Richard Conniff is a journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in such publications as Worth, Smithsonian, Architectural Digest, and National Geographic. He is the author of a number of books, including Rats: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; Spineless Wonders: Strange Tales from the Invertebrate World; and Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife. His newest book is entitled The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide. Richard Conniff lives in Connecticut.
Robert Birnbaum: I have to ask, what do you have against Ralph Lauren?
Richard Conniff: I don’t have anything against Ralph Lauren.
RB: Sure you do. (laughs)
RC: My agent hates him. I’m wearing a Ralph Lauren jacket, right now.
RB: I was going to get to that. (laughs)
RC: It’s my agent. He had a real grudge against Lauren. And he’s the guy who made me write this book. He said, “This is a great book, you need to do it.” And I kept saying, “Ahhh, I don’t know.” And so he talked me into it. But it’s his grudge, not mine. Actually, I saw Ralph Lauren last week. I was at a restaurant. Interesting guy, he’s worth 2 billion dollars according to the recent Forbes.
RB: It would appear from some of your writing credentials, the rich are not a milieu that you are unfamiliar with?
RC: I’ve done 2 basic things for the last 20 years. One is to write about animals for National Geographic and Smithsonian magazine. And the other is to write about rich people for Architectural Digest. So I’ve been going back and forth between these two worlds for a long time. I didn’t see the connection at first.
RB: Besides Frans de Waal, who is a primatologist who blurbed your book, what do scientists say about your book?
RB: What happened to the alleged deleterious effects of marrying first cousins?
RC: Inbreeding is a funny thing. It’s associated with …
RB: Bad German shepherds…
RC: Well yeah. Bad German shepherds with hip dysplasia and swamp-dwelling people from the backwoods somewhere. If you look at human marriages over history probably 80% of all marriages were between second cousins. You confined in your courtship to how far you could walk in a day. Basically, it meant you were marrying people from your family, however distantly. So inbreeding is a lot more common than you think. And deliberate inbreeding as a tactic among the rich is really, really common.
RB: I was enthralled by the number you toss out about our resemblance to chimpanzees.
RC: We are 98.4% genetically identical to chimpanzees. And you can interpret that in all kinds of ways. The usual way it gets interpreted is to say therefore our behavior is pretty much chimpanzee behavior. That’s not a fair thing to say. A 1.6% difference in the genome can express itself in huge biological differences between species. So yeah, we do a lot of things like chimpanzees and we do a lot of things that would send chimpanzees screaming for the chandeliers and out the window.
RB: I noted you present Charlemagne as the progenitor of half of Europe at a certain point.
RC: Yes, that’s right. One of the points I make in the book is that we are all descended from the rich. The big thing about Darwinism is that we are all descended from monkeys and that is the big scandal about Darwinism. But the truth is that we are also descended from powerful individuals who have parleyed their economic and social status into breeding opportunities. Kings are notorious for having many mistresses and many illegitimate offspring. In fact, there is a society of illegitimate offspring called the Royal Bastards. There are a lot of people who are descendants of royal bastards. When you go back to someone like Charlemagne, you have all that time for it to spread out into the larger population. He had four wives and five concubines. He’s has a hell of a lot of descendants in modern Europe.
RB: Where do you think the derogatory meaning of ‘bastard’ comes from?
RC: I’ve being wondering about that lately. I have been using this term ‘royal bastard’ and it’s such a standard thing that I wonder if it didn’t originate in the behavior of the illegitimate offspring of Charles II or some other king, Louis IVX—who knew that he was royal, at least by blood and didn’t have the title and the power and therefore had to be arrogant in his behavior.
RB: Did you see the film Rob Roy?
RC: I never did.
RB: It’s unremarkable except for a splendid performance by Tim Roth, in which, I recall, he was a bastard and he was incredibly arrogant, greedy, dismissive, insensitive and without any inhibitions and he would seem to be an exemplar of the bastard personality. Anyway, there was a place in your book where you mentioned that wealthy Texan families bought breast enlargement operations for their teenage daughters. You suggested it was like buying fast cars for their sons.
RC: Yes, they do both.
RB: Right, but it’s not the same thing.
RC: What they are buying their kids in both cases is forms of sexual display. Why do you say it’s not?
RB: There’s something really invasive about surgical alteration of a young girl's sexual characteristics. I remember when parents bought their daughters nose jobs…but it wasn’t so brazenly sexual.
RC: It may be that what the parents are up to here is not enhancing their daughter’s sexuality but their marriagability.
RB: Why don’t they just tattoo her net worth on her?
RC: That wouldn’t have quite the same effect.
RB: Let’s talk a little about methodology. You mention that you rented a $1200 a day Ferrari with a $10,000 deductible. Apparently, that didn’t impress anyone.
RC: Right, it was the kind of car they give to high school kids.
RB: What did you wear? Did you rent a Patek Phillipe watch?
RC: No. One of the things that’s interesting in biology is that all animals scrutinize other animals and look for cheating, to see if they are what they pretend to be. I realized that after I did that Ferrari thing that there was no point in pretending that I was rich. I wasn’t going to fool anybody. I don’t go to the same places they do. I don’t buy from the same art dealers. I don’t have the same paintings hanging on my walls. I decided early on that I would just tell people what I was up to.
RB: How many people were receptive to that?
RC: A lot of people were happy to talk to me when I was representing Architectural Digest or National Geographic. When I told people I wanted to liken their behavior to animals a lot of people resisted and took a pass on it. I think that’s perfectly understandable. The Hollywood producer Peter Guber, who made Batman and various other films—I had worked for him previously on a documentary called The Primal Human Connection—he was happy to talk. Other people liked the idea and were happy to talk about other people that they knew, they just weren’t so comfortable when you applied it to them. I visited Hugh Hefner. He hemmed and hawed a bit and he’s pretty
frank about a lot of things—obviously about his sex life. I asked about things that he found unfamiliar and surprising and then afterwards when he had finished his assistants all came up to me and said, “That’s exactly what happens here.” They were talking about people sitting below him and nodding to him as he spoke, in this subservient way. In Red Deer, you usually have a dominant male who has a harem and then some satellite males who hang around on the side and they pick off females when they can. British biologists refer to them as “sneaky fuckers.” That behavior goes on at the Playboy Mansion. He attracts all the women there and then there are the males off to the sides, getting what they could.
RB: So we extrapolate human behavior from that particular situation?
RC: Clearly, Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Mansion is a bizarre and exceptional case. But the fact is when you have somebody who is well known as a wealthy individual, women are going to gather around and men are going to gather around as a result of that. In Monaco, Prince Albert would show up at a disco called Jimmyz. There would be a lot of princess wannabes and as result there were all these pretend princes. There was this one table of five guys and they had one Rolls Royce among and they would rotate its use from night to night.
RB: At the end of your book you have a group of guidelines for dealing with being rich.
RC: The first one is essentially the three big lies. They all say that "money doesn’t mean anything to me and I'm not interested in power or impressing other people." In fact these are the things that interest them most intensely. Their whole lives are devoted to the money and power and everybody gives a damn about impressing other people. The question is who do you impress or try to impress. Rich people target their efforts a little more narrowly, towards other rich people usually.
RB: You cite an example of a Czech national who comes to Aspen and buys a fabulous house, spends oodles of money and throws an over-the-top party and then scams a lot of people to his own net profit of $100 million. Do the people he scammed think he is a scam artist?
RC: They know he is a scam artist. They are suing him.
RB: Isn’t what he did within the boundaries of high-flying business dealings and the kind of thing they would do?
RC: Yes. In fact, they knew he was a scam artist at the time because there had been an article in Fortune a year earlier describing how he deceived investors in an other country. There’s a quote, “They knew he was a pirate but they thought he would be their pirate.” And it turns out he was just a pirate.
RB: So it wasn’t his practices that concerned them, it’s who his victims were?
RC: Let’s be honest, we don’t mind Dennis Kozlowski scamming as long as Tyco’s stock is going through the roof.
RB: I mind. Maybe it’s because I am one of the disappearing few in America who has no stock portfolio.
RC: I think people were willing to let guys like Kozlowski get away with gross excesses because they thought, “This guy has increased my net worth.”
RB: That’s assuming they knew about the so-called gross excesses. $500 waste baskets…$15,000 antique toilets…
RC: You’re right. When you are talking about alleged illegalities they wouldn’t have known. A better example is Jack Welch. What he did was not illegal but it certainly was extravagant. He was also a guy who had massively increased the value of that company over time. People thought, “It’s a little extreme but he earned it.”
RB: Jack Welch’s severance package was taken back.
RC: He had to give up part of his package because he was so embarrassed to have it be on the front page of the New York Times.
RB: He was embarrassed (laughs)? How do you embarrass guys like that?
RC: You wonder because they act as if they have no shame.
RB: They act as they have no contact with the real world.
RC: And they don’t. They try to avoid it. One of the things that the rich do that makes them into a cultural subspecies in my terminology is that they go off to places like Aspen where they are isolated from everyone else. They have this little social hierarchy where they can compare themselves only with one another. So a guy who only has 900 million bucks thinks he’s poor, all of a sudden. He’ll say, “What did I do wrong? These guys have 3 or 4 billion.” That’s called relative depravation. It’s completely unreal.
RB: Those are unspendable amounts of money. What can you spend that much money on?
RC: Ted Turner is doing great things with his money. He is spending it on vaccines and medical care through the UN.
RB: After he made that magnanimous gesture of the $1 billion gift I thought it was clear that he was not giving it away a cash gift.
RC: It was a brilliant PR stunt. What was lost was that it was $100 million over 10 years. That’s a lot different. That gesture was really effective. He not only announced it and it seemed really selfless and at the same time, he made jibs at his other moneybags rivals. He named Gates specifically. Gates was embarrassed to be made out a cheap skate. So almost a year to the date later, Gates gave his first billion and then went on to give 23 billion more. I suggest in the book that Turner’s strategy was that he wanted to induce Gates to give away a third of his fortune to close the gap between them. That may be unduly cynical.
RB: This is perhaps an inelegant phrasing of this question. Is there any evidence that rich people are smarter? Are their SAT scores higher?
RC: No one has researched that, that I know of, and I am quite sure it would tell you nothing. They are not smarter than the rest of us. We tend to assume that they are smarter. Subordinates in the animal world and in the human world tend to think that the alpha knows best and they imitate the alpha. Frans de Waal, the primatologist, tells of an alpha chimpanzee who injures his hand and he has to walk around on his wrist for a couple of days. All of a sudden all the betas in the troop start walking around on their wrists. It’s ridiculous and you think. “We would never do that, we’re too smart.” But then if you wear a three-piece suit, you always wear the bottom button unbuttoned on the vest. The reason for that is that we are imitating King Edward VII of England who was too fat to button his button. So, we imitate alphas too.
RB: It does seem to be a cultural bias not necessarily an anthropological one, that we assume the Ted Turners and Bill Gates are exceedingly smart. There is much more evidence for the confluence of luck, shrewdness, opportunity and occasionally intelligence.
RC: Real boldness is what I think is characteristic. Ted Turner had CNN. When I talked to him in 1980, nobody had heard of cable television, nobody had it in their homes. He was going to start this 24 hour all-news cable television station. And it was really a wild idea. It wasn’t his idea either (it was Gerald Levin’s). Turner had this monomaniacal obsession to get what he wanted and do things the way he wanted. That indifference to consequences, that kind of boldness, is also characteristic to alphas in the animal world. Alpha chimps, for instance.
RB: The positive aspects that we ascribe the wealthy flies in the face of our egalitarian values. We don’t really believe everyone has a chance at the great riches of a Turner or Trump.
RC: Ted Turner actually started pretty well off. His dad had a pretty good billboard business. Donald Trump started out rich. Bill Gates came from an upper middle class family.
RB: Who’s a rags-to-riches story in last 30 years?
RC: Larry Ellison [of Oracle]. His dad was a school teacher.
RB: Not exactly rags.
RC: I don’t think he had a great family history when he was young. There wasn’t a whole lot of money there. The guy was just driven, he was monomaniacal and got quite a ways.
RB: The deposed head of Sunbeam, “Chainsaw” Al Dunlop…
RC: I don’t know where he started. I know how he finished. Aggressive dominance only gets you so far, other people turn it on you. That’s what happened to him.
RB: Whether or not this is good science, do you see your analysis of the wealthy—as well as other human behavior—becoming part of the popular dialogue?
RC: It’s really intriguing to see how all of our behaviors are shaped by our evolutionary origins.
RB: But we don’t. It seems to be a part of our lives that is speeding by so quickly that we lose those moments for rumination seem not part of the mix.
RC: So that means we are going on basic animal instinct now.
RB: That, of course, suggests the truth of your observations. You talk about these behaviors as tendencies not imperatives.
RC: There are people who conform to these patterns and some who reject them. Some rich guys have lots of girlfriends, some have been married for 30 years.
RB: What’s the benchmark of wealth?
RC: Five to 10 million in investable net worth. Money you can spend. Money you can buy a second home with. That’s where banks and university fund raisers start to get interested in you.
RB: Is this your first book?
RC: No, it’s my sixth book, I think.
RB: Why are they not listed on the dust jacket?
RC: Maybe because those books seem so completely remote from this book. One of them was called Spineless Wonders: Strange Tales from the Invertebrate World. Another was called Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife. They are not like this. Well, they are like this, in a way. They are all science with a humorous touch. And they are about animal behavior.
RB: Have you exhausted this topic of the behavior of the rich?
RC: No I keep thinking of things that I forgot to put in the book. One thing I didn’t emphasize enough is that the difference between old money and new money is completely overrated. They are both interested in display. It’s a matter of how they choose to display. Old money learned you could do it better by inconspicuous consumption. A rich person really only wants to impress other rich people. Nobody else counts.
RB: Do you have an example?
RC: I mention Hollywood agent Alan Grubman. When he got rich in the ‘80s, the first thing he did was buy a Rolls Royce. Really a tacky thing to do in Hollywood. He drove it around and he felt great about himself because he wanted the world to know that he was rich. Then David Geffen steps in and says, “Alan, would you please get rid of that car?” In Hollywood, Geffen is old money even though he made his in 1975. What Geffen was saying to him was that the Rolls was ostentatious and the other thing that was wrong with it was that it was intended to impress the whole world. A rich person really only wants to impress other rich people. Nobody else counts. Geffen knew that and Grubman figured it out.
RB: The Rolls Royce is a very fine car. It’s not possible that he wanted it because it was fine car?
RC: No, he wanted a Rolls to show off. Then there are guys like Jeff Katzenberg, who drives a beat up old Jeep Cherokee.
RB: Have you not run across people who think $5000 suits and so on is a bit much? Are there rich people who think that’s shameful, no matter how much money you have?
RC: Yes, that’s old money. They try to be quiet about it and they try to dress like other people and drive cars like other people and not stand out. And that’s inconspicuous display. Those same people usually let on somehow who they are. They may not let everybody know but they let the girlfriend or the wife know about the big contribution that they made. So there is still display going on. Inevitably, when someone makes a philanthropic gesture, they let somebody know. It may be there’s a wealthy family. Maybe it’s the second or third generation and the brothers and sisters are sitting around a conference room deciding how to give the money. They are only displaying for one another. But display between siblings can be a very important thing in terms of status.
RB: Are you intending to write another book?
RC: About the rich? I don’t know. Where else would I go? There are fun things I would have done that I didn’t get to do. I may still do them. (long pause) The one regret that I have is that if people understood what the book was about and understood this natural history perspective a little less defensively then I would have had more access. That would have been more revealing. A lot of times what I got, I got talking to housekeepers and party planners, interior designers because the rich people were a little nervous.
RB: I bought your introduction where you said that if you bit the hand that fed you it was a mere flea bite…
RC: Not the bubonic plague.
RB: Tell me about the people you describe as having the service heart.
RC: It’s a large group of people. They give up their own lives. They often have no children. Really they identify their whole lives with this person [their employer]. The fact that they give up their own reproduction is really impressive. Let’s say they meet someone in a bar and they say who they are and what they do—then all of a sudden that person is only interested in their rich boss. So they can’t really tell people what they do.
RB: And the trickle-down effect of wealth consumers? You mentioned that Czech in Aspen who flew in some fruit he wanted for juice.
RC: Yeah he flew in Passionfruit. It’s great stuff, but it was costing $120 to bring in case of it. Out of one case he would get eight ounces of juice for his breakfast everyday.
RB: And the story of Elvis and a certain sandwich?
RC: I talked to the pilot. Elvis flew his friends from Memphis to Denver and back again the same night using 5500 gallons of fuel. What they were looking for was a sandwich consisting of a loaf split open, slathered with peanut butter and jelly and a whole pound of bacon. In one damn sandwich!
RB: Is there trickle down here?
RC: Sure, there’s financial and prestige trickledown.
RB: In the way that Reagan economists claimed?
RC: They meant the money spent on yachts was going to be a great boon to the yacht builders and dock workers and so on.
RB: And urban kids.
RC: Urban kids, sure. That’s kind of different. That doesn’t justify a $6000 shower curtain but some people benefit.
RB: Oh yeah. I see that. Cohiba cigars go for $20 or $30 in this country and the cigar roller in Havana or Santa Domingo might have made 50 cents. I guess that’s trickle down.
RC: There is that Galbraith quote about feeding enough oats to the horse where it eventually passes to the road where the sparrows feed.
RB: You do note that the rich are savvy enough to contribute to both parties but you don’t document any political agenda for their class?
RC: One of the things that the rich always say is that money doesn’t interest them. What they mean is that the money gets you in the door but it doesn’t impress anybody. So what they are looking to do is to parlay that money into status and power. Politics is an obvious way to do that. The Kennedys are a classic case of that. The other reason I didn’t get into politics much is that to do a natural history of the rich implies that rich people are the only alphas. In fact, there are other alphas. It diffused the focus of the book to go into political power. Bill Clinton was certainly an alpha when all he had was a lot of legal debts and too many girlfriends. He wasn’t rich. By and large, money and power and prestige coincide so that talking about a natural history of the rich and suggesting that that’s where the alphas really are is legitimate.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing