A Tongue-in-Cheek Guide for the Newly Wealthy
“It goes without saying that the foundation of social climbing is money. It is really no good without it.”
So begins Chapter One of a slim but instructive volume by Lincoln Kerney titled The Art of Social Climbing. Money is the thing without which the world does not go round, and the climber does not climb; it is the sine qua non of the well-to-do.
And if you think that the world into which you, the aspirant, seek admission is different from the world that most of humanity inhabits, you are correct. Take the example of Seward Johnson cited by Kerney in his chapter on “Charities, Volunteering and Common Interests.”
Johnson, one of the Johnson & Johnson heirs, was building a house in Princeton, N.J., for his third wife to the tune of a cool $23 million. While the construction was ongoing, he relocated to a nearby farm. Dissatisfied with it as it was, he added a 10-car garage with an attached barbershop that could be reached by a tunnel from the house. “Unfortunately by the time the work was complete he had 11 cars,” Kerney writes. “The solution was simply to build another garage.”
Kerney, who lives in Quechee during the summer months and Boca Raton, Fl a., in the winter, grew up in Princeton in a family that owned the Trenton Times. After earning a B.A. in journalism from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth he got a job for a time at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has also worked in real estate.
The idea for the book came to him when someone who “should have known better was condescending to me.”
He won’t go into all the lurid details, but it involved his dog Murphy, a Norfolk terrier, and an encounter gone wrong at a dog park in Boca Raton. This got him to thinking about how good manners can ease the way out of many a sticky situation and yet how they are often lacking.
Rather like Holden Caulfield, Kerney, who is 63, detests pretentious snobs, calling them the “worst offenders.” So he set out to needle them, drawing on a lifetime of experience. The sly thing about his book is that it really does read like a self-help guide for those who want to insinuate themselves into the upper echelons of society.
Here’s a bulleted list:
∎ “One of the first things you will want to do when you get some money is move.”
∎ “Trust funds can solve all kinds of problems or lead to them.”
∎ “No matter how much money people have, there are savings to be had. Old money just doesn’t waste money.”
∎ “You can count on old money ordering a BLT or a club sandwich if they are hungry.”
It’s a little as if P.G. Wodehouse had deputized his immortal creation Bertie Wooster to pass onto the hoi polloi a list of Dos and Don’ts. The advice seems simultaneously serious and facetious. Do very wealthy people really obsess about finger bowls and Stubbs & Wooten slippers? (A Palm Beach, Fla., company that sells needlepoint slippers for $450 a pop.)
“It’s supposed to be amusing. There may be people who take it seriously and God help them,” Kerney said in a phone interview from Princeton, where he was stopping over on his way to Vermont.
The real key to getting along in the world, Kerney said, is how you treat others. Good manners were drummed into him and his siblings by his parents almost from birth “until it became part of your character.”
What interests him is not only the eccentricities of the super rich but why they are the way they are. “I like to think about what makes people tick,” he said.
There are no easy generalizations about the difference between old money and new, Kerney said, but the convention is that old money tends to disdain shows of money while new money, sometimes but not always, likes to flaunt it. This often holds true, he said.
Old money is comfortable, discreet, tasteful. While staying in Princeton, he stayed with some good friends who live in a well-appointed house. But there are no airs or pretensions. “They have a ton of money but they’re just ordinary people.”
It all comes back to manners, which are “something everybody should teach their children. ... Really the basis of good manners is consideration.”
Making people feel comfortable is far more important than judging them on whether they use the right fork, Kerney said. At the same time, the code of behavior to which Kerney subscribes — respecting one’s elders, not showing off or displaying a haughty superiority — is there for a reason. Without it, we’re all at the dog park, snapping at each other’s heels.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.