Prep Forever: Questions for Lisa Birnbach
Where were you in 1980? I was the worst age possible for a human to be--thirteen--so that's a year I try to forget ever happened, but for Lisa Birnbach, who was not all that much older, it was a pretty good year: her book, The Official Preppy Handbook, spent most of the year near the top of the bestseller lists. As often turns out, a book that aimed to satirize a subculture ended up enshrining it, inspiring the founding of J.Crew and becoming an actual handbook for countless aspiring preps (and perhaps a few authentic ones who had mislaid their Skull & Bones pamphlet of rituals).
The book has had a life of its own ever since, and as its 30th anniversary approached, the famed book designer (the only famed book designer) Chip Kidd, a self-made prep himself, inspired Birnbach to go back to the biggest success in a career of funny writing and update the guide for a new generation of preppies. The resulting collaboration, True Prep, is an entirely new book and a very funny one in its own right, entirely rethinking the traditions of this ultratraditional culture for the age of cellphones and Obama.
I got the chance to talk to Birnbach at BookExpo a few months back (when I apparently was the first outsider to see the book in toto). She's a hoot in person, and I think you can tell that we had a good time talking about such crucial issues as the relative preppiness of our last four presidents, the relationship between pants with whales on them and irony, and the first preppy reality show: The Real Housewives of New Canaan ("Five women with various shades of blonde sitting in different parts of a room not looking at one another"). (Also, the internet being what it is, I somehow feel it's necessary to clarify that her suspicion about the president's birthplace was done in character.) You can listen below, or read the full transcript after the jump.
Amazon: So I noticed that new copies of the original Preppy Handbook are going for about $100 on Amazon.com [update: now $275!]. First of all, is that something a preppy would do? Would they sell their original copy? Or would they buy a copy on Amazon.com?
Lisa Birnbach: Definitely they would buy one on Amazon.com. Chances are that preppies would have held on to their original copies or lost them for a while, bought a new one, and then found the other one and maybe sell one, because they're tight. The funny thing is that this book, The Official Preppy Handbook, has been out of print for about 15 years. And it was selling on Amazon and other sites for in the neighborhood of $9 to $15 for a long time. And I know because I was a big customer, but because people have wanted them over the years and I've been hoarding them just to have to give to people. And now I can't afford it.
And that's a crummy condition one. The good ones and the signed ones and the boxed ones are quite expensive, and it's, I think, because of True Prep and because this is a moment in time that people are interested in returning to their sort of all-American frugal roots.
Amazon: I noticed the top customer review of the original Handbook, which was written in 2004, says, as you were saying, "Everything comes around a second time. So Lisa Birnbach, call your office. It may be time for an updated edition for today's rising BMOCs." I'm guessing that was not the story behind updating this book.
Birnbach: No. Well, yes and no. As somebody who wrote the first book, some of which--okay, take a pause--in longhand. They had invented computers. I just chose not to use one. But I did write most of it on my little portable electric typewriter, the part I didn't write on legal pads. When I met Chip Kidd, I met him through Facebook. I admired his work enormously and thought I wonder if he'll accept my friendship. I was a little new to Facebook, and I was embarrassed to write him a note. But I just sort of clicked on him, and he said, "Are you really Lisa Birnbach?" I said, "If you're Chip Kidd, I am."
Anyway, he was the one who was much more savvy in cyber culture. And he was the one who said, "People are clamoring for a new book." And I never knew. Why would I look up the Preppy Handbook online? I know what's in it. So that's really why this happened, because there was not a huge demand but enough of an interest in an update and because the times sort of require it. A lot has changed in 30 years. We're trying to stay the same. It's not always easy.
Amazon: Yeah, preppydom seems to be about tradition. But the book seems open to some change, which surprised me. One thing is that it seems very inclusive.
Birnbach: Yes. Well, I'm glad you said that, Tom. And also, I think you're the first civilian who's read it, so it's exciting for me to talk to you about it. We have opened the doors wider and wider. Thirty years ago, we kind of dodged the answer to, "What do you have to be to be preppy?" Do you have to be Protestant? Do you have to be white? Do you have to be a second-generation boarding-school graduate? And how long does your family have to be in America for you to be able to do all that? We dodged it because we wanted to be open and because I'm a Jewish woman from New York. So if I'm going to be it, so can everyone else.
However, now we've gone much further. We've addressed head-on African American preppies. We've addressed head-on gay preppies. We've addressed head-on even very rich people who dress terribly but have made so much money that they live in Silicon Valley. We've addressed everybody.
And we welcome them, not with an evangelical need anymore because we don't have to tell anyone what a preppy is. We have a president who is black who was born ... somewhere. We don't know, right? Maybe Africa. Maybe America. Went to Punahou, the largest prep school in America or the largest private school in America. No one needs me to define preppiness anymore, which is kind of a relief.
Amazon: This is a question I have for later but you brought it up. The last four presidents I think have each had their own relationship [to preppydom]. George H. W. Bush...
Birnbach: I know!
Amazon: ...he's the picture in the dictionary, but then his son who seemed to have a more conflicted relationship. There's Bill Clinton, who summers on the Vineyard. So how would you characterize the various incarnations of preppydom we've had in the White House?
Birnbach: That's a great question because it's kind of a joke to say that this president is a preppy as opposed to the previous. They've all been in some ways. Bill Clinton the least of all, for so many reasons. His taste in extracurricular talent for one--very not preppy, but very much like the preppy who likes the townie girl. Being a Rhodes scholar shows a kind of geekishness that's just [throat clearing]. But the two Bushs are definitionally preppies. Now, George Herbert Walker Bush is a member of our pantheon. He followed in many footsteps of family members, but changed his watchband every day. Really, throwing up in public is a very preppy thing to do. He couldn't be more prep. His dogs are prep. Millie has her own Wikipedia page so, you know, enough about that.
George Walker Bush is even more preppy in the sense that he wouldn't have gotten into Andover or Yale on his own, because he's, you know, dumb. And "The Gentlemen's C" was the title of a chapter in The Official Preppy Handbook. And giving nicknames. "Good job, Brownie, good job." He is ultimately preppy.
But then there's the Obama kind of preppy which is aspirational. Went from this kind of mixed childhood and no father and all kinds of exceptional circumstances that would not ordinarily suggest he would be a winner or a leader, and look at that. Lean, fit, smoking...
Amazon: On the sly.
Birnbach: Sneaking! That's even preppier than doing it openly! Oh, Tom, you must know that. You're wearing a button down... Well, no, kind of...
Amazon: I was going to ask you to assess my wardrobe but off camera.
Birnbach: We'll do that after because it's personal.
Birnbach: Take Ivy?
Amazon: Yeah, that's been reissued.
Birnbach: Amazon is selling Take Ivy with True Prep. You can buy the two of them together. Yes, it is international. One thing that I've noticed in the last, let's say, five to 10 years is that the couple walking down the street in spectacularly trim and stylish sizes--as opposed to the big, baggy pleated pants that American preppies used to wear--are not American, look fantastic, and have now appropriated this aesthetic which was completely American, which was all about sporting needs, dressing for sport even if you're going to your office. And they've taken it and, of course, they do it with a lot of style.
So preppy is really quite global now. It's kind of cool. Even though we were trying to keep the book quiet for a long time to make a splash in September, the international press has written about it already quite a bit. I don't know who's telling them.
Amazon: I do have that one copy....
Birnbach: That's right, that's right. No, it is a global phenomenon. But, at the same time, there's something very comfortable about it. And, because preppy clothing comes from the English, the continent of Europe is not unfamiliar with it.
Amazon: I was curious about the relationship of preppydom to irony, both 30 years ago and now. Preppies maybe, since your book, they see themselves in the mirror more so. When a grown man puts on pants with whales on them, is that an ironic statement at all?
Birnbach: You know, it truly depends on the fellow. When we were writing the first book, my editor at the time said something about loving irreverence. And that book was really intended to gently--gently!--send up people who were preppies. And originally, actually, the publisher asked me to do a catalogue of stuff. But the stuff in itself as a catalogue or a wishlist doesn't tell you the context, doesn't make racquet sports as funny as they are, doesn't explain why gin and tonics are funnier than Chardonnay (or more appropriate).
And then, to my complete surprise, there were the readers who found it funny, and there were readers who renovated their entire lives accordingly. And the letters I got and the people who started to show up to meet me! Me? "What should we name this dog?" And they'd bring a picture of their dog. And, "I'm trying to decide which college to go to" or "which suburb to move to" or "whether I should be a vegetarian or not." The responsibility to help people is enormous and also not too prep because, you know.
Amazon: Helping people is not...
Birnbach: Mmm, mezzo mezzo.
Amazon: So were those aspirational preps or were there actual authentic preps who just had lost somehow the cultural knowledge that they should have been born into?
Birnbach: I think it was more aspirational. I think it was people who thought, "You know what? This could be the way to go." I think it's people who thought, "If I dress simply and in bright colors, I'll look like I've had the money for a while. I'll look like I know what I'm doing. I'll have the savoir faire. I'll get to date that girl, Carlson, that's her first name." And I think it was very good advice for a lot of people.
With this book, I'm very much aware that there will be people who take it seriously as well as people who will want to be amused. And I think that this book, True Prep, is a little bit more sociological because I just am able to look at the world around me in a different way. I'm not a sociologist. I don't play one on TV. But there is a kind of ironic distance from what's happening--not necessarily preppy things that are happening. How about the plastic surgery craze? How about reality TV? How about the way we cleave to our little electronics? All this stuff has to be explained. And how do we deal with all of it?
Amazon: Yeah, reality TV. That doesn't seem very prep. Is somebody going to do the first preppy reality show?
Birnbach: What would it be? Let's see. The family...
Amazon: "Real Housewives of..."
Birnbach: Yeah. At one point, there was a little section in True Prep I wanted to call "The Real Housewives of New Canaan." It would have been funny. But the last book had a shelf life of 30 years, and if I want this one to have a shelf life of anything, I think "Real Housewives" franchises, much as it's a guilty pleasure for a lot of people, would not stand the test of time.
Amazon: New Canaan will outlive "Real Housewives."
Birnbach: I certainly hope so. [Descends into real WASP lockjaw] What would a reality show be? "Oh, we ran out of mayonnaise. Oh, dammit!" Can I confess? I watched one of those "Housewives" things last night. And it's institutional the way the shows work. Just five spoiled women fighting as if they were in the fourth grade. And that's not what we do.
Amazon: How do you express hostility?
Birnbach: By shunning. Not by going to a party and wearing all your jewelry all at once and catting around at each other. No, by just shunning.
Amazon: That could make good television.
Birnbach: That would be great. Five women with various shades of blonde sitting in different parts of a room not looking at one another.
Amazon: Not returning each other's phone calls.
Birnbach: Exactly! Speaking of which, it is very rude to take a phone call on your cell from someone who you've just called who's also in the room with you or texting. It is very rude. We could have done this whole interview on text, and we wouldn't be givers if we did that.
Amazon: So how have preps adopted to the new technology? Are there some parts of it that they've taken to?
Birnbach: Well, it's kind of impossible to ignore the cell phone. It's impossible to ignore it. It's impossible to not have one. You can pretend for a bit that you don't know your number. That's a big one. "Well, I can call you but you can't call me." But, of course, everyone has one and pay phones aren't as plentiful and so on. We have them for making calls, "I'm running late" primarily. "I'm running late. I can't find my MetroCard. I can't find my wallet. I can't find my keys." There's a lot of that for preps.
Amazon: Logistical reasons.
Birnbach: Truly. But, in terms of other gadgets, we all have cameras. Some people are still using their old Instamatics. Some people--we mourn the end of Polaroid, although I hear it's coming back. The age of digital everything is pretty unprep frankly because there are still preppies who play tennis with their wooden racket. There are people who will rebind and rebind and rebind their Sperry Top Siders or their Bean's Blucher Moccasins because anything old is preppier than anything new. So, yes, write with a fountain pen. Yes, have a signature. What's going to happen to next generation's children who don't have a signature? They'll have that little @ with the circle around it. That's not enough. And GPS is not prep. We like to get lost. We do.
Amazon: Do you ask for directions?
Birnbach: Women do. Men don't. Duh!
Amazon: Some things you share with everybody. Well, thanks, Lisa. Good luck with the return to preppydom, where I'm sure you have lived all this time.
Birnbach: Well, now--I was a daughter 30 years ago. Now I'm a leader of at least three children that I know about, and it's very important to raise my children in a way that we can all speak the same language.