Monday, March 2, 2009

The Real Wives of New York

by Alexandra Lebenthal

As we all know there are now “real housewives” in Orange County, California, Atlanta and, of course, here in New York City. On TV, they all appear to be living daffy lives of excess, brazenly baring everything from the cards in their wallets, to their surgically enhanced torsos to their parenting skills, to their social aspirations.

There is very little that is real about these women (or at least how their lives are edited for television). The Real wives (and husbands too) that I know today probably would not want a camera following them around 24/7 with so much volatility and uncertainty for so many.

Of course we all like to poke a little fun at the TV housewives—I suspect that in some strange way that is the reason they have been put on TV in the first place. They may also dislike they way they are portrayed on their shows, but I guess that was the bargain they made.

In any event, there is another subset of real wives in New York that I’d like you to meet (as always, I use composites), and right about now they could all use a little fun. For several years these ladies met regularly for lunch most Fridays at Fred’s on the 9th Floor of Barneys New York.

From the minute Sasha, Ashley, Grigsby and Jeannie slipped into the banquette, their conversations had the easy flow of good friends with a shared Manhattan lifestyle and experience. The talk immediately turned into a discussion of their current obsessions, details of their lives and their mutual friends and enemies.

They are the real wives of New York whom I know. They have money, multiple homes, serious philanthropic pursuits and social status. Their weekly ninety minute gatherings was the perfect package of their existence. The atmosphere and food accentuated it, with the towering tray of French country bread delicately served with silver tongs along with extra virgin olive oil for dipping, and the paper cone of Belgian Pomme Frites placed in front of them like a fresh cut flower arrangement. They always split a Fred’s Chopped Chicken Salad and a Nicoise salad, with extra balsamic vinaigrette and mustard lemon dressing on the side. Even the Diet Coke with lemon somehow tasted better there.

After lunch anyone who didn’t have a school pick up or an appointment rode the escalator down to the main floor, absentmindedly roaming the floors, picking up a D L & Co candle in Chelsea Passage across the hall, or a pair of Louboutins on 4, or a pair of Me and Ro earrings on the main floor.

Lately, though, lunch has had a distinctly different edge. They still dish about the very latest—Hudson jeans, Hamptons real estate, Blow Uptown, Wexler 3 in 1 eye cream, and who had been “madoffed”—but there clearly has been a wariness on the part of each about revealing too many details of how they were faring in the downturn.

In some cases a husband had specifically warned a wife to keep quiet with her friends -- not wanting the smell of blood to let others know they were in distress. In other cases personal pride has kept them from talking too much. Others were doing fine but felt guilty having the same conversations that they would have had in years past. Sure, they talked about cutting back, but in a manner that fit what W Magazine might have on a list of “ins” and “outs.”

IN: Gilt.com

OUT: Pre ordering the Prada Fall '09 bag in April
IN: Quiet dinner parties at home for 8 OUT: Dinners for 40 at Le Cirque
IN: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance OUT: The Official Filthy Rich Handbook

Thus lunch, which once was non-stop gabbing and gossiping, now has those awkward moments of silence when subjects came up that intrude on someone’s very private concerns and unrest. Here are their stories:

Sasha Silver.
Sasha was the only woman in the group who worked. She has spent the last 17 years at a boutique investment bank. But lately she has been truly at her limit. The firm was sold several years before to a publicly traded foreign-based asset management company so everyone from the top down has been living in fear and awe of the parent company.

Sasha was good at her job. She had a great perspective on the strategy, a unique ability to execute on any plan, and was liked both by clients and many of her colleagues, especially other women. She was their champion. She also has four children in three different schools on the Upper East Side, an active philanthropic social life in New York and has frequently been seen out and about.

Many of her male peers, however, have gone out of their way to derail her at work. She’s observed more than once that men, once they’d left school and couldn’t hit each other with bats and balls, turned into the biggest bunch of backstabbing, clique-ish and petty high school girls she’d ever seen. From what she could tell, it wasn’t having the talent that got you to the top of a company with these men, it was the political gamesmanship.

Several months ago the CEO of the parent company had sent word down that Sasha be given a meaningful leadership role in the firm. She was made Vice Chair. But rather than continue to oversee the private client group as she had in the past, she was given what she referred to jokingly as the girly staff stuff - overseeing Human Resources and Communications. Her Co-Vice Chair was given all the “line” businesses - those that generated revenues on top of the businesses he was already overseeing.

Through 2008, as assets declined, revenues and profits became all the more critical. Sasha was frequently told she needed to present plans for downsizing staff, and then usually was expected to execute it alone. Terminating person after person -- some of whom had worked at the company longer than she, and some of whom reported to her male counterpart (without his being at the meetings to share the burden of terminating them) -- was draining and dreadful.

She often wept afterwards. Unfortunately while she was taking care of this the CEO and other Vice Chair always seemed to be scheduling strategy and business development meetings, often with the parent company executives.

It was agonizing for Sasha to see nearly two decades of work wrested from her as she endured the process of being completely marginalized. Lately, she had for the first time seriously considered resigning. She also knew she could easily be included on a termination list herself, especially if the boys had their way. If that were the case, she figured, the wisest thing would be to hang on, retain a top notch employment attorney, and get a nice fat severance. Given her status as the top female in the company, God knows the men would be terrified of her filing an action. With her 401k, company deferred comp plan and options now so far underwater she certainly could use a severance.

Sasha’s husband had done all right last year, but he was working at what is now a TARP-funded firm and so he didn’t know what was going to happen with his compensation. Regardless, for someone so driven and capable as Sasha, it was difficult to come to work every day and find she was being pushed further into a corner.

As much as she loved her friends that she lunched with, she knew they wouldn’t completely understand her situation. In fact none of them had ever quite gotten why she hadn’t quit years ago.
Ashley Walsh. Ashley is exhausted. Since her husband Guy started his new investment management company GW Partners two years ago it has, for the most part, been nothing but almosts and if onlys. Had he started just three years ago most likely half a dozen private equity and VC firms would have thrown money at him.

Capital was cheap back then, optimism was abounding, and exits on business plans usually occurred a few years ahead of projections. Since the summer of 2007, however, when the mortgage crisis first began to unfold, institutional wallets had shut tight.

Ashley and Guy sustained themselves with what the potential valuations would be, if they raised the money and if they executed the business plan and if they exited in 5 to 7 years. The reality was that if they continued supporting the business out of their own capital with no funding in sight they would have nothing left.

Guy had met with 48 separate private equity and Venture Capital funds. He joked that he’d met with firms named after every street or rock in Greenwich, and every word in the Latin and Greek languages. There had been times when he felt like getting up in the middle of a meeting and telling the funders to go stick it. He even suspected that that actually might, in some cases, get them through to the next meeting. But a sense of decorum kept him from acting on his fantasy.

Lately, however, Ashley has been on eggshells with Guy. It seemed that she always asked him the wrong questions at the wrong times. She was exhausted from just getting her hopes up whenever he told her that someone said something like “he had the right business at the right time.” They had two letters of intent that had fallen through. The excitement followed by the disappointment was debilitating.

Meanwhile bills were piling up, $102,000 in total for the kids’ tuition next year alone. Ashley hadn’t bought anything in months. She still wandered through Barneys after lunch not buying anything, but kept her spirits up instead keeping a mental list of what she would buy when the funding came in.

Meanwhile, pulling the Donna suit from 1991, the Chanel jacket from 1999 or the Herrera from 2005 was reminding her of her new reality. Once prize possessions in her wardrobe, she despised looking at them now. Her share of Friday’s lunch was going on an already over-burdened credit card. She had even switched from Diet Coke to tap water to lower her share of the bill (explaining to everyone that she was committed to 8 glasses of water to for “renewed skin tone”).

Guy didn’t want her talking about how bad things really were and she certainly wasn’t going to share it with her friends. She pretended that not buying anything was a choice she was making as part of the new era of austerity, like going green with all her lightbulbs or recycling. Letting them think she still had unlimited assets was best for now.

Grigsby Somerset. Grigsby has been flat out miserable. She had NOT signed up for this. Since the trauma she and Blake had gone through last fall when Lehman went under, they had lost their financial foundation and, so it seems, their sense of place in the world. She had cut virtually every extravagance possible, yet it still wasn’t enough. The perfection in their lives had disintegrated overnight, and she had no idea how to deal with the change in circumstances. Rather than supporting her husband, she blamed him. She believed that since Blake was in charge of their finances he should have seen this coming and taken care of them.

They have been fighting incessantly since the fall, and sleeping in separate rooms since November. He has been spending a lot of time out in the evenings with his younger step-brother Chip, who had been let go from Merrill, and that is fine with Grigsby. She’s been to see several divorce lawyers. So far none have told her that she would be able to get the support that she felt she deserved. Nonetheless she is close to hiring one.

Blake and Grigsby had been the golden couple that all their friends had said were so lucky to have one another. But when the chips were down Blake proved to be weak. He ran away from his problems as far as Grigsby was concerned. Although she didn’t have the capacity for the self-reflection to see her own shallowness. While her friends at lunch knew that Blake had problems, Grigsby couldn’t bring herself to talk about it, to confide just how bad things were.

Jeannie Smyth. Of all of the lunch partners, Jeannie really had no complaints, at least none that she could share. Her husband Stan was still a senior partner at a successful private equity firm, and the Wall Street implosion had not yet changed their lives at all. Yes, the value of their personal investments had gone down with the market, but not in a way that affected their lifestyle.

Yet Jeannie still felt lost and unhappy. It wasn’t fun when there wasn’t anyone to share it with. She had sensed that all wasn’t well with her friends but she felt it would be insensitive to talk about it especially since she was in a different camp. She had always loved these lunches because they all led lives where anything they wanted was at their fingertips with no questions or guilt around it. Now she was feeling guilty.

After a recent lunch she desperately wanted to go down to try on the new Lanvin gown she’d seen in Vogue but thought it would be best for everyone if she waited and came back another time when she was alone.

Nowadays Sasha, Ashley, Grigsby and Jeannie
end their lunches the way they always did, with the $150-plus bill being put on the table and split four equal ways. Then the four women would leave and go back to their own lives until the next Friday when they would meet again.

Or would they? The reality for everyone nowadays, whether you are a “real” wife or a real one, is that life as we knew it is going to be changing dramatically in the coming months and years. In at least one way, our ladies who lunch at Barneys are no different from the TV show versions: they are keeping up an illusion of the way life used to be; they are breaking from reality. Within a year, their lunches may be at a smaller restaurant. Maybe someone will downsize to a less expensive zip code, or face that they just simply cannot maintain their pretense that everything is as it always has been.

Our ladies who lunch at Barneys don’t know it yet, but their weekly rite is on the road to becoming an anachronism, a reflection of how certain people benefitted from the way the economy and financial institutions used to work in this country. With the government taking large ownership stakes in the engines of our economy, dictating compensation and business strategies and sliding into protectionism, the conventional avenues to wealth in this country will be changing. I personally believe that American ingenuity and entrepreneurship will create new avenues for economic growth. But in the meantime, those lunches may be heading down memory lane.
Alexandra Lebenthal learned from her father, Jim Lebenthal, and grandmother before, about the basics of finances and investments. Today she is the CEO of Lebenthal & Co., LLC and its wealth management division, Alexandra & James Co.