Excerpt: 'The Natural History of the Rich'

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.

The Pseudo-Species

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