Louise’s Frugal Fantasy

The Countess laments the fact that the financial crisis has done little to curb the excesses of the rich.


I was hoping that in these dark times the Wobbling WASPs would be having their moment once again—a period when one shouldn’t spend for anything unless one has to. Instead, we have entered an era in which people with money continue to spend it as if tomorrow will never come.

In this Age of the Grotesque, houses in the Hamptons are on the market at ridiculous prices and, because they’re not selling, are being rented at equally absurd amounts; spending at top restaurants is going strong; and finance titans continue to rake in multimillions with the justification that those sums are needed to “keep talent” (as if there were many other jobs that would pay them like that). All this while Average Joe scrapes by and worries about keeping his job.

How can people today spend huge sums for yachts, houses and parties (even if they’re doing it more quietly) and look in the mirror? I thought the days of Steve Schwarzman’s $3 million birthday fete were truly passé, that the bursting of the subprime bubble and the shame of Bernie Madoff and his ilk—who bilked others so they could buy French châteaux, private planes, etc.—had put a firm lid on excess.

Not a chance. Take a Hamptons house on the market for $65 million. Its exterior looks classic, but inside it’s a prime example of grotesque decor: orange and purple walls and, in the basement, a screening room and a playroom filled with tot-size copies of antique cars. The basement alone is the size of most large houses.

I can’t really fault the builder. In his view, he’s just offering what the public wants (like a modern P.T. Barnum). And so far he has been proved right—he built several other homes in the area, and they sold like hotcakes. Meanwhile, he’s supposedly renting the latest house to a major sports star and his wife for $250,000 a month.

Face it, rather than our dealing with a new era of restraint and frugality, money remains everything. Even in politics. Just look at some of President Obama’s choices of ambassadors. He promised change but instead is rewarding the fat cats just as his predecessors did. A recent Wall Street Journal headline stated donors find a home in obama’s ambassador corps. For instance, the ambassador to France, Charles H. Rivkin, collected a total of $500,000 for the Obama campaign, plus $300,000 for the inauguration. His qualifications? He is the former president of Wild Brain, as well as of the Jim Henson Company, which created the Muppets. Does Kermit speak French?

For the Court of St. James’s in London, the choice is Louis B. Susman, a retired vice chairman of Citigroup (which, of course, had to be bailed out by the government). Susman wasn’t one of Obama’s biggest fundraisers, but he worked in Chicago for the president’s political apparatus. So friendship helped him.

The Swiss seem to be the only ones to object. Obama nominated Don Beyer, a car dealer magnate, to go to Bern, but the Swiss were quick to raise concerns about his qualifications in dealing with the touchy subject of Swiss bank account rules.

Again, money always speaks, and the people who have it are always the Untouchables. The bankers saved by the government after giving mortgages they shouldn’t have will now make millions buying up those distressed mortgages and reselling them. Madoff got 150 years in jail, but isn’t sending him to jail like shutting the barn door after the horse has run away?

But all this money desperate to be spent isn’t the only grotesquerie. Just pick up a newspaper (or read one on the Internet) and the headlines are filled with one grotesque thing after another: More than 26 percent of Americans are now officially obese because they can’t give up fast food or bother to exercise; the Michael Jackson memorial service drew more than 30 million viewers even after two weeks’ worth of coverage; and, the most stomach churning, a New York Times headline that read young idols with cleavers rule the stage. The story was about how young butchers are becoming sex symbols, with one fan exclaiming, “What’s sexy? Dangerous is sometimes sexy, and they are generally big guys with knives who are covered in blood.”

It’s enough to make me a vegan. Carrots, anyone?