In New York, the way we live now, to relinquish or be denied one’s boldface identity, whether in the form of a column mention or a byline, is to incur invisibility or social death (which amount to the same thing). I discovered this when I gave up writing in this space regularly.
On the other hand, an instant’s boldface resuscitation is a Lazarus charm: People start calling again.
Take the other day. I was at home, speaking alternative bursts of nonsense to myself and the cats, when the phone rang and the creamiest of English voices, the sort of snooty BBC intonation that émigré Russian gangsters spend tens of thousand of pounds for their daughters to acquire at Roedean, asked if I was free to speak to Mr. Arthur Gimlet. Well, of course I was.
Artie, as always, came right to the point.
“Jeez,” he exclaimed, “that was some going-over Liz Smith gave you in the Post! You O.K.?”
I knew of course what he was referring to. The dear if spavined lady who, in a local tabloid, operates a bulletin board for publicists under the guise of a “gossip column” had taken exception to some mirthful remarks of mine apropos a recent high-visibility social (sic) event—Steve Schwarzman’s 60th—and laid into me in print. It was all very over the top, but I’m a forgiving sort: If, since the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, you have, like this sweet old thing, licked the butts and boots of the rich and famous for a living (and a very good living it is, one hears, a circumstance that apparently sits uncomfortably with other employees of Rupert Murdoch’s pride and joy), it must eventually afflict the brain—and I’m not one to take a stick to the mentally challenged.
“It’s good of you to call,” I told Artie, “but not to worry: I’m fine. These things happen. Into each life, some rain must fall. So—how are you?”
He responded with a litany of places been and people seen and red carpets perambulated, of yachts boarded and eminent names placed next to him at fancy dinners. All names I knew, occasions I’d read about. After all, I am the godfather-in-law of perhaps the most publicized Manhattan “socialite,” and it behooves me as a matter of Episcopal if no other responsibility to keep up with the comings and goings of the high polloi, the folks whom Dickens characterized at the very end of Little Dorrit as “the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain.” (If you have a gourmand’s enthusiasm for the ridiculous and pretentious, a daily troll through my friend David Patrick Columbia’s Web site yields riches tastier than caviar.)
But, as Artie spoke, I detected a note I hadn’t heard before, or at least since when he first came into my life and was learning to be rich, Hamptons-style; it was like a faint scrim of cloud passing across the face of a brilliant sun, an intonation in which the undoubted bliss of having spent a great deal of money in pursuit of pleasures endorsed by the more esteemed arbiters of lifestyle now mingled with a faint yet discernible doubt that, all in all, such pleasures were really any fun. When Artie mentioned “St. Bart’s,” it was as if the emerald glow of that most gemlike of resort names had been given the lightest, most fairylike dusting of ash. The term “G5” lacked something of the old magic.
I recognized this dissonance as the earliest stage of a cancerous awareness that I have seen destroy the moral composure and joy in life of more than one vastly rich person—a vastly rich person, that is, whose vast riches date back less than a decade. For some reason, the oldveaux are spared; only the newveaux suffer. The bottom line, however, is that it’s horrible to watch, this inexorable wasting progress, a metastasizing realization that no matter how much money one has, someone out there has more—that there’s something they can afford that you can’t.
This is a disease for which there is no cure. No matter how lightly Artie and I tried to talk away from the subject, no matter how intently we focused on the mess in the subprime credit market (which has come as a great surprise to Wall Street and the rating agencies in recent weeks, although readers of Jim Grant’s indispensable Grant’s Interest Rate Observer have been aware of trouble to come for the better part of a year), I could sense Artie’s malaise. It lingered in the background, like Polonius concealed behind the arras.
When we hung up, I was sad. One of the heavier burdens borne by we who live in reduced circumstances is our inability to cheer up our richest friends. There was a time, I recall, when this was possible, when wit, intelligence and charm mattered, but this is no longer possible in an era in which Dun & Bradstreet is society’s matchmaker of choice and placement is determined by net worth.
It was a helpless, hopeless feeling I had, and I knew that my final gesture toward my dear friend was less than the situation demanded. But it was all that lay in my gift to promise Artie: If the opportunity presented itself, I told him—although the chances were extremely remote that it would—I’d try to put in a good word for him with Liz Smith.