Over the weekend, you may have caught the engrossing New York Times profile of a New York society don—one Alan Z. Feuer—who had a mysterious past. I didn’t bother reading it when I first picked up my Sunday print copy—it was buried in the paper, in the scrappy Metropolitan section. But then I got one email after another, from family members, friends, recommending it, all with that guilt-inducing epigram: “must read.”
So I read. And they were right. The story tells of the doppelganger to The Times’ journalist Alan Feuer (with no “Z.”), and it is a marvel—a Jewish one to boot. Turns out the man The Times chronicles, a 70-year-old Jewish New Yorker who died earlier this year, had faked his way into the city’s society balls for over forty years. It wasn’t, however, that this Alan Z. Feuer entirely fooled the true blue-bloods he hung around with. But his life was a fiction that the real things were willing to accept. In a strange way, they were confirming that timeless American myth: that on these shores, your past has no claim on your future. We are all our own, self-made creations.
How Feuer, the journalist, came to Alan Z. Feuer’s is itself quite a story. They share the same name, and for years, the journalist would get mistaken calls inviting him to this or that ball. Not long ago, the journalist decided to track down Alan Z., and met a hell of a character—a foppish British dandy, white tie and cane in hand, who exuded a distinctly 19th century air.
It all bordered on the comic, however, so Feuer, diligent journalist that he is, did some research. Turns out his hunch was correct: Alan Z. wasn’t born into the high society world he traveled in. He came from a scrappy family of New York Jews. His grandfather immigrated to from Austria to the Lower East Side, presumably around the 20th century, and his parents, both Jews, had typical lower-middle-class jobs: his mother was a secretary in City Hall, his father, though a lawyer by training, ran a liquor store.
But Alan Z. was determined to make something of himself, and that meant in part escaping from his Jewish roots. There isn’t much exploration of Alan Z.’s Jewish side in the piece—one doesn’t know if he felt shackled by it, or simply was attracted to something grander, more noble, and European. But Feuer the journalist seems to come to a fairly confident conclusion about exactly where and when Alan Z.’s transformation took place—during the Vietnam War.
In the ‘60s, Alan Z. was stationed in an Air Force base in England. When he came back to the States, relatives noticed he had adopted a prim British accent, and a sartorial change to match—cane, cravat, the whole bit. Soon Alan Z. was working for a British antiques dealer in New York, where he met real European-descended society folk; quickly, they fell in love with him.
Several of the people Feuer the journalist talks to admit that they suspected it was a bit of an act. But still, they adored him—and he could be useful. Alan Z. was essentially a social secretary, discreetly grooming newcomers to the society mores he himself became a master in mimicking. If a man’s pants weren’t quite the right length, or his bow-tie somehow askew, Alan Z. would quietly pull him aside and help him out. He’d instruct him on the etiquette of society life, essentially telling them how to fake it—something he’d mastered, even if he never openly admitted it.
So there you have it, the Jewish Horatio Alger, or better still, a real life Augie March. Alan Z., we’ll miss you, even if your stepbrother makes a good point: “Let’s put it this way,” the stepbrother told The Times. “I was very bemused to see his memorial service was at the Church of the Incarnation on Madison Avenue.”