Isn't That Rich?: Life Among the 1 Percent

Isn't That Rich?: Life Among the 1 Percent


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Celebrated ad man Richard Kirshenbaum, the original New York observer, reveals the fashions, foibles, and outrageous extravagances of the private-jet set

Paid friends. Pot dealers draped in Dolce. Divorce settlements that include the Birkins at their current retail price. Air kisses, landing strips, and lounge-chair bribery.

For most of us, the idea of life inside the golden triad of Park Avenue, Sagaponack, and St. Barths is just as exotic as the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle. Luckily, Richard Kirshenbaum has a VIP pass to the Upper East Side and is willing to share the wealth—of gossip. His New York Observer column on uptown social life provides a fascinating glimpse behind the gilded curtain into the swanky restaurants and eye-popping vacation destinations where the 1 percent gathers.

Isn’t That Rich? features highlights from Kirshenbaum’s monthly column as well as several brand-new essays. From cash-strapped blue bloods willing to trade their good names for a taste of nouveau riche treasure to the fine art of donning a cashmere sweater in Capri, our intrepid correspondent exposes the preoccupations of the posh. His insider sources may be anonymous, but “his up-to-the-minute portrait of today’s 1 percent is both insightful and a joy to read, no matter what tax bracket you’re in.” (Mortimer Zuckerman)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504007320
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 06/09/2015
Pages: 210
Sales rank: 801,168
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Richard Kirshenbaum is one of the most exciting personalities in New York City advertising. In 1987, at age twenty-six, he cofounded the Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners agency, which pioneered such innovative concepts as the pop-up store, sidewalk advertising, and other forms of high-visibility guerrilla marketing. At the time of its sale, KBP was the largest independent ad agency in the United States, with one billion dollars in billing. In 2011 Kirshenbaum launched NSG/SWAT, a high-profile boutique branding agency that works with entrepreneurs and emerging companies. He is also cofounder, with music icon Chris Blackwell, of Blackwell Fine Jamaican Rum.

Kirshenbaum has lectured at Harvard Business School, has appeared on 20/20 , was named to Crain’s New York Business ’s “40 under Forty” list, was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2000, and snagged second place on a list of the top one hundred US entrepreneurs. He is the author of the business book Under the Radar ; the relationship guide Closing the Deal , which has been translated into nine languages; the advertising memoir Madboy , an Amazon bestseller; and Isn’t That Rich? , a compilation of essays from his New York Observer column. Kirshenbaum is an accomplished playwright, and his work has been produced by David Mamet’s Atlantic Theater Company. He has also contributed to Us Weekly ’s “Fashion Police” feature and has written comedy for the legendary Joan Rivers, among others.

Read an Excerpt

Isn't That Rich?

Life Among the 1 Percent

By Richard Kirshenbaum


Copyright © 2015 Richard Kirshenbaum
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-0731-3



They're Ruining the Fun for Mere Millionaires

AT THE TAIL END of the summer, I found myself in Millbrook, New York, the guest of a dashing blond sportsman who consistently beats me at squash. As we exited his stately Georgian mansion, I asked him if he preferred the tranquility of the country or whether he missed the electricity of Manhattan.

"Perhaps I would, if I were still relevant." He shrugged, tossing his squash gear into his vintage woodie station wagon.

"Relevant? You can't be serious," I said.

"I am. Honestly," he countered. "I'm 1990s money—in a new age—with one less zero." He sighed as we drove down the leafy lane to his club for a game of squash and a flight of dry martinis.

Over the past few years, New York has turned into a receiving line for billionaires. While the superrich and their attending lifestyles have dwarfed the average American success story, they have also depositioned the wealthy, creating a vast and palpable divide, not only between the haves and the have-nots, but the haves and have-mores.

While there may be fewer of them in New York City than one may imagine (under one hundred), billionaires' influence has spawned an era of excess, entitlement, grandiosity, and outright glitz not seen since the Roaring Twenties, causing their lesser-endowed peers to suffer from what I call billionaire buzzkill.

"A millionaire used to mean you've made it." A Master of the Universe decanted a beautiful bottle of Saint-Émilion. His staff hovered, bringing oversize crystal goblets and chic pressed linen napkins that were as thin as crepes and starched as a wimple. "Everyone wants to be Gatsby, without the car crash."

"Are you sure you want to drink in the living room?" I asked as he poured the ruby-red liquid above his white furniture.

"No worries," he said, taking a call from one of his many brokers, his pressed French cuffs slicing the air.

"So what's considered real money today, if you only happen to be a millionaire?"

"I would say a hundy."

"A hundy?"

"A hundred million. But not including your real estate. I mean investible assets."

"So a hundred gets you in the game?"

"Well, maybe two hundred," he said thoughtfully, swirling the red liquid dangerously over creamy white cashmere throws.

The .01 percent have had an enormous impact on the psyches of people formerly running New York and have taken the fun out of la vida loca. The resulting syndrome—let's call it millionaire malaise—includes symptoms such as loss of identity, the throwing in of the competitive towel, and Xanax- and chardonnay-level anxiety.

The terrace of Orsay seemed a perfect place to broach the subject of billionaire buzzkill with a standard-issue millionaire. Had he ever experienced it?

"Of course. Just when you think you've made it with your mack-daddy ten-million-dollar apartment, your wife comes home and says, 'So-and-so just bought a thirty-five-million-dollar apartment,' and you feel like a loser," he said.

"Does this happen a lot?"

"It happens at least once a week," he admitted. "You think you're a player, flying your family first class, then so-and-so asks for your tail number, and they look at you like you're taking the bus because you're flying commercial."

"Wow, that's a trip."

"You're excited for your recent art acquisition, and then they invite you to the opening of their new museum. Buzzkill. You spend your bonus buying your wife an eight-carat cushion-cut diamond, and her best friend calls it cute when she flashes the twenty. You're psyched you splurged for floor seats, and they're buying the team. Buzzkill. I need another glass of wine," he said, grimacing.

"Or I can throw you a charity dinner," I offered.

I paid a visit to an old friend whose family name adorns one of the city's most prominent cultural institutions. I wondered whether he had similar experiences, given his burnished stature. We sat in his cavernous Fifth Avenue apartment with family portraits looming.

"Understatement went out the window with Lehman," he said, sipping a Blackwell rum on the rocks. "Personally, I like walking around in my old khakis and a sweater with holes in the elbows. I like my hoboish style. Of course, you get no service."

"I'm not sure that's entirely the case," I countered.

"Look, I'm so far from being important now. I feel like a shrinking star with a bit of Yankee thrift. I'm just hunkering down. A person of modest wealth and achievement protecting the franchise," he said among the Corgis and chinoiserie.

"Well, take this apartment," I said. "Very few people could ever pass the board interview, no matter how much money they had."

"That's the point," he said. "Those people don't want to live here. They don't want to live by anyone else's rules."

The exclusivity of some of New York's toughest co-op boards has had a reverse effect. I recalled reading a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about one of New York's most prestigious co-ops hiring a public relations firm to help promote sales.

"In a way, it's good, because the new condos represent another product for another group," he observed. "People want to live in a co-op because they appreciate communal living with like-minded people living quietly, privately in understated elegance, not to mention the prewar details."

He continued: "There are quiet billionaires who live here, but you'd never know it. It's just that if you don't like being told 'no' and your wife has a personal publicist, it's probably better if you live on the West Side or Downtown."

"It's not my Madison Avenue anymore," Chic Brunette Heiress explained over sea breezes in her classic East Hampton sunroom, the low-key wicker set prompting me to recall the well-known quote about how it takes a few generations to actually understand wicker.

"Growing up in the city, I remember it as a small village, where I used to know everyone and ... don't take this the wrong way, that I was somebody."

"And now?

"I walk up and down the avenue, I don't know many people, and they don't know me. Honestly, I don't even recognize the brands. A cashmere sweater costs as much as a small car. And who are all these people anyway? Hardly anyone speaks English." She sniffed.

"What is the biggest change since your days at [an elite private girls school]?"

"The tone has changed. The taste and the manners especially."


"The old-school wealthy do things a certain way. Handwritten notes instead of e-mail.

Having dinner conversation without the person across from you on their cell phone the whole time. Texting has ruined a whole generation. Then there are what we call the new West Side billionaires. You know, the ones who live in those condos."

"And would you ever live there?"

"I wouldn't call that area living. More likely visiting."

"Well, it's all near the park, isn't it?"

"That's like saying there's no difference between East and West Hampton, even though they all share the same coastline. Can I get you a refill?" She surveyed the tinkling ice cubes in her glass.

I put in a call to a real estate agent who is known for prying loose all of those newly acquired hundies.

"Today, the superrich want to live in glass boxes," the überbroker said, offering me a walking tour of the West Side as she navigated three digital devices and tottered on skyscraper heels.

"They want light, air. They want modern, contemporary. They want ceiling-height, recessed lighting. They want wall space for the art. They want glass, views, service. They want to do what they want when they want. They want to renovate, decorate. The whole shebang."

"They want a lot."

"And they get it."

"So, do you only sell condos?"

"I don't sell, I specialize," she said, applying dizzying red lipstick. "They sell themselves, even before they're built."

"What about co-ops?"

"Most of my clients don't have the time or patience to sit in a room with a bunch of fuddy-duddies judging them," she said, marching down CPW like General Patton in Louboutins.

"Do your clients even look at co-ops?"

"Mostly no. Some don't want to reveal all their financial info to a board," she added. "But most want a level of freedom and have zero tolerance for a restricted building. They don't want co-op rules like no dogs allowed and grandma taste. New York real estate is a gold mine, and there's hardly any great inventory. That said, condos have clearly outpriced coops in terms of price and changed the way the superrich look at the luxury market. In my opinion, it's where the supersmart money is going. Listen, I have to run." She looked at her diamond-encrusted, saucer-size timepiece.

"Where to?"

"I have an appointment to show a thirty-million-dollar apartment to, like, a twenty-year-old."


"How did you know?" she asked, taking the bottle of water from her driver.

"A wild guess. So no co-op for him?"

"I'd like to see their faces when he shows up to that board interview in a hoodie," she said with a smirk. "Although he could buy and sell the lot of them."

"I really don't think it's only a new-money versus old-money thing," a billionaire philanthropist and political donor told me as we walked around the reservoir with the buildings on Fifth Avenue, CPW, and CPS providing an ironic tableaux.

"There are newly minted billionaires who value old-money pedigree and old-school billionaires who'd rather live in a Tribeca loft. That said, this happens every hundred years when new wealth is created and shakes up the old guard. And then both sides take potshots at each other," he said, sipping his Juice Press Fountain of Youth.

"How so?" I asked, drinking a Runa Energy.

"The old money says the new money is gauche and parvenu. And the new money has contempt for the establishment's moribund practices and strictures."

"Such as?"

"Let's say a restricted private club that allows one spouse to join and not the other. What's elegant about that?"

"Do you think billionaires are behaving badly?"

"Some behave poorly, and some, like our mayor, are quite hardworking and understated given his level of wealth. Then again, there's a certain mean-spiritedness to how old money views the new wealth."

"Such as?"

"The restrictive nature of certain clubs, co-ops, institutions are meant to keep certain people out. Now, there are equally prestigious options, and they're no longer the only game in town, which is about time. The co-op owners also get crazy knowing the new buildings are trading at huge premiums. It's actually great payback, literally. That's why I live in a townhouse. I have no patience for all this nonsense."

"Do you think it's particular to New York?"

"The international billionaires are coming here, because it's the safest and best place to be—an expensive insurance policy. What's playing out in New York is playing out on a national level. You have one mayoral candidate describing New York as a 'tale of two cities' and the mayor welcoming fellow billionaires to New York because they're good for the economy and tax burden. They both have a point."

"So you don't feel badly about all your hundies and billions?" I joked.

"I've worked hard for it all. Either we're capitalists or socialists! That's the problem today—the conflict, the indecision.... You can't have it both ways."

"Well, as long as you're happy," I said.

"It all goes back to what I think Plato said."

"What's that?"

"In order to be truly happy, you have to surround yourself with people less successful than yourself," he said, walking down the steps to a waiting town car.

"So do you practice what you preach?"

"Of course. Why do you think I'm spending time with you?" he joked in a non-joking fashion, then slid in the backseat before the car sped away.

As I walked out of the park down Fifth Avenue, I marveled at the facade of the Metropolitan, as I always do, and thought there's nothing better than living in New York. But it just may be time to add a few new friends to the list.



The Old Guard Courts the New Guard Because Cash Is King

IT MIGHT BE IRONIC that I happen to be sitting in Madrid in what is widely regarded as the world's oldest restaurant (drinking Rosado and sampling phallic white asparagus) writing about the new guard ...

Botín (est. 1725), which Hemingway proclaimed in The Sun Also Rises as one of the best restaurants in the world, is all about the old and authentic, a warren of beamed ceilings and leaded glass. In Europe, the older institutions usually occupy the best locations. I view it as embracing the old and discovered, versus the new world—which celebrates the new, trendy, and undiscovered.

Two days before I had boarded the luxurious Iberia flight at Kennedy, I attended a house party on the East End. Best Man and his wife, whom we are so close with I have anointed her "Second Wife," were hosting an eclectic crowd at their architecturally significant home. The weekend proved to be a social workout, cramming as many as eight Fourth of July parties into just two days. As I was getting "my morning hangover coffee" at the Sagg Store, I ran into the scion of one of the bloodiest of blue-blooded families, which now seem to be ever increasingly in the minority.

"Happy Fourth, Richard," he said, his jaw so locked I wondered how words actually emanated. "How is your weekend?"

I revealed my social hangover and described the seaside party I'd attended at the home of one of New York's last great bachelors, where the party and favors never seem to end.

"Oh, you must take me one day," he pleaded. "I'd love to get on his list."

"List?" I said somewhat shocked. "I never took you for a social animal, James (not his real name)." In fact, I hardly ever thought he emerged from the grounds of his rambling but now seedy family compound and his fortresslike golf club that still somehow manages to exclude.

"I need to start hanging out with people who have real money," he opined.

"Real money as opposed to fake?" I asked.

"Look, you know the deal. Most of my friends are living on fumes," he said wearily. "It's less fun than it used to be."

After the lingering financial crisis, a sliver of rich have gotten richer, but a global cash crunch has emerged, not entirely causing a depression but, shall we say, an international malaise. The formerly well-to-do are making adjustments in order to preserve their once exuberant lifestyle. Some, in search of ready cash for businesses, charities, clubs, private schools, or their own social endeavors, have had to make allowances and become, shall we say, more flexible. Faced with conundrums and hard choices, old money now courts new money, and cash is King. And Queen.

Back from a beach walk, I happened upon four long, tanned legs interlocked like puzzle pieces on a chaise. International Playboy Posse (IPP) was in town from London with his twenty-one-year-old Russian model/actress girlfriend. Once settled in and dressed for dinner, we all convened on the terrace. IPP (who you get if you put Mick Jagger, Peter O'Toole, and a billionaire in a blender) and I shared a glass of rosé and immediately agreed on my theory that the new money, which was once shunned and mocked, is now being actively courted by old money.

"In London society, the aristocracy is being replaced by a fast European crowd that is defined by its fabulousness." He said this with a feline elegance you don't usually see in a man's man delivery.

"How does that work?" I asked, refilling his glass with some Domaine Ott to "lubricate" the conversation and hopefully pry any further valuable gems loose.

He shrugged. "Someone rich comes to town, makes a splash, and if they're known as having real money, there's interest and instant entrée. The old families are now reliant on these new people for shoots on their estates and such. Money can now buy you a ticket into a place like London. It wasn't always the case."

"Well, if it's bad in London, you should see what passes for good breeding in New York," I said with a laugh. I read a quote from an article about a new hot spot where someone actually said they liked it because it was "pretentious."

"Yes, you have these garish reality shows here and such. It's all so tawdry really. Then again, everyone likes a good female catfight, don't they, even in London."

"Does it go beyond London?"

"Absolutely," he declared in his punctuated accent. "We keep a boat in the South of France and it's down there for the Monaco Grand Prix, which is really the start of the social season since it's in May."

"That sounds fairly marvelous," I said, now understanding the length of his so-called boat.

"Yes. Then again, you see crowds of awful people arriving because they think that the glamorous world of Monaco will somehow rub off on them."

"Do people cater to you because you have big toys?"

"Yes." He laughed amiably. "Everyone likes the royal treatment, even the royals." He extended a long tailored arm to his model/actress girlfriend—"Shall we?"—indicating that he was ready to go to the next party and that we should all follow his playboy lead, which I was inclined to do.


Excerpted from Isn't That Rich? by Richard Kirshenbaum. Copyright © 2015 Richard Kirshenbaum. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Billionaire Buzzkill,
2. The Changing of the Guard,
3. Rise of the Art Insta-Collectors,
4. I Get No Respect, Just the Bills,
5. The New Divorce Is No Divorce,
6. Never Mind the Nannies, Drivers Are the New Dads,
7. Need an Intern with a Strong Sense of Entitlement and Bad Manners? Hire a Rich Kid,
8. Dating Tips for Uptown Divorcées,
9. The High Fliers,
10. Paid Friends,
11. The Customer Is Always Wrong,
12. Why the Italians Have Style All Sewed Up,
13. Let Them Eat Kale,
14. Frozen,
15. They're Shaving a Bundle,
16. Social Climb-Overs,
17. The Wealfie,
18. The Reverse Brag,
19. Bicoastal Currency,
20. The Emptons,
21. Stressmas Vacation,
22. Bling Versus the Bong,
About the Author,

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