Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Rich Are Different from Us

There is a famous anecdote about a conversation that F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway had. Fitzgerald purportedly had said to Hemingway, “The rich are different from us.” To which Hemingway ostensibly had replied, “Yes, they have more money.”

(photo of Fitzgerald from Princeton.edu)

That exchange (whether it actually took place or not—here is an interesting reworking of this exchange) says much. The rich are different, and money, which sets the rich apart, sometimes breeds an attitude. Perhaps that is where the real difference comes in.

Perchance I should point out that my birth family is not a wealthy one. That may be self-evident, considering my parents were missionaries. But there is also a decided bent away from accumulating material wealth.

My great grandfather (my father’s mother’s dad) was something of an entrepreneur and through his life probably made a fortune or two, but circumstances rendered that accumulated wealth moot. He made noodles and, in a genius flash of marketing know-how, figured out how to increase demand for his product. The family legend goes that he would send some of his many children into little grocery stores to say “My mother wants me to buy Smith’s noodles. Do you have Smith’s noodles?” The bewildered store owner would say no. Then a day or so later, my great grandfather would walk into the store and say “I’m here to sell you Smith’s noodles.” Create the demand, then fill it—classic marketing. When he died, none of his children was available or capable of keeping the business running smoothly, and it all evaporated. That, as they say, is another story.

My paternal grandfather, who was a Canadian, had his fleeting chance at making a fortune. For a brief time, he homesteaded in Saskatchewan, Canada. The conditions of homesteading were that a person had to be on the land six months out of year, for a total of 3 years. The homesteader had to break 50 acres of land, and in return would get a 160-acre farm. Additionally, a person had to build a home worth $300. Upon completion of these terms, the person would then get a deed for the place and become the landowner. He had done the calculations, and figured he could make $4,000 selling the land—that is in 1910 dollars.

He never made his fortune, though, because he was courting my grandmother, who lived in Pennsylvania, at the time. He wrote and asked her what she thought of homesteading. She wrote back that she thought him more fit to be a preacher than a farmer. And, she also informed him, that three years was a long time to go without seeing him—a very subtle way of saying that she wouldn’t join him.

Her father (the noodle maker) had founded a new college around this time and wrote to ask my grandfather to join the new faculty, which my grandfather did. After my grandfather had made his decision and left behind homesteading and his future fortune, he wrote “I am in the place before God that I want to do all I can for the advancement of His cause.” He intentionally turned his back on financial reward, a decision that shaped his whole life.

Now, there have been other times when my family brushed up against the rich. When my father was a young man, he found summer employment as a butler in Bryn Mawr, PA, with a family named Crawford. Mr. Crawford was one of the founders of Acme Grocery stores. My father wrote of this experience:

They lived in a big spacious mansion in spacious grounds with trees and well manicured lawns surrounding the house. And they had a number of servants, a cook, several maids, a chauffeur, a number of gardeners or groundsmen, and I was the butler. My duties were several fold. They consisted amongst other things of answering the front door and obtaining the callers name (or card ‑ if the caller had a card I was to carry it on a tray to the Master or the Madam) and go to the said Master or Madam and receive permission to show the caller to "Master" or "Madam." Very formal and very officious!

My duties also consisted of waiting on the table at meal time, especially dinner time in the evening. That too was very formal. "Master" sat at one end of the large table in a large dining room, and "Madam" sat at the other end of the table. I don't know if conversation ensued or how much conversation ensued. I would receive the food to be served from the cook in the kitchen, carry it into the dining room one dish or casserole at a time, serve "Madam" first at her end of the table, then serve "Master" at his end of the table, and return for the next dish, and so forth. In addition to that I had certain cleaning duties or dusting duties in the large living room. I was instructed to dust certain high surfaces regularly (daily), like the mantel over the fireplace and surfaces over cupboards, with a feather duster. I thought I was learning my duties and expectations quite well and was feeling quite good about my employment. When all of a sudden I was fired.

The reason my father was fired had to do with serving dinner:

I served her a soufflé that had fallen. The "Master" had become somewhat indisposed and was confined to his bedroom. (They had separate bedrooms.) At dinner time "Madam" sat at her prepared place at the table, all alone. I was instructed to take the first course entree, a soufflé, to "Master" in his bedroom. I found him there sitting in a chair at a small table, dressed in his pajamas and bathrobe, and I served him his soufflé. He started asking me questions about who I was, where I was from, etc. And when he learned I had lived my childhood in Southern Rhodesia he asked more questions. When it came to southern Africa I was able to talk. And yet I was very conscious that "Madam" was sitting downstairs at the dining room table all alone, waiting to be served. I didn’t want to be impolite to him, and yet I was uneasy about not having served her. By the time I was able to excuse myself from his presence and serve her, the soufflé had fallen. . . I was fired summarily and immediately. She called me into the dining room, made a few comments about my services being unsatisfactory, and told me I was relieved of my duties immediately and forthwith.

To add insult to injury, these employers denied my father pay for his most recent weeks of employment, and demanded that he return a suit they had bought for him for his work capacity.

My encounters with the rich were not quite so dramatic, but I had a few small run-ins. During summers while I was in college, I worked in summer homes of rich people along Lake Erie. The first summer that I worked there, my employers were a family named Rich (!). I was the cleaning staff, with two other young women, one who cooked and one who cared for the grandchildren. The family had three children—all grown. The elder two were married, but the youngest was my age. He and his friends were very cordial, and we chatted from time to time. At the end of the summer, I assumed I would likely return there the next year. However, that option was closed when the mother in the family decided her son was paying too much attention to the hired help. She declined to re-employ me because I was fraternizing with the family! I worked for a different family the next two summers, and the main thing I recall about them is that they elected to pay me in either U.S. or Canadian dollars—whichever had the lower value at the time.

Back to Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Of course, part of the driver behind such a conversation was Fitzgerald's life long fascination with and longing for wealth. He immortalized that yearning in the character of Jay Gatsby who constantly looks across at the winking green light. Longing, longing. And Hemingway, ever the terse writer, cuts things down to size--yes, they have more money.

(photo of Hemingway from Cornell.edu)

Yes, the rich are different from us somehow!


Anvilcloud said...

About the payment in US or CDN $ -- it explains how some of the rich get that way. A very interesting post.

JeanMac said...

Rich in what? Usually dollars only. I could write a two page post about my experiences.
Maybe I will.Sure would be a load of one's chest!

Beverly said...

What an interesting post! Yes, there are reasons they are rich and we are not.

Ruth said...

I know some very wealthy people who live like very ordinary lives and quietly give big amounts of money to charity. They are the rich I admire, not the snooty types who would fire a worker for something so insignificant in the big picture of life. I tell my children we are all rich in N. America compared to most of the world.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

What is most annoying about the rich is their sense of "entitlement". For most, they have just been lucky to be born in a wealthy family or in the right economic place at the right time.

Pam said...

A very interesting post. When rich is equated with hard work and the right attitude, I have no problem with it. But when it goes along with greed and attitude, it disgusts me. Not to mention the fact that being truly "rich" rarely has anything to do with money.

Mary said...

Those of us - who had Mothers who carefully darned our socks and scrimped and saved pennies to buy her children a special, long-awaited for toy - were rich.

dguzman said...

What a humiliating experience for your father, and for you. My dealings with "the rich" have been rather limited, but I have noticed that "old money" tends to create avaricious cheapskates (like your Canadian/US dollars people) and "new money" tends to create that extravagant McMansion type. I agree with Pebbles about that sense of entitlement too.

My basic feeling about the super-wealthy is that too many people are starving for all that wealth to be concentrated among so few.

Cathy said...

Donna, I just read all the delightful posts I've missed. I may have to drop back and comment on each. This one is pretty amazing. My nephew waited table in a posh country club while going to college. His stories of out-right unkindness still make me want to punch the lights out of the snobs he had to deal with.

RuthieJ said...

Hi Donna,
I don't think money should ever give someone the right to treat other people like crap, but your stories certainly reveal that. It's sad when things turn out that way and other people suffer because of it.