NEW YORK — The social researcher, at work in her natural habitat, dwells in a lovely co-op decorated in mid-century modern furniture and painted in flattering tones of blush and platinum. After a photo shoot in a red dress, she changes into more casual clothing — Chanel. The kitchen is undergoing renovation while the family decamps to the Hamptons, for what is wealth if not a constant opportunity for renewal?
Wednesday Martin, 49, is the author of the much-debated “Primates of Park Avenue,” an intriguing, sometimes uneasy hybrid of memoir — she is the central character, and not always an admirable one — and (claims of) rigorous social science.
It is, as she writes, “a stranger-than-fiction story” of the elegant, moneyed mothers of the Upper East Side.
As social media and the New York media obsess over her buzzworthy but questionable findings and her malleable timeline, Martin remains gracious, charming and seemingly composed. (Although repeated requests for questions in advance — refused — a high-powered personal publicist in attendance during an interview, and an anxious phone call afterward suggest otherwise.)
Has the controversy hurt the book? Not a whit.
“Primates” is perched on the bestseller list. A few weeks ago, Martin signed a movie deal with MGM. On Thursday, she visits the George Town Club for a sold-out Q&A. “I think it’s touched a nerve,” says writer Liz Welch, a friend of Martin’s. “We have an endless fascination with the very, very wealthy.”
“When I landed on the Upper East Side, I noticed a tense perfectionism I hadn’t felt before,” says Martin, a self-professed “cultural critic in high heels,” although she is barefoot this summer morning, revealing a pale pedicure. The author, who grew up Wendy Martin in Michigan (first Ann Arbor, then Grand Rapids), immediately put her Yale doctorate (in comparative literature, with a strong emphasis on anthropology) to work.
“I had to crack this code. I felt very different from these women,” says Martin, who looks nothing like the outsider she senses she is, her tresses an exquisite champagne blond, her wisp of a frame well-sculpted. “And I wanted friends for me, for my kids.”
“Primates” debuted with a splash, with an excerpt in the New York Times’ Week in Review about the “wife bonus,” an alleged annual financial incentive based on the domestic and social performance of “Glam SAHMs” — Martin’s term for stay-at-home moms.
The backlash was immediate: The notion of the conjugal gratuity was challenged, and a searcha launched to find women who had earned one. One wife was uncovered in Australia, another in Texas, but overall, the trend does not appear to be prevalent.
“I stand by what I wrote, absolutely 100 percent,” Martin says. “I know what these women told me. It’s a tribal practice. It’s secretive.
“Do all people call it that? No. Did some people call it that? Absolutely.”
She remains astonished that people question her findings, that when “men control the resources and gender roles are rigidly scripted, that we are surprised that women are financially incentivized to stay in their marriage.” She suggests, as she wrote in the Huffington Post, that what may be at work is misogyny directed toward the women of the 1 percent.
The clamor over “Primates” didn’t stop there. Martin, who wrote the previous study “Stepmonster” (she is the stepmother of two), became the talk of Manhattan and not in the way she had imagined.
The New York Post, to which she formerly contributed articles on parenting, ran an article headlined “Upper East Side housewife’s tell-all book is full of lies,” and discovered “holes big enough to drive an Escalade through.”
Martin, the newspaper revealed, dwelled on Park Avenue with husband Joel Moser, an investment fund manager, for three years, not six, as the book suggests. While living there, she had only one son, not two (now ages 14 and 7), as the reader is led to believe, before moving to a choice block on the Upper West Side, near Central Park, where she is sitting now. Certain businesses that she describes, including Physique 57 (annual membership fee: $4,000), didn’t exist at the time of her residence on the Upper East Side. (She offers a disquisition on the differences between Physique 57, her exercise temple, and SoulCycle as though it were a Lululemon-clad War of the Roses.)
After the clamor, Simon & Schuster, Martin’s publisher, added an author’s note to the e-book and subsequent print editions.
“We are delighted — and not in the least surprised — that ‘Primates’ has provoked such a lively conversation about class, motherhood, sex and money,” Simon & Schuster spokesman Cary Goldstein says. “Whether readers are aspirational or rubbernecking, there has been a tremendous fascination with Wednesday and the community she’s profiled.”
With names altered, years blurred and findings questioned — all while suggesting that she was applying rigorous academic tools — Martin faced an enormous credibility problem.
Asked about specific dates, she says, “Okay, I’m very bad with this kind of thing.” Later, she struggles to remember how long she has been married (15 years).
“I know what I did and why I did it. At the end of the day, it’s a straightforward and not uncommon strategy, and you do it really to protect people,” she says of her narrative technique. “It’s one of the reasons I changed all the identifying details. And I changed chronologies, and I left timelines unspecified.” She adds, “But I never said I lived there for six years.”
Actually, she strongly suggests it.
“Our two sons were eventually accepted at schools on the Upper West Side,” she writes, explaining why she moved, “and with my work and my husband’s, going back and forth from the East Side every day during rush hour seemed like too much to contemplate. We moved across town.” Her younger son had not yet been born.
In addition to the elasticity of Martin’s life story, the book is clouded by factual errors: The late playwright Wendy Wasserstein had one daughter, not “children”; Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg were together for 13 years, not for “a decades-long romantic and artistic collaboration.” It’s curious that Martin’s so diligent about sourcing the work of major anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Paul Rabinow, yet failed to do simple Google searches. (Why aren’t publishing houses doing more rigorous copy editing?)
Which is a missed opportunity, because for all the criticism, many parts of “Primates” rang true to several Upper East Side women called about Martin’s observations. Mind you, they hadn’t read the book, only the copious coverage and social media chatter about the book. Which could possibly fill another book.
These women were displeased, as anyone might be seeing their lives caricatured and reduced to a stereotype — even a beautiful, thin one in premier designer apparel.
Yes, they concede, evenings tend to be socially segregated by gender. One resident admits that she clusters women together at one end of the dining table “because it’s more fun, and we don’t have to be bored with all their male sports-and-finance talk.” The drop-off scene at private schools, while not quite the fashion display that Martin describes, can be intense. It may not involve Birkins, but other costly handbags were mentioned.
Also, when a wife is wholly dependent on her husband for status and income, and his considerable income derives from the mercurial, anxiety-inducing financial markets, one longtime denizen says, “the wife can really be an accessory.” (Vanity Fair also found Upper East Side residents who agreed with some of the book’s observations.)
The criticism, Martin says, “was like a torrent, because is there any more hot-button issue, anything we’re more judgmental about than motherhood? And is there anything more controversial and fascinating in the age of [French economist Thomas] Piketty than wealthy Manhattan mothers?”
But is such behavior limited to the Upper East Side? Isn’t competitive mothering and conspicuous consumption, as Bravo’s “Housewives” conglomerate demonstrates, a contact sport in Beverly Hills; McLean, Va; or Potomac, Md.; or wherever?
“Primates” is frequently entertaining and affectingly open about Martin’s sometimes desperate attempts to be accepted. She’s like a character out of Edith Wharton or Henry James, the latter explored in her dissertation, “Transference Occasions, 1880-1930: From Freud to the cultural field.”
In the book, Martin confesses to getting a blowout during contractions prior to the birth of her second son so that she would look lovely in postpartum pictures, a scene that wouldn’t be out of place on Jill Kargman’s Upper East Side Bravo series, “Odd Mom Out.” The blowout was worth it, Martin writes, though, “I wished my thighs had been hairless as I delivered him.”
She proves obsessive in her pursuit of the Hermès Birkin bag, devoting nearly 30 pages to the costly “powerful talismanic object with nearly magical and mesmerizing powers” that she thinks will make the “Mean Girl Moms” finally accept her. She also calculates that it costs about $95,000 per annum to look Upper East Side good.
At times, it’s possible to feel sorry for this outsider — albeit a wealthy one, married to a son of the Upper East Side, with plenty of in-laws there — desperately wishing to fit in, until you realize that this pursuit and the book’s credibility issues were of her own making.
Why was she so susceptible to such expensive, transitory goods and services? “I’m a pretty porous person. I am receptive to, and open to, outside influence. I am made for participant observation,” she says. “I absorb. I observe. I merge. It’s how I do my research.”
Of the Birkin obsession, she says: “I was fixated. There’s a way in which it’s embarrassing, of course. It’s shallow. There’s another way in which I surrendered to it because it was a fetish object. I was so inside the cultural logic of the Upper East Side at that point that somehow, I felt it would be helpful to me.”
In the ultimate chapter of “Primates,” she writes of visiting a Parisian physician for persistent numbness in her arm, “which left me unable to type.”
You see where this is going.
The doctor identifies the problem — Martin’s “powerful talismanic object” — telling her: “It’s zee Birkahn, or zee writing. You shoooze.”
It’s a wonderful story, a perfect story, a charming story with which to finish a book about social imperative and tribal behavior.
Except for this.
Martin bought another, slightly smaller Birkin. Her Park Avenue apartment, she notes, had an entire closet for her handbags. In her current residence, with less storage, she keeps the second Birkin stuffed inside the first, “like a turducken.” So, did she buy the second one for balance?
As for the wife bonus, Martin says she never got one. “But economic dependence did not sit well with me, even though I have a husband who doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the walk with me about partnership,” she says. “It was a very hard, dark period of my life when I was economically dependent. I was beyond uncomfortable with this. We talked about different ways to make it feel less inequitable.”
Now, of course, there’s no problem. She’s a best-selling author. She has already finished another book. It’s a work of fiction, part of a series. She has a movie deal.
And everyone is talking about Wednesday Martin.