Journalist Richard Conniff probes the age-old question, "Are the rich different from you and me?" He discovers that they are indeed a completely different animal. Here is an excerpt from his book, The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide.
Scratching with the Big Dogs: How Rich Is Rich?
"There's a certain milieu in Aspen. To the extent that you're collecting important art, you're listening to avant garde music, and you participate as a peer in Aspen Institute intellectual discussions — that, and you have $100 million — then you're considered a big dog." — Harley Baldwin, art dealer
If men come from Mars and women from Venus, where on earth do rich people come from? Are they, as ordinary people often suspect, an alien life form? Is their blood the color of money? Do they have special antennae, as their press people like to suggest, for picking up distant intimations of profit and loss? Can they see around corners? Is life on Canis Major, the big dog star, really light years apart from the bow-wow world of ordinary runts like you and me? The truth is that rich people are not even a different species from us. They are more like a different subspecies.
The rich themselves often say that they just want to be normal people, leading normal lives. "I just want to be middle class," was a familiar refrain among dazzled Internet millionaires in the late 1990s. Then, to their horror, they got what they wished. This ambivalence about wealth is perhaps sincere, but it's also a little disingenuous. Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com made himself a folk hero of the era as a billionaire who drove a beat-up Honda and celebrated frugality. "I don't think wealth actually changes people," he declared.
But at the time he was moving out of his 900-square-foot rental in downtown Seattle to a $10 million waterfront house in the leafy suburb of Medina, where his new neighbors included Microsoft billionaires Bill Gates, Jon Shirley, and Nathan Myhrvold. Then, 7,000 square feet perhaps seeming relatively frugal in this context, he decided to expand the place. Wealth is like that.
Whether they want it or not, the dynamic of being rich invariably sets people apart. It isolates them from the general population, the first step in any evolutionary process, and it inexorably causes them to become different. They enter into a community with its own behaviors, its own codes, its own language, its own habitats. ("I'm the most normal, normal person," one extremely wealthy woman told me. "I'm not like most rich people. I work really hard. Most rich people I know don't do anything but eat, drink, sleep, pardon the term, fuck, and have a good time.")
Their children or grandchildren come to mate mainly with one another, like Whitneys with Vanderbilts and Firestones with Fords. (If you are planning to get a wedding present for little Jennifer Gates Bezos, start saving now.) Thus, from the primordial muck, something new and wondrous emerges: A cultural subspecies, Homo sapiens pecuniosus.
How to identify the breed? Is there a holotype, a specimen pinned down in a museum somewhere against which one can size up all newcomers and say this is or isn't a rich person? Is it really possible to characterize a group that includes both a comparatively dainty figure like French businessman Bernard Arnault, purveyor of Louis Vuitton and other opulent brands, and a bruiser like basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, who weighs 330 pounds and has the word "TWISM" ("The World Is Mine") tattooed on his left bicep? It is. The way to start is by defining just what we mean by "rich."
A Numbers Game
One afternoon in Aspen, I had coffee with a local craftsman. He was the second person that day to let me know early in the conversation that he didn't need to work for a living. He'd married into a prominent family, and when the name failed to produce a satisfactory response, he said, "They owned General Dynamics," a manufacturer of some of the deadliest weapon systems on Earth. "They owned the Empire State building," he said. "Do you have the Forbes 400 list?" he asked. It turned out that they are currently worth about $3 billion.
He was a solid, muscular guy, with an upright, almost balletic posture, and a manner of quiet arrogance, in the first person plural. "We really, really go out of our way not to dress particularly well, not to drive really fancy cars — everybody in the world can get a Range Rover — and not to let people know what our philanthropic endeavors are. Sometimes you don't want the advertisement."
He was scathing about wannabes. Maybe it was because he was himself a relative newcomer in this world. "You can't pretend to have the speed of a cheetah, when you're really a mule," he said. A new country club in town especially irked him. It created "a different level of Aspen citizen, those who belonged, and those who didn't. It was really terribly exclusive in a way a lot of us resented." He'd signed on as a charter member, just to get in a quick round of golf. But the other members turned out to be, on average, sixty-four years old. Mules, not cheetahs. They needed five-and-a-half hours to complete a round. So having bought his membership at $60,000, he sold out at $175,000 and could savor his righteousness.
He asked, as everyone did sooner or later, how I was planning to define wealth and I said that I was probably going to make my starting point between $5 and $10 million in investable assets. "I don't consider that a lot of money at all," he said. This was an entirely reasonable comment, improbable as it may seem. For $5 or $10 million, you could just about buy a suitable home in Aspen, where the average house was then selling for $3.4 million. (It would be a second home, of course, so you would also need funds to feather it, to fly back and forth, and to entertain your fine new neighbors.)
In any case, he added, money doesn't matter: "Money by itself doesn't interest me all that much." He defined wealth essentially as contentment with your lot: "My opinion of wealth is to be able to own whatever it is you have, at whatever level. If you have $50 million and you're racing around bloody well killing yourself and basically a slave to that which you are striving for, I would not count that as wealth in any shape or form." I demurred. The guy with $50 million may be a slave to it, but people still leap at his bidding.
"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
Yet the phrase "money doesn't interest me" got repeated so often, and at times with such sincere boredom at the idea of another million gained or lost, that I began to think it might not be such a big lie after all. Money, that is, real money, was of course essential. But at least after the first flush of pure cash bedazzlement, most people discovered that money by itself wasn't enough. What you could do with it, on the other hand, what you could become, was endlessly fascinating.
"Make no mistake," a private family banker declared one day, on the topic of what rich people are seeking with their wealth, "what this is all about is love." No doubt he was right, up to a point. But my background as a naturalist inclined me to think it was more often about the things that drive top animals in the natural world — the quest for control, dominance, mating opportunities, and, above all, status.
Money merely gets you into the game, and the price of admission can vary wildly depending on the milieu. So it was much more complex than it might at first seem to ask, What does it mean to be rich? or How do you define wealth? In the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, I went trekking with a prince, a first cousin of the king, who had no money in the American, much less the Aspen, sense. Yet people covered their mouths when they spoke to him, lest they taint him with their human breath.
He carried the talismanic aura of his cousin, and thus he was rich in at least one classic sense: The word "rich" derives from the same Indo-European root that produced the Celtic word rix, the Latin rex, and the Sanskrit rajah, meaning "king," and in many cultures the concept of being rich is about how closely one can approximate the aura of royalty. My Bhutanese prince may also have been rich relative to local economic standards. If, as a fellow trekker suggested, you begin to be rich when you earn twenty or thirty times the local per capita income, then in Bhutan, where the per capita income is $510, someone with an income of $15,000 could conceivably live like a king.
And in the United States? "A fortune of a million is only respectable poverty," a prominent figure in the New York 400 remarked in 1888. Yet the word "millionaire" has held onto its own talismanic cachet. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire became a television hit despite Regis Philbin. The Millionaire Next Door became a bestseller even though it featured timid souls who stayed at home on Saturday nights, drove Buicks, and held J.C. Penney credit cards. These millionaires actually had a median income of $131,000 and were the sort of folks who could be motivated by a $200 fee to sit down for "personal and focus group interviews." They were, in short, working stiffs, with a relatively modest net worth.
For the purposes of this book, immodest wealth is more the idea. A recent survey prepared for the financial services industry found that there are 590,000 "pentamillionaires" in the United States, and the authors predicted, with a gleeful rubbing of hands, that there would be 3.9 million of them by 2004. This economic cohort consists entirely of people with a net worth, not counting the primary home, of $5 million and up. Other reports bandy about terms like "centimillionaire" and the rather dazed and dreamy "gazillionaire" or even "kabillionaire."
But the word "millionaire" still glimmers in the public imagination, even if that means we must drastically revamp it to fit modern times. In a recent survey by The Wall Street Journal, most people defined wealth not by assets but by an income of a million dollars a year. This is heady territory. In 1999, the Internal Revenue Service received only about 205,000 tax returns with an adjusted gross income of $1 million or more (most of them joint returns, at that). It begs the question: Could you be rich on somewhat less?
That is, could you arrive at the nebulous sweet spot where you are doing what you like — and what your neighbors wish they could be doing — without having to worry much about how to pay for it? (You might think that being rich means no longer caring what the neighbors think, but the art of wealth is at least partly about the ability to inspire and manage envy. If what you like to do is sit in the attic and clip dolls out of yesterday's newspaper, you may have ownership, you may have contentment, but you are not rich. Do it with $100 bills, on the other hand. ...)
So what is the magic number that makes you rich? Based on no surveys or economic parameters whatsoever, other than a brief look at this month's bills, my own impression is that an income of somewhat less than $1 million a year would do quite nicely. A salary of $500,000 might not make you rich, because of the obligation to punch a clock and kiss the hierarchical hinder parts, but an income at that level from one's own portfolio begins to sound pleasantly independent. The threshold for wealth thus seems to me (and to most private bankers and big-time fund-raisers) to lie somewhere in the unpoetic but highly palatable pentamillionaire zone.
The exact number is subjective. It depends on what you like to do and where you like to do it. In Aspen or Palm Beach, an investment portfolio worth $5 or $10 million will certainly not cause people to drag themselves to their feet for a round of curious sniffing. In New York, bankers refer to a fortune of $10 million as "junior wealth." You need at least that much, and probably far more, to keep the apartment on Park Avenue, the place in the Hamptons, and the kids at Brearley or Spence. But in most places in the United States, Europe, and Japan (and therefore also in less developed nations), it would give you a fair start at being a big dog.
Wait! Sit! Before we head off in pursuit of the rich, we need to think about two related concepts critical to the definition of wealth and the character of our subspecies. The first concept, relative deprivation, has to do with the point at which the rich themselves feel they are becoming big dogs; the second, social isolation, is about how they choose the habitats where they typically go to say, Woof, woof!
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.
One day in Los Angeles I turned off Sunset Boulevard and drove up the winding, verdant roads into Bel Air to visit the home of the Hollywood producer Peter Guber. Guber, who made his biggest box office splash with the film Batman, lives in a twelve-acre hilltop compound at the end of a cul de sac, behind a high masonry wall with a massive pegged-oak gate. It could be the entrance to the Batcave.
When I identified myself via the security speaker, the gate swung wordlessly open. A driveway circled up to the main house, where an assistant walked me through another pegged gate into the courtyard, through the polished marble hallway, past a Dubuffet, and finally through yet another pair of gatelike doors into the pool room. There I waited, beneath a Hurrell portrait of Greta Garbo, who was staring down rather hard. On the coffee table was a book with a Charles Bell painting on the cover, depicting the innards of a pinball machine, much like the large Charles Bell painting on the wall. Another book, on Louis Comfort Tiffany, served notice that the Tiffany table lamp with dragonflies on the shade had not come from Pottery Barn.
Guber was a tall, lean, animated character, in blue jeans and a polo shirt, with a small feather that had somehow gotten caught in his hair. He was obsessed at that moment with the question of "shoot-outs" in the entertainment business, the topic of a book he was working on. He was also nursing a wounded reputation, because he'd been a big dog during Sony's disastrous entry into Hollywood and was said by one book to have helped perpetrate "the most public screwing in the history of the business." It made the idea of living behind stone walls seem prudent.
"If people know you're a killer, they want to kill you," he said, at one point. And again, "Sometimes there's a shoot-out, and you don't realize it's happened. You walk home or you go to a restaurant, and you fall over in your soup."
Guber was not only a combative character but also highly territorial. He had a 200-acre oceanfront place in Hawaii and a 1,000-acre ranch in the Woody Creek section of Aspen, with signs out front threatening to close the Nordic ski trail if people used his driveway to get to it. In Los Angeles, his house looked down on the celebrated Hotel Bel-Air, "where every guest becomes part of the legend."
Guber had negotiated to build a long granite stairway down to the hotel with a private entrance, so he would not have to linger among the mere legends at the front door. The deal also included 24-hour room service at home, in case the urge for a salmon tartare with caviar and marinated cucumbers should ever strike at some dark hour. Yet, at one point in our conversation, Guber remarked, "The trouble with being rich is, you only meet other rich people."
On some level, he probably meant it. But of course the rich routinely structure their lives for the specific purpose of meeting only other rich people. It's why the same people turn up on the same big weekends in Aspen, making the airport so crowded that the Learjets must huddle like fledglings under the wings of the Gulfstream Vs. It's why you can find billionaires lined up at 4:30 a.m. during Christmas week to get a chaise by the pool at the Four Seasons Maui (the Four Seasons has somehow devised a system whereby one cannot bribe or send a substitute to hold one's seat; you have to show up yourself before dawn).
It's why the people who summer together on Fishers Island also winter together in Boca Grande, and why the people who lunch on Tuesday at Le Cinq in Paris may recognize their fellow guests on Friday afternoon at the Hôtel du Cap on the Mediterranean. They arrange their lives so that, wherever they go, they see the same few hundred people. The people who matter. It can seem as if no one else in the world even exists.
A Financial Freak
They do it at least partly because a rich person is a kind of freak in the world at large. "The mailman, the lady at the dry cleaners-they look at me with a price tag," says Leslie Wexner, the retailing billionaire. "I see it in their eyes. I'm a financial freak." People gawk in public places, old friends appear out of nowhere, and everybody wants something, if only the magically enhanced pleasure of one's company.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, for instance, was an immensely rich woman whose deepest wish was to be known not for her money but for her talent as an artist, which was, alas, small. She once sponsored an event at her Greenwich Village studio, according to biographer Barbara Goldsmith, in which each of the other artists was to produce a finished canvas over three days.
George Luks, a painter from the Ashcan School, got stinking drunk, then tailed Whitney around the room in a cloud of whiskey. "Mr. Luks, why do you keep following me?" she demanded, finally."Mrs. Whitney," he replied, "because you are so goddam rich."
Life is like that for the rich, except within their own enclaves, among their own kind. Mrs. Whitney was still goddam rich when she retreated to her natural habitat on the Upper East Side or to her country place in Old Westbury, but the contrast with her neighbors was not so glaringly awkward. Like her, they had been everywhere, seen everything, perfected the disarming air of being bored with it all. Similarly, it must have been hard for Jeff Bezos to schmooze with the newlyweds in apartment 2-D when his own personal net worth was equal to the gross national product of Iceland.
In Medina, his new neighbors can also pass for nation-states. Arranging the world so that one meets only other rich people thus begins, paradoxically, as an attempt by the rich to live like normal people, like the folks next door. Then they find that they like it. They stay to cultivate and compare themselves with people of similar stature and to manage the envy of their peers. They find that they are becoming members in a kind of international club, and a peculiar thing happens. You might think immense wealth would free people to become completely different, sui generis, themselves. Instead, they typically become more alike.
They frequent the same restaurants. They hire the same architects. They buy from the same art dealers in New York and Paris, and if they buy well, they get wooed over time by the same museum curators and auction house specialists striving not to appear too eager. They wear the same kind of clothes. (The shops on the Goëthestrasse in Frankfurt-Chanel, Cartier, Bulgari, Gucci, and so on-are almost identical to the ones on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach or at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong.) They share the same gossip.
It is all part of the process the Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz called "cultural pseudo-speciation," the tendency of human groups to divide themselves into distinct social units almost like species and to create barriers against other groups. This process is of course "immeasurably faster" than the evolution of biological species. It's also more commonplace. Lorenz wrote that "its slight beginnings, the development of mannerisms in a group and discrimination against outsiders not initiated to them, may be seen in any group of children."
But he suggested that it takes at least a few generations "to give stability and the character of inviolability to the social norms and rites of a group." When Lorenz was writing in the 1960s, many indigenous tribes seemed to have that stability. The rich, more than most groups, still do. Lorenz, who came from a privileged background, in fact stated his experience of pseudo-speciation in terms of upper-class behavior: "When I meet a man who speaks in the rather snobbish nasal accent of the old Schotten-Gymnasium in Vienna, I cannot help being rather attracted to him; also I am curiously inclined to trust him. . . ."
Behaving like one another, by speaking in the same accents or otherwise, is of course a way for the rich to signal their identity to one another and disarm suspicion: This is one of us, not them. It's also a way to make subtle distinctions more important. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, the University of Chicago economist Thorstein Veblen described the behavior of the rich largely in terms of conspicuous consumption.
Yet in many ways inconspicuous consumption is more intriguing. Almost all peacocks, for instance, have extravagantly conspicuous tail feathers, which they hold erect and rattle to win the amorous attention of females. The females are hardly indifferent to questions of size and stamina; these qualities, like wealth for the rich, are the price of admission. But beyond that, the females are keenly attentive to inconspicuous details, like glossiness and symmetry in the feathers. If a male loses just 5 of the 150 or so feathers in his tail, picky females tend to avoid his dancing arena.
Among the rich, likewise, inconspicuous signals are a sort of highly nuanced private language for the subspecies. A woman who is a member of the club might for instance wear what appears to be a plain brown sweater. Only her peers would recognize it as Yves St. Laurent silk couture, costing more than, say, her Chanel raincoat. Likewise, at his home in Italy, Sirio Maccioni, owner of the fashionable New York restaurant Le Cirque, drives an unprepossessing Lancia. But a member of the club would know from the throaty burble that it is in fact a Ferrari under the hood. The Agnelli family, whose company manufactures both Lancia and Ferrari, began producing this stealth Ferrari in the 1980s, when leftist politics made it imprudent to display wealth too explicitly.
These signals are often too subtle for outsiders to appreciate, which is at least partly the point: "If you go to a house of someone who's new to Aspen and you see a Cy Twombly, you know they have money, especially when it's a house that's not used very much. It's really saying to those who know, 'I'm really rich.' And people who don't know, you don't care what they think anyway."
That last phrase suggests what Lorenz called the "dark side of pseudo-speciation," the tendency to consider outsiders irrelevant, uninformed, even subhuman. It is an entirely natural tendency. Indigenous groups do it implicitly, as Lorenz pointed out, when they use their word for "man" or "the people" as the name of their tribe, and for nothing else: "From their viewpoint it is not, strictly speaking, cannibalism if they eat fallen warriors of an enemy tribe." And from the viewpoint of the rich?
The history of wealth has always been about rich people separating themselves from hoi polloi. In different periods and places, the rich have worn clothing denied by law to the lower orders; they have recorded their own genealogy, a useful tool of social dominance, while forbidding poor people to do the same; they have even, at times, spoken a different language (Latin for the medieval gentry, Norman French for the post-Conquest aristocracy in England, Parisian French for the nineteenth-century Russian grande bourgeoisie at home, Classical Chinese for the educated and aristocratic in China).
The rich have also sometimes gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid the horrific possibility of seeing or being seen by their social inferiors. In the early 1700s, for instance, the Duke of Somerset, one of the wealthiest peers in England, used to travel in his coach-and-six with outriders sent ahead to chase rustics from the fields lest they sully him with their gazing. As recently as 1945, when the Maharani of Baroda went riding on horseback, servants shouted at people on the road to look away.
The result, paradoxically, may have been to reduce envy and competition by people who were not part of the privileged group. "The peasant may not feel deprived compared to the lord so long as the peasant continues to think of the aristocrat as a member of another species, as a different kind of animal with whom comparisons may not be made," writes Jerome Barkow, a Canadian anthropologist. "When such encapsulation of social groups takes place, envy is prevented." The rich would never, of course, have suggested that their social inferiors belonged to some distant species; they would have said simply, "Not our kind, dear."
When the rich actually chose to be seen by common people, they tended to elicit awe and subservience, as if they were superhuman. "I like best to visit the Baron in his office," Heinrich Heine wrote about his friend the Paris financier Baron James de Rothschild, "where, as a philosopher, I can observe how people bow and scrape before him. It is a contortion of the spine which the finest acrobat would find difficult to imitate. I saw men double up as if they had touched a Voltaic battery when they approached the Baron."
Or as an Egyptian civil servant put it in 1500 b.c., writing on the otherworldly presence of the king: "He is a god by whose dealings one lives, the father and mother of all men, alone by himself, without equal." But isn't this literally ancient history? The rich no longer live behind moats and castle walls. Bill Gates sits still for questioning by CNN reporters, and Princess Fergie will appear, as the British like to say, at the opening of a door.
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.