Excerpt: 'The Natural History of the Rich'

Yet when I went to visit the rich in their own habitats, it did not seem as though all that much had changed. The "us or them" question always came first. "Where are you staying?" they asked, to which the best possible answer was, "With friends," but only if the friends happened to be part of the club. Failing this, the Little Nell would suffice in Aspen, or Le Crillon in Paris. The rich also sometimes revealed the sense of being separate and without equal: Wealth, George Soros has said, "is a sort of disease when you consider yourself some sort of god, the creator of everything." Then he added: "But I feel comfortable about it now since I began to live it out."

Conversely, their servants and staff sometimes confessed to being treated as if they were not quite human. One housekeeper remarked that her employer never spoke to her even when they were in the same room. Instead, she would sometimes phone halfway across the Pacific Ocean to have instructions relayed back by her major domo. The housekeeper meanwhile ghosted a room or two behind her boss, invisibly picking things up and putting them right, always careful, as instructed, to disinfect any doorknob she touched.

I was struck, finally, by how hard it was to reach many of the places where the rich go to find one another. A quality of splendid isolation seemed to be the rule: Aspen is at the top of a narrow valley, and the pass through to the other side of the mountains is shut down all winter. Nantucket, Palm Beach, and Majorca are of course islands, and Lyford Cay is a gated peninsula on an island. San Carlos de Bariloche, the Argentinian ski resort where Ted Turner, Sylvester Stallone, and George Soros have ranches, is in the foothills of the Andes, and at the other end of the hemisphere.

The topography of isolation no doubt provides a measure of security. Monaco, for instance, is protected by mountains and the sea, and the police can shut down all access roads in minutes.Isolation, the sense of being cut off from the everyday world, interested me in at least one other sense. Maybe it was just a coincidence. But these were the very habitats most likely to produce new species in the natural world.

Excerpted from The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide by Richard Coniff. Published by W.W. Norton & Company. Copyright 2002.

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