Edward Hall, the grandfather to whom Ross refers, was a prominent real estate and civic leader, as was Roscoe Porter, the grandfather after whom Ross was named. (“As a land developer and auto accessory manufacturer, he made his first million dollars before he was 30,” Roscoe’s 1957 obituary declared.) Ross’s parents, David and Kay (Hall) Porter, have been lifelong patrons of the local arts. Community betterment was “like my mother’s religion,” Ross told me. He was struck by this last year when attending the gala that celebrated the 25th anniversary of the San Diego Foundation. Ross says when he saw his mother nodding her approval of all the speeches, it reminded him of “the way my grandmother had nodded when my sister Leslie got married after five years of living in sin. It was that solemn…single…nod, with a finality that indicated this was Serious Business. And I realized that the religion I was brought up in was: ‘Give back to the community and make a difference. Don’t live just for yourself.’ Those are Old Money values…Old Money virtues.”
After Ross graduated from San Diego High School (as valedictorian of the Class of 1976), he went to Yale, where he obtained a degree in economics. He lived for ten years in New Mexico and Kansas City before returning to San Diego, where he works as a communications director for the American Lung Association. When I e-mailed him and broached the topic of Old Money, he shot back a 720-word essay. “There’s a tension that can be explored in the relationship between Old Money and Big Money,” he reflected. “I think this tension is to be found in all dynamic economies; the Roman word for classless new money was Parvenu (you probably knew that!) and the quest of New Money is to develop the gravitas of Old Money. In San Diego the way this has been done seems to be through striking gestures of civic improvement or charity. I think the San Diego Foundation is today’s chief scrubber of souls in this regard. Some modern examples: Sol Price, the Krocs, and the guy who owns Gateway.”
Ross later expanded upon his view of what distinguishes Old from New Money. “It’s really about the institutions and the culture that you decide to pursue and the lifestyle that you choose. New money has always been associated with flashy material acquisitions; with wine, women, and song. With burning the candle at both ends. And Old Money is always associated with…appreciating the high arts and attempting to preserve the cultural identity and helping the community.” But in America, if people act like Old Money, “then others tend to think of them as Old Money, no matter how new,” he offered, adding, “I think that’s really true about San Diego.… Even in terms of our California society, there was never money in San Diego.” A look at the most recent Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans reveals an absence of concentrated wealth here. Of the 107 California residents on the year 2000 list, 64 live in the greater Bay Area, 26 can be found in and around Los Angeles, and only 5 call San Diego home: Gateway computer founder Ted Waitt, Joan Kroc (widow of McDonald’s founder Ray), Qualcomm’s Irwin Jacobs, grain-processing heiress Margaret Cargill, and newspaper publisher Helen Copley. (Despite Wal-Mart heir John Walton’s frequent residence here, Forbes lists Durango, Colorado, as his hometown.)
Ross speculates that if San Diego had long ago experienced an outpouring of wealth from oil or gold, “It could have formed a different sort of community. But as it was, this is a shallow soil to grow a fortune in. You had to work it all the time. And you needed help from everybody around.” He cites the “very communitarian” sense that animated the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. “There was that mass subscription of everybody, giving money to make it happen…that sense that we were all in this together and we had to contribute.”
Because the city for so many years was so small and so removed from sources of wealth, the city’s moneyed people lacked “sufficient power unto themselves to be able to hold themselves separate, if they wanted to get anything done,” Ross thinks. “A minority of them could hole up on estates and live out their fantasies, but for the most part money seeks power and respectability also, and for this it’s necessary to relate to the civitas.” He says members of the oldest and most prosperous families “rubbed elbows with one another on streetcars, at civic clubs like the Rotary, in church, and in the public schools. There wasn’t much of an opportunity to have a rarefied atmosphere.”
They did create some yacht clubs and country clubs, but “these do not have a very high standing in Old Money Society,” writes Aldrich. According to him, patrician New England Society instead became synonymous with men’s and (“to a lesser extent”) ladies’ clubs whose “essential function in Old Money’s scheme of things…is to furnish a place where inheritors of the estate, along with their most clubbable retainers, educators, and entertainers, may take refuge from the world of doing and simply be.”
Such institutions have never existed in San Diego. Ross Porter asserts that, “When we [San Diegans] have established retreats for cultural development or mental development or recreational development, we’ve been a meritocracy. We’ve been open to the finest participants. Our prejudices have always been at a fairly low level here.” The city’s multicultural heritage may explain that, he speculates. “Remember, the Old Money here in 1860 was named Bandini, and they were all Californios.”
“This has always been a very fluid city,” concurs Jerry Williamson. Born in San Diego in 1928, Williamson was the daughter of Everett Gee Jackson, an artist and faculty member at San Diego State University. Williamson’s mother, Eileen Jackson, was a newspaper reporter who began covering San Diego society in 1930 and reigned over that subject for the next 60 years. Eileen died in 1996, at the age of 92, and not long afterward, San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Neil Morgan urged Williamson to write her mother’s biography. She began making her way through a mountain of journals, clippings, and scrapbooks. Williamson recounted the story of the woman and her work in Eileen, a book published by the San Diego Historical Society at the end of last year.