Behind the Scenes with the One Percent
The pop culture genre of “secret look into the lives of the upper class” dominates representations of the wealthy in the United States. In the 1980s, Robin Leach guided us through the “lifestyles of the rich and famous”; now whole swaths of reality TV programming are dedicated to the trials and tribulations of “real” house- wives, the roller coaster of luxury real estate, and celebrities behaving badly. These voyeuristic portrayals paint the rich as fundamentally “different from you and me.” Their lifestyles are exotic and take place in foreign lands like “Richistan” (the title of Robert Frank’s 2008 book on the lifestyles of the “new rich”).
These portrayals offer the wealthy as objects of aspiration, in some cases, but also of moral judgment, positive and negative. “Over-the-top” life- styles seem excessive and materialistic, marked by greed and disdain for the feelings of others. Stories of love and loss, on the other hand, can humanize them, eliciting compassion and empathy. Two recent books, on wealthy Manhattan mothers and Hollywood nannies, are the latest to promise the “inside scoop” on the lifestyles of others. They are similarly marked by ambivalence about the moral worth of upper-class people.
In Primates of Park Avenue, Wednesday (née Wendy) Martin recounts her story of struggling to fit in with the other mothers of the Upper East Side after she relocates there from downtown with her husband and young son. The narrative arc is familiar. New girl comes to (up)town; the “mean girls” shun her, and she cannot understand them. These women seem quite superficial, in addition to cold and status- conscious, but Martin still wants them to accept her—mostly, she repeatedly asserts, for the sake of her son. She grows accustomed to their status hierarchies and their fashion requirements, and learns insider tricks about how to buy an apartment, get a child into preschool, and skip the waitlist for an Hermès Birkin bag. But in the end, a tragedy (in this case, her mis- carriage) teaches her that these women are generous and caring, as they rally around in her time of need, revealing their own heartbreaks.
The twist is that Martin frames this account as an anthropological investigation (hence the title). She describes her project as “an academic experiment” of studying Manhattan mothers, who constitute “a tribe apart” (pp. 7-8). She makes many, many analogies between the members of this “tribe” and non-human animals, including chimps, baboons, bonobos, Capuchin monkeys, rhesus monkeys, birds, and bees, as well as human animals such as African hunter- gatherers and Kwakiutl noblemen. She offers the reader several sections of “field notes” in which she describes the “island dwellers” of Manhattan in their “habitat.” She describes being repeatedly “charged” by women on the street asserting their own superiority. And she draws on other ethnographic concepts, identify- ing her “native informants” and describing her own process of “going native.”
But the anthropological conceit is, not surprisingly, just a sexy hook for a memoir. Martin did not attempt to carry out any real research. If she had, she might have theorized these issues in terms of another set of concepts having to do with power, not primates. She would also have had to be much more careful with controversial distinctions between hard-wired “nature” and more malleable “culture,” a tension she does not so much as acknowledge, even as she invokes Japanese geishas and prairie dogs for the same purpose (to describe the habits of the “natives” she is talking about).
As a memoir, the book was criticized when it came out (notably in the New York Post, in a piece headlined “Upper East Side housewife’s tell-all book is full of lies”) for major inaccuracies. These included the length of time she lived on the Upper East Side (three years, not six), how many children she had while she lived there (one, not two), and the existence of some businesses (the lengthy story of her devotion to the ballet-based workout studio Physique 57, for example, could not have happened as she suggests, because Physique 57 did not exist at the time). Most famously, she has been accused of inventing the “wife bonus” she describes— the end-of-year payment from high-earning husbands to their non-earning wives. Some of these missteps matter more than others, but they highlight the uncomfortable genre confusion between “memoir” and “study.”
My main problem with the book is that it feels like a missed opportunity on both counts. There are very few systematic studies of or memoirs by wealthy people addressing how they think and feel about their lifestyles and their social position. As a researcher who has been working for years to interview wealthy New Yorkers on these issues, I envy Martin. She was lucky to have access to these people, as her peers, neighbors, and friends. She also has a keen capacity for observation and an active, compelling writing style. Her descriptions of these privileged mothers are vivid and disturbing. They are anxious, exhausted, insecure about their economic dependency on their husbands, and obsessed with the “right” apartment, school, bag, or pair of shoes. They starve themselves, exercise constantly, and depend on wine and benzos to get through the day.
But we learn very little about their inner lives, especially the answer to the crucial question: why do they put themselves through this? These are highly educated women with professional skills and histories. Why do they give up their jobs and become desperately invested in these empty, self-destructive, status competitions? She does not address these questions, and beyond some scenes featuring a couple of female friends, she does not develop any real characters besides herself (the motif of one ice-cold “Queen Bee” weaves through much of the story, but we have no idea what might motivate this person and others like her). Ultimately, her account reproduces the stereotypes we already have of these women as essentially shallow (though also anxious and terrified), because their motivations are never explored.
These questions are not answered to my satisfaction for Martin herself either. Why does she desire this lifestyle, which she has described as so unpleasant? She talks about “going native” as a process of “habituation” and wants her son to fit in to his new community. But she never really explains why she comes to desire a Birkin bag, feel the need for a shot of Botox, and regret not getting a bikini wax before giving birth. The faux-anthropological frame actually prevents this kind of investigation by reproducing constructions of otherness throughout the book (though it seems unlikely in any case that Martin started out as different from these women as she claims to have been).
The gender and class dimensions of this story leap off the page, but she rarely explores them as such. It is clear that Martin sees the problems generated by women’s economic dependency on men, and, to her credit, she discusses this issue in some detail. But she turns away from any possibility of politicizing these accounts or linking them to cultural gender norms as well as, say, job structures that limit wealthy women’s incentives to stay in the labor force. She also blithely mentions her many class advantages, which fit together like yellow bricks on the road to total Upper East Sideitude: wealth, family connections, graduate education, Hamptons rental, full- time child care, and $100,000 annual beauty regime (she does the math on this with a friend). But Martin offers no sustained reflection on living with inequality in the most unequal large city in the United States. Instead, Primates of Park Avenue primarily investigates intra-class differences of style between uptown and downtown Manhattan (Marc Jacobs vs. Chanel, for example) as if there were something significant at stake, but Martin never tells us what it is.
Whether as a focused study or a more honest memoir, an exploration of the real experiences and feelings of these Upper East Siders, including Martin herself, would have made for a much more interesting and important read. The most emotionally open part of the story is the last quarter, in which Martin becomes unexpectedly pregnant, decides not to have an abortion, but ultimately loses the baby. Here her chatty, ironic narration gives way to a more sincere, contemplative voice, which speaks almost in slow motion. To have written about these other aspects of experience with similar attention and truth would have added to the public under- standing of how wealthy people choose and inhabit their privileged lives. As it is, the book reproduces the limited dual narrative of “look how insane and shallow rich people (especially women) are” plus “hey, actually they’re not that bad, because they have problems too.”
The Nanny Chronicles of Hollywood, co-written by Julie Swales and Stella Reid, also promises a “behind the scenes” account, this time of the work of the Hollywood nanny (the cover image depicts a baby holding an Oscar). Reid is a former nanny and now star of the reality show “Nanny 911”; Swales directs the child care division of a high-profile Hollywood employment agency. Like Primates of Park Avenue, this book alternates among voyeurism toward, critique of, and empathy for wealthy people. The authors offer the “Hollywood-obsessed public a peek into our decades of experience with Crazywood” (p. 7). Yet they also paint celebrity employers as busy, stressed out, and insecure.
The book is organized to describe the course of a nanny’s employment with a single family, and the story is told primarily from the nanny’s point of view. Each chapter addresses one moment or theme, such as getting hired (featuring the matchmaking role of the agency, which includes making sure the candidate is appropriately dressed), the children themselves, sex and luxury consumption on the job, creating bound- aries with employers, and leaving the position. After some general discussion, about half of each chapter consists of narratives of four composite nannies, one of whom is male, whom the reader is also following through these moments of their employment.
The authors recount many “true stories” of outrageous employer behavior: not allowing the nanny to speak directly to the employers (she has to go through the assistant), forcing the nanny to share a bed with the child and go to bed at the child’s bedtime, employers of both sexes offering nannies money or perks for sex, firing nannies for no reason, and not allowing them to say goodbye to the children. But ultimately the book suggests that nannies just have to put up with this kind of thing because, well, celebrities are so crazy! Plus, celebrities are preyed upon and so naturally suspicious and thus deserving of empathy: “both they and their nannies are victims of celebrity culture” (p. 193).
Indeed, Swales and Reid write, the choice of whether to “make a career as a nanny work” or “suffer” within it is “always within the nanny’s control” (pp. 211-12). The authors enjoin nannies to draw strong boundaries and say no when they have to, yet describe in detail how little it takes for them to get fired (such as putting a Barbie spoon in the Barbie fork drawer). Indeed, the authors blame the nannies if they get too close to the children, wear insufficiently conservative clothes, or fail to save their earnings, since they should see that these are the rules of the game— employers can do whatever they want.
The authors briefly recognize that issues of “power, class, and manipulation” (p. 9) often mark these relationships. But class difference also becomes a source of reward, through rich- people perks like traveling internationally aboard private jets and inheriting designer out- fits from the employers. In the end, the nanny has to recognize that these are “borrowed lifestyles” (p. 62) both in terms of the relationship with the child and the luxury consumption. Again, nannies are temporary visitors to this world, and if they cannot handle that, there is something wrong with them.
Not surprisingly, then, Swales and Reid do not discuss the systematic problems in the occupation that have been extensively documented by researchers, or any possible reforms that could protect workers doing these jobs. This lack of attention stems from two linked assumptions, I think. First, the authors seem sure that nannies benefit from this arrangement materially even beyond the luxury perks, earning six-figure salaries plus benefits, bonuses, and clothing and housing allowances (a claim Martin also makes about the nannies of the Upper East Side).
Second, they indicate, using a butterfly metaphor, that these jobs are temporary. These college-educated nannies will go on to bigger things; it will be many steps down class-wise, but they will return to their natural social stratum and succeed therein. Two of the composite characters we follow leave the industry to start a business or go to graduate school, and the other two are reconsidering their futures. The one who seems like she might be a career nanny is gently admonished by the authors for putting her employer’s family before her own happiness, because she has said no to love in order to say yes to her job. The message is clear: The career is not to be upgraded—it is the nanny herself who should be. This stance is problematic for any worker, of course, but perhaps more so for the vast majority of real-life nannies, most of whom are immigrants without much education who do not have these options. In different ways, these books express ambivalence in representations of the wealthy, who come across as alternately entitled and vulnerable. Both discourses serve the ideological function of making non-rich people feel better about themselves, either because they have moral superiority over nasty, status- conscious snobs or because they have avoided losing their grip with the onset of celebrity. Money cannot buy happiness, as we are told by these books (and many other sources). We are thus distracted by these moral evaluations of individuals—of the wealthy and of ourselves— from the material realities of radical inequality. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect that books in this pop-entertainment category could interrogate unequal social arrangements and structures. But it is important to recognize that they reproduce ideas that sustain and legitimate those arrangements.