The Simple Life

These may be tough times, but the Countess extols the virtues of paring down and bucking up.


Our way of life is being stripped down—and it could mean there’s a fashion striptease ahead that leaves people hiding in the bushes.

I honestly don’t mean to add to the depressing mood. But I’ve felt for a long while that things were getting out of hand with all this greed, gluttony and “let the good times roll.” Now the highfliers have thudded down to earth harder than a Soyuz space capsule. Executives no longer will be able to claim that their megamansions in Greenwich are a business expense or to earn $22 million for a few months’ work, as did Robert Willumstad of AIG. (At least he had the good sense to turn the money down.)

There are likely to be no more $5 million birthday parties for the Stephen Schwarzmans of the world, no more huge paychecks for Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers (whose “It wasn’t my fault” hubris has turned him into a punching bag), no more private jets or helicopters for the Princes of Wall Street who turned out to be toads.

The rich are going to be putting their heads down. They’ll have to, because everyone—including the new administration in Washington—will be watching. Overindulging, overdressing and over-partying reached their apogee long ago. Borrowed money ended up being on borrowed time.

But does that mean all the fun and excitement are gone? That people can no longer buy beautiful clothes, good wine and other things? Not at all. It just means that life will be quieter, more intimate and simpler. And as my dear aunt Gertrude used to sternly tell me as I’d come bounding down the stairs wearing layer upon layer, or show her my latest poem that would be page after page of teenage angst, “Louise, strip it all away! Simple is best in everything!”

After all, a pretty smile, a nice personality and giving ways—and I don’t mean in terms of money to charity, but just a helpful nature—are really all one needs. Simple fashions will be in, despite some of the flou shown in Paris recently. Maybe Mao and Nehru jackets will make a comeback. (I remember going to China years ago and seeing all the people in their Maos and thinking some of them looked very au courant.) It will just take a good designer to make them look snappy.

As for the rest: Well, according to a recent article in The New York Times, the best-selling wine at Sherry-Lehmann these days is a $19 Bordeaux. Charity galas will go on, but the flood of cash from Wall Street titans trying to buy their way into society is drying up, meaning the affairs will be low-key. And entertaining at home will be très chic—great meatloaf, fresh peas, mashed potatoes and warm apple pie are delicious anytime.

In short, this new age isn’t about living well; it’s about living wisely, for both ourselves and the next generation. Too many people got caught up in the idea that the more it cost, the better it was. You are lucky enough to make lots of money and buy a nice house, so why not a 30-room one with a basketball court, an indoor pool and an ice rink complete with Zamboni (à la hedge fund gazillionaire Steven Cohen)? Why reside in Manhattan when you could live in the Hamptons and take a helicopter to work each day, regardless of the pollution?

Everybody expected too much. I remember the days when no one thought the Dow would ever break 5,000. Then it was 10,000. Now everyone watches the stock market like a football game—and there have been lots of fumbles lately.

A flat-screen TV in every room, a gas-guzzling SUV, a private jet, a megayacht and the latest couture aren’t the end-all of life. Sure, they’re great if you can afford them, but more isn’t better—and your conscience has to deal with owning all that stuff while others are losing their jobs.

As for me, with the first snow flurries fluttering around, I’m taking pleasure in turning off unneeded lights, turning down the thermostat and throwing on another sweater (okay, it’s cashmere, I admit). It’s about time to rein things in, even as the chill deepens.

But there is good news. I spent the past few days planting daffodil and bluebell bulbs in the garden. There’s the warmth of spring to look forward to, when the flowers will always bloom.