It is part of the elusive nature of wealth that people with money seldom think of themselves as rich. Or at least they are careful not to say the words "I'm rich" out loud, possibly not even to their spouses. At a brasserie in Paris not long ago, I met a lovely, unpretentious woman who spends all her time in the company of the very rich. To get a sense of her perspective, I asked if she had grown up middle-class. She hesitated, genuinely uncertain. Then she described her childhood: A house in Paris, a driver, a chef, a maid, a house in the south of France for July, and a house in Normandy for August, with Monets and Sisleys on the walls. "You had to think about that?" I asked.
"In France," she explained, "we have the idea of, not middle class, but grande bourgeoisie." She was, in any case, quite certain that she is not rich now. Hardly anyone is. In a recent survey of people with a net worth between $1 and $4 million, for instance, only 9 percent would admit to being wealthy. (The word "rich" was apparently too raw for even the pollsters to utter.) The rest said they were comfortable, or possibly "very comfortable." About half the survey respondents defined wealth as $5 million or more.
When I talked to people in the course of my own research who were worth $5 million, the magic number was more likely to be $10 million. For people with $10 million, it was $25 million, and so on ever upward. For some people, no amount of money is ever enough. When Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was suffering from stomach pain shortly before his death, his doctor prescribed champagne. "I can't afford champagne," Vanderbilt replied. "I guess sody water will do." At the time, in 1876, he was worth $110 million, $5 million more than the Federal Reserve.
Wealth is often like that, beckoning from some place just out of reach. Nelson Peltz, for instance, made his fortune as the eager pawn in leveraged buyouts orchestrated by Michael Milken in the 1980s. He now lives on a 130-acre estate called High Winds in Bedford, New York, and likes to irritate his wealthy neighbors by hopping into his Sikorsky six-seater to run down to the corner store. (OK, this is a lie. He is so concerned about the peace and well-being of his neighbors that he never uses the helicopter for anything less important than avoiding the tedious five-minute drive to Westchester County Airport.)
Peltz is now worth $970 million, which makes him a centimillionaire-a fine thing to be, but just painfully shy of the magical "b" word. "You see these guys worth $3 billion to $4 billion," he recently lamented, "and you think to yourself, 'What have I done wrong?' "
Psychologists call this "relative deprivation," the tendency to evaluate oneself not by objective criteria, but by comparison with a select group of peers. It is why even the superrich often do not think of themselves as rich: Because there is always somebody a little richer just up ahead, or somebody who threatens to become richer toiling close behind. Hence John D. Rockefeller's remark, on learning in 1913 that J. P. Morgan's estate was worth a mere $80 million: "And to think he wasn't even a rich man." Odd as it may seem, the rich gravitate toward one another in their exclusive enclaves partly to facilitate these comparisons. The pursuit of a forum for inflicting a sense of relative deprivation, and also for enjoying a sense of relative comfort, is one reason the rich are prone to social isolation.