Richard Kirshenbaum is an ad executive and the author of “Isn’t That Rich,” a collection of tales of life among New York’s elite. The following is an excerpt from the book, which is based on his popular New York Observer column about the over-the-top lifestyles of the rich and famous.
There was a time when people wanted you to know what they had acquired, or the premium experiences they had that you didn’t or couldn’t have.
With the recent distribution of wealth, there has been a democratization of luxury goods and the attending experiences.
Now housewives in New Jersey can carry the same bag you have and go on the same vacation you do.
The trappings of status and luxury have diminished, causing a group of überwealthy to raise the table stakes for experiences and status in order to once again stand out.
A-list stars are now de rigueur for weddings, charity events, bar mitzvahs, and sweet sixteens.
Vast donations to private schools ensure one’s children get extra privileges (i.e., extra test time and note takers in classes).
Mansions have become private hotels, and art collections have given way to one’s own private museum.
While the newer nouveau riche use typical in-your-face tactics to convey their wealth and status, there is a trend among the truly rich and ultrasophisticated to use boredom as a new bragging tactic. The “whatever” attitude allows them to brag, but in a more subtle way that ensures no one can accuse them of outright bragging since they are feigning humbleness.
I call this “the reverse brag.”
However, the reverse brag is a dangerous tactic as it renders the bragee extremely unlikable. That said, likability does not allow them to accomplish their nefarious braggadocio goals.
And while perhaps not a new tactic, reverse bragging is one step above outright bragging as the bragee views it as a more sophisticated type of boasting that is meant to ape old money.
For me, however, it only serves to further ostracize the person as a “sophisticated bragger” — worse than a newand clumsy one.
“One day I’d like to come back as my own children.”
Real Estate Mogul shook his head in what I knew would be a classic reverse-brag move. “I mean, drivers, bottle service at sixteen, vacations in St. Barths on yachts. … I never had that growing up. I think I may have been too lenient and indulgent,” he proclaimed, looking for acknowledgment and sympathy over the most divine hash browns and Dover sole meunière at Nicola’s.
“You give in to them too much.”
His wife, Doreen, shook her perfectly coiffed head dramatically.
“It’s a fault of his. Larry (not his real name) just can’t say no,” she said in an admiring tone that affirmed to all he was a Big Spender!
“That’s not true,” he said, shooting her a glance. “When Brent (not their son’s real name) wanted a Lamborghini for graduation, I did say no. I mean, who would buy their kid a Lamborghini for college graduation?”
He threw his arms in the air like on a game show.
“I agree,” I said. “I had a Subaru in college and thought I was styling.”
“Larry, come on.” Doreen gave a mock look of disdain. “Here’s a man who says he won’t buy his son a Lamborghini but then turns around and buys him a Porsche right under my nose. I mean really, Larry. He just can’t say no,” she insisted.
“Clearly, Larry has a ‘no’ problem,” I said, now looking at the couple with entirely new eyes. Suddenly, I realise they are doing the reverse brag together, as a couple. I realise that this is part of the modus operandi. Whether intentional or not, they have a sort of prerehearsed routine akin to a finely honed vaudeville act.
“Well, a Porsche isn’t exactly pâté, Larry,” I noted, raising an eyebrow.
“No. I went out of my way to buy him a pre-owned Porsche. He has to understand the value of a dollar,” Larry explained. “And his four-thousand-dollar-a-week allowance?”
The wife dramatically accused him of more largesse.
“Really, Larry, you just don’t know how to say no.”
The waiter brought the bill and laid it down on the table with some delectable biscotti.
“Let’s split it,” Larry said.
“My treat,” I said.
“Sure. Thanks,” he said, withdrawing his card.
“I thought Larry couldn’t say no,” Dana joked in a nonjoking fashion.
“I don’t know what’s worse, having to go to the Oscar or Cannes parties,” the Famous Hollywood Film Producer complained when I ran into him at James Perse in the Malibu Mart. He looked relaxed, despite his schedule and the incessant juggling of statuesque and European blondes.
“What do you think, Famke (not her real name)?” he called out to the famous underwear model in tow as he emerged from the dressing room in surfer shorts.
“I zink you need a larger size,” she replied, yawning.”Maybe she’s right.”
He patted his prodigious stomach. “It’s that awful chef I have for the kids. I mean, it’s just too much food and too formal. I’m not a formal type of guy. Just give me a salad and a burger, but the ex wants the kids to have filet mignon,” he said in a classic reverse-bragging mode.
“How’s the ad biz?”
“It’s been really interesting. Working on lots of great and interesting projects,” I said.
“You know if didn’t go into the movie biz, I would have lovedto have gone into advertising. Really, LA is so tiresome, the parties, the cars, the women …” He motioned to Famke dramatically.
“Not to mention your homes?” I decided to help him reverse brag and see if he would take the bait.
“Don’t you know it. I just want to sell the house in Beverly Park. I mean, who needs thirty thousand square feet. I need an apartment or maybe just a simple six thousand square footer.”
“You’re just a simple guy, Don (not his real name). That’s what I have always loved about you.”
“You see, you get it because you’re from New York. Most people here are so stupid. It’s the sun and all the working out and the implants. It just goes to the brain. That’s why I want my kids to get out of this state. But I think they’re too low-key to go to Princeton or Yale.”
“I understand. Maybe they need to take a year off when they graduate,” I suggested.
“Look, I was a f—-off when I was their age. They have discipline and are smarter than their dad. But even though the Ivies would grab them up in a second — given their grades, scores, the athletics I’ve paid for — they just don’t see the point in going to one just to say ‘I go to an Ivy,'” he reverse bragged. “So they’re going to Europe for the year travelling before they go to [think Ivy of the Ivies].”
“Maybe you should move to New York?” I said, goading him.
“I would in a minute. After the award season, which I hate, I’m going to look for a place. We’ll have dinner.”
“Great seeing you. Love the shorts.”
“That’s what I love about his stuff. Just California Casual.”
As we were boarding Jet Blue (with the luxury of extra legroom) one weekend heading back from a shoot in the Caribbean, I ran into a noisy New York family of five I knew all getting on the same flight, nannies and strollers and all.
“Hi, Richard. So great to see you. Were you down here on vacation?” the father asked.
“No, I was on a shoot for a client.”
“How about you? Vacation?” I asked.
“We were down for the weekend for a party.”
“The party was great, but I didn’t love the villa.”
He mentioned an older resort on the island. “A bit run down.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Everything was chipped and broken. The bathrooms were a disaster,” the wife added, as she shook her head and moaned.
“I mean, not that we should be complaining,” Stew (not his real name) said. “The so-and-sos (the hosts) paid for everything. It was for a fiftieth birthday. I wanted to upgrade, like I usually do, but I didn’t think it would be in good taste.”
“They really should send someone from that resort to see the villas on [the island where Stew and his wife own a home]. It’s generous to put guests up, but a hovel isn’t exactly a vacation.”
Mrs. Stew sniffed as she reached into her Bottega bag for Purell.
“But the party was fun?” I asked.
“Really fun. They brought in so-and-so.” (She mentioned the very same famous female A-list singer I had seen at the charity ball.)
“That must have been fabulous,” I said as I placed my roll-on in the overhead compartment. “She was great at [annual mandatory charity event]!”
“I just wish she would have done two or three songs and then we could have danced to the DJ,” the wife complained.”I mean, how many private concerts can you go to?” Stew said.”I think for your fiftieth I’ll just get a DJ. Enough with these famous acts,” the wife said.
“It gets tiresome after a while,” Stew said. “And it was nice of [the host] to offer to fly us private, but I think it’s important for the children to experience flying commercial,”he reverse bragged.
“Yes,” the wife said, yawning. “Once or twice.” When I got back to New York, I dropped off my luggage, showered and changed, and ran to a dinner at one of my all-time favourites, Shun Lee on the East Side. We were meeting our friends, the so-and-sos, and the well-attended service proved smooth sailing after a bumpy flight.
As we caught up over lotus root and sole with ginger and scallions, discussing fun topics such as Ebola and the crisis in the Middle East, we strayed to somewhatlighter fare, timely divorces and breakups.
“Another one bites the dust,” I said, citing a couple we thought seemed to have it all but were always fighting. “Was either having an affair?” I probed. “Not that I know of,” my friend said, sipping his tequila. “I think New York can just be particularly hard on certain couples.”
“I know what happened,” Dana said, rolling her eyes.
“What?” the table asked.
“They just ran out of things to brag about,” she conjectured.
“I buy that.”
I explained my theory on reverse bragging.
“They clearly weren’t meant to be. They were always contradicting each other in public. And you cannot reverse brag if you do that. Not possible. Think about it. There are couples who are so good at it they seem to have a prearranged press release.”
I mentioned another couple who artfully knew how to reverse brag together and have a long-term, seemingly solid marriage.
“So you don’t think it was an affair — they just weren’t on the same page?” My friend processed the idea.
“In order to execute the reverse brag, your partner must reverse brag with you, or at the very least not contradict you,” I explained. “It’s the golden rule. He who has the gold makes the rules.”
“Take the so-and-sos,” Dana said, stating her case. “They just celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary. They’re the couple that says they don’t believe in having any help and she doesn’t believe in nannies, but when you go over to their home they have ten people in shifts of two. Twenty years of solid reverse bragging. And she never shares her resources.”
“And he always toasts her ‘doing it all.’ By herself,” I recalled. “You see? Now that’s a couple.”
Dana laughed. “Couples that reverse brag together … stay together,” I said. “Honey, we’ll have to start reverse bragging.”
“About what?” Dana asked, wide-eyed.
“I can tell people that no one reads my articles, but when they do, they get upset. And you can agree that people hate it — given the dozens of emails, phone calls, and complaining street chats you are accosted with.”
“I love that,” Dana said, nodding. “And the book comes out right around our anniversary, so I can complain about it myself at our anniversary party.”
“Perfect.” I kiss her. “The perfect wife.”