Truman Capote spent the last 17 years of his life trying to write a novel about the lifestyles of the fabulously wealthy. The book was never finished, but this month the results of a major study have said in statistics what he was trying to say in words – in short, they’re a downright miserable and unsatisfied bunch. Here’s why, especially in South Africa, we should pity the super rich. By KEVIN BLOOM.
The title of Truman Capote’s unfinished novel Answered Prayers was a reference to an aphorism of Saint Teresa of Avila: “Answered prayers cause more tears than those that remain unanswered”. The book, which in Capote’s own mind was supposed to be his masterpiece, had as its central conceit an intense and original focus on the lives of America’s super rich – and more specifically, a focus on the lives of those socialite multi-millionaires who’d acted as the great writer’s benefactors. As the title implies, Capote never intended to provide the reader with an account of how deliriously joyful these people were (a literary precursor to the gushing Robin Leach he wasn’t). His objective, on the contrary, was to expose how spiritually barren the American elite had become, how meaninglessly frivolous, and – most importantly – how miserable.
It isn’t hard to discern why Capote never finished his opus. Pressured and flailing, in 1975 he sold four chapters of the work-in-progress to Esquire magazine, just to prove that he was capable of doing it. As Tina Brown noted for the New York Times in 1987, when the book was finally published in its incomplete form (Capote died in 1984): “It’s a time-honored literary tradition for a writer to bite the hand that feeds him. It is also a time-honored literary tradition that when their scalded source material cuts them at parties writers always seem surprised.” Brown, who at the time was editor of Vanity Fair, went on to remark that Capote had raised ingratitude to the level of art, but her observation – trenchant as it was – came nowhere close to the prophetic insight of Norman Mailer, offered years before Capote had even considered writing Answered Prayers: ”I would suspect he hesitates between the attraction of society which enjoys and so repays him for his unique gifts, and the novel he could write of the gossip column’s real life, a major work but it would banish him forever from his favorite world. Since I have nothing to lose I hope Truman fries a few of the fancier fish.”
The fish that Capote ended up frying were indeed few; still, had he lived for another 27 years, he would have seen his intuitions confirmed by a major four-year study out of Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy. Funded, remarkably, by the Gates Foundation, the study surveyed 165 American households, 120 of which have $25 million or more in assets. The secret to its success is that, unlike Capote, the survey didn’t rely on characters whose identities would be thinly veiled and simple to uncover – instead, it allowed the super rich to answer questions about their private lives and innermost feelings from the anonymity of their personal computers. While the results of the survey are not yet public, The Atlantic magazine has been granted access to portions of the research, and the feature that they’ve just published on it makes for irresistible reading.
For example this passage: “The respondents turn out to be a generally dissatisfied lot, whose money has contributed to deep anxieties involving love, work, and family. Indeed, they are frequently dissatisfied even with their sizable fortunes. Most of them still do not consider themselves financially secure; for that, they say, they would require on average one-quarter more wealth than they currently possess.”
Right now, being The Daily Maverick reader we suspect you to be – compassionate, empathetic, sensitive – your heart is no doubt bleeding custard for this hapless and marginalised sector of humanity. You’ll be happy to know, then, that although the super rich seem to feel as sorry for themselves as you do for them, they don’t like to whine about their misfortunes in public. It’s a deep shyness that’s tied, according to the survey, to a fear of appearing ungrateful and ridiculous. A thousand variations of the following remark, made by the non-rich, the struggling, and the poor, lie waiting for them every time they complain: “My house just got foreclosed, I’m a single mother holding down two jobs, my ex is a lay-about non-alimony-paying cough mixture addict, and you’ve got problems? Why don’t you give me the money?” Proving the prevalence of such reactions are the comments under the magazine feature itself, like the one from “Kate A,” which suggests that the secret fears of the super rich actually only amount to running out of Dom Perignon and having to settle for Verve Cliquot. Kate’s comment got 46 “likes”.
What many of us always suspected, however, seems to be true – where a new car, expensive shopping spree, or overseas holiday would make most mortals happy (if even for a short while), the fabulously wealthy have on the balance of evidence lost the capacity for joy in consumption. Retail therapy? Not for this bunch. When you can unflinchingly buy the whole shop, or your father owns the chain, there’s no such thing as the psychological release that comes from spending more than you should. Adrenalin rushes and self-affirming acts of defiance have to be sourced elsewhere, like in circumnavigating the globe in a hot air balloon, or binging on the finest narcotics on the planet.
Which is an incredibly profound statement on the system that elevated the super rich to their societal position in the first place. If capitalism doesn’t have an innate ability to bring lasting fulfillment to its most successful adherents – it’s worth noting here that the respondents who’d made their own money didn’t come across as quite so miserable as those who’d inherited it, although they did come across as pretty miserable – then what are the rest of us chasing? Paul Schervish, the Boston Center’s 64-year-old sociologist and director, even went as far as to mention echoes of Buddha and Saint Ignatius (figures who renounced their wealth and began a new life of piety) in the laments of his respondents.
“Some of the respondents don’t yet know the depth of the yearning in their words,” Schervish told The Atlantic. “I hear Buddha and Ignatius very much saying that you have to discern your path and get rid of the things that are encumbrances. That’s what these people are trying to find out: Do I have what I want? Am I screwing my kids up? They have the quantity, now they have to figure out the quality of their wants. They don’t all say that – some are stuck way before that. But this is what’s going on, whether they realize it or not.”
It’s an existential dilemma that goes to the heart of the human condition: the ability to have almost anything you want throws into stark focus the nature of your wants, so you land up confronted with the unfathomable depths of your needs. Robert Kenny, a long-time psychologist to the rich and one of the survey’s architects, puts it this way: “One of the saddest phrases I’ve heard is, ‘Honey, you’re never going to have to work’.” The statement may be totally counter-intuitive, but it was actually this one sentence that engendered the major (and most interesting) debate in The Atlantic’s online comments. Take this post from “emilysomething”: “I dated someone in college who will never have to work and I didn’t envy her for a minute. Never getting to economic self-sufficiency because you’re always reliant on your parents for money is infantilizing: you can’t afford to assert yourselves because they’re not only your parents, they’re also effectively your boss. (And they pay better than anyone else is going to pay you.)” Then take Kate A’s response: “But the thing is, no one is forcing that infantilization on her. She is more than within her rights to treat her vast fortune as a safety nest, and live a life where her money is not a huge issue.”
Somehow both arguments seem equally valid. From personal experience, easily the most tragic figure I’ve met in the last year is a trust fund kid who has it all going for him – looks, brains, a sensitive and artistic temperament, so much money that he never has to work. Were it not for the last part, I believe, his boredom and self-loathing wouldn’t have manifested itself in so wasteful a lifestyle (and, so far, life). But he has a choice; just as there have been plenty of indigent orphans who’ve taken the world by storm, there have been plenty of trust fund kids who’ve outdone their fathers and grandfathers in terms of both fortune-building and philanthropy.
In South Africa, where we have around 40,000 dollar millionaires and more than four million people living on less than a dollar a day, feeling empathy for “the plight of the rich” can be compared to supporting whale hunting or mass deforestation of the Amazon basin. And yet we also live in a country where crass materialism rules, where the poor and the up-and-coming and even the comfortably prosperous appear to want to define themselves by brands and symbols that equate fulfillment with wealth. So the question is compelling: if we can find it in ourselves to cry for the rich, might we not then find it in ourselves to envy their lives a little less?
When Truman Capote died, his lover of 36 years, Jack Dunphy, observed that he suffered from having too many prayers answered too soon. “Success is so bad for everybody, period,” said Dunphy. “Especially a certain kind of success, when people practically give up their identity. They forget who they are, how they are. That happened to Truman. He couldn’t get back to what he really wanted, to why he was created, to the genius he had discovered in himself.”
Half of Capote’s problem, as Mailer intimated, was that he desperately wanted to be like – or, more pertinently, just “be” – the people he intended to eviscerate in Answered Prayers. Tellingly, many of his peers thought that this was what killed him. DM
Photo by B Rosen.