Spike Lee is not an idiot. He knows there are other interesting things on planet Earth besides race, and he has made movies—25th Hour, Inside Man—where it’s barely an issue. But it is obviously Lee’s primary project to tell stories about African-Americans, specifically stories he thinks are being ignored or obfuscated. And only slightly less amazing than the fact that Lee is the only person who has been consistently doing that in film over the past two decades is the fact that people still think he is street when the foyer of his Upper East Side townhouse has been photographed for Town and Country.
The animating forces of his artistic universe are injustice, prejudice, oppression. But the defining characteristics of his material universe are luxury, access, and success. That’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with being a limousine liberal. It’s better to be a rich person who gives a shit about poor people than it is to be a rich person who only cares about himself.
But it’s interesting how thoroughly Lee seems to have shunned the manners and social methods of the successful. One wonders how his curt, almost diffident manner plays on the Upper East Side, where Lee is surrounded by the social world his wife detailed in her best- selling 2004 novel, Gotham Diaries.
He snorts. “Not my world.”
Tonya Lewis Lee looks like she was crafted completely out of caramel. Caramel skin, caramel hair, even her green eyes have a buttery quality. She just spent the weekend with her daughter, Satchel, and her parents at their house in Stamford, Connecticut; Spike is away in Germany with their son, Jackson, at the World Cup. On her ears, Lewis Lee wears little diamond soccer balls.
She greets the host at Fred’s restaurant at the top of Barneys by name. The restaurant is around the corner from her townhouse, so she eats here all the time. (The Lees bought their 9,800-square-foot Italian- palazzo-style home from Jasper Johns in 1998; it was originally built for a Vanderbilt.) The host points out LeBron James seated in the corner, and Lewis Lee says, “Tell him I say hello.” Once, a friend of hers, a woman who is “married to a big muckety-muck,” made a scene here because she was given a bad table before the host knew the woman was meeting Lewis Lee for lunch. The woman had the muckety-muck try to get the host fired. Lewis Lee sent him flowers.
Like Lauren Thomas, the heroine of Gotham Diaries, Tonya Lewis Lee has beautiful manners imparted to her by strict and very prominent parents. Her father, George Lewis, the highest-ranking black executive at Philip Morris during his 34-year career there, was featured in a Fortune magazine cover package last year under the headline PIONEERS. He is a member, along with Vernon Jordan and American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, of the Boulés, the most elite social club for black men in this country. (Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. DuBois were members.) Lewis Lee’s mother is a member of the Links, a group thus described by Lawrence Otis Graham in Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class: “For fifty years, membership in this invitation-only national organization has meant that your social background, lifestyle, physical appearance, and family’s academic and professional accomplishments passed muster with a fiercely competitive group of women who—while forming a rather cohesive sisterhood—were constantly under each other’s scrutiny.”
And like Lauren Thomas, Lewis Lee sometimes finds the demands of society and philanthropy tiring. “I don’t really like asking for money because I don’t really like being asked for it,” she says over a plate of grilled asparagus. “I get hit up so much … person after person. And no matter how much you give, you can’t win: A year later, you will only receive a solicitation for more instead of a thank-you note.” Still, Lewis Lee serves as vice-chair of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (she is an attorney herself and practiced with the former firm Nixon, Hargrave, Devans & Doyle in Washington, D.C., before she married Spike and moved to Brooklyn), and she has raised money for education programs at the Met and for Kids for Kids. She knows it is her duty: noblesse oblige.
Lewis Lee broke an unspoken code by exposing her social circle in Gotham Diaries. Traditionally, African-American society likes to keep a low profile. There is a certain anxiety that flaunting will lead to backlash. (Of course, there are exceptions, like Black Enterprise publisher Earl Graves—also a Boulé—who keeps a customized fleet of luxury vehicles at his home in Sag Harbor and can most often be spotted cruising around in his Rolls-Royce.) But like her husband, Lewis Lee felt she had untold stories of the black experience to tell. “I wanted to put out there that there is this group of people who exist, because you don’t see them,” she says. “So often, when blacks are depicted as having money, it’s as if they want to be white. And I’m sure there are those who do this.” But there is also a world, an ignored but not imaginary world, that Lewis Lee was raised in and her husband is new to: the Blackristocracy.