Despite not completely miserable DC-area weather, a segment of journalism Twitter users spent part of their weekends debating whether Sally Quinn is an aristocrat. How did we get here? It involves Maureen Dowd, Howard Fineman, Nancy Pelosi, and New York Times and Washington Post staffers arguing about book parties, maybe? (Don’t ask me for more, I was camping and turned my phone off, and there’s no way I’m ever going to catch up.)
So, is Sally Quinn an aristocrat? That’s an ambiguous question in the United States, which doesn’t have an official hereditary nobility but does have lots of generational wealth. For decades, the “Green Book” has offered the definitive list of Washington elites; Quinn appears in the 1983 edition (the only copy I could find in our office) in her capacity as a member of the Style section staff, the only part of the paper whose employees the Green Book took the trouble to list. However, her parents, Lt. General William Wilson “Buffalo Bill” Quinn, and Bette Wilson, are listed—at both their townhouse on Connecticut Avenue and “Makepeace Farm” in Wittman, Maryland. These seem like sterling aristocratic credentials.
There’s only one thing to do: Call Sally Quinn. Reached in Greece, Quinn told me she didn’t consider herself an aristocrat. Her opposition is definitional: “An aristocrat is someone of noble birth,” she says. Perhaps people are mixing up the term with “elitists,” she ventured, but that’s a term she considers meaningless. Maybe you’re successful, or well-educated, or you want a better life for your kids. Aren’t those common goals?
These days, Quinn says, “elitist” is a term Republicans use about Democrats, “which is so bizarre, because most Democrats are people who come from working class backgrounds.” If anyone should be considered an elitist, it’s Donald Trump, Quinn says: “Donald Trump believes that he’s better than everybody else, because he tells us so all the time.”
One definition of “aristocrat” is a group of class viewed as superior to others, but Quinn’s not having that one, either. Wealthy families like the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts built their fortunes from nada. “They weren’t of noble birth. A lot of those people came over because they were caught stealing pigs.”
Quinn mentions that her husband, Ben Bradlee, may have had some noble blood (in fact he did), but says he would have been delighted to learn, as she did from me, that he was absent from the 1983 Green Book. “If anybody asked Ben if he was an aristocrat, he would die laughing,” she says.
Quinn also says she hasn’t heard the joke known as “The Aristocrats,” but after hearing a description, says the documentary about the joke sounds like it might be pretty funny.