NEW YORK — Like the Yonomamo of Venuzuela, the ultra-rich WASPs of New Jersey are a dangerous tribe. Dirk Wittenborn’s latest novel, “Fierce People,” compares the two packs. The members of the former hit each other with clubs. The members of the latter send their dogs after foxes for fun. And both fascinate novelist Wittenborn’s Finn Earl, a 15-year-old Lower East Side kid who winds up in rural New Jersey in 1978 surrounded by old money.
After 18 years of writer’s block, Wittenborn looked to his own experience in those wilds, a world introduced to him at a tender age by his sisters Gretchen, who married into the Johnson family, and Betsey Miller, who along with her husband owns the Robert Miller Gallery. “I was acutely aware of being the poor boy at the party,” he says, lighting a cigarette in his elegant East Village apartment. “You don’t have the clothes and you’re way out of your league.”
And the tribe has strict rules. “You can’t actually buy anything,” the author notes. “You are just supposed to have it hanging in the closet. Doesn’t everyone own white tie?” When Finn is invited to his first fancy party, his mother seeks out an old tux, not a new one, so that no one will guess he didn’t own it all along.
But while Wittenborn’s own experiences at Turkey Coop Farm, the Johnson compound in Pottersville, N.J., informed his writing, “Fierce People” follows in the tradition of novels like “The Great Gatsby” that are steeped in the rituals of social climbing and class. “When they’re reading it, I wanted people to think, I’ve been to a place like that, but I wasn’t very welcome,” he says. “There are places like the one I describe everywhere.”
Both of Wittenborn’s parents were born in Illinois and went to Yale, though they never shook their Midwesterner’s fascination with the East. “I started the story in 1978 because that’s the moment that ass kissing turned into networking,” he says. “My parents were great networkers.”
For his part, he felt like an outsider, even though he did well with the monied crowd, playing tennis with his sisters’ friends and charming them with all his might. “I’d never written about this part of my life,” he says, “but I became grotesquely fascinated with the wealth of America. I feel like I’ve lived through two gold rushes. You see this Ralph Lauren look sold to the world. Everyone wants to look like an old WASP. Everyone is emulating the same thing.
“The height for me came when I was at a Millennium party,” he continues. “I heard a woman say, `I was in the shower of our small jet when turbulence hit.’ It was a haiku. I knew that we were at the end of an empire.”
The book, published by Bloomsbury this July, was met with high praise upon its release last month in England, when Griffin Dunne quickly optioned the movie rights.
And now that he’s found his way back to the world of wealth, Wittenborn will delve even deeper. He’ll continue Finn’s story in two more books to complete a trilogy, and has helped his nephew, Jamie Johnson, produce a film on the young and rich. They hope to take the documentary, which includes interviews with Ivanka Trump, S.I. Newhouse the fourth and Georgina Bloomberg, to Sundance next year.
The manicured world of his subjects might boast the brutality of remote Venezuela, but Wittenborn just can’t seem to get enough. “I remember the first house I’d come to where all the motors for the refrigerators were kept in the basement so they wouldn’t be heard,” he says. “This world has such incredible taste. Any thinking person has to be fascinated by what’s beautiful about it.””