It’s My Privilege: Glorious Memoirs by the Very Rich

“Class consciousness takes a vacation while we’re in the thrall of this book,” Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote in the Book Review in 1985, in her evaluation of the heiress Gloria Vanderbilt’s memoir “Once Upon a Time.” To be clear, Harrison was referring to the class consciousness of the reader, not the author. Vanderbilt demonstrates perfect awareness throughout her book that most young children don’t play with emerald tiaras and alligator jewel boxes lined in chestnut satin, or rely on the services of multiple butlers, or lose count of their own houses. Harrison’s point was that Vanderbilt’s talent with a pen — and perspective on her own economic altitude — allowed consumers of her tale to suspend their envy and engage with the reality of growing up in opulent neglect.

Memoirs by the rich have always been major publishing events. Readers love to prowl wide-eyed through gilded corridors, and I am no exception. A cherished portion of my shelf is devoted to the self-accounts of Rothschilds, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Pells, Guggenheims and other names familiar from banks, art museums and city centers.

It wasn’t until trying to get through this year’s big contributions to the genre — Prince Harry’s “Spare” and Paris Hilton’s “Paris: The Memoir” — that I noticed two curious facts about my collection. One, the shelf contained nothing published after 2020. Two, and more crucially, it featured no authors born after 1937, which suggests that 1937 was the last year rich people were manufactured to my precise specifications.

What a loss! I tried “Spare” first, inveigled by both the great title and the knowledge that it was written with J.R. Moehringer, who assisted Andre Agassi with his own memoir, “Open.” The Agassi book not only mapped the tennis star’s psychology but was festooned with the sort of detail we crave in a memoir — such as the fact that Agassi toured with a pet parrot named Peaches whom Agassi considered an “integral part” of his team. Or that he courted Brooke Shields (successfully) via fax machine. Or that he received two tickets within the same hour for driving his Corvette at “supersonic” speed in Arizona, and was then hauled before a judge who sentenced Agassi to, and this is a quote, “go give ’em hell” at his next tournament.

By the time “Open” was published, in 2009, Agassi had retired from professional tennis and could afford to be candid in print. Equally important, he had the entertainment instincts (or audacity) to do so. There is a lesson here. Intriguing memoirs tend to be written by people who have nothing to lose, or who have managed to delude themselves into thinking they have nothing to lose. “Spare” and “Paris: The Memoir,” on the other hand, read like exercises in brand management by people positioning themselves for future conquests. The prince and Paris aren’t boring; they’re just utterly devoid of Agassi-level imperviousness.

That imperviousness can come from age, money, eccentricity or all three — which brings us back to my shelf of Rich People Memoirs, and what the authors have in common. The gold standard of the category is Guy de Rothschild’s “The Whims of Fortune,” published as “Contre Bonne Fortune” in French in 1983 and translated into English two years later. In accordance with the visual covenant of the genre, Rothschild appears on the cover in a resplendent portrait. His skin is sun-torched, his brow mirthful, his foulard jaunty. This is a man who has gazed upon moonlight reflected from cordovan leather wall panels, a reader thinks, having read not a word and yet knowing what awaits.

Early in the memoir Rothschild tells a story about his grandmother. One fine autumn day, the tale goes, Grand-Mère was visiting friends when she was struck by the sight of fallen leaves strewn across a lawn. “It’s magnificent! How beautiful!” she cried. “But where do you get them from?” The punchline being, of course, that a woman raised among manicured gardens would have had no prior opportunity to observe a dead leaf. Rothschild admits that the anecdote may be “too good to be true” but he doesn’t care — and why should we? Apocryphal or not, this is the kind of gem we seek to mine in memoirs by the rich.

The gems are plentiful. Rothschild reveals that his family retained a servant whose sole job was to prepare salads. A different servant was ordered to row a boat across a nearby lake at mealtimes “in order to enliven the landscape” and provide diners with “a poetic and charming spectacle.”

The kitchens of one Rothschild chateau were constructed 150 yards from the main house and buried underground in order to keep noisome food odors at bay; meals commuted to the dining room by way of a miniature train running through a tunnel. Rothschild recalls hitching rides on the train as a child, whizzing back and forth while squeezed cozily between platters.

For casual opulence he is rivaled by Anne Glenconner, the daughter of an earl and author of the memoir “Lady in Waiting.” As a youngster Glenconner was tasked with “airing” the family’s Codex Leicester, a 72-page manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci. She fondly recalls licking a finger and whipping through pages of diagrams and mirror writing. The Codex later wound up in the hands of Bill Gates, who paid $30.8 million at auction for a relic that was, as Glenconner merrily puts it, “covered with my DNA.”

In “Once Upon a Time” Gloria Vanderbilt clambers through a Rolls-Royce outfitted with rose-filled crystal vases and “seats soft as sponge cake.” In “Memoirs” David Rockefeller describes a childhood home so vast that there was space not only for a private mini-hospital but for a room devoted entirely to his mother’s collection of Buddha statues. For almost everyone, breakfast in bed was de rigueur; to ruin miles of bed linen with toast crumbs was held as not just the right but the duty of the rich.

Decadence and eccentricity are tightly interlaced in these volumes. In “Confessions of an Art Addict,” Peggy Guggenheim casually refers to an uncle who “lived on charcoal, which he had been eating for many years.” (It tinted his teeth black.) In “Wait for Me!” Deborah Mitford describes a grandfather who “had a glass eye and used to surprise people by tapping it with a fork at meals.” Glenconner notes that her husband’s family used bacon slices as bookmarks. In “We Used to Own the Bronx,” Eve Pell, whose ancestor Thomas Pell did indeed once own a chunk of the Bronx, divulges that her grandfather dropped new pairs of shoes at his club so that an employee with the same size feet could walk around in them until the leather was comfortably broken in.

Prose quality varies, but each memoirist wields a formidable talent for understatement. In “Reflections in a Silver Spoon,” Paul Mellon laments a period during the 1930s when he was forced to stop vacationing aboard luxury German cruise ships owing to Adolf Hitler’s “completely outrageous” behavior. A car crash that nearly killed the author is mentioned only glancingly — as an incident in which Mellon’s vehicle somehow “left the road.”

Rothschild demonstrates similar restraint in a section about his father’s love of card games. “I remember one rather farcical incident when he had to be interrupted in the middle of a hand. It seems that my sister Jacqueline’s first husband had shot himself in the chest,” he writes.

Nicknames are another reliable highlight. They run rampant and can be divided into three categories: the cutesy (Topsy, Bunny, Tootsie, Tinkie); the ruthlessly unflattering (Stubby, Chunky, Honks, Squeaky, Bozo Bean); and the baffling (m’Hinket, Gargy, Tuddemy, Jeep).

Some of the memoirs on my shelf are motivated by vanity; others by rage, nostalgia, introspection, wistfulness or a blend of the above. They brim with gossip. It is unfathomable to imagine any of the authors suffering a publicist to vet their manuscript before blasting it into bookstores worldwide.

Which gets to the real problem of this year’s memoirs. “Spare” and “Paris: The Memoir” are tiresomely careful, and terribly deficient in fun. Docking points for lack of fun may sound pitiless when applied to people who have undergone suffering, but, then again, so did the Vanderbilts and Mellons. Nobody has yet invented a way to thwart death, war, addiction or suicide with cash. The difference is that the old guard possessed an accurate understanding of what they, and only they, could offer the reading public: buckets of glamour, charcoal-munching uncles, first encounters with dead leaves.

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