Month: March 2014

My brief encounter with the 1%

ImageImage courtesy of stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos

It’s true. The one percent really aren’t like the rest of us. How do I know? A wealthy socialite once “adopted” me.

I was watching Cate Blanchett’s much-acclaimed performance in Blue Jasmine on DVD over the weekend when, about halfway through the film, it occurred to me that I’d met her character before.

Blanchett won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Jasmine Francis, a fallen socialite and widowed spouse of a super-rich businessman who turned out to be a con artist. Critics are heralding Blanchett’s transformation into this fragile, broken woman, but that’s not what made the film so mesmerizing to me at all. Her performance struck me because everything from Blanchett’s hairstyle to the cadence of her voice reminded me of a super-wealthy woman who befriended me in graduate school.

Flash back to the late 1990s, when the stock market was riding high and gazillionaire hedge-fund managers were a relatively new phenomenon. The stay-at-home wife wasn’t quite the rarity it is today, and the so-called mommy wars were just beginning. I was a young graduate student at the University of Chicago, its hallowed (and expensive) marble halls a long way from my gritty, working-class Ohio upbringing. Most of my classmates in my interdisciplinary master’s degree program went to equally expensive East Coast schools like Bard College, Wellesley, and Yale. As the graduate of a second-tier state university with a decidedly blue-collar background (not to mention wardrobe), I was an oddity.  I spent a lot of my time explaining to my well-heeled fellow students why I needed to hold down a campus work-study job to make the $350 monthly rent on my ratty student apartment. My clothes weren’t nice enough, my accent was wrong, and more than one fellow student called me “obtuse” during class discussions on classism and Jacques Lacan. So imagine my surprise when I was quasi-adopted by “Rosemary,”[*] the fortysomething wife of an uber-rich hedge fund manager who had enrolled in my graduate degree program mostly for fun.

It was Rosemary’s face and Rosemary’s voice I kept seeing and hearing in my mind’s eye while watching Blue Jasmine. It could easily have been Rosemary snagging the attention of Peter Sarsgaard’s lonely, wealthy widower instead of Cate Blanchett. Because, like Blanchett’s character, Rosemary walked the walk and talked the talk of a wealthy socialite, even if she didn’t actually earn that role for herself.

I’d noticed Rosemary around the quad and during lectures. It was kind of hard to miss her, since she wore a floor-length mink coat with matching hat and muff to campus every day, even when it was above fifty degrees. She wore Chanel suits and Hermés scarves, and her hands sported the largest and heaviest concoctions of gold and diamonds I’d ever seen. A cloud of French perfume announced her presence even before she entered a room. And although she spoke with a decidedly (if patrician) American accent, random British words like “chap,” “lorry” and “loo” occasionally entered her vernacular during class discussions, which made me wonder if perhaps she’d lost all touch with reality.

I gave Rosemary a wide berth for the first few weeks of the semester, knowing that I couldn’t possibly have anything in common with her. But she kept inventing reasons to talk to me, and when she asked if I would consider helping her with our Critical Theory class’ first term paper if she bought me lunch, I reluctantly agreed.

“I’m so impressed with what you post on the listserv every day, Jill,” she gushed over her treat of Thai noodles from the student café that afternoon. (This was in the days before blogs and Facebook, when students often swapped commentary on class assignments via much-forwarded email postings). “You’re a very good writer. How does someone like you learn to communicate like that?”

Someone like you. I’d heard that phrase plenty of times since school began — of course, she meant someone who wasn’t rich, who hadn’t gone to the best schools, et cetera. The fact that I was both poor and articulate was a curiosity. “I’ve always been good at writing,” I said with a shrug, which was true. I’d never had to work very hard at it, and always received accolades. “So what do you need help with?”

Rosemary showed me the draft of her term paper, and it was a mess — no clear thesis statement, plenty of rhetorical missteps, and even a fair number of misspelled words. Reading it was like trying to decipher the Enigma code. I tried to give her some pointers without insulting her, but she kept interrupting me. By the end of our lunch date, she still didn’t know how to fix her term paper — but I knew almost her entire life story. Like Blanchett’s Jasmine Francis, Rosemary’s favorite topic of speech was herself.

Rosemary had dropped out of college at nineteen when her husband “Dave” * had gotten her pregnant with twins. Remarkably, they were still married almost thirty years later. Rosemary raised the children in a one-room apartment and lived on handouts from her family while her husband finished school, and when they were both 22, they moved to New York so he could enter the financial industry. Success soon followed, though much of Dave’s career was spent abroad. They spent almost 30 years living in London, with brief stints in the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, and Switzerland.

Dave was a hedge-fund manager with a knack for derivatives, and he earned millions of dollars a year. They’d finally landed in Chicago after the market for Dave’s analytical skills soured in Europe. I learned that Rosemary went back to finish her bachelor’s degree in her early thirties while still living in England, and she was now completing her second master’s degree at University of Chicago. Her main area of interest was psychology, though she also dabbled in art history and postmodern literature. She’d also never had any kind of paying job, and never planned to get one. .

“I’m just learning for knowledge’s sake,” she’d explained when I asked why she was spending so much of her husband’s money on an education she had no plans to actually use. Instead, she collected degrees the same way that some people collect stamps or antique paperweights.

One lunch date led to another, and before long Rosemary had latched onto me, walking with me to classes and sitting next to me during lectures, where she constantly asked me to explain what the professor was saying. She learned about my modest upbringing in dribs and drabs, and took it upon herself to expose me to “a different sort of life,” as she put it. She invited me to spend the night at her lavish Gold Coast home for the first of what would be dozens of times.

“I want to adopt you,” Rosemary said one night while I dined with her and her husband off Wedgewood in one of her many well-appointed dining rooms. “You’re like the daughter I never had.”

I wasn’t formally adopted per se — no court hearings, notarized documents, or inheritance —  but Rosemary took me under her wing for the better part of two years, and during that time she gave me a taste of all the trappings that the super-rich enjoy. Like the British socialites who entered the fictional Downton Abbey’s revolving door a hundred years ago, I was a frequent dinner-and-sleepover guest at her posh penthouse on Chicago’s Astor Street, which took up an entire floor of a Beaux Arts-era co-op building. It was a dwelling filled with expensive antiques, fine art, and state-of-the-art electronics, and it seemed to go on for miles.

Though Rosemary lived there alone with her financier husband (her three sons were grown), the place had—that I counted, anyway—six different sitting rooms, three dining rooms, a kitchen that was larger than my first two apartments put together, a library and reading room half as long as a basketball court, and four full baths — one of which was tiled with imported French porcelain that told the story of a medieval shepherdess being courted by a goatherd in pictorial form. There were four bedrooms, including her vast master bedroom, which featured a massive four-poster bed that required a two-story ceiling to accommodate, and was dressed up in linens made with cloth of gold.

Yes, you read that right. The woman slept on fourteen-karat sheets. Or rather, her European designer duvet was shot through with real gold thread. “It’s a little itchy,” Rosemary said, “But I feel like a queen whenever I go to sleep!”

Rosemary also taught me about proper silverware placements, the difference between pounds, kilos, and stone (she preferred to weigh herself in stone), and the importance of good household help. She was constantly straightening the framed fine art that hung all over her house, noting, “The help always knocks them off-kilter when they dust. It’s their way of showing that they’ve been here.”

Despite having daily maid service, Rosemary insisted upon doing all of her own laundry in a state-of-the-art Siemens washing machine that cost as much as a car. “Always buy German washers,” she’d instructed me. “Nothing will get your clothes cleaner. Worth the expense.” She drove a German car, too (an Audi), and had a private valet park it for her in a garage across the street. It never occurred to her that I didn’t have the money for any of these kinds of luxuries.

Rosemary also saw a high-priced Freudian psychoanalyst five days a week, to the tune of five hundred bucks a session, and didn’t understand why everyone didn’t do this. Ditto for why I and most of my female classmates were worried whether our expensive graduate degrees would actually transfer to gainful employment. “Don’t worry about that,” she’d tell me. “Money things always just work themselves out.”

Well, maybe they did for her.

When Rosemary wasn’t having me sleep over at her Astor Street penthouse, where her nearby neighbors included Marilyn Miglin (and her husband, Lee Miglin, who was killed in his neighboring townhouse by Andrew Cunanan in the summer of 1997; Cunanan later killed Gianni Versace), and even Oprah Winfrey, she took me shopping. She bought me a sterling Tiffany bracelet on a whim one day when we passed the Magnificent Mile store and I casually mentioned I’d wanted to own something from Tiffany’s ever since I was a child.

“It’s terribly sad nobody’s ever bought you any Tiffany,” she’d remarked after buying me the trinket and handing it over in its pale blue bag. “Imagine! How could anyone be so deprived!”

Rosemary was the queen of clueless-privilege statements like this. It astounded her that I had a job and paid my own rent on my crappy North Side apartment, which could have fit inside one of her bathrooms. “You shouldn’t have to do that, why aren’t your parents supporting you until you get married?” she’d say, and then take me to a lunch of caviar. smoked salmon, and capers at her private club.

I had trouble with this, since Rosemary often confessed she’d herself had an ordinary middle-class upbringing—did she not remember what it was like? When I complained about how my massive student loan burden was causing me financial hardship, she brushed it off and said, “Someday, Jill, you’ll meet a man who will take care of that for you. You’re pretty, it’s only a matter of time.”

That last remark really rubbed me the wrong way. I thought of myself as a feminist. And after watching my mother descend into poverty and madness after my father left her in much the same way as the fictional Blanche Dubois and Jasmine Francis had, I always swore I’d never let the same thing happen to me. Depending on a man for money just wasn’t in my vocabulary. Rosemary didn’t understand this at all.

In the summer of 1998, Rosemary and her husband suddenly decided that their vast Astor Street penthouse was too large for just the two of them, and announced plans to downsize. For reasons I still don’t understand, they took me along when they went penthouse-shopping on Lake Shore Drive. I toured one million-dollar view after another, and listened in while they asked realtors if the condo associations would let them tear down walls and install a laundry room large enough to accommodate Rosemary’s giant Siemens machine.

They eventually decided to stay put on Astor Street, but took the liberty of giving my name and number to their realtor. “Jill really needs better accommodations,”I heard Rosemary sneer to the saleslady under her breath as we left the last vacant multimillion-dollar property they’d rejected.

That was the beginning of the end.

The day after the penthouse-shopping fiasco, Rosemary invited me to go to Oak Street Beach with her, where we lounged beside Lake Michigan, mostly chatting and flipping through magazines, though we did take a brief dip in the lake. It was a hot day and I found the chilly water refreshing, but Rosemary just said, “It’s not the Mediterranean, Jill. You really should go there and try it out, it’s so much better than here.”

Rosemary and Dave cruised the Mediterranean on their very own private yacht every summer, and they went that summer too. But they didn’t invite me.

When they returned from that trip, Rosemary and I had a minor argument over my lackluster social life. I had a roommate, which she found absurd, and she didn’t care for my boyfriend. Meanwhile, I made the mistake of saying that I didn’t approve of how her husband often referred to working mothers as “neglectful” in my presence. We had exactly the kind of spat that mothers and daughters often have, but unlike real mothers and daughters, we never made up.

Not long after, Rosemary stopped returning my calls. I left apologetic message after apologetic message on her answering machine, but she soon changed her number.  I ran into her on the street once months later, and she pretended not to recognize me.

I was no longer the daughter Rosemary never had. Then again, I’m not sure I ever was. I was really more of a pet. Or maybe I was just a cheap street curio that she tossed in the garbage bin after she got bored with me. I’ll never know.

On a whim, I Googled Rosemary last week, curious to know what became of her. I found her LinkedIn profile after only a few clicks. Since we last met, it seems she’s completed yet another master’s degree (her third) and a doctorate. She now lives on the West Coast and apparently works as a psychologist. That struck me as odd.

I then tried to discover if she was still married, and wasn’t able to find a definitive answer.

Let this be a lesson to all of you ladies (and men) reading this: a lifetime of wealth, privilege, and role as the pampered wife guarantees nothing. You must have something to fall back on, even if it is a pile of useless graduate degrees. You never know when you might actually have to use your education to support yourself, however distasteful working for a living might seem when you’re sailing the Mediterranean.

[*] Names and some identifying details changed.

Jill Elaine Hughes is a freelance journalist, novelist, and playwright based in Chicago. She’s written for the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, the Washington Post, and many regional magazines.