as blocking out anybody else.” One of the beauties of this area, she thinks, “is that it’s a charitable environment.” She added, “I’m by no means wealthy. And my husband doesn’t have a high-profile job here. But we’ve been very accepted.”
Weightman says one of the first things she did after moving here was to join St. James By-The-Sea Episcopal Church and look for a way to volunteer. She offered to prepare the altar for the earliest Sunday morning services. For the white elephant sale, she toiled in mid-August in the fur department, set up in a hall that lacked air-conditioning. “You know, you have to work your way up.”
Weightman joined the pta, first at Muirlands Middle School and then at La Jolla High, where she became vice president. That work introduced her to other causes. She met a lot of the women who were involved with Las Patronas, and they asked her to join the group in 1995. Weightman says she worried about making a seven-year commitment, a requirement of the group, “But I felt like it was so important. The money they give out throughout the community was so important.”
She reassures newcomers who confess to feeling nervous about the social scene. “I hear it all the time. A lot of people who come in, like wives who are moving here with their husbands, say, ‘It’s gonna be snobby.’ And I just say, ‘It’s not!’ There’s such a variety of people.”
San Diego’s Old Money differs from the Old Money of the East in other ways, according to Ross Porter. “The key is that there never was much money around here. As my grandfather used to say, it was a town of slow notes. Except for the occasional millionaire philanthropist like Spreckels, Scripps, or Timken, the money that came to town was from people who were retiring here. Money was tied up in real estate, so there was wealth but not much cash.”