Did the “wife bonus” raise your suspicions?
That was the killer revelation in “Primates of Park Avenue” that helped drive pre-publication buzz for Wednesday Martin’s new memoir of life among the one-percenters. But the idea that Manhattan financiers dole out year-end bonuses to their wives based on performance — “how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a ‘good’ school,” Martin explained — inspired a tidal wave of commentary from skeptical divorce attorneys and scoffing socialites claiming no such thing exists.
One well-heeled wife acknowledged receiving a “bonus” in a very clicky essay for the New York Post and defended it as a victory for feminism — but then she undermined Martin’s provocative claim by noting that her five-figure payout is not tied to performance. Honey, that’s an allowance, not a bonus.
Now the knives are out. The New York Post took a magnifying glass to Martin’s glossy anthropology — “fieldwork,” she calls it — and found a flurry of discrepancies: The author only lived on the Upper East Side for three years, according to property records, not the six years she implied, and “mentions stores and services that didn’t exist [at the time],” the Post charged, “calling into question the scenes and behaviors she describes.” On Sunday, Simon & Schuster defended the blurred details as “a common narrative technique in memoirs,” but told the New York Times that future editions will carry the caveat of “a clarifying note.”
Still: No one’s buying this book for the timeline of Martin’s life, right? You’re buying it for her much-hyped insight into how the super-rich live. So let’s take a closer look at the book’s dishiest revelations. Do we believe them?
1. Martin, a “social researcher” and Yale PhD who moved uptown after marrying a financier, describes going to an Upper East Side condo open house. The seller, a woman she is meeting for the first time, just presumes they’ll run into each other on vacation:
“‘I’ll look for you in Palm Beach. You’re going right? We’ll be at The Breakers… [No?] Aspen then!’”
We found this hard to swallow. Sure, they may be a clannish bunch. But with the world of wealth available to them, do UES folks really all congregate in the same getaways — let alone assume that everyone else does? Jane Hitchcock, the Washington novelist (“Mortal Friends,” “Social Crimes”) who has chronicled life in her native Manhattan, is sympathetically skeptical. “Writers take liberty with their work and experience,” she said. “What she might really have said was, ‘Will I see you in Palm Beach?’ But you’re a writer and you want to create buzz, so she just inverts it to make the woman sound snooty… Writing about the rich is an easy target, but people are much more complex, rich or poor. If you’re looking for complex, read Tolstoy about the rich.”
2. You know how in “Downton Abbey,” men and women would retire to different rooms after a dinner party? Well, on the Upper East Side, they sometimes segregate the entire party.
“At dinner parties I went to, it was not unusual for men and women to sit at separate tables, even tables in different rooms. In spite of all the hot bodies artfully displayed, there was not a lot of sexiness in the air.”
Sounds kooky, but it rang true to some of our sources. “I think it’s a wealth thing,” said one friend, whose boyfriend recently moved away from another finance-centric community because he didn’t care for that dynamic, the women seemingly on display and disconnected from their husbands. Others see the practice as completely benign. Susanna Quinn, wife of a Washington lobbyist and developer of a beauty-services app, attended a party recently where female guests quickly separated away from the men. “It happens all the time! We’re all so busy working we don’t have much of an opportunity to see and talk to our girlfriends,” she said.
3. The hot new accessory on the Upper East Side is a big family.
“The Have-Most women looked the most carefully put-together and the most beautifully turned out, and generally had the most children… I quickly became desensitized to massive families — they were everywhere… Four was the new three — previously conversation-stopping, but now nothing unusual. Five was no longer crazy or religious — it just meant you were rich. And six was apparently the new townhouse — or Gulfstream.”
Sure, why not? Couldn’t find anyone to confirm it, but we’ll buy it. What better way to prove you can afford a big family than to have a big family? Take the Kennedys, for example. That’s how dynasties get built.
4. The Mean Mommies at her son’s nursery school refuse to speak to her — until they see her chatting with an Alpha Dad super-banker, and then they think she’s okay.
“On most mornings, if a mom did deign to speak to me, she gave a curt hello, after which she performatively turned her back and began to speak to someone else… They had a laser-like focus, it became obvious, on what I came to think of as the highest-ranking females — those who were, it seemed, richer, prettier, more successful or, most important of all, married to someone more successful than anyone else.”
Oh, totally, We’ve seen this happen in much, much lower tax brackets, and as far back as high school. “Look, there are social climbers all over, and it’s a ladder of limitless rungs,” says Hitchcock.
5. Walking on East 79th Street, Martin claims she was “charged” by a “solitary, well-dressed woman” who took up so much space as the sauntered past that she literally ran the author off the sidewalk, which Martin believes was a territorial move to assert dominance.
“Sometimes in these encounters, I actually had to step aside toward the curb or flatten myself against the wall of a building to allow a woman to stride by me, so adamant was she in her refusal to budge or swerve a fraction of an inch.”
Um, Wednesday Martin? We think you’re imagining things. (Adds Hitchcock: “East 79th? That’s a very wide street. . . Was she in armor?”)
6. Women have a way of scrutinizing each other.
“To live on the UES… is to see and feel the ‘looks’ exchanged between women or imposed upon us by one other – a gaze that is not infrequently ravenous, competitive, laser-like in its precision and intent… Where is the flaw? Women ask with this gaze, assessing other women.”
You see, Wednesday, this isn’t just rich people. . .
7. The patrons of an elite exercise studio in the Hamptons are very aggressive and hostile in the parking lot.
“A woman peeled around the corner in a black Maserati, swinging into my half of the road and nearly broadsiding me… A blonde in a black Range Rover behind me took umbrage at my shocked, split-second pause and leaned on her horn, yelling ‘Come on. Move already!'”
Sure. But this also happened to me once at a 7-Eleven in D.C., but the cars weren’t as nice, and I didn’t get a book deal out of it.
8. Do rich ladies really anesthetize their feet in the name of beauty?
“Hadn’t I heard, [the shoe salesman] laughed, of the shots to numb your feet, or part of them, so you could do a whole night in killer heels? Apparently there were podiatrists who acted as enablers of women with high-heel fixations. . .”
Skeptical of this one. Haven’t polled the entire podiatric community, but we suspect Martin may be thinking of doctors who shoot up patients with collagen or hyaluronic acid fillers to pad out the cushioning on the soles of their feet — the subject of many trend stories a few years ago.
9. Upper East Side ladies just can’t take a compliment.
“At all costs and by all means, praise about oneself, in this and other women-only settings, was to be aggressively deflected… “Is that blouse Chloe? It’s such a beautiful color on you!’ was met with ‘This thing is four years old. And I look like I haven’t slept in a decade!’”
We’re sure this actually happens on the Upper East Side. We’re pretty sure it also happens on the Lower East Side, and in Gaithersburg and Peoria and Mazatlan and Abuja. And everywhere.
10. A woman referred to as “Lena” is shunned by her former Park Avenue friends after a decline in fortunes forces her to take a job at a department store.
“After the crash in 2008, the story goes, she and her husband lost almost everything… Several women she knew showed up at the store one day, and were shocked to discover that Lena was ‘on the other side’ now, bringing them shoes to try on. Other friends might have rallied around Lena… They might have reached out and buoyed her up… Lena’s no-longer peers simply avoided her.”
Very sad. But is it true? Impossible to know. We would have had a lot more faith in the story if Martin, in the course of her fieldwork, had picked up the phone and called Lena, rather than recounting a second- or third-hand tale (“the story goes”).