Why do so many of us love to hear stories about the super-rich and their excesses? It seems there's something exhilarating about flagrant disregard for the concerns which so engross most people's lives. It sets the imagination on fire: "If I were so rich that nobody could push me around..." "If I were totally free...." Our fascination with billionaires' lives reflects our longing to escape the restrictions of the everyday world.
On closer examination, most of these stories are unattractive. They depict people as self-centered and insensitive, consumed with their own desires, and with no perspective about what a dollar means to a fellow human being. With a sigh of a relief, we are reminded that great wealth in no way guarantees a satisfying or exemplary life.
Not In the Mood
When a wad of money caused an uncomfortable lump in his chair, James Gordon Bennett (owner of the New York Herald) pitched it into the flaming fireplace.
On another day, Bennett was aggrieved to arrive at his favorite restaurant for lunch and discover other patrons were sitting at his customary patio table. After the restaurant owner refused Bennett's suggestion that he move the offending diners inside, Bennett whispered, "Might the restaurant be for sale? The offer is good for this moment only." A few minutes later, having bought the place, Bennett was seated at his favorite table--the incredulous diners suddenly booted out.
After the meal, having enjoyed every bite, feeling in a more expansive mood, Bennett rose to leave. "Excellent," he is reported to have murmured as he dropped the keys to the restaurant into the astonished waiter's palm as a gratuity. Bennett never had to worry about getting his seat taken again.
There Goes the Neighborhood
After John M. Longyear, iron magnate, built himself a home of impeccable taste, his peace was shattered when the railroad tracks slithered by. In a fury, he fought the railroad clear to the Michigan Supreme Court, but futilely.
Finally, he sent in an army of photographers who got a picture of every room, fountain, tree and bush, down to the last greenhouse. Workers then began dismantling the mansion piece by piece. Before long, the entire estate was loaded onto the offending railroad cars and whisked off to a quieter neighborhood. Workmen soon had reconstructed everything--the house, greenhouse, fountains and all.
The two stories above were adapted from Tales of the Super Rich by Dexter Yager and Doug Wead, (Restoration Fellowship, 1980. pp. 25, 35, & 40.)
Rich or Poor?
Back in the mid-1800's, Hetty Green inherited a million dollars before marrying a man who had made a million in the China trade. After she had continued to amass her fortune when many others' fortunes foundered (including her husband's), she said that the secret of her success was simply to buy cheap and sell dear. But Hetty also ate the cheapest foods in the cheapest restaurants and left no tips.
At a time when her money was earning about five hundred dollars an hour, she haggled over a ten cent bottle of medicine. When the druggist pointed out that half of the cost was the bottle, she went home to get a bottle of her own. She wore, year in and year out, the same voluminous dress, discolored with age. Sewn inside her petticoat were many pockets, each large enough to hold the contents of a safe-deposit box--which on occasions they did.
When she died in 1916 she left to her two children about a $100 million.
[Adjusting for inflation, Hetty's stash would be worth over a billion in today's dollars.]
Adapted from The Very Rich by Joseph J. Thorndike, Jr. (American Heritage Books, 1976. p.177.)
Coming to Dinner?
One of the first pet parties on record was the canine dinner given by turn-of-the-century hostess Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish. The affair featured 100 dogs owned by Mrs. Fish's best friends. The canines were seated at Mrs. Fish's baronial banquet table while their owners stood behind the chairs and served. The menu consisted of stewed liver and rice, fricassee of bones, and shredded dog biscuits. .
From The Very Rich Book by Jacqueline Thompson. (William Morrow, 1981. p.256.)
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