F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his short story “The Rich Boy” in 1926, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” That’s certainly true, and, in the hands of ad man and writer Richard Kirshenbaum, they’re also much funnier.
Kirshenbaum has come out with his fourth book, “Isn’t That Rich? Life Among the 1%” (Open Road), a compilation of his columns from the New York Observer, which has a foreword by Michael Gross. In the book, Kirshenbaum skewers the insecurities and idiosyncrasies of the wealthy, who have such rarefied problems as how to a) cope with being a mere millionaire in a group of billionaires; b) copy Italian style successfully; c) dine out in expensive restaurants where the customer is always wrong; d) date if you’re an uptown divorcée, and so on. He also makes fun of them for knowing nothing about art but creating insta-collections for status and as an investment and for drafting their drivers to be surrogate fathers.
“The ideas generally come when I see a ridiculous situation,” he says, sitting in the lush environs of the Lotos Club. One chapter is titled: “Need an Intern with a Strong Sense of Entitlement and Bad Manners? Hire a Rich Kid.” One young woman wrote a note to him complaining about the fact that he had no position as an intern for her. She had contacted him right before the beginning of summer, when all such positions are usually filled, and spelled his name wrong.
He and a friend like to match-make among the rich, and he writes about suggesting that they put one woman who might be in need of some extra cash together with a boring billionaire from Palm Beach whose extensive real estate portfolio has “a personality all its own.”
Kirshenbaum thinks that manners are among the things lacking among the 1 percent. “They don’t care about horrifying other people,” he says. They’re also too loud. One of the old-line socialites in the essays says that the new rich are too noisy for her, so, when she’s wooing them for one of her charities, she prefers to entertain them at loud restaurants so that they don’t embarrass her.
One unexpected problem society hostesses have today is that so many people are on highly specific, often strange, diets, that it’s hard to know what to serve them. If you go to charity events, filet mignon is almost always served, but nobody eats it. The tables cost so much, however, that the hostesses feel that you have to provide it. He points out that Nan Kempner was known for serving meatloaf at her dinner parties, but that would never work now. “One woman said that she thought that she just should put takeout menus on the table,” he says.
Some of Kirshenbaum’s friends and acquaintances are upset by his columns. His wife Dana, to whom he dedicated the book, tells him to say, “Thank you for reading me. Wait until you see the next one.”
As for his children, “I think they’re proud of me. I think they know that you should have a passion for what you do, enjoy what you do. And what they see is that I do have a passion for it.” Next up for Kirshenbaum is a novel or short story collection.
In 1987, when he was just 26, he founded the advertising agency Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners, which, among other things, helped create the first pop-up store. He eventually was able to sell it for a great deal of money. In fact, Gross teases him in his introduction for being a member of the 1 percent himself. Later he wrote a book about starting the firm, called “Madboy: Beyond ‘Mad Men,’ Tales from the Mad, Mad World of Advertising.” How did he manage to pull this business operation off?
“I didn’t know I couldn’t,” he says. “When you’re young, you think nothing about having responsibilities, but when you get older, sometimes you have less [chutzpah]. It actually worked to my benefit. I remember doing my billing for the first time, working at an old-fashioned manual typewriter, I typed a bill, I sent the bill, and the money came back. They actually sent the money!”