Tuesday, October 28, 2008
It isn't easy to get the super-rich to discuss their money woes, and the Rev. Chuck Davis, who runs the Stanwich Church here in the hedge-fund capital of the world, has tried. His flock includes the mandarins of finance who've lost fortunes in the stock market debacle. In a recent sermon, he urged parishioners to simply admit that they're enduring a terrible ordeal.
"C'mon, let's us talk about it, right now," he said from the pulpit. "There's fear. I've never seen this kind of fear in people. There's concern. Our world has been rocked in some ways. I think we've come to realize that we've lived an illusion for a little while, haven't we?"
This isn't an "Amen!" kind of place, but listeners were rapt.
"And we've been shocked," he continued, "even though it was an illusion and it wasn't a reality, coming back to reality, we still want to know that God's in the midst of it. Because darkness would seem to drown out our hope and sense of well-being."
Uplifting words, and delivered to a group that you have to assume could use a hug. But if there is darkness here in Greenwich, it's not visible, at least not yet. The impeccably kept home to scores of suddenly unemployed and just barely employed investment bankers, Greenwich is the most famous of the money towns of Fairfield County -- along with Darien, New Canaan and others -- where some 28,000 millionaires resided the last time anyone counted. The area has just suffered its version of a Category 5 hurricane. If there was a FEMA for portfolio devastation, Greenwich would be swarming with feds.
But this disaster has unfolded on the QT. To find the stress points and hints of agony, you have to look around. A total of five homes have gone to foreclosure of late, though just two were worth more than $4 million -- mid-priced for this area. The town voted to eliminate 15 jobs last week, the first government layoffs anyone can recall. Just one family at the all-girls Greenwich Academy, where upper-school tuition costs $31,000 a year, has asked for financial aid.
"I hasten to add that, as with all independent schools, financial aid is need-based," says Molly King, head of the school. "There is paperwork to fill out and a vetting process."
At L'Escale, one of the pricier local restaurants, some specials were just announced. "The first drink is on us!" read a news release. Guests can choose from "sublimely balanced" cocktails said to be inspired by the seven virtues, one of which, ironically enough, is prudence.
"We're also doing a prix fixe menu, which we've never done before," Anshu Vidyarthi, L'Escale's manager, says on the phone. "I think the mood here is, 'We've had a great party, now let's make sure we can continue the party, so let's be smart about what we're doing.' " It might well be too early in Meltdown '08 for the residents of Greenwich to betray outward symptoms of financial distress. For some, this could be a matter of pride. Others who've lost money still have a ton left; they could be reeling and living large at the same time.
So we decided to poll the religious leaders of this town and spend a little time in the pews. Maybe the losses haven't yet caused a lot of overt damage. But how about interior struggles? Are people in Greenwich searching their souls? How about rethinking their priorities? Is anyone here -- and this might be too much to ask -- talking about regrets?