Some Fantasies Really Ought to Be Grounded in Some Reality

BY MARTIN KICH

In a recent Curbed newsletter, I came across an item titled “Three Gilded Age Berkshire Retreats for Sale Right Now.”

The author of the article, Robert Khederian, notes that as a summer destination for the very affluent of the “Gilded Age,” the Berkshires never quite had the cache of Newport, Rhode Island, as a place to build a “summer cottage.” There is no equivalent in the Berkshires of the Vanderbilts’ “summer cottage” in Newport, the Breakers:

It is worth noting that the Vanderbilts lived in the Breakers in July and August of each year. That’s it.

 

Nonetheless, the Berkshires “summer cottages” are nothing to sneeze at. Khederian notes that a builder constructed 75 of these “cottages” in Lennox, Massachusetts, in the last quarter of the 19th century. The three currently for sale may or may not be representative, but they are listed at $7.9 million, $3.95 million, and a relatively modest $1.1 million:

The first one has eight bedrooms and ten bathrooms, whereas the third one has “just” six bedrooms and five bathrooms.

 

When we lived in eastern Pennsylvania, my wife and I vacationed in New England, and those trips twice included visits to Newport and tours of the Newport mansions. Two impressions have stuck with me.

First, I am very glad that someone has preserved these buildings because it would have been a terrible waste to have allowed them to fall into ruin. But I am also very ambivalent because I know that they were, in effect, built on the backs of many immigrants as poor and as hard-working as my own immediate ancestors were. One detail has stuck with me. Because of the salt in the ocean breezes, much of the woodwork is actually plaster made to look like expensive and intricately carved wood. I recall a guide’s mentioning that the craftsmen who did that work needed to be brought over from Italy and they were paid $1.00/day, considerably more than the ordinary laborers.

Second, I also recall a guide’s telling us that the kitchen in the Breakers is as large as the average three-bedroom home, and I recall walking with my wife into the “play cottage” built on the grounds for the Vanderbilt children. We were then renting an apartment and thinking about buying a home, and I remember saying out loud about the children’s “play cottage” that if the ceilings were just a foot higher, it would be about the size of a house that we would need—though perhaps just out of our price range.

 

Just for posting this item, I am fairly certain that I will be almost immediately accused by someone of promoting “class warfare.” I think that employing that term is primarily a disingenuous tactic to pre-empt any serious discussion of income inequality. But, in any case, it is really not my intention to address those issues here.

My point here is much more basic: I think that it is very hard for most Americans to conceive of—to imagine–how the top 10%–never mind the top 1%, or .1%–live and how different their resulting life experience is.

This failure of understanding is very comparable to the difficulty in appreciating the differences between a million, a billion, and a trillion dollars, which is the topic of a previous post that I have made to this blog [please see: https://academeblog.org/2017/02/01/visualizing-a-billion-and-a-trillion-dollars/].

People can very easily fantasize about “striking it rich,” but those fantasies are, I think, not much grounded in any real conception of how the very wealthy live.

The fantasy becomes at least somewhat harder to entertain if you are calculating how much laminate flooring you can afford to buy, on sale at Lumber Liquidators, while you happen to be looking at the interior of a mansion that clearly has more mahogany in its “library” than there is wood of any kind (even including “wood product”) in your entire home.

From the start, I thought that there were many reasons not to vote for Donald Trump. But his appeals to working people rang especially hollow to me not just because of his personal history as a businessman but also because of where and how he lives.

Can anyone who lives in these surroundings truly understand what it is like to be living paycheck to paycheck, never mind to suddenly not have a paycheck?

I am not saying that it is impossible for someone who is wealthy to have a genuine empathy for those who have less or even those who are impoverished.

But I am suggesting that someone who views self-indulgent excess as his or her personal prerogative is much less likely to be capable of or even interested in having such empathy.

 

Robert Khederian’s article in Curbed is available at: http://www.curbed.com/2017/2/23/14713214/gilded-age-mansion-for-sale-berkshires.

The photos of the Berkshires “cottages,” included with that article, are courtesy of Zillow.

The photos of the Trump “apartment” in New York City are from an article written by Gareth Davies for the Daily Mail, “Man with the Midas Touch: Inside the President-Elect’s $100 Million Trump Tower Penthouse, Complete with Gold-Rimmed Candy Bowls, a Mercedes for His Son, 10, and Ceiling Murals of the Greek Gods,” which is available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3938844/Inside-President-elect-s-100-million-penthouse-Donald-Trump-s-gold-rimmed-candy-bowls-toy-personalized-Mercedes-10-year-old-son-coloring-pencils-wife-painted-ceilings-depicting-Greek-Gods.html#ixzz4aUNqMx48 .

3 thoughts on “Some Fantasies Really Ought to Be Grounded in Some Reality

  1. I wonder if the distinction you are getting at is between ‘sympathy’ and ’empathy’. Anyone can experience sympathy, a sense that another person suffers or lacks something, but empathy, knowing what that actually feels like, usually requires similar experience. I cannot have empathy for the real poverty, I doubt very many people living in a Western European country can for the urban squalor and poverty that is allowed to exist in the US but is so rare in their own countries, but certainly anyone – no matter how rich or priveleged can have sympathy.

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