Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Downton Abbey and Our American Aristocracy

 Few will experience the lifestyle of the very rich and beautiful presented on the British TV series Downton Abbey. Real people – the upstairs lucky handful (the 1%) in this patrician world (diligently attended by downstairs servants) populated manor houses on vast estates and spent their time doing…I am not sure what.

Winterthur, an estate at one time encompassing over 2,500 acres, was the American equivalent, carefully crafted by Henry du Pont. He filled the mansion with collections of Americana, including furniture, textiles, china and silver, and works of art.

I entered this world via a display of Downton Abbey costumes at Winterthur, spending the day with my mom, sister, and niece, touring a small part of the family residence, viewing the costumes, and lingering over afternoon tea, savoring a sampling of hors d’oeuvres-type foods and desserts.

After a day immersed in this aristocratic world, then returning to my humble abode, my mind turned to today’s mega-rich moguls.

What will their museums be like? What do they collect? What do their homes look like?

My imagination began fashioning a fanciful preview of museums of today’s super rich scattered around the country and open to the public…

I thought about Rush Limbaugh, an enigma wrapped in a radio show. People line up to tour his Palm Beach, Florida, gated compound and visit two impressive dwellings, Limbaugh’s and the house occupied by his serial wives (one at a time, of course). Their memoirs, Living Next Door to Rush, by Wife I, II, III, IV, and V (I am guessing at the total number) are sold in the compound gift shop. The tell-alls were unavailable previously because of a gag order issued as part of divorce settlements.

Rush’s collections are displayed in his man cave - the movies and memorabilia of John Wayne, Charlton Hesston and Ronald Reagan, his gun collection, sports cars, cigars, and pillboxes. There is a room devoted to the testimonials of those who gained from one of Rush’s most ardent causes – lowering taxes on the wealthy so these moneyed capitalists could provide jobs for the less fortunate.

Unfortunately the room remains empty.

Warren Buffett’s homestead offers a contrasting, understated experience. The fourth richest man in the world (according to Fortune magazine) lived in the same house in Omaha, Nebraska, for decades. The home is billed as a peek into life during the post-war 1950s. The furniture is similar to that found in millions of homes across suburban America in the mid-20th century. The dining room table, informally set for a family dinner, displays a typical steak and potatoes meal. The house, purchased in 1958 for $31,000 ($255,327 in 2014 dollars), expanded over the years to 6,000 square feet, larger than most people’s homes, but a cottage compared to residences of America’s rich and famous elite. Buffett eventually purchased a multi-million dollar home in California, but a modest dwelling compared to the mansions of his mega-wealthy cronies.

One of the New York City apartments inhabited by the celebrity-driven businessman Donald Trump opened to the public by appointment only. The penthouse, encased in floor to ceiling windows towering over Manhattan, attest to the man’s flamboyant public persona. Gold-plated furniture reminiscent of Louis XV rococo style fills the public rooms. The bed in the master bedroom is draped in a heavy silk canopy with mirrors and a TV on the canopy dome. His boudoir displays numerous toupees worn over the years. A theater room continually plays his Apprentice TV series and excerpts from news conferences and other public appearances.

The David and Charles Koch (brothers, not a gay couple) bus tour around Wichita (a.k.a. Kochville), Kansas, and home of Koch Industries – the second largest private company in the country – views sights where the family left their mark. The bus passes Koch office and industry buildings, and stops briefly so tourists can get off the bus and walk around Koch Community Plaza, plastered with pictures of politicians supported and those the brothers spent billions opposing, as well as declarations by teachers, union representatives, college graduates, and immigrants on the difficulty of earning a living in America following the Koch brothers success in lowering wages and minimizing worker benefits. Plaques honor the oligarchy of wealth championed by the brothers.

Arkansas boasts two major tourist destinations – the Walton Family Museum, homage to the wealth acquired on the backs of low-paid retail workers, and the William and Hillary Clinton Library and Museum, a bastion of moderate/liberal Democratic ideas in the midst of conservative Republicanism.

Chicago celebrated the opening of the Obamamax, a state-of-the-art theater featuring highlights of the President’s life and political career. Old Tea Party contemporaries of the President boycotted the event…Football Hall of Fame memorabilia in Canton, Ohio was relocated to the new Museum of Historical Sports…Every year the Gates Gala attracts the rich, famous, and wannabee rich and famous to their annual high tech online virtual event…

Suddenly the dryer buzzer rouses me from my reverie. Real life interrupts and, working as my own maid, the downstairs life of laundry, cooking and cleaning beckons.

Here is an interesting chart with the names of the wealthiest American in each state. Many, I must admit, I never heard of.


  1. OMG I'm working on the family tree and just connected to the Walton line. We are the impoverished branch that ended up in Maine of course.

  2. Clever post. Do you have any phone numbers or email addresses to go with those names ... you know, so I can ask for a contribution to the very worthy cause of my personal retirement fund?

  3. You've been targeted by that spammer, too, I see. How he gets around the filters I cannot figure out. Love your reverie! More, please! I laughed out loud at some of them. :-)

  4. You are so very clever. This is a great ost.

  5. Oh my, I love Rush's empty room! I like what I've seen and I'll be following you (not in the stalking sense...).