Symposium: The Lifestyle Worth Living

  • Jack Smith

One day a few years ago, James Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida, was browsing through a bookstore when he came across a copy of Robb Report’s 1999 “Best of the Best” issue. He had heard of the magazine before but had never seen a copy, so he picked it up and looked inside. What he discovered was both revealing and, for him, disturbing. “The cultural signals from the content and the advertising were so powerful, it was like looking into a dream world,” he says more than six years later. Indeed, it was a realm of opulence where everything—cars, wines, yachts, private jets, cigars, and fashions—was the finest, the most exclusive, and the most luxurious.

Reading on, he learned that the year’s Best Performance Car was the AMG CLK-GTR; the Best Heavy Jet, the Dassault Falcon 900EX; the Best Cuff Links, Asprey & Garrard; the Best Watchmaker, Patek Philippe; the Best Cigar, A. Fuente; the Best Humidor, Elie Bleu; and so on. They were names he had never heard of.

We envision the professor reeling as he returns to his office, trying to come to grips with what he had just seen. As Twitchell relates in his book Living It Up: America’s Love Affair with Luxury (Columbia University Press, 2002), when he was growing up in the 1950s, luxury was “lightly tainted with shame. You had to be a little cautious if you drove a Cadillac, wore a Rolex, or lived in a house with more than two columns out front.” Even as an adult, he did not broach the topic of luxury lightly with his confreres. If any of them mentioned it at all, they did so disdainfully, in the context of ostentation or shallow materialism. Twitchell therefore sounded out his colleagues cautiously. Had they, uh, ever heard of the AMG CLK-GTR, the Dassault Falcon 900EX, Asprey & Garrard, or the other names on the list? As he expected, few of them had.

But when he surveyed his students, their answers stunned him. “They knew who these companies were,” he says. How was it possible, he wondered, that this entire world of luxury—fraught with social significance and imagery—existed and most of his colleagues were not even aware of it, but his students were? One thing was painfully clear to the professor: Regardless of the conventional wisdom that prevailed in the faculty lounge, in the world outside, Americans loved luxury.

Since then the love affair has intensified. We want to fill every waking moment with the finely crafted, the rare, the intricately detailed, and the emotionally rewarding. We want to drive Maybachs and travel in Gulfstreams. We want to be massaged and rejuvenated with lotions made from Cabernet grape seeds. We want homes with wine cellars and gyms and walk-in closets the size of squash courts. We want that snazzy $32,000 Vertu cell phone with the button that links us to our personal concierge so he can make dinner reservations for us at Alain Ducasse where they offer a selection of five knives with dinner and a hand-embroidered footstool for our date’s new diamond-studded purse from Prada.

Nothing is so everyday and banal that it cannot assume the semblance of a luxury experience. Thus low-ender Kmart fuses with Martha Stewart, Target with designer Michael Graves, and Home Depot with A-list interior designer Lynette Jennings, and jeweler Harry Winston lends his prestige to QVC. Even Mickey Mouse offers a dimension of luxury, if you possess the Luxury Guide to Walt Disney World Resort. Establishments now euphemistically dubbed gentlemen’s clubs—places once off-limits to decent folks, when they were called simply strip joints—have gone relentlessly upscale. No more bottle of beer and forget the glass for their patrons. As the New York Times recently reported, these clubs pour $400 bottles of Opus One and Ornellaia while hosting fashionable charity fund-raisers.

However, the more America embraces luxury, the more academia scorns it. A much-discussed entry into the luxe-bashing game was 1999’s Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess (Free Press) by Cornell University professor of economics Robert Frank. In it, the author describes Aristotle Onassis’ yacht Christina, a vessel whose faucets were solid gold. The bottom of its mosaic-tiled swimming pool would rise to become a dance floor, and in its lounge, the bar stools were covered with “the buttery soft—and jarringly expensive—foreskin of the sperm whale penis.” (As chronicled in the December 2002 issue of Robb Report, in a feature titled “The Story of O,” Christina has since undergone a $50 million face-lift and has been rechristened Christina O and made available for charter.) To Frank, the yacht represents what happens when people have a lot of money and are allowed to spend it any way they wish. Thus the bar stools were not so much an aberration as an inevitable consequence. Indeed, who knows where such bizarre tastes could lead: “See this jacket? Guess what it’s made of?”

Ultimately, Frank concluded, the material covering the bar stools is not as troubling as the idea of luxury per se. The same thought had occurred to Twitchell, who decided to test his theory by telling his colleagues in the English department that he planned to buy a copy of Wordsworth’s 1850 The Prelude, a purchase that would set him back $6,000. All the other educators agreed this was a capital idea; although the book had no scholarly value, they seemed to feel it possessed some spiritual import.

Later that week, Twitchell advised his colleagues that he had changed his mind and was instead going to buy a used BMW. “I could have said that I was investing in a collection of Beanie Babies or a diamond pinky ring for all the shocked response I got,” he recalls.

the dons’ aversion to this type of self-indulgence is nothing new. Throughout history, the high priests of culture have professed their disdain for luxury. In ancient Greece, Plato described luxury as effeminate, Socrates said luxuries muddled the senses, and Aristotle linked luxury to vice. Yet these distinguished citizens of Athens were raving hedonists compared to their Spartan contemporaries.

Citizens of an armed camp, the Spartans displayed a militancy that was legendary and born of necessity. The Messenians, whom they had conquered and enslaved in 700 BC, outnumbered the Spartans by more than 10 to one. To keep the Messenians in line, every Spartan male was required to become a soldier. Families relinquished their sons to the state at the age of 7 to begin a lifetime of martial training. For these youths, childhood games invariably were laced with violence and cruelty; one training exercise required a boy to sneak out of boot camp, kill a slave, and return without being seen. Luxuries were alien to the Spartans, who traded in iron rather than gold or silver to discourage commerce with foreign merchants who might tempt them with objects of pleasure. Art, literature, theater, and literacy itself were suppressed, and, as a result, the Spartans’ more civilized rivals had the last laugh: The history of Sparta was written by Athenians.

For first-century citizens of Imperial Rome, luxury was as often as not a communal affair, whether they were enjoying the splendor of the legions returning triumphant from the campaigns, a bloody spectacle in the Coliseum, or the pleasures of the public baths. The baths were central components to Roman life, embodying, as they did, the ideal of practical luxury. The truly grand bath establishments, the thermae, incorporated libraries, lecture halls, promenades, and gyms. Alas, high water temperatures in baths can inhibit sperm production, which some historians believe accounts for the decline in the population and eventually the fall of Rome.

In the Middle Ages, luxury became synonymous with exclusivity, and country after country enacted sumptuary laws to distinguish the aristocracy from the common folk. There was no overriding standard, however. In Venice, commoners were forbidden to wear pearls except at weddings, and even then only the bride and groom could wear them. In England, no one lower than a lord could wear shoes with points longer than 2 inches. In some parts of Europe, a commoner’s daughter was not allowed to curl her hair and his wife was forbidden to wear a ring. In Scotland of the Middle Ages, only those with incomes of at least 2,000 florins were permitted to eat imported food. Perhaps this was a means of promoting the consumption of haggis.

By the end of the Renaissance, with a patchwork of sumptuary laws overlying Europe, it had become difficult to tell what was luxury and what was not—and why. But in early-18th-century France, the merit of luxury became the topic of contentious intellectual debate. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most revered philosophers of that time and an influence on Karl Marx, taught that of all the evils that flow from the arts and sciences, the worst was luxury. “Luxury corrupts everything,” said Rousseau, “the rich who enjoy it and the wretched who covet it.

Jean-François Melon preached a completely different credo, which championed the ideal of luxury as the corollary of enlightenment. “It is the product of all well-ordered societies . . . the destroyer of sloth and idleness.” Of the income spent on luxuries, he said, “Unspent, this money would remain dead to society. Used in the pursuit of luxury, it pays the gardener, feeds and clothes his children, and encourages him to work with an eye to a better future.”

The French Revolution seemed to resolve the issue in Rousseau’s favor, but when Napoléon subsequently became emperor of France, elitism and its attendant trappings returned with a vengeance. Today, despite it democratic structure, France remains synonymous with the richesse that Melon espoused.

Meanwhile, the nature of luxury was raising serious questions in the New World. In late-17th-century New England, the Puritan ethos urged settlers to work hard and be productive. Money was the natural consequence of doing their Lord’s bidding, and wealth always belonged to the Lord. Luxury was what one lavished on oneself. To indulge in sensuality, needless and costly entertainments, personal finery, and overly splendid homes was to risk the censure of the community. This was not a good idea in the days of witch hunts.

It was not until the next century that luxury gained respectability in the Colonies, thanks to the most protean figure in American history. Ben Franklin was a revolutionary, a philosopher, and a scientist. He founded this country’s first library, first fire department, and first fire insurance company, and still had time to harness lightning. But he also knew how to live luxuriously. An aficionado of fine wine, gourmet food, music, art, and the ladies, Franklin represented the antithesis of the Puritan ideal. His aphorisms urging his countrymen to strive earnestly and be frugal were not issued for the sake of abstemiousness and the redeeming powers of labor, but so that they might later enjoy the fruits of their labor and thrift—not only the necessities of life but also, when they could afford them, the luxuries.

since franklin’s time, the number of luxuries has multiplied and the choices have become more complex. Yet while luxury is usually easy to recognize when we feel it, see it, or taste it—as with a pashmina scarf, an Aston Martin Virage, a kilo of Sevruga “Malossol” caviar—it has become difficult to define. In every age, critics have dismissed luxury simply as “that which is unnecessary,” but such a definition begs the question: Says who? The whole issue of luxury preferences resembles the nature-or-nurture debate: Are these preferences learned, or are they instinctive?

Perhaps the answer lies in China, currently the world’s most closely watched luxury market. In 1980, not a single millionaire lived in China; now it is home to more than 250,000, and they are just discovering luxury. But unlike the nouveaux riches of any other nation, they are doing this without the benefit of precedent. There is no old aristocracy, no old money, no social establishment to emulate. Left to their own devices, China’s wealthy have developed some surprising customs, such as sipping fine wine mixed with Coca-Cola. Without firsthand knowledge of Western luxury items, China’s new rich are having their tastes shaped by what they see on TV. Thus, according to one recent survey of wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs, the Holiday Inn is preferred over the Four Seasons, and Rolex carries greater cachet than Patek Philippe. When it comes to luxury motoring, the Chinese have evolved their own protocol. Very few wealthy Chinese drive their own cars; instead, they sit in the back and are chauffeured. The Buick Regal, among the humblest of vehicles in the States, enjoys tremendous prestige in China, where the last emperor and then Sun Yat-sen, father of modern China, were chauffeured in Buicks. That old Buick glamour extends to the local dealerships’ service waiting rooms, which Buick owners treat as their private men’s clubs; they stop by and even bring a friend to have coffee, read the newspapers, or enjoy the camaraderie of other Buick owners.

In China, a country without a racing tradition, Porsche is best known for its trucks and sells more than twice as many Cayennes as sports cars. In a brilliant move last year, Bentley priced its new Pinnacle sedan at 8,888,000 yuan ($1.1 million). The number 8 is considered good luck in China, and as soon as the Pinnacle was unveiled, Bentley sold five of them.

None of this is to suggest that logic or reason underlies American tastes and cultural imperatives or that anyone understands what mystically transforms a commodity into an expensive, stylish symbol. Who could have predicted in 1976, when the first Robb Report appeared, that martinis, the very libation President Carter was trying to ban from the American dining scene (specifically, the three-martini lunch), would, a decade later, become the most popular item on the menu? Or that by the 1990s, stockbrokers and socialites would be piloting motorcycles through the canyons of Gotham, and that cigars would become the sign of affluent, middle-aged rebellion?

Still, though Twitchell may hate to admit it, there is something to be said for luxury, as he observes in Living It Up. “Nobody checks the number of vowels in your name, or the color of your skin, or whether you know the difference between like and as when you are buying your Prada parka—that’s got to mean something.”

So perhaps Twitchell can live with himself after succumbing to the blandishments of luxury and buying a car he really did not need. Oh, he knew what his colleagues would say. They might allude to the car’s expense or its power or the revitalizing properties of a convertible sports car. But damn it! he wanted that car. So saying, he signed the papers and drove home in his bright red Miata.

Photo by Richard Prince
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