article

11.21.08

Why Rich People Are So Miserable

Battles over great fortunes usually reveal controlling, narcissistic parents and lonely children.

There she is again, Brooke Astor on the front page of the New York Post. A current juicy scandal served up with your morning coffee. Friends and associates are cluck-clucking about how the people involved, all such private people, would have hated the new revelations about the alleged mistreatment, neglect, manipulation and fraud perpetrated on Mrs. Astor by her son Anthony Marshall as revealed in Meryl Gordon’s excellent new book Mrs. Astor Regrets. Oh, how terrible. Oh, how fascinating! Admit it, it wouldn’t be tabloid fodder unless there were a complicitous audience waiting to read all about it.

The Brooke Astor I knew was a warm and wise friend full of verve with an unexpected point of view that, although not always easy to accept, was usually on target—not cynical but unflinchingly realistic. It wasn’t the public occasions that I remember so vividly but the quiet nights with only a few people, say Christmas where Oscar de la Renta in perfect pitch sang carols acapella and Brooke’s face, as she held Annette’s hand, reflected complete repose and joy. We shall not see her like again.

There are two kinds of rich men’s sons, the overcompensators who have some chance of becoming men, and those who don’t enter the competition and remain forever boys.

But what this case provides is not found in personal recollections such as my own, but in the rare window it provides for the public to view inherited wealth: Not just substantial unearned money but vast riches, seemingly enough to fulfill one’s wildest fantasies. Only, as in a Grimm’s fairy tale, there’s a comeuppance. In a recession or depression, such as we are now experiencing, public exposure of this kind of tragic situation has deep resonances. The psychological reaction is this: I may not have a fortune or social cache, but I have all the things these people lack—emotional support, a work ethic, a functional family and most importantly, love. When I wrote Little Gloria . . . Happy At Last about the 1934 trial between Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Gloria Vanderbilt for the custody of ten-year old Little Gloria, these feelings were part and parcel of the child’s “poor little rich girl” image, one that might also be applied to Doris Duke or the isolated Vincent Astor himself.

Over the years, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on the meretricious aspects of inherited wealth. (Ms. Gordon said my writing both inspired and provided a road map for her.)Over thirty years ago, I tackled the subject in The Straw Man. On page one the ne’er do well passive protagonist Bertie Royceman observes, “It’s not easy to be the son of a very rich man. It abstracts you from life. It is my observation that as a group the [children] of the extremely wealthy suffer damage. A few escape [but most] trapped beneath the shadow of power never see their own sun . . . Others overcompensate . . . These are the two kinds of rich men’s sons, the overcompensators who have some chance of becoming men, and those who don’t enter the competition and remain forever boys.”

In Johnson v. Johnson the six children of Seward Johnson, each of whom were worth over one hundred million dollars sued Barbara “Basia” Piasecka Johnson, constantly and wrongly referred to in the tabloids as “the Polish maid,” for a portion of his fortune. In my opinion, this was a matter that could have been settled over a cup of tea had not childhood damage and dysfunction played so great a role.

In these public cases all sorts of dirty linen is exposed. Battles over such great fortunes usually reveal (take your pick) controlling, narcissistic, uncommunicative, neglectful parents and isolated lonely children exposed to enormous luxury, who are given little chance to develop a sense of self worth. I was struck by the fact that little Gloria Vanderbilt and Anthony Marshall both had Trust funds invaded by their parents and both had nannies who gave them love and stability, but were summarily fired. These unhappy dramas usually play out against a background of boredom, profligacy, infidelities, divorces, drinking and so forth.

In another case of public exposure, Jamie Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, made a notable HBO documentary Born Rich, promoted as a study of the “children of the insanely rich.” Like Bertie Royceman in The Straw Man, Jamie was trying to find an identity in a family rife with drug overdoses, a fatal motorcycle accident, and other vacant excesses. Only one or two of his eleven subjects, the ones with strong parental guidance seemed grounded. The rest ranged from loathsome, to vapid, to lost. One of the problems is that all the damage starts early and by the time death arrives to the parent the volcanic lava of disappointment and entitlement and money as a substitute for all that cannot be recovered pours forth.

Last winter Tom Rogerson, an expert in wealth management at BNY Mellon, lectured to a group of affluent New York Public Library Trustees on how to avoid such situations. He pointed out that often siblings of the vastly rich get together to make decisions for the first time only after a parent dies. He emphasized the lack of preparation for handling finances, because more often than not the parent refused to surrender control much less information. Finally, Rogerson pointed to a generational pattern summed up in that old adage, “Shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations.” There have been a great many books written on how to avoid the pitfalls of inheritance, among the most notable Family Wealth by James E. Hughes and The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence by Jessie H. O’Neil. But the presumption is that in successful families such as the Rockefellers or the likes of Warren Buffet, the parents tried early to instill positive patterns through education, philanthropic involvement, common sense and attention. Buffet’s children now have lots of money, but I remember reading an article early on where his daughter was quoted as saying she didn’t really want a fortune from him but would appreciate enough to paint the kitchen. The Rockefeller “boys” were all kept on a tight leash and turned into spectacular philanthropists and businessmen. Even so, when for Brooke’s one-hundredth birthday party I went to the so-called “Playhouse” on the Rockefeller Pocantico Hills estate built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. so his sons would “stay on the ranch” so to speak, I wondered if this containment was a good thing. I still do.

You’d think with all the evidence and advice a repeated deleterious pattern might be corrected. But it’s not so easy and makes me think of Philip Larkin’s poem that contains the lines, “Man hands on misery to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf.”

Barbara Goldsmith is the bestselling author and historian of five notable award-winning books. Also, her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Ms. Goldsmith has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was recently designated a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmark Conservancy.