"The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money," literary critic Mary Colum famously observed when Ernest Hemingway told her that he was "getting to know the rich."
As someone who spent several years living among and writing about uber-privileged families on Manhattan's Upper East Side, I'd add that rich people like to be like one another. And one of the ways they achieve this by doing the same things — things the rest of the world doesn't (and can't) do: A subscription to Sakara ($70 a day, if you get three meals a day, five days a week). Tracy Anderson Online (over $800 annual fee) versus a free seven-minute scientific workout video. Hiring disabled "family members" as guides to skip long lines at Disney World (yes, really). Chauffeurs bringing mail to the Hamptons.
The very rich can access high-end options and circumvent obstacles that bedevil most of us. And like a kind of insider trading, they often exchange information among themselves as a way to establish the difference between their cohort and everyone else: I have a guy at Hermès. You should be using my colorist. Here's the person who did our biodynamic roof garden.
So, as the scope of covid-19 threat came into focus, I began to wonder whether Manhattan's 0.1 percent would somehow find ways to stay pampered — or at least cling to their privilege in this time that might be trying us all, but differently. And in part, they have.
Most of us are sheltering in place in the only place we have shelter. But one financier in his 50s told me that only about a third of his peers have remained in Manhattan in recent weeks — the rest were in their second and third homes in the East End, Connecticut or Florida. (Almost no one was out West, he explained - Vail and Aspen had shut down for the spring break period due to covid-19.)
There are also those who have stayed in the city but who've managed to maintain their rarified existence: One psychotherapist told me about a family who set up a trampoline in the massive living room of their Manhattan apartment. Others are quarantining with their nannies or housekeepers. At home, they can replicate expensive dinners out because (as of this writing) upscale restaurants are still delivering (with cocktails, of course). Through gossip — which isn't just loose talk, say anthropologists, but an important discursive model allowing the exchange of information and the passing of judgment to work in tandem — I learned that an escape plan including access to a ventilator is a thing, if you have the means and know the right people.
But even if the well-to-do are, so far, riding out this pandemic with maximum convenience, to my eye, there are some ways that the current crisis is ever so slightly narrowing the gap between haves and have-nots on a few fundamental measures.
"Rich people do have the advantage of space" — a big deal during a mandatory stay-at-home situation — "but there is no complete insulation from this," explained an Upper East Side psychoanalyst to the masters and mistresses of the universe, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "During a home renovation, or if there's a fire in their building, for example, they could stay at the Carlyle. But where do you go when the whole world is on fire?"
Clinical psychologist and author Stephanie Newman, in private practice in both Manhattan and tony Westchester, echoed that sentiment: "With many of these higher achievers, it's the first time they can't control many aspects of their daily life, and the future feels uncertain." For those with access to private planes and multiple houses, the feeling of being trapped - even somewhere that's unquestionably spacious — is novel, and acute.
"I want out," Newman reports hearing from patients, both about marriages under stress and about feeling out of options. Whether it's the precariousness of once-robust stock portfolios dwindling, or pressure to have sex with someone who's always around, the rich are feeling some of the same pressures of being quarantined as the rest of the country.
Welcome to the 99.9 percent. Sort of.
Remember that viral BBC clip? We were charmed by two kids jauntily bursting into their parents' home office while dad spoke live with a TV interviewer, prompting mom to frantically charge in and scoop them both up. When something like that is a one-off moment that happens to someone else, it's an amusing slice of life. When it's a daily work occurrence, not so much.
For those of us fortunate enough to have telecommute-able jobs, workday interruptions from kids, pets and spouses are now the norm. It's still charming, sometimes: One in-demand executive coach who works with leaders in finance reported that during a recent video conference, a client suddenly bellowed, "Don't you do that!" stunning other participants until he explained he was talking to his dog.
The new telework regime can be unsettling in more subtle ways: "The market is in free fall, which is hugely stressful. At the same time, people I know are all working from home in pajama bottoms and T-shirts," the director of an investment fund told me. "There's no hiding behind an expensive suit. It's discombobulating." Some people might enjoy the respite from even office casual, but when we change our uniform, we change our self. It's not life or death, but as Newman told me, "It can be hard to adjust your self-concept so suddenly." Especially while contemplating the financial void. And, well, death.
Tired: power suits. Wired: power tees?
Many women in their 40s and 50s had mothers who rejected the Enjoli and Palmolive mixed messaging of the 1970s and '80s, passing the "I have a job AND a cleaning person" spirit on to us. Now, some women, more accustomed to household project management than household project execution, are rediscovering Betty Friedan's "problem that has no name" — grappling with the expectation that wives, no matter their socio-economic strata, are being asked to quarterback household crisis management while husbands are comparatively off the hook — and second-wave feminist rage seems to be raging back.
"The endless cooking/cleaning loop kills your soul," a professional mom who decamps to the East End every summer told me. A week later, she let me know her family was in the guesthouse while her mask-outfitted housekeeper cleaned the bathrooms and floors. For very different reasons, all parties deemed it worth the risk.
"I guess I am going to have to relearn how to change sheets," a woman who lives in a storied building uptown told her adult daughter. Later the daughter reported that her father and mother were changing the sheets together. We can only hope couples cooperating in new ways during this period will shake up the retrograde gender script that prevails among many of Manhattan's richest residents.
For better or worse, they're really soaking in it now, Madge.
And it was one thing for children to be treated as "priceless but useless" when all was well in the world (or at least in the world of the well-to-to), but now kids sitting around texting friends all day might not stand. A professional organizer to the 1 percent, Barbara Reich, tells me her clients' kids are pitching in in new ways, making beds and cleaning up the kitchen after meals. One ninth-grader even learned to make marinades (haute, but helpful). Reich's own teenage twins now know how to fold clothes on a board and grate vegetables. It's not exactly cutting lawns to help mom and dad out with the bills, but it's a new skill set.
Idle kids, organic delivery services, waterfront homes and desirable Manhattan addresses notwithstanding, Manhattan's most privileged are waiting in line for rationed toilet paper and frozen vegetables like everyone else, according to the aforementioned finance silverback, currently in Florida. The lines outside Provisions health food store and the IGAs on the East End, where customers are allowed in groups of anywhere from six to 20 at a time and limited to two rolls of toilet paper and bottles of rubbing alcohol, tell the same story.
"I don't think there's any great place to be right now," the finance guy told me, grimly. "You can't get special medicine or someone to make you your own ventilator." As the executive coach put it: you might be on a private beach, but quarantine is quarantine. Whether this leveling of a few aspects of our daily experience survives the pandemic, altering the social behavior of elites in the long term, is hard to say. As with life in general right now, we can only wait and see, and stay at home.
Martin is a feminist cultural critic and the author of several books, including the No. 1 New York Times bestseller, "Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir." This piece was written for The Washington Post.
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