Being rich and being happy don’t always go together

By Caitlin Kelly

Would you be happy shopping all day?
Would you be happy shopping all day?

It’s a world so many people desperately aspire to, the one where you finally have, literally, millions or billions of dollars, where your car(s) and homes are costly and many — and your worries, one assumes, become small and few.

Like the couple who rent out their Paris apartment part-time as they jet between it and their other six homes worldwide. I sat in it recently and admired a lovely framed graphic on one wall, thinking it looked a lot like the enormous posters all over the Metro for the largest show by Sonia Delaunay in decades.

It was a Delaunay.

Here’s a sobering recent reminder of how toxic that world can be for some, a New York man who murdered his father, after being raised in a life of privilege and power.

From The New York Times:

They were alike in many ways, Thomas Strong Gilbert Sr. and the son to whom he gave his name and who, prosecutors say, would eventually kill him.

Graduates of elite boarding schools and Princeton University, the two men were handsome, gifted athletes who — on the surface at least — seemed to be navigating the exclusive glide path of wealth, social position and success that has long defined life inside America’s upper crust.

All this exploded, however, when, the police said, Thomas S. Gilbert Jr., 30, marched into his parents’ apartment this month and shot his father in the head — after asking his mother to run out and get him a sandwich and a soda.

The attack shocked not only those who knew the Gilberts but also many more who live in their rarefied and intertwined world of hedge funds, private clubs and opulent homes in Manhattan and the Hamptons.

The Times received 500 emails commenting on that story, many of whom — perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not for an upscale publication — expressed pity for the alleged killer.

I know someone whose partner recently became a millionaire after a decade of intense effort. He built his entire company from scratch, both of them sacrificing mightily to do so. But he hasn’t slowed down a bit and his partner is not, as I hoped, now lounging in hard-won luxury.

When more is never enough...
When more is never enough…

If you can handle a searing glimpse into the folkways of the wealthy — and have a strong stomach — you must read the Patrick Melrose novels. Written by Edward St. Aubyn, from an aristocratic English family, they reveal what lies behind some intimidatingly elegant and polished facades.

For years, people kept telling me these were astonishing books.

How good could they really be?

Amazing.

Gasp-inducing.

And, for some of us, far too close for comfort.

Here’s a bit from a long and fascinating interview with him from The New Yorker:

The irony in the title of St. Aubyn’s third Melrose novel, “Some Hope,” published in 1994, points both to a career-long interest in the idea of psychological deliverance and to a desire not to be mistaken for an artless writer. To read the novels is to watch a high intelligence outsmart cliché (or, to use a more Melrosian word, vulgarity), and so protect his protagonist’s literary distinction. Similarly, St. Aubyn has been careful to protect his own life from the dull tarnish of remembrance-and-release; it would pain him if readers mistook a twenty-year literary project for a therapeutic one. “What he wanted was a very pure success,” Oliver James, an old friend of St. Aubyn’s, and a clinical psychologist, told me.

But the awkward fact is that writing saved St. Aubyn’s life. Years of psychoanalysis, and the controlled fiction that followed, deferred the threat of suicide. St. Aubyn describes Patrick as an alter ego, though there are some differences. Patrick ends up with a day job—he’s a barrister—which St. Aubyn, with a seeming shrug of privileged incomprehension, barely makes convincing. More important, Patrick has no experience of therapy, beyond a group meeting or two in rehab. Instead, he ruminates, and makes sour, studied jokes. The novels enact, and describe, therapeutic progress, but St. Aubyn, led by a literary taste for compression, and by the desire to create “vivid and intense and non-boring” fiction, left out much of the process that helped him survive to midlife.

I read the Melrose novels finally a year or so ago.

It felt as though my own life had been X-rayed and thrown up onto a large white lightbox.

The cashmere and jewels and lovely homes. The literary and cultural references. The shrugging assumption that everyone lives a life of privilege and ease — or should.

Or could if they just did things right.

Oh, but you’re struggling?

To some ears, it’s a foreign language. They try to understand a few words, but it doesn’t really register and just isn’t very interesting.

Other Melrose-isms rang true:

The sycophants and hangers-on, skilled in the art of flattery.

Those slickly determined to displace children in the eyes of their own parents, able to remain so much more amusing and so much less demanding than flesh and blood.

The ability to find almost everything in the world worthy of intense interest, except your own children.

The missed holidays and birthdays and celebrations.

There are, of course, many people with a lot of money who have terrific relationships with their families.

But there are also some unimaginable darknesses behind the glittering veneer and the-stuff-we-all-want-so-badly — the Benchleys and Goyard handbags, the Dassault Falcons waiting on the tarmac at Teterborough.

I recently met a couple a decade older than I; she, smooth and assured, he a tenured professor secure in his stature.

We talked about my family and, she, probing far more deeply and quickly than I was used to, elicited far more of my candor than usual — and, later, that would leave me feeling regretful and queasy.

It’s not a fun tale in some respects.

And then he asked:

“Have you read the Patrick Melrose novels?”

I had.

“I could barely get through two of them,” he said.

Indeed.

20 thoughts on “Being rich and being happy don’t always go together

  1. Sobering tales and I certainly know enough miserable wealthy folk – but I still can’t help buying lottery tickets – the only way I’d ever get that kind of dough! I like to imagine I’ll make better choices. Ha!

  2. Money goes with very little of the things popular imagination like to think it confers. Like taste or manners or responsibility…or happiness as you point out. It’s odd that it (money) is such a driving force to achieve those things, or at least their appearance, to me!

      1. themodernidiot

        I don’t think you can. you just have to meet each other and find there’s a lot of compatibility in being just human.

  3. As far as I’ve observed, the more money one has, the more complicated one’s life gets. And often in unpleasant ways. But like Tricia, I indulge in the odd lottery ticket, convinced I can be the exception and live simply with a couple of million buckaroonies in the bank. Ha!

    I’m intrigued now. Must go read those Patrick Melrose novels.

  4. i’d be interested in reading at least one of these. i’ve always believed that an excess of money and privilege is more of a curse than it is a blessing. fascinating post.

    1. The series is pretty hard to read — as it is also thinly-disguised autobiography of his own life, which (!) includes rape, incest and drug addiction. The third (or 4th) book which focuses only on his addiction was almost too much for me. But the writing, somehow, retains a wit and edge through it all.

  5. We bring whoever we are to whatever economic station we arrive. I’m always amazed when people think money will solve their problems. It may bring ease, but it comes with challenges. If you were crazy-making before, it just intensifies it. If you were peaceful, you bring that with you.

  6. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Monday links | A Bit More Detail

  7. Jonathan R

    Great post!

    I presume rich people have more resources to devote toward remedying their toxic natures, however the will to do that is likely the same across the income distribution.

  8. Cindy Naidoo

    I think with poorer people ‘what you see is what you get’, with the rich on the other hand, they display learned behaviour, which is so false most of the time….a smile that does not quite reach the eyes, a show of politeness that’s just a show. Lovely post.

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