'Primates of Park Avenue,' Stranger Than Nonfiction

The tribe of Upper East Side wives deserves closer study.

If the "wife bonus" were real....

Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

It's hard to exaggerate the absurdity of rich people in New York. We are talking about a subculture where it is considered very important to get your child into the right preschool, for fear that they will otherwise never have a chance at a decent life. A trader I met swore that during the extensive application process for one school, he was asked, of his toddler daughter, "What are her aspirations?"

We're talking about a subculture where a senior at one of the city's elite private schools explained away the longstanding tendency of scholarship kids to mostly be friends with other scholarship kids with the observation that it was hard for him to talk to those kids about his problems. For instance that his parents wanted him to go to the Hamptons that weekend, and he really wanted to stay in the city.

We're talking about a culture where the newer and richer residents of my old building, the unglamorously named 250 West 94th Street, voted to change its name to the Stanton, apparently in the belief that this would improve its cachet. It's named after Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who lived at the site of the building long before its cornerstone was placed. (A friend's father who still lives in the building reportedly suggested at a meeting that they instead choose a name that would honor the only famous event that actually took place in the building: "The Mailer.")

We're talking about a culture where women vie to get themselves on waiting lists for a handbag that starts at $8,000.

Like I said: no need to exaggerate.

Nonetheless, when excerpts from Wednesday Martin's new book, "Primates of Park Avenue," started appearing, my first suspicion was that however difficult it may be to exaggerate the crazy behavior of New York's wealthiest citizens, someone had finally managed it. For example, that piece on "wife bonuses" that took the Internet by storm. I don't find it hard to believe that some sad soul, somewhere, gives his wife annual performance reviews under appallingly transactional terms written into their prenup, and then doles out a bonus accordingly. It's a big, crazy world out there, and almost anything you can think of is probably being done by someone. I did find it very, very difficult to believe that this practice is anything like the broad subcultural phenomenon that the Times piece suggests. ("I don’t necessarily think it’s a trend or widespread," Martin told New York Magazine's Annie Lowrey, which is not exactly the impression I got from either the excerpt, or the book.)

It turns out that I am not the only one to have wondered about some of her stories. Vanity Fair talked to verified Upper East Side rich wives, and found them skeptical, too.  Then some New York Post reporters checked into the timeline of her book and discovered that parts of it didn't make any sense: according to them, she recounts an East Side co-op board interviewing her while she's pregnant, even though she was not, in fact, pregnant when she moved to the East Side; she reports losing the pregnancy weight from her second son at a gym that didn't yet exist when she was an Upper East Sider; she reports seeing macarons from a store that didn't arrive until years later; and she drops Uber into a conversation that is supposed to have happened years before the service started operating. Some of these events may have taken place while she was living on the Upper West Side, where she and her family moved after three and a half years on the Upper East. 

Martin says she telescoped certain events to protect the privacy of friends and family. Does this matter? Yes, for a few reasons. The first is a stubborn journalist's ethic that the minor details have to be right too, not just "the big picture." Writing my own nonfiction book, I agonizingly went back and fact checked over and over again to try to make it as accurate as possible. Where I was telling a story that even I couldn't possibly verify -- because, say, it involved a casual conversation at a bar that happened 10 years ago -- I made that clear, and didn't embroider with detail that would have made it more vivid. We try to get the little details right because otherwise, how will anyone trust the big picture?

But even if you argue that Martin's book is supposed to be an account of the interior experience of living among a certain group of wealthy people, not a 100 percent accurate description of what macarons she saw at a party, some of the compressions seem to have involved transferring events from her current Upper West Side existence to the 3.5 years she spent living on the Upper East. Why not properly locate them, and point out that these boundaries actually involve quite a bit of fluidity -- you might be living on West End Avenue, but sending your kids to Brearley, and thus still interacting quite a lot with the community you left. Well, perhaps because early on in the book, Martin spends a lot of time painting the boundaries between the four broad quadrants of lower Manhattan as much firmer than they actually are, so that section would have to go.

The inconsistencies point to a broad sloppiness that actually infects all the other parts of the book, a tendency to make everything significant and representative, rather than something she happened to see, and draw causal inferences she has no real basis for making. If she runs into a rude woman with a Birkin bag on the street, the rudeness is because this woman is carrying a hugely expensive bag, rather than because rude people also have access to luxury goods, same as the nice ones. If someone doesn't see her as she approaches with an outstretched hand, it's because she's enforcing the rigid hierarchies of the school parent pecking order, rather than because she, well, didn't see her.  Personally, I have certainly witnessed obnoxious snobbery among the very wealthy, but I have rarely ever seen them descend to blatant and visible rudeness.

Martin's publicity has leaned heavily on the fact that she is a PhD who has studied anthropology, even though her PhD is in comparative literature and cultural studies. What she is doing in "Primates of Park Avenue" is the opposite of good anthropological field work; it claims far too much, and collects far too little actual evidence.

Naturally, when I read the Post's fact-checking article, I had to buy the book to see for myself, and reading it, I found lots of episodes that didn't necessarily violate the laws of physics like the apparently time-traveling Ladurée macarons, but did violate my knowledge of certain little New York worlds. For example, during the time she was hunting for her East Side apartment, my mother was a New York City real estate broker, working in a very well regarded East Side brokerage office, who helped clients buy and sell apartments in many of the fancy buildings Martin names. This is a tribe that the author presents as forced to dress to the nines in high-end designer brands, lest they shame their clients or scuttle the deal. 

Brokerage’s language is clothing. The seller’s broker dresses to channel the respect she wants to garner for her seller; the buyer’s broker dresses to impress and intimidate the seller’s broker, and to project an image on behalf of her prospective buyer, who in turn dresses to convey her seriousness to both brokers (if she is extremely rich, she can dress down, thus conveying that she knows that they know that she doesn’t need to play this game; they are dressing up for her). It all culminates in a kind of dress-off in lobby after lobby, showing after showing, day after day. Imagine Sergio Leone music and women bedecked in Brunello Cucinelli and Loro Piana at dawn.

I actually called my mother and read her that passage. My mother's reaction? "That's literary effect. That is not at all how it was." As she put it, "You're there to sell something, not to compete with your client." Were there brokers with Chanel bags? Sure. But according to her, it was a minority taste, not a uniform, and they carried them because they liked the look, not because it was necessary to sell the apartments -- certainly not apartments in the price range that Martin describes viewing.

Now, Martin may indeed have gotten this impression. Her broker may have presented things to her this way. But had she actually tried to talk to a number of them -- to do serious field work, or even serious journalism -- she would not have presented this as some sort of obvious universal 1 . And while this is the most glaring episode in the book for me, the general sensation was repeated many times elsewhere; every time she was writing about a part of this world that I had actual knowledge of, I thought, "Sure, you met someone like that, but you're wildly overgeneralizing to the whole."

The basic selling proposition of the book is that it's a true-to-life recollection from someone who approached the subject the way an anthropologist would. Neither of those things seems to actually be quite true. And without that, I'm not really sure what's left, except possibly, the eternal satisfaction of pointing and laughing at cartoonishly awful rich people. But in that case, why not write a novel, and give them better dialogue?

(Corrects in third paragraph: Elizabeth Cady Stanton's connection to the history of 250 West 94th Street.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

  1. Ah, you will say, but you have called only one person. This is true. However, it only takes one negative to falsify a hypothesis. Moreover, the person I called was an actual member of the tribe she is trying to describe. Furthermore, as the daughter of a real estate broker, I have met many, many other brokers who sell at the price range and in the locations Martin is describing, exactly 0 percent of whom dressed anything like Martin's description.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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