As Sherman points out, we women bear the brunt of whatever protest there might be against wealth, although since she doesn’t distinguish between a woman’s inherited assets, her earned income, and assets she might claim as being hers although in reality they are her husband’s, the account is a little skewed.
The uneasiness of the women quoted, who want to appear as “normal,” giving as an example walking a child to school—has several possible explanations, the dominant one being unacknowledged shame. But some uneasiness may result from the uncertainty the wives of rich men face: they may never have seen their husbands’ wills and have no way of knowing for sure how much of his enormous income they can claim as being theirs. The bills left on the mantelpiece by an earlier generation of husbands were probably never enough, but at least the amount was easily ascertained. That’s much more difficult when credit cards and bank accounts are the sources. In fact, several of these wives claimed with some credibility not to know their husbands’ net worth.
As Sherman points out, trying to justify enormous wealth through appearing to be “normal,” giving to charity and other acts of good will don’t really cut it. The woman who cuts the six dollar price off her loaf of bread (this is Manhattan, after all) because she is embarrassed for her underpaid nanny to see it never considers increasing the woman’s pay. She might not be able to do that if her money is really her husband’s.
Inherent injustice is never fixed by the good deeds or the good intentions of those who benefit from it. A similar point of view is expressed by men who say our current president is “trying,” or at the other end of the scale, by the murderer who claims he was unreasonably provoked or the rapist who uses the same argument.
In the end, the injustice remains no matter how many price tags are cut off expensive food, clothes, and furniture—a habit of some rich women Sherman interviewed.
By the way, another circumlocution—using “wealthy” rather than the more straightforward “rich”—has rooted itself in our discourse (what little there is of it) with “privileged” not far behind.
This brings me to Doris Duke. I doubt very much that she ever cut price tags off anything she bought—the Islamic art she collected for her great museum in Hawaii, Shangri La (although certainly she tried to bargain for a good price), her couture clothes (although they would not have come with price tags), or her astonishing jewelry. She was conscious enough of the issue to avoid wearing jewelry in the wrong places or at the wrong times, although news stories always insisted that she was decked with diamonds when she visited, with Eleanor Roosevelt, dispossessed mountaineers in the Kentucky mountains. She did not. Nor did the first lady, but news accounts only covered Doris with jewels, not Eleanor.
I hope, and I think it is at least barely possible, that Doris enjoyed displaying her wealth. It will raise eyebrows when readers read, in my biography—‘The Silver Swan: In Search of Doris Duke” to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux next spring—that Doris befriended, justified and supported, financially, Imelda Marcos, the notorious wife of the dictator of the Philippines.
Certainly Doris’ support seems ill-advised. But she may have sensed, as Imelda did, that what Imelda called “the little people” of her native country enjoyed the spectacle she provided: the clothes, the jewels, the houses. Not a very convincing excuse for pillaging the nation’s assets but probably about as convincing as contemporary attempts to appear “normal” or to give to charity.
Our culture is unjust because we, its citizens, are satisfied for it to be that way. And as long as women who have access to money in obscene amounts cut off price tags and avoid involving their husbands in the discussion, there is little hope of change.