How New York City Nurtures Its Littlest Plutocrats

Photo: Pantheon

Quiet Street, Nick McDonell’s brisk, book-length essay on (his own) privilege, takes its title from an actual street: 124th Street in upper Manhattan, which in his telling is less an address than a tense borderland where the reality of New York life and the fantasy of the New York elite come uncomfortably together. Early in the book, McDonell recounts a story from his time at Buckley — the 110-year-old, $58,500-a-year private boys’ elementary school on the Upper East Side — that coined the phrase. Whenever a bus of Buckley athletes would drive through East Harlem, the coaches would command the boys to stay silent so as not to antagonize the neighborhood with the irrefutable fact of their unequal opportunities.

The boys of Buckley are raised to rule the world. Buckley is not the city’s only prestigious, high-priced private school, and unlike many of the others one could name — Dalton, Trinity, Horace Mann, the all-boys Collegiate, et al. — it doesn’t even take its pupils through high school. But even without going past the ninth grade, Buckley has historically drawn whole swaths of the city’s political and financial elite. Former New York mayor John Lindsay went to Buckley. So did former New York City D.A. Cyrus Vance; multiple Roosevelts and Rockefellers; and Donald Trump Jr. Even the fictional Kendall Roy allegedly went to Buckley. “The lesson was: This is normal,” McDonell writes about an elementary-school field trip to meet with Strom Thurmond. “Any one of us could become a senator; power is our birthright.” The kingdom they will inherit is a genteel, if not always a gentle, plutocracy, and institutions like Buckley are its feeders, instructing generations of men not only on their ABCs but, from the first, on their social graces and the mores of the establishment. “There was a violence to good manners,” McDonell writes. “In certain contexts, a properly executed handshake sent a message not unlike a snake’s rattle.”

The author as a callow youth, circa 2002; McDonell today. Photo: Courtesy of Pantheon

McDonell learned to rattle with the best of them. He bounded from one prestigious prep school to the next — Buckley to Riverdale to Harvard to Oxford — and, by dint of family connections, published his first novel, the rich-kids-behaving-badly roman à clef Twelve, at 18, to rave reviews. (“I was born at the right time, in the right place, to the right people,” he once explained to this magazine.) He has spent the years since as a reporter and foreign correspondent with a speciality in war zones and has published novels and political writing. Quiet Street is his first time turning his reporter’s eye on himself and his upbringing. Rich (pun half-intended) with anecdotal details from a life spent between the Upper East Side, the Hamptons, and all the other playgrounds of the wealthy, McDonell has done what for many in his orbit would have found unthinkable: He says the quiet part loud.

Zooming in from Kraków, after a reporting stint in Kyiv, McDonell returned to the theme of both the comforts of privilege as well as its distortions and delusions. (In the book, he relays a meeting with the sister of the drug trafficker El Chapo, in view of a stuffed baby hippopotamus. “Above all,” the sister said, “my brother was a conservationist.”) Our conversation, below, has been condensed and edited.

To start, could we talk a little bit about where this book came from? You write that this idea developed out of volunteer work you were doing at the beginning of COVID and seeing how different your path was from your peers at that moment. But more broadly, do you think this is also coming out of a particular time, where we’re more interested in thinking about privilege?
Yeah, it came of the times. It came, you know, after George Floyd. The conversation around these topics really was growing in a way that I had not felt it previously. When I was writing books, in the years before, the conversation about privilege wasn’t the same. It’s definitely changed.

What was the process of writing the book like?
It was both real short and real long. I started writing it that summer of 2020, in Brooklyn. And I wrote a first draft of it super quickly and then kept working on it for the subsequent three years. And did a lot more work on it once I had a publisher and an editor.

The feedback I got from almost everybody was, we want more of your life in it. It started more anthropologically. And the feedback I always had was, I want to know about you and your most intimate personal stuff inside your own life. Which is not something that I was super-excited to do. But as I talked with them about it, the more I saw how it helped the book.

You’ve done a lot of kinds of writing, but lately it’s been primarily journalism and political theory. That’s not stuff that tends to encourage sticking yourself in the story. Was that uncomfortable for you? As you say, it wasn’t your initial idea. Was it challenging to reorient and insert yourself?
This was part of what was at the core of this book. Because I had spent several years thinking, you’ve got to not write about yourself. You are this financially privileged white guy in Iraq or Afghanistan, you definitely don’t have to, don’t want to be, in this story. You want it to be about these other people. I had thought about but never really engaged with the work of taking a real hard look at myself on paper. I had done some of that in fiction before, so I was not coming to it without any thoughts. It was just a question of sitting down and doing that in a more systematic way.

Did you find that once you started digging, relevant examples and anecdotes started coming to you, things you’d forgotten about?
Oh, yeah, I mean, digging around in memory brings up surprising stuff. But the most interesting thing was the interviewing of the 15 guys I went to Buckley with for those ten years. Hadn’t talked with most of them for quite a while, and so that kicked up a lot of dust for me. And maybe for them.

I thought it was smart to have that section near the end where you include them in their own words. Were these conversations awkward or uncomfortable?
There’s that thing of being looked at or observed and judged in a way that makes people self-conscious. And then there was also the question: What are you trying to do here? Because I think as a group of people, these are people who are aware that they are under increased scrutiny.

That leads neatly into: What are you trying to do? What do you see as the intention of this book, whether that’s borne out or not?
I wanted to write a close anthropology of the one percent, as I understood it, in America. The goal was to just really look at it clearly, from a position of access that I didn’t see represented very much on paper. The first goal is just to try to record this little slice of the world that I had access to as accurately as I could. I often fall back on — when I think about what I’m trying to accomplish — Orwell’s four reasons why writers write: political purpose, historical record, aesthetic satisfaction, and megalomania. And he says that in every writer, these four things ebb and flow over the course of the career, and you can see a mixing. So some combination of all those.

Does this fulfill one of those pillars more than the others?
I hope that it feels more like a historical record/political purpose kind of a thing. But there’s a dash of the other stuff, for sure.

But it seems like you very specifically don’t offer a lot of prescriptions as to what should be done about this, or even what could be done about this. This is not a policy proposal, at least as I read it. 
I didn’t want it to be a policy book. I had been thinking about policy in the weeds for Civilian Casualties. For this one, I was trying to make it more observational. But there’s some policy things that sneak in there. I’m not a policymaker, but I am taken by ideas like Thomas Piketty’s about taxation and redistribution. A few of them sneak in there. But nothing broadly prescriptive.

For much of the past month you’ve been reporting in Kyiv. Now having to start promoting and talking about this book, are you having a kind of cognitive dissonance, similar to the one that began this book in the first place?
Yeah, a little bit. But also, I’ve been trying to think about how to reconcile it. Because in some ways, I’m kind of on the same beat, or at least I’m trying to stay on the same beat, which is about the way that American power operates. And Quiet Street was how it operates in my hometown. And then, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, it was about how it affected civilians, directly through airstrikes. And in this work in Ukraine, I’m trying to understand what it means behind a proxy war, because the decisions have been made in the higher levels by people who went to places like Buckley. And so it all feels of a thread. But definitely, sometimes my head is spinning.

Who do you see as the ideal audience for this book? Is it your own cohort? Or the 99 percent? 
I would like everybody who wants to read it to read it. But I would have liked to read something like it when I was a kid, when I was 12 or 13 or 14 years old. Maybe there will be those kinds of kids at Buckley reading it.

Were there specific analogs and kinds of inspirations for this book? I don’t imagine you’re a Primates of Park Avenue type …
Interesting book, actually. There’s a really rich tradition of books about this stuff. At the risk of comparing myself to Orwell, which is a ludicrous idea, I did kind of steal some of the structure of this from “Such, Such Were the Joys,” his essay about his education. That was what got me thinking about a way to write about that.

One thing you bring up at the very beginning is the possibility that people will feel betrayed by this book, that people will recognize themselves, even if they’re not named. Has that happened?
It’s funny. The first novel I ever wrote was called Twelve, and it was also about this kind of world. And so this is a return to that. And when that book came out, I thought, if people see themselves in this book, they’re gonna be mad. But the opposite thing happened. People came up to me, like, Yo, I’m that guy who did that terrible thing! And that was not what I expected. In this case, a couple of the people who I thought might be most taken aback by it have actually invited me to come and talk to people about it. That makes me think maybe that I didn’t do my job well enough.

Will you talk a little bit about choosing Buckley specifically to kind of largely set the scene? You do go a little into other elite institutions you attended — Riverdale and Harvard and Oxford. But it is primarily centered around Buckley. 
Part of it was just the number of years I spent there. There was more material. I had never really written about it, so part of it was about the satisfaction of writing about it. And part of it was it’s such a small, unusual place. And there’s less written about it too. There’s a lot about Harvard, there’s more about the Riverdales of the world and less about the Buckleys.

I think that’s fair, though I also think an interesting thing about Buckley is that it really is basically from the nursery onward. You’re getting these kids at such a young age.
Yeah. I mean, I guess the answer to the question also is that it really did have a major effect on me, really formed me. And I think that of all the people I spoke to who went there with my classmates and cohort, they mostly agreed that it was the most formative institution of their lives. And not necessarily just because it was the whole 10 or 11 years, but because of the intensity of it and smallness of it. It’s such a strong institution. It’s so sure of itself. There were moments at Riverdale, at Harvard and Oxford and every place I’ve ever worked with anybody, there’s always this moment of, “Well, what do we do here?” But I don’t remember anything like that at Buckley. Partly because I was a child and I couldn’t see it. But it just felt like something really certain.

I sensed a respect for many of these ideals that have been inculcated in you, even if you also take issue with the way that they kind of lead into this sort of systemic cronyism. I don’t think that this is kind of a torch-the-entire-system book, which one could write. So I guess I’m interested in that push and pull. Am I reading correctly to intuit that you do have some affection for the ideals that underpin your privileged upbringing, even if they end up, you know, being deployed to semi-nefarious ends?
I think that some of the ideals that were presented in my education are these giant abstract words. Fairness, character, honesty, integrity. All these gigantic abstract words that if you zoomed out a little bit, didn’t make any sense beyond the context of that education system. So there’s that pole between the like, youthful desire to be close to these big abstractions, and then having a wider perspective that makes you realize that if you’re not going to torch it all, something’s got to change.

If you have kids, will you send them to Buckley?
This is a good litmus test. Having read this book, do you think that I would?

I would not expect so. And yet, coming from a not dissimilar background myself, I do understand that it’s easier to have overarching political ideals than to make individual personal choices that conform to them. The devil on your shoulder might say, well, but do I want my kid in a public-school class with 40 people? So do I think that you would be thrilled to send your kid to Buckley and do so with no reservations? Absolutely not. Do I think you might be conflicted about whether or not to do it? I do.
Right on. That’s part of the thing about the book — it’s about recognizing the devil on your shoulder and looking at my own devil. I do not think that I would send my children to Buckley or a school like that, no. I don’t think I would do it.

McDonell, a trained EMT, worked a few shifts at a Brooklyn hospital morgue in 2020. Having intended, at the outset, to write about the experience, he ultimately decided that he could not do so without working morgue shifts for years, and even then, would be removed by class and upbringing from its other workers. “Was I then a tourist,” he writes of his time in the morgue, “or worse, a kind of profiteer?” He turned instead to a reckoning with himself and his own community instead of the hospital’s. An entire section of Quiet Street is dedicated to quotations taken from interviews McDonell conducted with eight anonymized members of his ninth-grade class — as he says, “there were only sixteen of us, so it was not difficult to contact them all.” These analects range from the braggy (“It’s all ancient history but, you know, my dad grew up in a house designed by Stanford White”) to the depressing (“I mean, hard to fill a class with racial and ethnic minorities, you know, at forty grand a year”). They are not generally all that illuminating, although many do speak to the sense of inevitable success a Buckley education offers. (“My girlfriend went to [an all-girls Manhattan private school] and I look at her class, and it’s exactly the same as our class. They work at Google, or Goldman, or whatever.”) From the classmate conversations: “You talked about wanting to write this book in the context of discussing issues that are broader than Buckley: race, etcetera, etcetera. Why do you think Buckley is relevant to that conversation?” The Bodies in Person: An Account of Civilian Casualties in American Wars (2018). Written at 17, published at 18, McDonell’s Twelve (2002) concerned a drug dealer serving New York’s prep-school community called “White Mike.” Hunter S. Thompson, the godfather of McDonell’s younger brother, wrote of it that “I’m afraid he will do for his generation what I did for mine.” Joel Schumacher later directed a film adaptation, starring Gossip Girl’s Chace Crawford. Riverdale Country Day School, founded 1907, with a 27.5-acre campus in the tony Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale. From Quiet Street: “Quiet Street ran straight through Harvard. I applied early and was accepted.” He was also “punched” (tapped) by the Porcellian, established 1791, which he describes as the most exclusive of the Harvard “finals clubs.” The year after he graduated, McDonell published Guerre à Harvard with Flammarion, in French. From which he received a master’s degree in international relations (St. Anthony’s College, if you’re curious). Buckley’s motto, for the record, is Honor et Veritas—”honor and truth.” Prep schools love to trade on “truth”: Harvard’s motto is simply Veritas, and Yale’s, Lux et Veritas (light and truth).
How New York City Nurtures Its Littlest Plutocrats