Posted October 01, 2015
Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin: A Review
I hated it.
Specifically, I hated that the author, Wednesday Martin, wasted the idea's potential. Or her publisher did. Whichever came first, the book was a big disappointment.
I pre-ordered the book after reading the New York Times article, Poor Little Rich Women. The article made the book sound pretty compelling. Finally! An ethnographic window into the cabal of the wealthy, educated, Park Avenue wife and mother.
Unfortunately the anthropology was pretty weak considering Martin holds a PhD from Yale. To be fair, it's pretty clear, throughout, that there was a great deal of pressure from her editor to make it into "something," but it's never clear what that "something" really is. It winds up being a really disorganized sort of personal narrative with some Old School baboon research slapped on to glue it all together.
Though the original concept is quite interesting, once you're into the text you realize (if you're an anthropologist, like me) that Martin never really obtained access to the community and when she did, it wasn't for long enough. The book makes an observation of a series of very small moments and then drags each encounter across twenty or thirty pages without ever delivering any worthwhile ethnographic insight.
Case in point: At the beginning of the book, Martin mentions that on the Upper East Side, anyway, the wealthier the family? The more children they have. Why is that? You might say, like Martin hinted, that it's because they can afford it. They can afford bigger apartments and more private school tuition, right?
Ok. You could argue that. But an anthropologist would unpack that a little more. If this was my research? The first thing I'd look into would be the power structures built into the finances of the Upper East Side marriages. She mentions the "performance bonuses" built into pre-nups in the New York Times article, but never really got into that in the book, and she certainly didn't comment on how pre- and post-nuptial agreements handled child support if there was a divorce.
Fact: If you marry an extremely wealthy man and your achievements become about supporting his career, the only financial security you may have long term (in the event of a divorce) may come from the children you've had together. More children = more child support. Stretch those births out over fifteen years and you've got child support for a longer period of time.
You think I'm crazy, I know, but this is true! I know several women who have been through this and that's why I'm disappointed Wednesday Martin didn't dig a little deeper. After divorce, a once-wealthy woman may rely on fixed alimony and never be able to marry again if she is unwilling or unable to give up her income.
A pre-nup may award a smaller sum to the wife and allocate the greatest amounts to the children. I remember being so amazed by a woman's beautiful Carolina Herrera evening gown at an event and then she told me -- I'm not even sure why -- that her son had bought it for her. So much of her image in the community was built around the idea that she was wealthy, but the reality was that she couldn't maintain that image without lifetime financial support from her grown children. Imagine the tension of having to ask your children for everything you need and what would be required to maintain that balance of love and complete dependence on your children for life.
Pre-nup negotiations are so painful to both sides that there's a very good chance that the woman made pretty significant concessions just to move the marriage forward. I would hypothesize (guess?) that many of these women are having lots of children because that provides greater security as the marriage continues. The older (and less attractive) a woman gets, the more precarious things become. You can get work done on your face; you can go to SoulCycle; you can look the other way when he cheats on you. But how do you guarantee yourself a life if he decides a younger woman is the better deal?
And I know that in New York, a wealthy man's marriages will end within five years because of divorce property laws. Just ask Ellen Barkin! She carefully collected valuable jewelry during her marriage to beauty mogul Ronald Perelman and then sold it at auction to raise cash when they divorced. I know that this was a calculated financial strategy on Barkin's part DURING the marriage. She might have played it a different way in the press, but Barkin knew and she had a plan. Don't ask me how I know because I can't tell you. But it's absolutely true. In California? Your marriage to a wealthy man is going to last 10 years or less if he's unwilling to give you half his money. Just ask Nicole Kidman. This was the kind of stuff I was hoping Wednesday Martin would get into, but she never does.
I've seen wealthy men decide not to marry again because the pre-nup negotiations of their first marriage were so painful. They choose, instead, not to risk existing happiness and live (and have children with) the next woman without offering her the same negotiated "security." Which will be okay until it's not okay. And then what will she do?
And those little moments in Primates of Park Avenue - the back-turning at school drop offs; the quiet rage these women had during SoulCycle - what's behind all that anger? Wednesday Martin gives us a glimpse of the pressure they are under to look and behave in certain ways to maintain their status in the group, but we never get behind it. She never got "in".
But it's the concluding chapters of Primates of Park Avenue that really disappoint. We start the book with an introduction to a group of women in a silent fight for power and status and end with Martin backpedaling and saying some like, "You know, it turned out these gals were just so nice and had so many problems of their own." Bleech!
When I found out Martin had sold the film rights to the book - just days after it was printed - I was ticked for a solid week. It's going to become a Devil Wears Prada-style movie, I just know it. When someone does it halfway? It's nail in the coffin for anthropology. It makes it harder for all the other social anthropologists to argue that the kind of research we do is worthwhile.
I hate that.