Excerpt: 'The Natural History of the Rich'

"So this book is just going to be a numbers game, then?" he said. "It's about what's in my billfold?" He took out his billfold and showed it to me, to demonstrate how crass I was being. There was a dollar on top, evidence of how much he cared about understatement. Then he peeled it back to show me the $100 bills underneath. I picked up the check.

Money Doesn't Interest Me

It was a reminder of just how strange and complex an animal I had set out to study. Not just old money or new, but old money with nouveaux riches husbands, and trophy wives who turn around and trade up from Big Daddy to Bigger. Working rich, of course, and idle rich. First-generation tyrants and fourth-generation wastrels. Rich people who read Epictetus and honestly wonder, What can I do to make this a better world? And rich people who mainly wonder, Who can I crush today? Seattle rich who keep quiet, and Los Angeles rich who get out of bed to a crescendo of timpani. New money on polo ponies, and old money on roller blades.

What do they all have in common? Almost all in one form or another expressed the idea that money by itself didn't interest them that much. In the beginning, this sounded like the fourth biggest lie, along with "the check is in the mail," and so on. If so, it was a lie with a great tradition. In the library at The Breakers, their seventy-room cottage in Newport, Rhode Island, for instance, Cornelius and Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt had a white marble mantle bearing the venerable French inscription, "Little do I care for riches, and do not miss them, since only cleverness prevails in the end." Biographer Barbara Goldsmith writes that the Vanderbilts saw no irony in purchasing this mantle, which had been pried off the fireplace of a 400-year-old château in Burgundy.

Presumably the builder of the château also saw no irony in putting the mantle there in the first place. Rich people have always believed it is their cleverness, their wit, their taste, their athletic ability —anything but their money — that makes them special.And yet they often acted as if money was the only thing that interested them. They practiced the dull art of price-tag parlor talk: "The trouble with Arnie is that he'll only spend $150,000 for a pilot, when he could get a damned good one for $250,000." They applied price tags with wild, domineering abandon even to the most delicate questions of marriage and family life.

A photographer friend who was making portraits of two gorgeous younger wives not long ago overheard one of them discussing a sex act proposed by her aging husband. For better and for worse, the details of this sex act are unknown, except that she refused to participate. So he offered her $100,000 and then $200,000. "I'm not doing it," she said, to which he replied, "$350,000, and that's my final offer." She thought about this for a moment, perhaps contemplating what her mother once told her about the spirit of give-and-take in marriage. Or maybe she was just thinking about the price of a Russian sable fur coat. Then she said, "I'll do it for that."

Being a Big Dog

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