Sense and Simian Sensibilities

Columnist Len Bourland
Columnist Len Bourland

October has to be the best month of the year — weather-wise for travel and weekends, activity-wise as the kids are back in school, the workplace is humming, the clubs and organizations have all revved up, the heat is behind us, and the holidays have yet to besiege us.

It’s a good kind of busy, except for the poor, poor, uber-rich, particularly the “one percenters” in wealth, dwelling in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, who live as a peculiar tribe, with a specific pecking order and caste rules dictated by the limited geography and limitless wealth they entail.

Having upscaled from funky lower Manhattan to this rarefied world of condos and penthouses, author Wednesday Martin has taken the clever narrative tone of a “social anthropologist” to liken the world of image-obsessed women to those of the alpha females in chimpanzee society in her rollicking satire, The Primates of Park Avenue. It’s so much more than a summer read. This subset of tribal women she once scorned but became adapted to and accepted by are in a never-ending marathon to stay married to the hedge-fund managers, scions of business, the multi-multi-millionaires and billionaires who run Wall Street, our economy, and much of the world (even going so far as to run for president, methinks).

And she maybe loved that Birkin even more than her silverback gorilla. (Cartoon: E. Ygartua)
And she maybe loved that Birkin even more than her silverback gorilla. (Cartoon: E. Ygartua)

“Women of the tribe I was studying paid the price for beauty, looking frozen, starving and exercising their bodies into submission. They did the never-ending work of forging and maintaining social connections and social status for themselves, their children, and the couple. But it was the men who picked up the tab.” (Even for those with “careers.”)
The author, a Midwesterner with a sensible attitude, is determined not to succumb to this new world when she and her husband hit the big time, but she’s in need of friends for her child, if not herself, and finds herself going native instead of just observing them.

As a child of the corporate move, I can attest that succumbing to local norms and mores can seep into the pores like osmosis. She is completely frozen by all the women in the school hallways who won’t deign to make eye contact, much less speak, until the ice is broken by an alpha male who befriends her. Then the imperious queens begin slowly to reassess her and allow her to penetrate their inner sanctums.

In one funny but rather pathetic episode, the author, now attuned to the importance of the wardrobe of the tribe, begins her pursuit of the ultimate status symbol: a Birkin bag — a purse for the uninitiated — which like the tony pre-schools has a waiting list. Sales personnel must be courted, bribes paid, trips to foreign countries offered, in search of this object of leather with a $10,000 price tag. Seriously. Never mind these women sit on charitable boards for world hunger.

It sounds remarkably like junior high, except in my day we coveted a John Romaine pocket book (never “purse,” too old-ladyish). And they cost about $25. Portion control, I guess. The Birkin bag had to accessorize the everyday designer clothes that were the uniforms of these socialites. When Ms. Martin garners one, she feels the smug endorphin high of a marathon winner.
This got me to wondering about whether Dallas has such female primates adhering to strict wardrobe codes and incessant social climbing while their silverback gorillas are pursuing the almighty buck. Surely our down-home Texas gals — spread out all over the Metroplex rather than piling up on top of each other in condos with park or river views — shelter us from female alphas obsessed with stiletto shoes, extravagant clothes, jockeying for spots for exclusive pre-schools, board positions, clubs, and nannies, only vacationing in the Texas Hamptons, known as “The Ranch.”

After all, this is the buckle of the Bible belt, and we have high church attendance that precludes marginalizing a fellow sister if she loses her status in divorce, or worse, her man loses his money and they have to downscale and sell the ranch. Sleek, shallow, snobby, secular, scheming, social-climbing primates reside in Park Avenue zip codes.
We Texans don’t put up with that sort of “monkey business,” in October or any month. Right?

Len Bourland can be reached at len@lenbourland.com.

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