At Lunch With the Author Who Introduced the Upper East Side ‘Wife Bonus’

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Primates of Park Avenue is a memoir-slash-ethnography of Upper East Side women.Photo: Photographer:Ned and Aya Rosen/Copyright: 2011 Ned and Aya Rosen

Consider the prototypical Upper East Side mommy: bleach blonde, whippet thin, perfectly manicured, stay-at-home, chemically preserved. Polite but not warm. Type A. Beautiful, sexless. Multiple houses, expensive preschools. Well educated. Volunteer. Designer handbag. To that list, Wednesday Martin wants to add: Subservient. Retrograde. Self-selecting. Self-segregating. Aggressive.

Those more derisive terms come courtesy of Martin’s new book, Primates of Park Avenue, a memoir-slash-ethnography of a very small group of very thin, very rich people. In it, Martin observes the strange rituals of this particular UES tribe, documenting their behaviors and social hierarchy as if they were a family of bonobos. But she is not just an observer: She becomes one of them, and her induction into their clique forms the narrative of the book. 

Already, it’s causing a bit of a brouhaha among the Hermès-wearing, Dalton-financing set. There was a viral New York Times excerpt that introduced the world to the notion of a “wife bonus” — an annual payout related to a husband’s earnings and a spouse’s social (and implied sexual) performance. The women profiled in the book are never named, but Atoosa Rubenstein, Jackie Sackler, and many other guest-of-a-guest-types appear in the acknowledgments. “Rich Upper East Side moms panicking over tell-all,” a recent New York Post headline read. (There have been raised eyebrows about the fidelity of Martin’s depictions. The one woman who has come forward to admit she gets a “wife bonus” lives in Australia. “I don’t necessarily think it’s a trend or widespread,” Martin told me. “It was just one of the many strange-seeming cultural practices that some women told me about.”)

Over lunch at Nello — where at least five Hermès bags and Ray Liotta were also dining — Martin shrugged off the controversy.  “Everybody loves the catfight angle, but there isn’t one,” she said after ordering gazpacho and pasta with broccoli rabe. No one in the book has called her in a rage, not that anyone should. “Nobody is thrown under the bus. There are no names. I’m really just looking at tribal behaviors, rather than people. I call this book ‘dish with a doctorate.’ 

The most scathing aspects of the book aren’t the revelations about Xanax-popping and the AA class held next to Prada, but rather Martin’s observation that these seemingly privileged women are fundamentally powerless. On the one hand, they command unimaginable sums, spent on real estate, art, schooling, and philanthropy. Their families represent the tippy-top of the American social pyramid, the 0.01 percent whose fortunes have grown massively while those of other, lesser percentage points have languished or sunk. On the other hand, as Martin points out, that spending is generally dependent on a husband’s earnings. Deprived of it, Martin holds, the wives have nothing, and are even at times cast out from their female social circle, like an injured animal from a savanna herd.

Martin, who has a sparrow’s bearing — teeny-tiny and voluble — was not always so familiar with this tribe’s social machinations. She grew up as Wendy Martin of Ann Arbor, Michigan. But she has always had a “porous” personality, she told me, wanting to see and absorb other cultures. At the University of Michigan, that meant rushing three sororities and writing an ethnography of Greek behavior. In graduate school at Yale, it meant studying the work of Bronisław Malinowski, the father of “participant observation.”

When Martin and her husband, the financier and Columbia professor Joel Moser, decided to move to the Upper East Side, their initial motives were to be closer to family and to Central Park, Martin said. But as soon as she moved uptown, she began noticing the exaggerated cultural tropes: the extreme grooming, the hyperactive social positioning, the obscure social signaling through handbags, childhood-enrichment programs, and choice of apartment buildings. “I just thought, I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” she said. “These women are getting out of their Escalades at eight o’clock in the morning. They look like they’re ready to go sit in the front row at Fashion Week. But it’s school drop-off.”

Despite the bends caused by a move from a townhouse in the West Village to an apartment on the Upper East Side, soon Martin “went native.” She transformed her body with classes at Physique 57. She and her husband bought a summer home in the Hamptons. She decided she must get an Hermès Birkin bag, and it materialized, in its five-figure glory.

At first, she writes, such accommodations won her nothing: She was on the lowest social rung, ostracized as a newcomer, ignored as a nobody. There was some rudeness directed at her, from the subtle side-eye to the outright bitchy comment. But toward the end of the book, Martin gains entrée to the schools and fund-raisers and ladies’ lunches, and to the broader social world that constellation forms.

It’s then that the details become delicious. These women pamper and preen, rituals that seem bizarre yet familiar, given popular culture’s devotion to them. They spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on personal upkeep. Their chief status symbol is not a Birkin bag or a share of a private jet but a fourth or fifth or sixth kid. (Who in Manhattan can afford a sixth round of preschool tuition?) They abuse drugs, drink like fishes, and snipe. Then there’s the infamous matter of the wife bonus.

Martin soaks it in, and even becomes a bit of a mean girl herself. When a shopgirl ­disses her Birkin, Martin thinks to herself: “You’d have to sell a lot of cashmere sweaters to pay for one, even one like mine. If you could get anyone at Hermès to sell you one.” She describes the family apartment on Park Avenue as “far from huge (though I did have an entire closet just for my handbags).” In perhaps the most absurd passage, she dismisses the adherents of SoulCycle as inferior to those of her beloved Physique 57. “They reminded me of teenaged suburban girls piling on the black leather and taking Metro-North,” she writes. “I’d rather be mistaken for a prissy matron, I thought when I saw them fist-bumping outside class, than try too hard.”

This judgmental streak colors the book, even if it is often couched in the language of social science. Martin describes her newfound friends as overeducated, underfed supporting characters in stories whose protagonists are the husbands. “As in the Kalahari Desert and [the rainforest], resources are the bottom line on the Upper East Side,” she writes. “If you don’t bring home tubers and roots, your power is diminished in your marriage.” She refers to them as “Manhattan Geishas” and notes that they “appall” her at times.

The evidence that these icons of the one percent lack power comes from the fact that the wives serve on “lesser boards,” and that their high-achieving husbands are trustees of schools where they are merely volunteers. “The wives of the masters of the universe, I learned, are a lot like mistresses — dependent and comparatively disempowered,” Martin concludes.

I pressed Martin on this point over lunch. How could women who did and controlled so much really be subservient, secondary characters? She relied on social anthropology to answer. “It was a very rigid gender script,” she said, pointing to how much of their social lives were self-segregated by gender. Even at dinner parties, the husbands and wives sometimes ate in different rooms. “When there’s sex segregation, the status of women tends to be lower.”

The most controversial depiction in a controversial book might be her depiction of a world that discounts these women’s interests and labor because they can’t be quantified in a pay stub. It’s an old argument, and one defied by the author herself: Martin might be a smooth-browed, expensively clad, painfully thin denizen of Manhattan and the Hamptons, but it is hard to see her as anything other than a zany, individualist protagonist in her story.

One way or another, though, Martin has moved on. She and her family bought a place on the Upper West Side, selling their apartment on the Upper East. And she retired her Birkin after a French doctor suspected it was making her arm numb.

*This article appears in the June 1, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.