Charlotte Curtis

But Rich Is Better

VTR Date: September 21, 1985

Guest: Curtis, Charlotte



HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today is Charlotte Curtis, Associate Editor of the NEW YORK TIMES, a columnist there whose articles have so often touched on the way in which societies work. Particularly this nation’s high society. Now I’ve always thought that if ever I could get Charlotte Curtis actually here to join me on THE OPEN MIND, I’d ask her again and again all about the rich and the well born she has so long, so skillfully displayed and sometimes dissected in her columns. And I promise that I’m certainly not going to ignore the fact that so many of us do enjoy reading about how the high and mighty live. Indeed, her own fame and what has been noted as her journalistic power, they surely attest to our curiosity about those who have what we do not. But now that she’s here, I find that I really want to press Miss Curtis just as far and as hard on what she thinks not so much about them, about the power elite whose habits inform and adorn her columns, but rather about her own colleagues, about the press, the TIMES, where perhaps power really resides in modern America. Indeed, I’ll ask her first if she weren’t just punning some years ago, when are we going to see that little book, THESE ARE THE TIMES THAT TRY MEN’S SOULS? Miss Curtis?

CURTIS: Well, I hope somebody does that book. I would like it to be me. But somebody ought to do it. I don’t know when it’s going to be done. Or by whom.

HEFFNER: Do the TIMES and I don’t really mean the NEW YORK TIMES, do the papers does the press, do they try men’s souls?

CURTIS: Well, I use the title ironically. I mean as a kind of an amusing idea. I don’t think the TIMES tries men’s souls, specifically the newspaper, I think the times in which we live do indeed try men’s souls. I think the press appears to try men’s souls periodically. We just went through it with the hostages again. But I think there is a kind of know-nothingism in the country that resists the kind of information that the press wants to bring to it. And that often It is the problems are made by those who read and watch television. Much more than the people who do the presenting on television or who report the news.

HEFFNER: You know I don’t want to ask the question is that a party line because I’ve read enough of Charlotte Curtis to know that she doesn’t talk party line. But that’s a rather interesting comment. It’s not us. It’s them. It’s not we who are…

CURTIS: Well don’t…excuse me, but when I say it’s not us, it’s them, it’s everybody. It’s both us and them. It’s a folie a deux in the sense that those people who should be understanding what the press is trying to do and why it is doing what it is doing often don’t go to the trouble…what’s going on here. And the press in its way often irritates by giving all…let’s say there are many papers around the country that deal in bad news headlines when there is some good news to be reported. If there were more balance in the news perhaps in some situations as it is applicable. As it is newsworthy. We wouldn’t kick up the response we get sometimes.

HEFFNER: Well let me turn for a moment or more than a moment to the area that I said in the beginning that I obviously wanted to question you about. I’ve been reading many, many, many Charlotte Curtis columns and I’ve almost OD’d on the question of wealth in America. Reading the columns about the rich and the powerful, I can’t help but wonder where do people get all of these dollars? And where do they get them to spend the way you report they spend?

CURTIS: Well we live in an entrepreneurial society that keeps spitting up new millionaires, now billionaires. This is the Horacio Alger story. Somebody goes out and figures out a new widget and figures out how to market it and there you go, another empire. WE are a nation of entrepreneurs, corporation builders. This is in addition to the takeovers that have taken place in the last few years in which a lot of people have made money. But if you go back, for example, just after the Civil War and go up all the way to now, historically, little by little you can see waves of new money being produced. I mean it was ever thus in this country. It was ever thus in Europe, in the world. I mean the question is whether after you make…you can hold on to it. The sources seem to be infinite. The problem in the end is not only whether you can hold on to it, but what do you do with it after you’ve got it. I mean do you really go out, somebody go out and have another spree, or after the spree is there some left for the community good, or how selfish the money is.

HEFFNER: Are you ever turned off by what you see of the sprees?

CURTIS: Yeh, sure. I mean I think that there are wretched excesses all over the place but at the same time there is a generosity of spirit in giving, in New York certainly, and in many parts of the country. I mean when you think of the great museums…Fort Worth, Dallas, Minneapolis, St. Paul. I mean I purposely go out of New York. I go out of Los Angeles when I say those museums because they wouldn’t be possible without local fortunes spent with care. The question is probably more fundamentally in terms of the society as a whole is do we want to live in a society where there is this tiny percentage of exceptionally rich while at the same time we have people sleeping in the streets and homeless. Now the argument obviously for this kind of situation is free enterprise. I have reservations about free enterprise. I have a strong reservation that while I wouldn’t cap the making of money because the incentive would go and then the money wouldn’t get made for the museums and the operas. Somehow a tax structure should be put together so that it takes some high percentage from the enormously rich and that some of that money is used in a positive way for the bottom tier.

HEFFNER: But the bottom tier they, we, we read Charlotte Curtis and we obviously find in the conspicuous consumption something that nourishes our souls, too. I’ve wondered…how do you explain that? I’ve wondered, asked myself, how do I explain that seemingly limitless, concerned with, involvement with the spend, spend, spend?

CURTIS: Are you saying that you read about this all the time?

HEFFNER: I read you. I read in the last day or two as I said, I almost overdosed in a number of the columns, and I read about conspicuous consumption. Consumption, consumption. I read about the parties. I read about the diamonds. I read the pounds of rubies. I read about what people spend. And obviously with some degree of concern about my own interest in the way people spend. People must be interested. Your own columns wouldn’t be as popular as they are.

CURTIS: Well I don’t write entirely about that. But the material you speak of certainly is available widely in a lot of different places. And there’s no question, LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS on television, even to a certain extent, the Hollywood programs and all of that…so there is a national fascination. There’s no question about that.

HEFFNER: Do we need them to read about? Do we need them to know that they’re there? Do we need to watch this consumption?

CURTIS: Yes. I think we ought to watch this consumption. I don’t think we need to know about every ruby. And I don’t think we need to know about every glass of champagne. But the unfortunate or fortunate, depending upon your politics, view of this is that the rich really set a pattern for consumption in this country that maybe in the past was the role of movie stars. Today it is certainly shared with television biggies of one sort or another. I mean stars. Rock stars. The…when a very rich person has created for the first time as did happen…a swimming pool that is made with pebbles on the bottom and cement and it looks like a country bay that’s at one level. But you can bet quite surely that a company then comes along and figures out how to do that in plastic. So you and me and some other middle-class guy can have the same thing. The clothes that the rich wear are then knocked off in one fashion or another and end up on you and me. We are influenced more than we realize, perhaps even subliminally. The…you can say this over and over again, but of course the fascination is with the spending itself. And then I think it’s part of the American dream. There’s a question about that sort of an American dream, too. But it is an American dream. It’s a fact, whether we like it or not.

HEFFNER: But it concerns you somewhat I gather.

CURTIS: Very much so.


CURTIS: Well, as I said. Because I think…I think that we tend in this country to use group money in ways that certainly in recent years have tended to benefit the rich, to make it easier to make these kinds of fortunes while slighting those who don’t have. And I just think there is a question, a very strong question about living in a society with the bottom, the lower tier with the poor and the homeless the jobless. I mean I think that we have an obligation as a society to do something about the people on the bottom.

HEFFNER: Is that point of view what led…it was years ago, it was 16 years ago that Julie Baumgold wrote a piece in NEW YORK MAGAZINE quoting you as saying at one point, sighing, what good do I do in the world. The implication being that the reporting of the rich and the very rich might not be as constructive. Is that…because later on, shortly thereafter she went on in the story to say how ironic it was that the closet radical was elected to be Women’s Page editor of the TIMES. I don’t know what she meant by that.

CURTIS: I think that’s very funny. Well, I’m perceived from…obviously from wanting to take something from the rich and give it to the poor would lead to such a perception. But I’m perceived as a radical. I don’t think I’m a radical. But I am concerned with a society…I don’t like gimme. I don’t like me-ism as a person. I just…I find them very unattractive. I think the public good is more important. Always. And any kinds of either public behavior whether it’s the sociology of the rich or any other group, this is over and above the laws that ends up benefiting rich rather than people in need, troubles me sure.

HEFFNER: What about this tremendous desire to be…to find their names in print? People you write about quite frequently don’t need political power any longer. They have it. They don’t need wealth any longer. They have it. What is there about appearing in print that pays off so big? For so many of these people?

CURTIS: I don’t know what it is. Because of course the rule has always been and obviously it’s a very informal rule is that the people who push and shove to be written about are not the people we write about. I mean you generally try and stay away from that sort of person who is always trying to do some stunt that will get them in the press. Publicity seeking is very difficult for reporters. I mean if you…it’s like the boy who cried wolf. You push and push and then sometimes there’s a story there and you really don’t recognize it necessarily if somebody’s pushing at you all the time. But the hiring of press agents, the hiring of high powered corporate spokespersons of one sort or another who intervene here on people’s behalf who want to…want them triumphed in the press. I find incredible. It is not…that was not true in the past as much as it is now. It’s an increasing phenomenon. New York is…used to think of as a city that validated people. The guy who did pickles in Pittsburgh and hair curlers in Tulsa. He makes whatever it is. And then in some way or other he cones to New York to be told that you really are a big dog after all. Well yes you can arrive without a press agent, but they don’t. I mean there is some kind of publicity person even if it’s a person to keep their name out of the paper But there is always some kind of guidelines there. It’s a sense of wanting to control communication, information. You know, you want to be celebrated for the gift of two million to the Metropolitan, but you don’t want anybody to know, maybe, how you made the two million. I mean it’s all of that kind of thing. And increasingly we see reporting in the TIMES in several magazines stressing how they got the two million. As well as how you give it away. Because I think that’s fine…that’s balanced then.

HEFFNER: All right that’s the point. That’s balance. Fairness. Aside from the TIMES then, would you say this…interesting that you say that this wasn’t the case before, but increasingly…

CURTIS: Well, it’s…there have always been a few people who had press agents. But I think its increasingly difficult now.

HEFFNER: Are they successful?


HEFFNER: By and large they’re successful?

CURTIS: They’re successful and also the press agents are successful. In other words, there are business press agent companies now. Let’s do it this way. I have just made my widget in wherever and you know my first half-billion dollars. And obviously people are beginning to be interested in me beyond my own community wherever I’m from in the Middle West or wherever. And I get calls for contributions. I get calls to cone and look at this ballet, that symphony I get calls from the business press, and that’s a lot of publications. It’s not just newspapers, it’s magazines. I don’t know which ones I should do. I’ve never dealt with the press before. I mean I’ve been busy inventing the widget and making widgets. So then they hire firms that they find out from their other friends who are also successful, presumably have been successful longer. And those firms then place stories in publications. So that what …when we say place though, let’s say exactly how that works. Five magazines are competing for Mr. So-and-so for the cover. And the public relations firm analyzes the five and says this is better than that one. And that one’s better than this one. You ought to do this. You shouldn’t do that. Stay away from her. She’ll be mean to you. Do with this one because that one will be nice to you. That sort of thing. But those are the way the decisions are made. And then brand new widget tycoon appears accordingly.

HEFFNER: And the tycoon is betting on the power of the press. Betting on …well, betting on but asking for the validation. How do I know who I am until I’ve made the cover of TIME MAGAZINE? All right. Now what does this tell us about the power of the press? Whether…

CURTIS: An awful lot. As a validator.

HEFFNER: Isn’t that a bit of a hedging word, as a validator? When does it move from a maker and creator to simply a validator?

CURTIS: Good question. I don’t know. I mean in some cases…I would…I mean let’s take the famous case of Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter was said to have been encouraged all along the line and then more than validated by TIME MAGAZINE. Is that true? Isn’t that true? I mean that’s your call.

HEFFNER: I don’t know that it’s my call. It was said, too, in a sense, about John F., Kennedy…that…

CURTIS: Well, it is…let’s not single out one publication. It could be any publication. And it could be the whole…it could be accidental. It could be on purpose. There’s no question that an owner of a publication could decide on a candidate and do something about it. There is also no question that a reporter, a group of reporters, a reporter could be interested in it. Could it be an accidental sort of thing in the way news falls?

HEFFNER: You know, I was interested again in the Baumgold piece the implication there is that what you observe, the people you cover largely, that it’s almost a school for, it’s almost a school for radicals. It’s almost a school for revolutionaries. And you, yourself, if I may use the word validate that by saying much of what you see goes against your own grain in terms of concepts of social justice in this country,. And then I read a recent piece that you did. You wrote a piece called, “Knowledge It’s Now Chic.” Does this indicate any shift and change in the thinking of the rich and famous in this country? They embrace, perhaps, the need to understand, to know?

CURTIS: Well I think the new rich and famous didn’t get that way…let’s go back again to the beginning, the money, before the famous part. Mostly the new rich didn’t get that way without understanding that we’re in a global kind of revolution. That the economy is changing world wide. They had to understand how the system works. The telecommunications revolution. All of this. In the process, they had to have information that let’s say an earlier generation making a smaller…I mean my widget example, for example…didn’t have to know necessarily. Because maybe the widget isn’t marketed in Europe. But if you’re going to market all over the world as people do today, if you’re going to deal with myriad governments to say nothing of American law, different kinds of people and cultures and whatnot, all of a sudden you just have to know all kinds of things. I think that is one reason that the new tycoons tend to have a wider variety of information at their fingertips and be more fascinated with it than maybe some of the older tycoons. Now this has nothing to do with anybody in the magazine, newspaper, television news business obviously, because that’s what they do for a living.

HEFFNER: They know it all.

CURTIS: Well, they don’t know it all, but I mean that…they’re supposed to know it all. The fact that they don’t know it all is apparent. But they work at this twenty-four hours a day. But it is interesting when the newer tycoons have a wider variety of information on a lot of subjects, business subjects, economic subjects. Then I think also in 1973 with the oil shortages and the gas lines of 74 and 73 people who had any kind of wondering about what was going on here instead of just sort of worrying about not being able to get gasoline certainly intelligent people got out the old Samuelson from college. Read the book from cover to cover. Said this is valueless. Okay, where do I get a book that explains what is going on here? Well, there are a lot of books. But they7 ready then, They relearned economics in one fashion or another only to discover that that wasn’t what they needed. What they needed to understand was business and finance. If you are a person with just the tiniest bit of money you have to deal with the bank. The bank you deal with today, I don’t care if it’s the old family bank or not, it’s not the same bank that you dealt with ten years ago twenty years ago. It’s a whole other institution. You have to understand. You have to take charge. And by doing this you see, I mean after all the rich particularly those that made the fortunes themselves or whose children then went to fine colleges as a result of these fortunes they know things. They have to know things. And as a result at least some of them want to know things. For which we can be very grateful.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting that I thought “Knowledge, It’s Now Chic”, meant something else, but I gather that there is that bit of economic determinist in you in which you see the involvement with things of the mind at the chic parties, perhaps.

CURTIS: Well, yes, excuse me…but knowledge is chic because if you’re interested in the new order of people instead of the old order of people, or certainly if you’re interested in not just freezing yourself into a moment in time, and unwilling to accept any new people, you’re going to have to know some things. If you’re around them, if you expect to talk to them at dinner parties…I mean you don’t have to talk much because the orchestra’s play loud enough so you don’t ever have to talk if you don’t want to. But if you’re going to talk at all, and about what’s going on, you’re going to have to know knowledge. Which is why knowledge is chic.

HEFFNER: You ever feel as if you want to cover the other end of the spectrum? In the rich and…

CURTIS: The poor people?


CURTIS: Well, yes. I’ve written a great deal about the poor. You…most of what you/re talking about took place in the 60’s. I mean there’ve been 20 years since then.

HEFFNER: But today, what is Charlotte Curtis most likely to write about?

CURTIS: Most likely to write about, I think, a sociological phenomenon of one sort or another. Occasionally, I mean now, for example, the opening of the season in New York. I mean it fights its way through, used to start on about the third week with the Metropolitan opening. And now there are two weeks of sort of warm up that go on endlessly before the season rolls. And the season is all benefits. And it is, I find, fascinating. But what used to be two or three openings is now just a pandemonium of charity events of one sort or another. I mean a book cones out and there’s a party. A perfume is launched and there’s a party. I mean I just wrote about a perfume being launched that now…then after they’ve finished with the perfume they’re going to make the movie. Same name. I mean that that’s the way things are today.

HEFFNER: Do you think they know at those parties and at those dinners and at those affairs that there is a sociologist sitting there watching them? Writing about them?

CURTIS: Well if they sit anywhere near me they do, because I take notes. I can’t believe the things they say with a notebook lying on the table.

HEFFNER: Now, why do you think that takes place? We’ve got one minute, but that you need to explain to me. What in human nature…

CURTIS: Because there’s a double perception in the world. If you hyave to decide which tiara you’re going to wear, your head is in an entirely different place than mine. And therefore, when you read what you said about deciding about the tiara, it isn’t going to sound odd to you. It is going to sound odd to somebody else.

HEFFNER: You mean it’s a kind of blindness?

CURTIS: No. They’re just different.

HEFFNER: The rich are different.

CURTIS: Oh, yes. Mr. Hemingway, Mr. Fitzgerald knew that.

HEFFNER: Again we go back to the point rich and poor, it’s all the same, but rich is better.

CURTIS: Absolutely, Sophie Tucker.

HEFFNER: I thought that it was my father who said that first but I know from one of your pieces that it was Sophie Tucker. Thanks for joining me today, Charlotte Curtis.

CURTIS: It was fun to be here.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next tine here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck.