As the holiday season enraptures New York City, the Idle Rich come out to buy and play — and I wonder what it is about Winter that especially brings out their public braggadocio and bling more than usual. Is it the cold weather that gives them the opportunity for the wraparound advertisement of exclusive leather and endangered fur — along with an outrageous hat? Do cooler temperatures lead to a greater layering of clothing that provides even more ample opportunity to adorn and separate while prancing?
You can always identify the Idle Rich by their elbows — and by the attitude that becomes them while they’re wearing their hardly-earned, and under-worn, wares. They are always accoutred with gaudy rings and watches and other assorted dangling bangles. They are toodled around in large limousines. They also tend to sigh a lot for no reason in particular.
I am not the only one to notice this display of wealth and indemnification-from-poverty-by-birthright; in 1914, Stephen Leacock wrote the germinal, and terribly funny, book — “Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich” — and he better totes them up the flagpole 96 years ago than I ever could now:
The street in the softer hours of the morning has an almost reverential quiet. Great motors move drowsily along it, with solitary chauffeurs returning at 10.30 after conveying the earlier of the millionaires to their downtown offices. The sunlight flickers through the elm trees, illuminating expensive nurse-maids wheeling valuable children in little perambulators.
Some of the children are worth millions and millions. In Europe, no doubt, you may see in the Unter den Linden avenue or the Champs Elysees a little prince or princess go past with a clattering military guard of honour. But that is nothing. It is not half so impressive, in the real sense, as what you may observe every morning on Plutoria Avenue beside the Mausoleum Club in the quietest part of the city.
Here you may see a little toddling princess in a rabbit suit who owns fifty distilleries in her own right. There, in a lacquered perambulator, sails past a little hooded head that controls from its cradle an entire New Jersey corporation. The United States attorney-general is suing her as she sits, in a vain attempt to make her dissolve herself into constituent companies. Near by is a child of four, in a khaki suit, who represents the merger of two trunk-line railways. You may meet in the flickered sunlight any number of little princes and princesses far more real than the poor survivals of Europe.
Incalculable infants wave their fifty-dollar ivory rattles in an inarticulate greeting to one another. A million dollars of preferred stock laughs merrily in recognition of a majority control going past in a go-cart drawn by an imported nurse. And through it all the sunlight falls through the elm trees, and the birds sing and the motors hum, so that the whole world as seen from the boulevard of Plutoria Avenue is the very pleasantest place imaginable.
How do we feel about those sorts of clear displays of in-your-poor-face wealth? Should we be ashamed of our denatured stock in life? Or should we feel embarrassed for the Idle Rich who have nothing better to do with their time than to prance and pose?
Should wealth ever be inherited? The many people I know who live off of Trust Funds — and who have miserably never had to work a day in their lives — are all fragile and quick-to-anger and full of a melancholy “do-nothingness” that defines their unreliable lives more than the silver spoon stuck in their pocket.