Paddling upstream is on the road this week. Today we’re paddling uptown.
It’s a long way to the glitz of Manhattan’s penthouses and private clubs, but ole SJ has braved the interstates and turnpikes that will get you there. It’s quite another thing to reach the level of paycheck it takes to be welcomed in those marble and gold leafed confines.
And believe me, SJ is nowhere close on that measure despite all the money I make from this column.
But sometimes being involved with the right people leads to a whiff of the rarified air. That’s my story.
This past weekend, I attended a memorial service for a remarkable woman whose family foundation funds a music series I’ve been lucky enough to produce the last couple of years. The invitation-only event was at a location so exclusive I can’t even type it.
She lived an incredible life, born in Austria to a Jewish family, a refugee to America just before the rumblings of Hitler’s Holocaust. She was employed by the United States as lead interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials, then came back to America and married a self-made Manhattan millionaire. She went on to lead historic preservation movements in New York, natural preservation around the country, and serve on boards for the Metropolitan Opera and Museum of Modern Art.
This was a 1 percenter who didn’t judge others by their bank account. She raised a family and sponsored the education and careers of several who weren’t near her social status.
Her family could have chosen to fill Carnegie Hall with her social and financial peers from across the world. Instead, they invited many of us into a smaller setting who are simply recipients of her foundation’s generosity. They turned one of New York’s most exclusive clubs into a gathering of the ultra wealthy and ultra not so much.
I bring this up not to make you envious that I got to taste some caviar this weekend. I bring it up to remind you that in this day of growing wealth disparity and resentment in our country, not every wealthy individual is a tyrant.
I needed that reminder as much as anyone.
Of course, Mimi Levitt’s story is not the story of all of our most fortunate. I’m writing this even further uptown, in Newport, Rhode Island, once the summer playground of the robber barons and financiers of the Gilded Age. This is where the Astors, the Carnegies and Vanderbilts built lavish “summer cottages” that make shacks of our mansions.
One such “cottage” was built by a gentleman named Edward Julius Berwind, the first and greatest of the coal barons. His “new money” was looked down upon by the previously-named group and he responded by putting huge flowerpots along the roadfront of his property with his image on either side. That way they had to look at him every time they passed.
Berwind’s Land Company still owns a huge tract of Pike County and leases its mineral and timber holdings. I’m not aware of any giving back after 120 years of taking by that family. We just have to look at what he left behind every time we pass.