Bright Young Things , by Brooke de Ocampo and Jonathan Becker. Assouline, $50, 188 pages.
Pity the coffee table that is blighted with Brooke de Ocampo’s big new picture book about her rich friends, Bright Young Things . It is an appalling tome, and on so many levels.
Let’s start with the title, originally used to describe a glittering set of 1920’s Londoners which included Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited , and the fabulous Mitford sisters.
It is possible, of course, that a social satirist of Waugh’s depth lurks somewhere-please God, somewhere -in this group of trust-funded filmmakers, artists and investment bankers captured idling in their expensive homes. Maybe it’s electronic musician Moby, distant relative of Herman Melville, who poses soulfully near the soy milk on his Lower East Side kitchen counter. Or perhaps Vogue editor Plum Sykes, who files Helen Fielding–derivative monthly dispatches on pashmina scarves, cell phones, etc., and her sister, Lucy Sykes ( Marie Claire editor, not featured), are budding Jessica and Nancy Mitfords? But I doubt it.
Indeed, would that more men and women of letters did occupy these glossy pages. One of them might have seen fit to step in and proofread the astoundingly vapid text, which intersperses a comical parade of typographical errors throughout its dull drumbeat of name-dropping. One B.Y.T., we are told, used to work as a consultant for “McKinsie and Company.” As far as literature goes, one is fond of “Homere,” another of ” Die Budden Drooks .” Another appreciates the “wholistic” lifestyle, whatever that may entail. Some subjected themselves to a version of Vanity Fair ‘s signature “Proust Questionnaire.” One question is: “What is your principle [sic] defect?” “I get bored easily,” replies the pricelessly named Soledad Twombly, daughter-in-law of artist Cy. One assumes the inquisitor meant “principal,” but there remains the delicious possibility that the unconscious misspelling yielded the correct meaning-because as for “principles,” nobody involved in this book seems to possess any.
What the group purportedly shares is “style,” that filmy byword of the late 1990’s and beyond. Bright Young Things is intended as “an insider’s view of America’s young style,” according to the back jacket copy, as if the entire country were outfitted with gigantic trust funds, lavishly decorated Manhattan duplexes and towheaded children. (For some reason, the nannies are not pictured.)
Occasionally the book takes a break from its inventories of wallpapers and carpets to offer bon mots from C.Z. Guest and the like on the pseudo-existential question of what constitutes “style.” These musings are superfluous, since it is clear from the surrounding pages that “style” is merely a really, really nice apartment stuffed with the art inherited from one’s family and the Orientalist tchotchkes collected on one’s extensive world travels. And an unseemly eagerness to display one’s possessions in this garish orgy of self-promotion.
Though the book draws heavily from the plush Condé Nast magazines Vanity Fair and Vogue -which together employ a good percentage of its subjects-it actually owes a far greater debt to In Style , the cheesy but stupendously successful Time Warner chronicle of every little thing Hollywood eats, wears and sits on. This is In Style brought to new and rarefied heights of horror- le fromage du fromage , if you will, rather than the crème de la crème , of haute society-with the possessions and preferences of these loaded young people outlined in numbing detail, from the threadcount of their damask draperies down to their particular breed of small dog. (Eliza Reed Bolen, daughter of Oscar de la Renta, reports that she locks up her Glen of Imaal terriers in the bedroom during her frequent dinner parties because one of them, Freddy, “just chewed apart a friend’s beautiful croc evening bag.”)
It’s unclear what the reader is meant to do with the images of these deluxe people. Envy them? Covet them? Come back from Target with our glue guns and copy them?
What is clear is that, while wealth and breeding may ensure a good blow-dry, they don’t guarantee taste. Witness how Alexandre von Fürstenburg and Alexandra Von Furstenburg have appliquéd the family crest onto their white-slip-covered chairs, as if they lived in a Marriot. Without full-time jobs, many female socialites apparently like to play the starlet. Miranda Brooks dons three different outfits for her photo spread, including a pair of revealing red jeans. Karen Groos, wife of Ferdinand (they met at Brown University), poses with her rump suggestively in the air in front of a big Basquiat painting.
What do these B.Y.T.’s do when they’re not throwing Moroccan-themed suppers for 20 (Sloan Lindemann Barrett and hubby Roger), tapping out pensées in their intimate studies (Marina Rust, another Vogue -ette), or slumming at the 26th Street flea market (just about everybody)? If they’re not running, or waiting to run, their parents’ businesses, the female of the species-hard, pretty, skinny-designs jewelry, gardens, parlors. The men start hedge funds and silly-sounding dot-coms; some act. The fellows have guts, weak chins and receding hairlines.
The weird thing about this vaunted “style” is that, for all the money and attention behind it, it is so staggeringly empty and unoriginal: a bland amalgam of nostalgia and inherited taste. One fellow seems to have been featured in the book entirely because he lives in the brownstone where Breakfast at Tiffany’s -whose tiresomely over-referenced heroine is the poster girl for far, far too many Manhattan ingénues-was filmed. Meanwhile, Aerin Lauder’s biggest decorating influence turns out to be … her grandmother, cosmetics tycoon Estée, who likes to strew her rooms with candy dishes. “I’m just very traditional,” says Aerin.
Then there’s the social hypocrisy. Despite proclamations to the contrary-the introduction asserts that “New York’s Bright Young Things … define a new social order organized around the privileges of meritocracy, not aristocracy”-this remains a heavily guarded social order (Guinness, Rockefeller, Hearst), as pedigreed as Ms. Bolen’s poor pups and as blindingly white as Ms. Twombly’s whitewashed walls. Sure, there are a few minorities dotted here and there. There is one Chinese woman, married to a white man; one half-black woman, whose chairs once belonged to “Diahann Carrol [sic].” But they feel like afterthoughts.
“White is not a color. People are so bigoted about color. They’re afraid of it,” says modern-day flâneur Ricky Clifton in answer to the question “What is style?” Yes, he’s talking about decorating.
The B.Y.T.’s declare that they are fond of their families, which is understandable and good since a) that’s where the financing comes from and b) they seem so groundless in other ways. Religion, for example, is oddly aestheticized in this, the world of the “loft-cum- pied-à-terre .” Moby admires Christ, we are told (though surely not the same way that George W. Bush does). Valesca and Mathias Guerrand-Hermès (as in Kelly bag) own a painting featuring a monk eating oysters and drinking wine. Nancy and Andrew Jarecki upholstered a chair with pieces of a 19th-century priest’s silk garment. Why not ?
If anything, money appears to have softened and addled this bunch. Ralph Lauren’s son Andrew bought a late-19th-century drawing of a nude woman reclining on a couch and decided he didn’t like the way the woman’s breasts looked. So he filled them in with a pencil. “I wanted to make her more real for me,” he says.