Talking to a nursery consultant— who is paid to advise affluent parents how to secure admission for their child to the right establishment — for an article on the niche profession, I confessed that it warmed my heart to hear that the über-rich were desperate to get their child into pre-school.
They are often cast as “day orphanages” but my three-year-old, I told her, loves going to his community nursery when I am at work. There was a pause. Oh, no, she said. It’s not childcare; it’s educational enrichment, alongside a stay-at-home mother, nanny, music and language lessons.
Later at home, I gloomily recounted this story to my partner, who spent most of his childhood in Belfast during the Troubles. “London is mad,” was his verdict, as it always is when he hears some tale of hyper-competitive professionalised parenting.
Wait till he hears the stories in Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir — a study of women married to magnates and hedge fund managers on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There, a play date might be on a private jet or it might be a children’s party at the Hamptons complete with tightrope walker and pony rides. Like make-up artists or the cosmetologists who regularly inject their faces with Botox and fillers, nursery consultants provide just one more service for which these wives pay.
Midwestern author and blogger Wednesday Martin describes her life among the one-percenters, having married a financier who moves to the Manhattan neighbourhood. This, she writes, is “my own experience, inflected by sociology and anthropology and a sense of humour”. She deploys some of the tools of social studies to understand this impenetrable clique.
Most eye-catching is her description of a “ wife bonus ” paid out by husbands for managing the household budget and getting the children into a “good” school. Socialites and divorce lawyers scoffed at the idea, suggesting Martin was gullible, perhaps duped by a mischievous wife. Then journalists disputed some details in the book, revealing that she had played with the chronology of events, which prompted her publisher to announce that there will be a disclaimer included in later editions clarifying that some of the chronology has been tweaked and characters disguised.
Yet it is when the book steers clear of the “mommy wars”, the high-end consumerism and the gossipy detail that it is at its most interesting. Not because I am beyond that kind of thing — far from it. But we have seen it before; the Kardashians have made a career from having cameras trained on their shopping habits.
Being a moneyed wife is not particularly enjoyable in Martin’s account. Free from money worries, they are dieting, drinking and Xanaxing their anxieties away. They are portrayed as nervous racehorses, sleek and muscular. “Economic dependency on their husbands I came to believe kept many of the women I knew awake at night, whether they realised it or not,” writes Martin. As a Manhattan psychologist explained to her, a typical wife would “end up feeling marginalised in her own home, fearful that she cannot fend for herself and support her children”.
Being a mother on Park Avenue sounds fairly miserable. Primates of Park Avenue recalls Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, a study of mid-century American housewives, which found they wanted “something more than my husband and my children and my home”. To which list Martin might add housekeepers, make-up artists and real estate brokers.
Primates is pacy and skilfully weaves cultural insight with personal anecdote — though when Martin goes native and embarks on a quest to buy a coveted Hermès Birkin bag (which costs thousands of dollars), I wanted to tell her to get a grip.
This is an intriguing insight into a closed world. It is easy to dismiss the subjects as frivolous and mean, which many seem to be. But our envy and schadenfreude makes the rich a compelling curiosity.
The book reminded me of F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, The Rich Boy. “Let me tell you about the very rich,” he writes. “They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are . . . Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”
The writer is an FT features writer
Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir, by Wednesday Martin, Atria Books (£16.99/$26)
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