A Hobby Anthropologist Dissects the Tribes of the Upper East Side

by GiniaBellafante

MAY 29, 2015

original article on NYTimes.com

children getting out of cabs

Going to school on the Upper East Side. Credit Erin Baiano for The New York Times

A few weeks ago, a woman named Wednesday Martin, a hobby anthropologist whose graduate degree is in comparative literature, published an op-ed article in The New York Times outlining some of the observations she makes in her forthcoming book, “Primates of Park Avenue.” News of the book, a memoir that presents itself as a pop ethnography of Upper East Side motherhood, immediately prompted intense reaction in part because of some of the claims made in it — that wealthy nonworking mothers receive a “wife bonus” for outstanding domestic performance, to cite an example — and in part because Ms. Martin, observed last week table-hopping at Michael’s in jeans and heels, had seemed to so thoroughly embrace the manners of the women she had written about with such an imperious strain of sympathy.

Speaking to The New York Post recently, Ms. Martin expressed disillusionment with her current habitat on the Upper West Side. “The Upper East Side is skinny; the West doesn’t care about the last 10 pounds. The Upper East is totally manicured and coifed and this is, like, post-menopausal gray hair.” After all was said and done, she said, she missed her old neighborhood. In the book, she writes about her arduous quest for the Hermès Birkin bag, the unsurpassable status symbol, nearly as hard to acquire as an hour of personal styling from Michelle Obama.

moms with strollers

A scene from Bravo’s “Odd Mom Out.” Credit Barbara Nitke/Bravo

For some time, Ms. Martin, the wife of an investment manager and a mother of two, lived at 900 Park Avenue, at 79th Street, which she described as “not a ‘prestigious’ prewar building,” studying the folkways of well-to-do women living west of Lexington Avenue. Her defenders have argued, obviously enough, that studying the primary beneficiaries of American capitalism is every bit as worthwhile as studying, for instance, the Ondonga tribe of Namibia, but studying is a term used here at risk of exaggeration, because Ms. Martin essentially spent six years at it only to reproduce every cliché of a “Real Housewives” episode.

She arrives on Park Avenue via Michigan and the West Village, an enclave she views, in the 21st century, as just as culturally distinct from the Upper East Side as Latvia is from Barbados. What Ms. Martin discovers when she lands in her new milieu is that stay-at-home-mothers exercise compulsively, fill large closets with lots of clothes, dress up for school drop-off, go to charity events, obsess over their children’s enrichment (in ways presumably but of course not provably different from the way rich and ambitious parents everywhere obsess over filial achievement and Princeton admission from the moment of conception) and spend exorbitant sums on personal grooming. They also drink to relieve anxiety and pass the summers languishing on Long Island’s East End (a useful bit of information for anyone under the impression that people living between East 60th and 96th Streets cleared out for Asbury Park in August).


That the mothers around her, largely acquainted through school, tended to socialize primarily with one another rather than in couples — a practice I have witnessed even in the distant colony of Brooklyn — is something Ms. Martin appears to find unique to the world she is describing and vaguely worrisome. In various instances, the women she portrays are shown to be petty, mean and adolescent, never saying hello and ignoring her requests for play dates, because, Ms. Martin concludes, she and her husband aren’t important enough — they are “low-ranking primates.” When something truly terrible happens to her — the sort of thing Ms. Martin rightly observes is too little discussed — some of these women reveal themselves capable of profound compassion, but a compassion that is dealt with only in a few pages at the end of the book, almost as an addendum.

One criticism of her approach has been that she has represented a part for the whole, immersing herself in a world of parvenus and allowing them to stand in for an entire uptown ruling class. “I am sure I don’t know the half of what goes on up and down Park Avenue,” an Upper East Side native and businesswoman wrote under the pseudonym Blair Schmaldorf in a blog post for Elle magazine. “But, in over 30 years, the only place I’ve ever encountered the audacious, extreme women Dr. Martin writes about is in fiction.”

author signing books

Lisa Birnbach, a lifelong Upper East Side resident, has also written about its people. Credit Tim Umphrey/Getty Images

Others questioned whether the “wife bonus” wasn’t, in fact, a joke. “It just doesn’t exist,” said Lisa Birnbach, the author of “The Preppy Handbook” and a lifelong resident of the Upper East Side, who has also made a living examining the patterns and codes of the extremely privileged. “And if there is one speck of the universe I feel I can understand fully and represent, it’s the Upper East Side. I have the years.” (The Post did unearth a young mother who received such a bonus, but she lived in Australia and Denmark, not on the Upper East Side.)

Potentially prompting the interests of conspiracy theorists, “Primates of Park Avenue” arrives at the same moment as a new scripted television series on Bravo, “Odd Mom Out,” which is also set in the universe of wealthy Upper East Side child rearing. Here as well, stereotypes are indulged, but the difference of course is that the series doesn’t aspire to social science. Starring a real-life Manhattan social figure, Jill Kargman, “Odd Mom Out” portrays the life of a nervous but ultimately contented East Side outcast, surrounded by blond, spinning-obsessed nincompoops. The character named Jill bears few signs of Ms. Martin’s own striving. She has three children and dances around in her underwear and longs for the messier New York of her childhood.

“At least when I was growing up there was shame around being rich,” she tells a friend in an early episode. “I mean, I knew kids who were mortified to have a driver. Now at drop-off they’re pimping cocaine-white S.U.V.s.”

Both the book and the series, though, raise a question of why it is that so much of our animus toward the exceptionally rich, filtered through popular culture, gets directed at women. Though the men do not come off well in Ms. Martin’s book — they barely pay attention to their wives in any emotional sense — the focus, of course, is on the strange behaviors of the women to whom they are married. There are no cheeky reality series revealing the zany misconduct of financial managers — a largely male class (“On tonight’s episode, Zach and Bob drain a pension fund and then head to Scores!”) — but plenty of indicators eager to convince us that rich women are conniving, vacuous and vain. For the most part, we’ve left the truly threatening alone. The devil doesn’t always wear Prada heels.

Correction: June 7, 2015

The Big City column last Sunday, about reaction to previews of a book about wives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, referred incorrectly to a woman who wrote a blog post for Elle magazine about life in the neighborhood. Her byline, Blair Schmaldorf, is a pseudonym, not her real name, which she will not disclose.