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GP 5 September 2007: The Lost Art of Luxury

Ice Cubes, My Dear.  A million years ago, when the New Yorker thought its mission was to make us laugh,  instead of telling us the world is going to hell in a handbasket, a nice little story appeared in its pages which could have come out of the New York Times Metropolitan Diary.  It seems a young man, new to Manhattan, was invited over to his aunt’s East Side apartment for dinner.  It was late August, hot as Hades, and she asked him whether he would like to join her in a refreshing glass of Pellegrino.  The servants were off that night, so they both repaired to the kitchen to liberate some sparkling water.  He noticed that there was ample Pellegrino, but also cases and cases of Evian.

“Aunt Jane,” he asked, “If you drink sparkling, why do you have so much Evian on hand?”  “Oh,” she retorted, “For the ice, my dear, it’s the only way.”

Back of the Line.  Just a decade ago, the New Yorker had another summer yarn, about Southampton, out on Long Island.  It seems that there is a bakery in town where all the summer people line up on Sunday, just outside the door, patiently awaiting its very butter- infused pastries and its strong coffee.  On one week end, a young man in a hurry, obviously stuffed with new money from Wall Street, went up to several people, trying to jump the line.  He offered $10 to the first, $15 to another, $50 to another, and finally $100 to yet another near the front of the line: nobody took him up on it.  Finally an old codger stepped out of line, made a beeline for the miscreant, and said, “Young man, there are 50 people standing right here who could buy you out with money to spare.  Get in the back of the line.”

True luxury not only depends on well honed products but on grace and good deportment from the whole congregation—from every customer and every server.  There is no luxury around people who are in a hurry.  They could not be bothered making Evian ice cubes for their Pellegrino.  The atmosphere of the superb does not co-exist with locusts who have money to burn.   For this reason, as well, a whole covey of people have deserted Nantucket: there’s too much rudeness and shoving going on, too many New York gunslingers wielding their power against the people down in Codfish Park adjacent to Sconset.

Fat Cats.  The young interloper in Southampton has plenty of company today.  “The average pay in investment banking,” even counting secretaries, “is 10 times that of all private sector jobs, new government data show.”  “Investment banking paid an average weekly wage of $8,367, compared with $841 for all private sector jobs…” (“Pay at Investment Banks Eclipses All Private Jobs by a Factor of 10,” New York Times, September 1, 2007, pp. B1 and B6).  “In Fairfield County, Conn., home to many hedge funds, the average pay was $23,846 a week.”  In Manhattan, which just houses your run-of-the-mill investment banker, the average was a paltry $16,849 a week in the first quarter of 2006.  “Nationally, investment banking accounted for just 0.1 percent of all private sector jobs, but it accounts for 1.3 percent of all wages….”

Wall Street is getting all the big rewards, while Main Street takes it on the chin.  In economic terms, investment bankers are a friction cost—middlemen who drain money away from the business of real things—producing products, educating children, pumping energy into homes and cars.  Its fat cat paycheck is a drag on the economy.  And, we are afraid, its inflated bonuses are bound to lead to political and social instability.

A Night in the Duck Blind.  Back in the late 1930s, the well-heeled, civilized owner of a New York brokerage firm might make his way South to enlarge his view of the world.  By train or car he would venture to Wilmington or Baltimore, then wind his way over to the top of the Chesapeake where he would board a ferry for the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  The easy trip would slow down the senses, arouse an interest in birds on the wing, but not go on so long as to lead to boredom.  Landing in Queen Anne’s County, he had but a short ride to his stately house that had its origins in 1733, some parts of which Henry DuPont would try to buy for his museum at Winterthur.

All this was before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge came along and dragged Queen Anne’s into the 20th century.  John Barth, who came from these parts, memorialized the region in his novel The Floating Opera, although his writing better caught the oddsome spirit of the place rather than the leisurely grace our stockbroker enjoyed.  Yes, there was a canning factory where more than vegetables wound up in the cans, as Barth noted.  But the sheer beauty of the Chesapeake and of the gracious living these parts afforded in the years leading up to World War II still await the pen of another writer.  Surely such an author will remember the young girl and her best friend who would ride their horses home to her family’s Huntsman Hill Farm for lunch, only slowly making their way back to Gunston for the rest of the school day.

Right down on the Bay was a duck blind, very well fitted out.  Many a night the broker sat there with a friend, telling tall stories, downing great quantities of scotch, thinking how to improve his herd of Jerseys.  Gentlemen farmers had Jerseys then, handsome cows producing rich milk full of butterfat, these beautifully proportioned creatures since cast aside by the vast majority of dairy farmers who want instead high production herds of Guernseys or Holsteins.

Oft as not, no birds showed up.  Sometime into dawn, one straggler duck would appear, and the guest might get off one shot that missed.  Of course, the failure to bag game did not matter, because the occasion was about fellowship in an artful atmosphere, away from daily concerns.  The two achieved a kind of immortality, extending their lives back into a previous century, simply by planting themselves in this time warped haven.

World War II changed everything.  America asserted itself throughout the world, but luxury never returned.  We’ve moved on from times when money was no object, to more compulsive moments where money is the only object.  And yet, the Governor of Maryland is proposing to bring back ferries, so maybe we can learn to shift into slow gear again.

Cheap Threads.  Somehow luxury has disappeared.  For it to exist, society has to offer the right atmosphere.  And the right actors have to be present—discerning customers, quality obsessed craftsmen, and servants who can convert consumption into a setting for the gods.  Not too much of that stuff around.

Dana Thomas, who hangs out in Paris, is out with a book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, and has flogged it hard enough to get a whole bunch of reviews everywhere.  Roughly she tells us class has given way to mass, as so-called ‘luxury’ products have become available to everybody.  Bernard Arnault, CEO of luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, is the man, in her eyes, who made it all happen, putting high priced goods on everybody’s plate.  But, in the process, he and others have so cheapened the clothing and other wares that they’re not worth having.  He invests in the brands (with heavy advertising and the like), making them so desirable to media-susceptible consumers that they don’t realize they are buying the Emperor’s New Clothes, clothing without proper stitching, shoes with pseudo-leather, and the like.  In like fashion, Brooks Brothers has done away with its shirt pockets, while other purveyors use dyes that don’t quite hold their hues.  The prices of many luxury goods now are 10, 15, even 20 times the cost of manufacture.

Obsolescence has been introduced into every product we buy, such that your money has a hard time buying good goods.  This tendency has created a huge market opportunity for the right kind of entrepreneurs.  Goods are slowly coming into the marketplace again that are made with the right materials—with the right tools—in a craftman-like manner. There’s a business for anyone willing to make us whole again with goods and services of substance.

At Your Service.  A decent product is just the ticket of entry for someone who wants to be in the luxury business.  Luxury, as much or more, is about good service and a companionable atmosphere.  It demands the unobtrusive artful hand of the waiter at La Grenouille.  Or the Bang and Olufsen independent repairman in Manhattan who can find parts and patiently re-craft those beautiful but notoriously breakable pieces of stereo equipment.  Or perhaps the curiosity of the owner of a Japanese restaurant who assists one in looking up the 13th-century origins of some of the esoteric dishes we eat today.  Or the walkie talkie staff of the old Japan Airlines in Honolulu who would rush a golf cart to pick up late passengers for a Tokyo flight so that no passenger would be discommoded.

The late George Heard Hamilton, a wonderful Impressionist scholar and later head of the Sterling and Francine Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, was wont to talk about the diverse requirements that went into making a great painting.  It took a good artist, an inspired idea, good materials, etc.  But it also required a passionate audience. Luxury has some of the same requirements: all sorts of people must be involved in the process who have some feeling for luxury—for luxury to happen.  There’s a special psychology to the society that fosters luxury.

There are many ironies to this new economy of ours where service seems to have disappeared.  We are now a so-called ‘service economy,’ our manufacturing having dwindled away.  You would think we would learn to do ‘service’ well, since that’s now become the occupation of a majority of the nation.  With the addition of new technologies such as computer telephony, voice-activated software, and the Internet, we have the tools to vastly improve service in almost every industry.  Instead, we have used this gadgetry to eliminate people and jobs left and right, asking every customer to deal with robots instead of human beings.  For an advanced economy, this callous indifference to service amounts to economic suicide.

Some Hints of Luxury.  August has been generous to us.  Ricks Picks, a luxury pickle firm in Manhattan our company has chosen to back, just sent us an assortment of its wares.  Its so-called smokra, its pickling of okra, has got it right, and can claim to be a luxury offering.  As well, we just took a virtual tour on the QM2 luxury liner.  Even in the age of the super jet, we can contemplate trips on the Atlantic ahead, cosseted by services jet setters can’t buy.

A Balinese umbrella has made its way from Indonesia, and now provides ambiance for the clutch of tropical plants we are nursing along.  The black-and-white chessboard design of the fabric is popular in Bali, and it is called polang-poleng.  The black and white chessboard pattern represents dualism to the Balinese, the principle of the dynamic tension of the two opposites of creation and destruction which hold the universe together, repeated over and over again on sacred objects as a reminder that without one there cannot be the other, no woman without man, no day without night, no good without evil, no creation without destruction.

Sources.  Handbags are perhaps the most ridiculous outpouring from the world of phony luxury.   Dana Thomas opined about this in “Terror’s Purse Strings,” New York Times, August 30, 2007.  You can read other more penetrating bag lady articles in our “The Cost of Things.”  The Museum at the Fashion Institute’s show on Luxury runs through November, and it can be viewed online.  Back a ways, Howard Gross reviewed for us all the First Class offerings of airlines to Asia: though outdated, it still gives insight into what you should be looking for and demanding.  We find that many interesting people uncover luxury once they get over the highflying, sterile career where they started.  Neal Rosenthal gave up lawyering and got seriously into very good Italian and French wines.  A lawyer Barbara Packer who dealt with toxic substances suits now has devoted herself to The Climbery, seven acres in Columbia County she has filled with 600 varieties of clematis (New York Times, August 31, 2007, p. D6).  Carl Schmitt, founder of the elegant University National Bank in Palo Alto (later absorbed by one of the chain banks), retired to Walla Walla, restoring a building and starting a first class restaurant.

P.S.  If you have to do serious doctoring, then you check into a modern medical center which will be eminently uncomfortable with cramped rooms, rude personnel, and crabby patients.  But for average tune-up work, try an older hospital that will nicely fit like an old shoe.  St. Luke’s in New York, up near Columbia, has a older building with single spacious rooms that have a mantle and fireplace.  We were told Dolly Parton had slept in our room, which immediately sent us to singing.  In this wing, they served steaks.  Throughout America there are pleasing anachronisms such as this that bring gladness to the heart. 

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