In a shimmering glass tower high above Avenue of the Americas, I sat in on a new-business meeting for my ad and branding agency NSG/SWAT. The potential client we were wooing was pulling no punches. “I want everyone to know that, if we work together, I am very demanding,” she said candidly.
“Well, you are clearly very smart, and demanding comes with the territory,” I responded. “We’re used to dealing with tough and successful clients.”
“Yes, but I am also…” She took a dramatic pause. “…mean!”
She flexed her steel and gold Rolex like a weapon and stared straight at me, trying, I suppose, to determine my level of discomfort. There was a time when being mean would not have been brought up in polite conversation or necessarily considered a viable business attribute.
“How do you feel about that?” she pressed on, to see if I would crumble under her venomous demeanor.
I gathered my thoughts and then replied, “I often say there are four types of people in the advertising client quadrant. 1) smart and nice; 2) smart and mean; 3) dumb and nice; 4) dumb and mean. The only one I won’t take on is dumb and mean. Smart and mean is fine because I respect intelligence and can stand up for myself.”
This seemed to mollify her, but the conversation affected me for days afterward. It seemed to signify a change in social behavior during these strange and rocky times. In the business world, in the political realm and now even at cocktail hour, aggression is de rigueur. Being angry, spiteful and dissatisfied has seeped into our culture like lead into a community’s water table…and we are all feeling the results of bully pollution.
“There are a few women in New York who many women are secretly terrified of,” revealed my dinner partner, Exotic Import, clutching her pill-shaped Judith Leiber like a glittering oversized Valium. The setting was an international financier’s palatial dining room, replete with candelabra and staff standing at attention next to the pilasters a la Downton Abbey. Few in N.Y.C. live le style français, and this particular couple entertains the same way in Paris, Geneva and New York.
These days, the 1 percent’s strategy is open hostility toward anyone or anything that annoys them—especially one another.
“Please don’t mention my name,” she pleaded, as if to underscore her point. “It’s hard enough making friends in this city.” She bit into the luscious blini avec tri-colore caviar (with dollop of crème fraîche) appetizer.
“ ‘Terrified’? That’s an extremely strong word.” My eyes widened as I savored the art-directed black, yellow and red fish eggs, in the colors of the German flag.
“Terrified, as in shivering in your boots they are so vicious.” Her eyes teared and her substantial Graff diamond chandelier earrings trembled.
“In London, they’ll stab you in the back but in New York, they’ll stab you in the front. Or look right through you like you don’t exist, ” she lamented.
“So it’s been a difficult transition?” I sympathized.
“It’s like that movie Mean Girls on a daily basis. I went to a prestigious European boarding school and have never experienced anything like this. I was taught proper manners, yet the women in New York talk about you right in front of you. I cannot get over it.”
“Maybe they are just intimidated,” I offered. After all, Exotic Import looks the part.
“They are just mean. And the richer they are, the meaner they seem to be.”
“What could they possibly say in front of you?” I was truly fascinated.
“I was standing at school pickup and Cruella Crone turned to her friend and said as she looked directly at me: ‘She has a good figure and all, but her features aren’t that pretty when you really look at her.’ ”
“That’s awful…but not true,” I said sympathetically.
“And Flotsom Jetson remarked out loud at a legendary Hamptons club: ‘I don’t know what he sees in her, she must have been a stripper.’ I really don’t want to have to go around and tell them my father is [diplomat level]. It’s not like that in Europe. They might be equally nasty or even snobbier but they hide it well. It’s just the overt nature of the aggression that stuns me.”
I was speechless, yet Exotic Import was on a roll: “I cried myself to sleep every night until Lola Von Und Zu Lola [she pointed to her Viennese childhood friend at the end of the table] moved here. Now I have a small circle of friends I met at [famed cultural institution].”
“Yes, but you are an ‘it’ girl about town,” I offered, thinking of party pictures I’d seen internationally in various society pages.
“That’s because Flavio has an important position. The women at school were not very accepting and I hear them talking badly about their own best girlfriends. They say, ‘she had a bad eyelift,’ or, ‘the husband is cheating.’ The daggers come out.”
‘Lola feels the old money Greenwich girls with their bob cuts and headbands all look like lesbian lacrosse players,’ said Exotic Import, ‘and the other girls who have made it in one generation are climbers and had to do bad things to get there.’
“Anything nice to report from the front lines?” I agreed to a country club pour of Margaux.
“The women here are more open about their plastic surgeons and their exercise routines. They all want to know about what I do but when I tell them just soap and water they just hate me more.” She shrugged.
“I am sorry you have had such a bad run in N.Y. There are a lot of interesting and nice people out of the 10075 and Hamptons zip codes, I can assure you,” I proffered.
“They will support you…for a price.” She tried to find some redeeming featuring, although it was clear life in the Big Apple did not agree with her.
“Price?” I must have appeared bemused.
“Cruella Crone made a hefty donation to a charity I support. Two days later she marched up and ordered me to get an internship for Winkle, her son.”
“That’s a bit gauche.”
“I said, ‘I would love to but I would have to ask Flavio. It’s not in my nature to answer for my husband.’ Perhaps it came out the wrong way, but she looked at me with these killer eyes and said, ‘Well, get it done if you know what’s good for you!’ and stormed off.”
“Did you deliver for Cruella?”
“Flavio was in Asia and wrote me an email saying that his firm doesn’t have an internship program. I was so panicked I called him in the middle of the night and he agreed to help her son get something at a well-known bank.”
“Not a thank-you from Cruella or Winkle. Winkle hardly even showed up at the office, so they didn’t ask him back. Now Cruella won’t even say hello to me, although she throws herself at Flavio.”
“What does Lola Von Und Zu Lola think of Cruella’s set?”
“She told me just to spend my time with the Europeans and not bother with anyone here. That’s what she is doing until her husband’s tour of duty is over.”
“So she lives in the city but has no New York friends?”
“Lola feels the old money Greenwich girls with their bob cuts and headbands all look like lesbian lacrosse players and the other girls who have made it in one generation are climbers and had to do bad things to get there.”
“That’s a very literary description.” I raised an eyebrow at the irony of her broad and less-than-kind generalizations. “Do you agree?”
“I haven’t seen otherwise,” she stated. “Although don’t quote me. By the way, you and your wife actually seem very nice. She’s so naturally pretty. She’s not from New York, is she?”
I was in pristine Palm Beach meeting Newly Minted Cash-And-Cary and Social Hair-ess at the surprisingly hip and chic Buccan for spicy jerk chicken, when I overheard a preternaturally young blonde berating a waiter unceremoniously.
“Take it back!” She barked. “I didn’t order water with ice! I wanted the ice in a separate goblet! Don’t these people listen to orders?” She grumbled loudly, waving a boulder-sized diamond and enamel ’70s cocktail ring and vintage Lily combo one only sees on the Palm Beach isle.
“I’m so sorry, Ma’am.” The poor gent scraped and bowed and removed the offending water glass to prepare it, sans ice.
“Really, things people get upset over nowadays.” Social Hair-ess shook her platinum coif and looked over her shoulder into her Chanel compact.
“I think the richer you are, the more you complain and bitch about anything. When I was poor I was happy to have a burger and fries any which way it came, which was usually in a drive-through,” Cary recalled. “Now that I go to swell places, all I hear is, ‘I want it medium/medium-well or I want the chicken salad without the chicken and hold the salad.’ ” He chuckled.
“How is everything here?” the trepidatious waiter asked after our entrées.
“Everything is perfect,” I assured him.
‘I think the richer you are, the more you complain and bitch about anything,’ said Cash and Cary. ‘When I was poor I was happy to have a burger and fries any which way it came.…Now that I go to swell places, all I hear is, “I want the chicken salad without the chicken and hold the salad.” ’
“Lovely,” Social Hair-ess said with a yawn.
“Delicious,” Cash and Cary chimed in.
“Really?” The waiter looked incredulous at the lack of unwarranted complaints.
“Are you sure there is nothing I can do?” he asked genially.
“No, really, we are all very, very happy.” I overdid it to compensate for the Ice Queen’s behavior.
“That’s so nice to hear.” He let out an audible sigh and retreated.
“I think he’s in shock,” I said with a laugh.
“People in this town complain just to complain. It’s become a blood sport,” noted Cash and Cary.
“And we didn’t even change tables!” I said. “I am guilty of that. I am a table changer,” I confessed.
“Me too,” Cary said. “When you finally can eat in great restaurants it becomes more important. Than as you get used to it, it levels off.”
“So now what do you complain about? You’re not that easy-going, Cary.”
He thought for a moment. “The only thing I ever complain about is the wine. Because life is too short to drink bad wine.”
“Et tu, Social Hair-ess?” I asked.
“Everything,” she said with a laugh. “I’m just on good behavior tonight, dahling, because I don’t want to be thrown under the bus by your mean prose.”
“You think my column is mean?”
“Only when one sees themselves, dahling.”
It was a starry night at a certain provocative celebrity’s eclectic townhouse. Music and film industry people were on hand and were actively burying aging stars and laughing at their slow demise. Verbal darts were flying.
“She’s done.” One producer shook his head and mentioned a “B” actress. “And he’s toast.” He mentioned a former heartthrob.
“She’s a train wreck,” bemoaned others of the actress’ fate. They shook their heads and tucked into their vegan canapés.
“Well, if she was smart she would get out of dodge and move to Europe. They’re much more tolerant of has-beens there. They still think so-and-so is relevant.” There were a few guffaws. “She can still get [a man] in Rome.”
‘These aging ingénues have been so over-Botoxed they don’t have the ability to show any facial expression, it’s like having one setting on Vitamix “Surprised” because they all had so many brow lifts.’
“Well, they’ll shag anything there,” an older producer with a raised bushy eyebrow offered.
“Speaking of over the hill, I saw what’s-her-name at the film premiere desperately flirting past her prime,” stage-whispered one producer.
“And I heard what’s-his-name escaped from rehab. He looks like a hobo,” another added.
“These aging ingénues have been so over-Botoxed they don’t have the ability to show any facial expression, it’s like having one setting on Vitamix ‘Surprised’ because they all had so many brow lifts.” Peals of laughter ensued.
“In my opinion, so-and-so deserves what she is getting. She was nasty to people on the way up and they’re all giving it back to her on the way down. I worked with her on [embarrassing bomb] and I can tell you she is a bona fide bitch.”
“I hear what’s-her-name lost all her money.”
“I also heard her divorce settlement went up her nose.”
“Is that why she has had so many nose jobs? Maybe the cartilage collapsed because of all the blow!” Hysterical laughter.
“It’s such a shame, she used to be so naturally beautiful. Not to mention, I heard the best gossip…”
“Whaaaat? Do tell!” the group practically shrieked.
“She is odiferous.”
“Smells?” they exclaimed in a ribald chorus.
The group became eerily quiet, as though they were hearing state secrets for the first time and did not know how to react.
“As in, smells in private places,” the informant qualified. “Look, that’s what I heard from a well-known gigolo.”
I didn’t know what to say, other than, “Well, I’m still a fan.”
“O.K., Polyanna,” one of the group shot back.
“I hear she used so-and-so [plastic surgeon].”
“Maybe she could finally get a gig—on Botched.”
I was seated on the little tufted red leather bench in the elevator of the old-world Park Avenue building, waiting to be deposited in the foyer of Hamptons neighbor’s art-filled abode. Once inside, the subject of incivility was raised—naturally, over Sancerre.
“I was seated next to so-and-so at a dinner. I don’t know why anyone would spend time with her. She is nasty,” Hamptons Neighbor said.
“Well, all my friends are lovely and nice,” his wife replied.
“No, they’re not,” Hamptons Neighbor said matter-of-factly.
“They’re not?” She appeared genuinely surprised.
“Not all. What about Cruella Crone?”
“Oh, she’s a mean one,” my wife Dana concurred. “She’s very Game of Thrones.”
“Her definition of BFF is ‘better fuck them first!’ ” Hamptons Neighbor said with a chuckle.
“I wouldn’t want to run into her in a dark alley. Or a sample sale,” Dana agreed.
“It’s clear people only hang around her because they smell cash. The rich get better service,” said Hamptons Wife. “You know what Trina [published interior designer] says. The only differences between the mega-rich and you are: ‘their art collection is better, they fly private, have more houses and are more mean.’ ”
I started taking notes.
“Well, you can be mean in hotels and restaurants,” Hamptons Wife challenged her husband.
“True. The difference is I might start off mean, but then I give them constructive advice and I get nice when I get 25 percent off.” He shrugged.
“So you admit to being a meanie?” I asked him.
“Look, no one gets anywhere any more being nice. The meanest guy in town is the most successful. They’re all ruthless. Look at politics. Elections keep getting nastier and nastier. What does it say to the youth in America?”
“Get tough and get rich. More Sancerre?” Hamptons Wife offered.
In Buenos Aires, images of Eva Peron’s tight blonde chignon and lilting smile are omnipresent on sides of buildings and chic little shrines and crèches. I approached the concierge desk at one of B.A.’s chicest hotels to arrange a car and driver to take me to the ultra-cool Palermo section.
“Can I arrange a driver who speaks English?” I asked.
“Ingles? For some reason we thought perhaps you were frances, señor.” The concierges looked me up and down.
“No, I am from the U.S.A.” I said politely.
‘The rich get better service,’ said Hamptons Wife. ‘You know what Trina [published interior designer] says. The only differences between the mega-rich and you are: ‘their art collection is better, they fly private, have more houses and are more mean.” ’
“New York City.”
“Really?” They eye-rolled each other and proceeded to contact the car service and provide me with a small map.
“Thank you so very much,” I said as I tipped both. “Oh, but I do have one question. Why did you think I was French, as opposed to being American?” I inquired.
“Your suit has a very European cut to it,” the dashing one said.
“Oh, and I’ve heard you’re so very nice and generous to the staff,” his model-esque assistant added.
“Nice? That’s interesting,” I said, a bit confused. “Why does that mean I might be French?”
“People from New York are not like you,” they said matter-of-factly. “Plus, you look like if you put Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and Gerard Depardieu in…in how you say, licuadora…blender.”
“That’s kind.” I smiled. “But what’s wrong with New Yorkers?”
“They are very…” He paused. “How do you say…exigente…demanding.”
“And they want everything rapido…quick, quick, quick,” added his female counterpart as she adjusted her silk scarf.
“And they can be very mean.” Both nodded.
“Mean? How so?”
“Yes. How do you say asqueroso…nasty? You know, complaining all the time, ‘Get this now and I want it now,’ and, ‘don’t you know what you are doing?’ etc. One wife told her husband to shut up in front of me…but I do have to say the New York peoples, they tip the very best out of anyone.”
“As opposed to?” I asked.
“The Germans are the worst tippers. They take sandwiches wherever they go in brown paper bags they buy in the how do you say…tienda de conveniencua…convenience store, so they don’t have to spend in a restaurant before they board the tour bus. But you are very nice.”
“Really? A nice New Yorker?” I raised an eyebrow in mock surprise.
“Yes, something new.” They nodded in unison. “A nice New Yorker!” They practically beamed at their discovery.
“Thank you.” I knew it was a backhanded compliment—but I also knew better than to reinforce the stereotype by complaining about it.