I find upper-bracket adultery infinitely less interesting and amusing than upper-bracket idolatry. The gods the rich and connected worship reveal more about them than their tiresome couplings (or choice of couplee) ever will.
Of course, the principal deity worshiped these days by the big-ticket crowd is Mammon, who has loosed upon the earth a true Insanity of Riches. I have never in all my six-plus decades seen anything like it: not in the 60’s, not in the 80’s, not even in Texas in the late 70’s, when good ol’ boys in Dallas or Houston would contemplate the ever-rising price of crude oil and say things like, “At $15 a barrel, I thought I’d cut me a fat hog, but this is sump’n’ else!” I guess the 1920’s may have had something of the same tone, but the ranks of the nonagenarians are thinning fast, and few now survive to tell the story. And if they did, who’d listen, anyway?
I use the phrase “Insanity of Riches” (I/R) carefully. I’m not talking about run-of-the-mint money madness. The greedy and rapacious we have always with us, but the kind of pandemic lunacy now afoot among the heavy earners is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon to be studied and savored by students of all ages. I doubt I, for one, will see its like again, and I encourage anyone 50 or older to take close notes, because like Old Kaspar in Southey’s famous poem about Blenheim (the battle, not the party venue: see below, under “Lord Charles Spencer-Churchill”), this is one you’re going to want to tell your grandchildren about.
I/R is the capital-markets equivalent of the effect of a steady diet of jimson weed upon a herd of cattle. The animals in question literally go loco. The effect on the psyche is narcotic and delusive; a new reality is created, devoid of moderation, common sense, social and moral taste. A high like none other. Normally sane people, once infected, do nutty things, talk and behave in ways that, pre-ingestion, they never would have dreamed of. For people who weren’t playing with a full deck to begin with, the result is off the charts.
The spread is viral in breadth and ferocity, although difficult to isolate as to exact source. For the past 20 years, I’ve harbored the mistaken theory that Donald Trump has been the carrier, since vulgar braggadocio and a total lack of couth were evident in his aura from his very first appearance circa 1983 on the larger horizon of our awareness. (I don’t count the days back at the turn of the 70’s when Donald Trump and I were on the board of Le Club together, and he was barely a mote in Mammon’s eye, not yet the Prince of Swine, but simply a Queens small-timer who owed his doubtful social acceptability to George Steinbrenner.) Ever since, it has been tempting to regard Mr. Trump’s frequent brushes with or emergence from insolvency as the moral and fiscal equivalent of a recidivist leper’s successful escapes from quarantine: cause for alarm among the general populace, but blessedly brief in duration.
Still, what those of us who would play Charcot to the pathologies of the newly enriched keep our eyes open for is the transcendent symptom that tells us that we are dealing with something at an epidemiological level of intensity never before encountered. Take me, for instance: I’ve pretty well accepted that all the money sloshing around “duh Hamptons” had taken the I/R to the limit out this way. I mean, once you’ve seen the 15th fat girl staggering up Newtown Lane under the weight of a dozen shopping bags from boutiques in which Size 6 is the upper limit, you think it’s safe to assume that we’ve gone about as far as we can go. When you see what’s happened to the ethics of people in the real estate business, never notable to begin with, you ask yourself, as Joseph Welch famously asked Senator McCarthy, at long last, have we no sense of decency?
Wrong. We may just be getting up to speed, I/R-wise. I say this thanks to my heroine Monique P. Yazigi’s account of the organization of “Luxuryfinder.com,” in The New York Times of June 6. When I read of this new Net venture, I was filled with a dread thrill, much as must have been felt back in the 14th century by the Venetian medical man who analyzed the black bile given up by a sailor newly arrived from the East and recognized, on the instant, that whatever was carried by the rat who’d bitten the lad, it was nothing like anything ever seen before.
What excitement that apothecary must have felt, what terror! Before the Black Death ran its course, a third of Europe would perish. I’m not saying that the disease of which Luxuryfinder.com is the most flagrant symbol to date will destroy an equivalent percentage of what little discretion and good taste remains in American and Eurotrash social culture, but it’s not out of the question.
The Times ‘ intrepid Ms. Yazigi has become a social reporter nonpareil, whose hem I kiss in admiration and thanks. Her fieldwork among idiots with rich connections is equal to George Schaller’s and Jane Goodall’s work with primates of a higher degree of social and intellectual development. Like Mr. Schaller, she seems equally home at altitude or sea level. I thought her earlier exploration of Locust Valley obtuseness to be of Nobel quality, but this latest surpasseth all!
Just to fill you in, Luxuryfinder.com is a Web site that will sell “high-end merchandise” via a new Web site, as well as offering other services: a calendar, on-line chats “on life at Blenheim Palace” with Lord Charles Spencer-Churchill, etc. The project is the brain [ sic ] -child of four upscale New Yorkers, none of whom has much retail experience (I’m not sure if offering yourself to rich people counts; if the answer is Yes, I retract one-quarter of my qualification) or is particularly known as a tastemaker.
The goods illustrated with Ms. Yazigi’s story appear to be the sort you’d find in the duty-free shop of an “International Gateway” airport in the Middle West. At some point, they’ll doubtless offer art from the Wildenstein of the powder room, the Wally Findlay Galleries, a branch of which has popped up in East Hampton in as certain an indication of how-this-area’s-gone-to-cultural-hell as I can think of. My guess is you’ll do better on Ebay. If these people had their wits about them, they’d offer distinctive goods for which there’s real demand among the sort of people their Web site will appeal to. Particules for example: the “de” or “von” that suddenly appears in a person’s name. There’s a Southampton couple, let’s call them Bob and Joanne, who rematerialized a few years back with a “de” in front of a surname redolent of Queens. They obviously bought it somewhere, perhaps in a duty-free shop in Andorra. The Luxuryfinder.com gang should find out where and offer it on their Web site.
That this venture will succeed seems conjectural, although I may underestimate the demand for cufflinks designed by Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia (I guess cufflink-designing is what one does when the supply of Miller sisters is exhausted) or daisy earrings from Asprey. That it should even get off the ground is a telling symptom of how far I/R has progressed. It is being financed by a diverse group of well-off New York-Palm Beach types, including Fred Seegal, who recently sold his East Hampton house to Helmut Lang for $15 million and is rumored to have hondled at the closing for a discount for his missus at the Lang showroom. Also in the investor group is Dixon Boardman, popular managing director of the Optima Fund, a swank-society investment vehicle offering high fees and low returns.
Fortunately, this ultimate manifestation of I/R need not go unmemorialized. Accompanying Ms. Yazigi’s splendid report was a photograph of five of the investors: Mr. Boardman, Mr. Seegal and three others. It’s a fivesome that may not be responsible for the crass, posturing, greed-ridden, insensitive, ugly way we have come to live now, and-thanks to I/R-to accept as a natural order of being, but this gang is as emblematic of that socioeconomic order as any other quintet I can think of. Their contribution should not, must not go unmarked. Accordingly, I’m having this photograph put on a coffee mug, initially in a super-exclusive, hyperlimited edition of two: one for Ms. Yazigi, as a token of gratitude, one for myself. If demand should escalate, however, you can look forward to seeing me on QVC.
I plan to look at my mug the way Schroeder in Peanuts looks at his bust of Beethoven whenever he sits down at his keyboard. As an inspiration to do my best. Such is the Insanity of Riches when it touches even those of us who dwell in the dark shadows of Reduced Circumstances.
Postscript: People frequently ask me what-if anything-I like. My answer is simple. Anything that’s good. That strikes the discriminating sensibility with its originality, beauty or presence. There are two artists out here whose work I like very much. At Lizan-Tops in East Hampton: collagistic work by Dan Rizzie that sits squarely and beautifully astride a splendid tradition that begins with medieval book illumination and descends through the botanical illustration of the Enlightenment to the lapidary work of Anne Ryan and Schwitters. At the Grenning Gallery in Sag Harbor, paintings-still life and portraits-by Andrea Smith, an American trained in Florence. Italy and the New World finely fused. If I could afford to have my portrait painted, I’d commission Ms. Smith.