Money & Power
Why the Rich And Powerful Spend So Much Time Pleading Poverty
The secret code of the poor mouth.
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Some 40 years ago, while visiting Rome, a sprightly David Rockefeller, then only 60, walked into the Gucci flagship store on the Via Condotti with a relative of mine to buy a wallet. Finding the prices exorbitant, he declined to make a purchase. Afterward, outside, he saw a Roman bum of sorts, and he asked him where one might find leather goods.

“Two blocks down on your right,” the man answered. “You won’t find anything in the Gucci store. Only a Rockefeller could afford those items!”

These days it’s hard to imagine that once upon a time, before the hashtag, discretion was a means of achieving social cachet. As the author and social observer George Howe Colt puts it, “To be showy was considered garish, New York–ish, ill-mannered, and ill-bred.” (Colt grew up in Puritan Boston, where, as he wrote in his family memoir, The Big House, money was “something to camouflage.”)

POOR-MOUTH
v., informal: to fraudulently downplay one’s true wealth, as in “I own the smallest apartment in Dakota,” or “I always stay at Le Village in St. Bart's."

Concealing one’s true means may be making a comeback, though. For one thing, showing off wealth isn’t as easy as it used to be. Since 2008, whether plutocrats are traveling, shopping, or entertaining, downplaying is de rigueur, as in, “I have a private driver because I added up my receipts and it was a tad more than taking taxis.”


Mike Bloomberg and Les Moonves wear the vests given free to attendees at the annual Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley in 2016.

The term for this is poor mouth, which, according to the dictionary, is defined as “unjustified complaining, esp. to excite sympathy.” (According to a translation of Flann O’Brien’s classic novel The Poor Mouth, in Gaelic and Old Irish “ ‘putting on the poor mouth’ means making a pretense of being poor or in bad circumstances in order to gain advantage.”) We poor-mouth when we labor to prove (sometimes to ourselves) that life is harder than it really is.

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The art critic Gary Indiana tells a story about Kathy Acker, the experimental writer and punk rock performance artist, who lived on a trust fund and “put on the poor mouth” for her bohemian friends. “At lunch one day a $50 bill slid out of her wallet as she rummaged for a single, after an epic soliloquy about her pennilessness. ‘I must have saved this and forgotten all about it!’ Another $50 bill then dropped from the wallet.”

Of course, some plutocrats actually think they’re poor. “Me? Good heavens, I’m not rich!” yelps a lunch companion of Nelson Aldrich’s in Old Money: The Mythology of America’s Upper Class. They’re sitting in the Brook, the members-only men’s club in Manhattan, surrounded by “an imperial ton of Georgian silver.” The preferred look of the truly committed poor mouth is the hair shirt, after all.

“Who am I, Bill Gates?” says a friend of mine who fills her ample suburban basement with Costco toilet paper to avoid the horror of getting shaken down at Whole Foods. Which could be seen as just being cheap, but poor mouths are never content to merely self-deny—they have to make sure their acts of ascetic piety are applauded.

Of course, in some quarters pretending not to have wealth—or even want it—is how you flaunt it, resulting occasionally in comical duels of self-imposed hardship. (“My summer house has no internet!” “Mine has no walls!”) As Sarah Payne Stuart, author of Perfectly Miserable, has observed, “For New England Protestants, appearances are everything: They must look as if they have money (and therefore clearly belong to God’s Elect), and yet they must seem to care nothing for it.”

Not for nothing is self-deprecation a WASP trademark: “Where are you headed this weekend?” “We have a cottage on the beach.” Translation: We (and not you) are driving our 15-year-old Prius up to an ancient, cobweb-filled 11-bedroom waterfront palace in Dark Harbor.

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We have a cottage on the beach. Translation: We are driving our 15-year-old Prius up to an ancient, cobweb-filled 11-bedroom waterfront palace in Dark Harbor.

But regardless of how old or new money is, these days dissembling tends to go hand in hand with riches. Poor mouth went into hibernation during the Greed Is Good years, when the wealthy were all too happy to be real-life Dynasty characters. The ’90s brought Wall Street chieftains entombing themselves in penthouses fit for Bourbon monarchs, the heyday of the private plane, and bling.

Then 2008 happened—downsizing, foreclosing, nationwide suffering—and suddenly plutocrats started leaving Madison Avenue stores with goodies hidden in brown paper shopping bags. Out of guilt, or a desire to avoid the fate of Marie-Antoinette, the prevailing code among the rich was to avoid too obvious exhibitions of their ever-accumulating wealth.

In the years since, many have tried to adjust to the Rockefeller ethos that ostentatious spending is, well, ostentatious. Today’s turbocharged wealthy want you to know what they have, but then they pretend they didn’t tell you. A woman I know recently attended a dinner at a townhouse where the hostess—whose wealth has been well documented—after being complimented on her Gucci dress, replied, “Well, you will see me in it endlessly, it was so expensive.” Perhaps she thought her money made guests uncomfortable? Why not just polish the Buccellati and be honest?

“Do not try to be different from what you are,” as the protagonist of The Late George Apley tells fellow bluebloods. “Learn to accept what you are, not arrogantly but philosophically.” (The author, John Marquand, would surely have seen a Silicon Valley billionaire in a hoodie as just another aristocrat carrying an L.L. Bean tote.)

The truth is, poor-mouthing is a salve. The rich want to believe they’re untainted by the cash that has rolled in over the last decade like waves crashing on their Southampton estates. People who live on Park Avenue like to take the subway because their wealth makes the world unreal, without consequences, without edges, especially if it’s inherited. “A life spent without having to take the risk of paying the cost of consequences is, quite simply, an inconsequential life,” Aldrich observes in Old Money.

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On to Costco, then! On to the Newport cottage and the "little place in the country"! On to Aspen in the NetJet, because really, buying first class tickets for the whole family would have cost just the same.

This story appeared in the August 2017 issue of Town & Country.

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