Married to the Market

To the alarm of Central Park’s bird-watchers and pigeons alike, nine moms in sweats and sneakers, accompanied by their personal trainer, raced down the path toward the Alice in Wonderland statue on a recent morning, pushing baby strollers – not three-wheeled jogging strollers but careening Maclarens and polka-dotted Peregos.

“Think of a dirty toilet seat,” the trainer barked as they hit the statue and started hopping up and down its steps, their incredulous babies arrayed in a semicircle around them. “You can’t sit on it, so you’re going to squat.”

The moms dutifully visualized a dirty toilet seat – they had to look no farther than the ladies’ room at the boathouse just across the model-boat pond – and squatted.

“Listen to me,” their commander instructed after a dozen or so squats – barely enough to break a sweat. “You’re going to leave the babies here. You’re being released from bondage.”

The ladies took off for a brief run; their children, thrown into spontaneous and collective separation anxiety, started howling.

“This is kind of weird to me,” said Stuart Taylor, a British tourist who happened to be soaking up the sun and leafing through a guidebook on a bench a few feet away. “England is a lot more sedate.”

About 30 seconds later, the mothers were back, vainly trying to calm their hysterical babies before returning to the steps.

“Up and down,” their trainer ordered. “All right, kids, we’re almost out of here.”

In another minute, they were off. Mr. Taylor watched as the stroller brigade bounced down the steps toward its next challenge. “Most of those women weren’t overweight,” he said in disbelief. “They all had perfect bodies anyway.”

The Englishman wasn’t going to find it in his guidebook, but he’d been lucky enough to witness a phenomenon as majestic in its own way as the city’s plummeting crime rate or the play of light against the massed skyscrapers of midtown at sunset – the housewives of the Upper East Side.

With Wall Street in overdrive, never before have so many women – lots of them married to investment bankers at top-tier firms such as Goldman, Sachs; Salomon Brothers; and Lazard Frres, or to stockbrokers or hedge-fund managers – enjoyed so many views of Central Park, “long liquid lunches” (as one of them characterized the occasions), spa vacations, and Herms Kelly handbags. And they also have the time and money to raise ideal children, do heroic amounts of volunteer work, and develop the kinds of bodies once restricted to ballerinas and Olympic gymnasts.

Having a car and driver to shuttle them around the city shopping, doing good deeds, and whisking their children to and from play dates would seem to constitute the good life on the cusp of the millennium. But what appears to be paradise from the outside may be closer to purgatory – albeit one greased with personal trainers and unlimited lines of credit – when you’re on the inside looking out of your Fifth Avenue duplex. Sure, servants are great – if you have someone to share them with. The price many of these women pay – though they rarely suffer publicly and some appear not to be suffering at all – is that they hardly ever see their spouses, who, in exchange for their monstrous salaries, are expected to put in the sort of hours last seen when the pyramids were under construction.

These women are just as formidable as their husbands, with whom they may have fallen in love at the right college, or in law school, or across a trading desk. The competitiveness and efficiency they now bring to such tasks as throwing their child’s birthday party or organizing their school’s Halloween parade leave little doubt that had motherhood not beckoned, they could be running the economy with a good deal less Sturm und Drang and expensive-cigar smoke than their spouses.

They know where their husbands are coming from, because they’ve been there themselves, and they also know their mates are trapped, at least if their family’s goals include residing on Park Avenue. “The people whose husbands are home at 5:30 can’t afford to live in the city,” one wife explains matter-of-factly.

“It’s like an oil well,” says a 40-year-old investment banker who made more than $5 million last year and admits that he doesn’t give his wife and kids a second thought after he slips into the backseat of his Town Car at the crack of dawn and heads for Wall Street. “You’ve got to keep pumping it while it’s available. Nobody believes in the market at these levels.”

However, he concedes that his hours haven’t been very good for family values. “They’ve gotten used to not having you around,” he says. “You infringe on the life they’ve had to create for themselves. You’re almost an intruder.”

Susan is the wife of one such financial samurai. The scene at her apartment resembles an updated Dutch genre painting, overrun with children and pets and, in place of red-nosed peasants swilling grog, impeccably dressed moms sipping Chardonnay. Susan has found a way to maintain her equilibrium while raising several lovely children – she has turned her Park Avenue apartment into a clubhouse.

Starting at around six on many evenings, girlfriends who live on the surrounding floors and have also lost their husbands to Wall Street begin arriving with children and bottles of wine. The apartment isn’t flashy in the least. It’s Waspiness before Ralph Lauren co-opted and gilded the concept. The living room is filled with family heirlooms and throw pillows.

“Susan is a magnet for this kind of thing,” Heather, a blonde who came barefoot via the back stairs – suggesting the ease with which these ladies come and go between one another’s apartments – tells me as she slides into the breakfast nook. “There has to be an organizer.”

When Heather says “this kind of thing,” she isn’t referring just to the evening’s wine tasting (she shows up with a small toddler and an industrial-size bottle of Chardonnay), or to the cozy domestic scene as she drops her daughter into the middle of the craft project Susan’s kids are already heavily involved with. Rather, she’s talking about the informal group-therapy sessions Susan leads for women who seem to have it all by the outside world’s standards but are basically raising their children as single parents.

“I had to sit down with my baby-sitter and explain to her she was going to have to function as another parent in the household,” explains one woman without a bit of irony. “I said, ‘Basically, you’re my other half.’”

Heather is a happy exception. “My husband comes home at bedtime,” she boasts, wrestling with the cork. “I’m pretty lucky that way.”

And there are others, of course. Most of the husbands seem to make a good-faith effort to show up for their children’s theatrical performances and field days – even though they’re sometimes obliged to take a call on the cell phone or leave in the middle of an event. And there are Wall Street families where Mom, Dad, and the kids appear to be as happy and at peace with one another as if they lived in Santa Fe – though there seems to be universal consensus that there’s no way to maintain this opulent lifestyle working a 40-hour week.

One mother says that when they drive through Vermont on their way to skiing and her son makes snide comments about how small and ramshackle some of the homes are, she knows how to shut him up. “Yes,” she tells him, “but their daddy is at home at five o’clock to have dinner with the kids.”

Another woman talks of how her youngest cried when her husband picked her up one day because she hardly knew him. “When he comes home,” she says, “the first thing our oldest child says is ‘We’re a family again.’ Obviously, all the faxes and phone calls aren’t the same thing as hugging your kid.”

Susan’s husband’s hours are typical. He leaves the house around 6:30 a.m. and sometimes doesn’t return much before midnight. “If he gets home at nine, he gets on a conference call to Hong Kong or Japan,” explains Susan, a former corporate lawyer whose true calling may be social satire and who claims, not entirely believably, not to know what her husband does for a living.

“He could be speaking Hindi for all I understand,” she sniffs as she supplies the children with snacks, paper, scissors, and juice boxes even though her housekeeper stands idle a few feet away. “He just seems to be moving large quantities of money around the globe. I guess I could be asking more questions, but it doesn’t seem that interesting to me.”

“My second husband,” she jokes “won’t have a job where I can’t explain what he does for a living to my kids.”

Some nights, the ladies kick off their shoes, crank up the stereo, and dance together – Club MTV in cashmere. Other nights, they just cry – for the good, clean, cathartic fun of it. “Remember the night we were all here sobbing until 1:30?” Susan cheerfully asks Heather, who is still struggling to extricate the cork from the wine bottle. “We were just talking about sad stories.”

“Anything seems sad at 1:30 in the morning,” Heather observes cogently.

However, most of their sŽances are anything but morbid. “I know more details about more people’s you-know-what lives than you would believe,” Susan says as she takes the bottle away from Heather after she rips the cork. “Women very rarely talk about world events.”

The discussion seems less about the women’s actual sexual escapades than about their personal-trainer fantasies and about how their good looks might be enlisted as a tool to soften a spouse’s resistance to an expensive redecorating project, for example.

Oftentimes, the discussion is a lot less salacious, however. If it doesn’t involve their children’s schools and the endlessly fascinating subtopics that subject spawns – who’s getting tutored; who’s getting divorced; whether the children are getting a warped view of the world because 75 percent of the other dads in their class also work on Wall Street – then it’s about the husbands’ attitude problems.

Either they get off the red-eye with a chip on their shoulder because they don’t think their wives appreciate the sacrifice they’re making for the family’s financial security, or they’re so high on money, power, and market-driven adrenaline that they have difficulty coming down on weekends.

“He should be slightly nicer on the weekends and less nice during the week,” one woman says, echoing a common refrain. “They think their wives work for them and their children are mini-analysts they can kick around.”

One investment banker, who experienced something of an epiphany during a brief sabbatical from the business, attributes his ayatollah-like behavior to an explosive cocktail whose ingredients included the global economy and light deprivation.

“Even if you’re home, it doesn’t mean you have downtime,” he explains. “It’s the pending deal – what news is going to come out while you’re sleeping? You never get a vacation. The next time I get a vacation is when I’m going to retire.

“I never saw daylight,” he goes on. “I never knew what seasons were. When I got to work it was dark, and when I got home it was dark.”

It drove him crazy that his wife and daughter had the audacity to sleep in on Saturday mornings. “Any free time, I wanted to be outside,” he explains. “I’d say, ‘Let’s get out. We’re burning daylight.’”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of these warriors don’t have a lot of time or patience to attend to their wives’ inner lives. “My friends do feel stress in their lives, but they can’t talk about it with their husbands,” Susan explains. “Their husbands think they have it made. They think all they do is wander around and take naps and read novels and eat lunch out with friends.”

Ironically, the wives don’t think of themselves as rich, even though their spouses earn hundreds of thousands of dollars if not several million a year. The awful truth is that a million bucks a year makes you middle-class on Park Avenue these days. Subtract a few private-school tuitions, the mortgage on the apartment and the obligatory home in the Hamptons, Christmas and spring vacations skiing in Colorado or sailing in the Caribbean, and there isn’t a hell of a lot left over.

“So you get this big bonus, and it is all spent just trying to survive,” sighs a woman whose husband brought home a $1 million bonus in February. “We are getting ahead slowly.”

It’s not as if the women weren’t shrewd enough to realize it would be tasteless to complain. “We just talk about whether to go to St. John’s or St. Croix and how much of a bonus to give our baby-sitters at Christmas,” Susan says, self-loathing creeping into her voice. “It’s just dither.”

On the other hand, it’s painful to watch your husband conquering the world – his claims of sacrifice notwithstanding – while your life is focused on the minutiae of child-rearing: getting the kids off to school, arranging play dates (though in many families that role seems to have been subcontracted to the nanny), and meeting with teachers and tutors when Buster’s grades take a nosedive.

“It’s a schlepper’s life,” acknowledges a Wall Street power broker when his wife is out of earshot.

Paul Spector, a psychiatrist who counts some of these women among his patients, doesn’t consider their situation enviable, despite appearances. “Whether they have a lot of help or not doesn’t change the manner in which they feel abandoned and often devalued,” he observes. “The kind of tension that develops is that the husband is financing everything. There’s no way of putting concrete value on the work that’s being done by the wife.”

Dana, another Park Avenue housewife, could probably use a support group like Susan’s. After twelve years of marriage, she and her husband, Mark, a takeover specialist, are filing for divorce. Dana recently discovered that Mark was routinely cheating on her. But it’s not Dana who’s seeking the divorce; it’s Mark. His wife apparently no longer presents the sort of challenge that brings out the best in him.

“Investment bankers always use the term of a deal being ‘sexy,’” Dana explains as she sits in the library sipping a cup of herbal tea, dressed in tight black slacks and a silk shirt that accentuates her dancer’s body. “They talk about women and deals the same way. They ‘want it.’ They ‘go after it.’ There’s the negotiation back and forth. Once the deal closes, the excitement’s over and it’s on to the next one. That’s the way he is with women. It’s not the sex. It’s the newness, the conquest.”

Every flat surface is covered with fairy-tale pictures of the family skiing out west, sailing, or just looking good. Books are few, but built-ins with TVs or computers are everywhere.

The phone rings. It’s Dana’s real-estate broker. She and Mark are selling their co-op, and even though it’s a Park Avenue starter apartment in the rear of the building, with so little light it’s impossible to tell whether it’s sunny or cloudy outside, it’s awash in marble – in the foyer, in the kitchen, in the showers – and two families have already bid it up to $1.4 million.

“I do think control is a huge part of the personality of an investment banker,” Dana continues when she’s off the phone.

The investment banker with the sleep-deprived wife and daughter agrees with Dana’s characterization of his breed. “The very best are control freaks,” he says unapologetically. “Most of us who are doing it at the very top of the game are very creative people. We like to build.”

Their seven-figure bonuses apparently only reinforce their feelings of infallibility. “If you meet one of the big traders on the Street,” he goes on, “he will lecture to you on every single subject – because he’s made that money, he’s entitled to.”

His wife adds, “I’ve never met a person who works on Wall Street who doesn’t think he’s a superstar. I’ll ask my husband, ‘I don’t know who he is – is he amazing at what he does?’ The markets are the markets. Most people think it’s them doing it. They think they’re God.”

Therapy doesn’t help. “They run it like a business deal,” explains a psychoanalyst who saves Sundays for franchise players at top-tier firms. (Her first appointment on weekdays, at 7 a.m., already comes too late in the day for them.)

The therapist cites one high-roller who insisted on dragging in the wife and kids even though the shrink told him their presence wasn’t necessary. “Instead of dealing with his intimate feelings and surrendering to the process,” she observes, “he wants me to do it like a consultation on a company – meet the key players, evaluate the employees, and tell him which direction to take this group. He has controlled the entire treatment. He berates me for not intervening enough, but he hasn’t given me a chance to talk.”

However, the wives aren’t entirely without blame for selecting these self-starters in the first place. “I have a patient who’s considering marrying one of these guys,” the shrink says. “So I keep talking to her – ‘Why do you want to marry him? You tell me you never see him.’ When he’s not working, he’s exhausted and needs to recover. She said, ‘I love him.’ I think they’re kind of like the cowboys of today. There’s something powerful and macho and sexy, almost, about them.”

Even now, Dana concedes that Mark “was great at what he did – even though I didn’t fall all over him because he did it.

“I was working on Wall Street, too,” she continues, remembering their romance. “We had common interests. I just wanted a family. Mark used to say the most important thing was family.”

But living on Park Avenue was also a shared dream. “I thought we’d be successful,” Dana concedes. “We wanted our kids to go to private schools, wanted to take vacations when and where we wanted, have a home in the Hamptons. We didn’t necessarily have aspirations of being a Ron Perelman.”

The phone rings again. Dana checks the caller I.D. and lets the answering machine take it. It’s another investment banker’s wife, who wants to set up a play date for their sons. Even though Dana has known her since their kids were in kindergarten, she says she’d never discuss her marital problems with her.

“People get nervous,” she explains. “They think I’m attractive. So if my husband would leave me, it makes them feel vulnerable that it could happen to them. People kind of disassociate themselves from you because it comes too close to home.”

Sarabeth’s at the Whitney – not Le Cirque 2000 – is the watering hole for the new, utilitarian breed of ladies who lunch. It’s conveniently located; mothers can drop off their toddlers at preschools such as Episcopal, meet their friends for lunch, do some damage at the shops along Madison Avenue, and still be back in time for pickup.

“The biggest difference between the city and the ’burbs,” says Barbara, a recent emigrant who reluctantly moved to Darien after her sons almost razed their Upper East Side co-op and permanently alienated the downstairs neighbors, “is that at least three days a week I’d meet friends for lunch. We’d sort of sit around and commiserate until pickup time about the fact that your husband hadn’t been home in a week and what dinner party were you missing because you didn’t want to go out by yourself.”

Barbara, who nonetheless still manages to make it back to town for a couple of lunches a week, places her fellow mothers into two general categories. There are resentful first wives such as herself who married their husbands before they became successful and who watched helplessly as they got swallowed whole by their careers. Then there are the second, third, and fourth wives who met their mates after they made managing director and may be less resentful about their martyrdom – as long as the blow is cushioned by a Fifth Avenue duplex and a staff that may include a personal secretary to coordinate the wife’s extensive social, charitable, school-related, and perhaps postgraduate commitments; at least a couple of caregivers; a housekeeper; and a driver. Butlers are reportedly also making a comeback.

A prime source of these women’s resentment is the docility their husbands exhibit in the name of career and company loyalty, leaving the country without complaint on an hour’s notice and limping home on weekends exhausted and virtually useless as parents.

“He has no argument against them at all,” says a wife who, unbeknownst to her husband, placed a protest call to the president of his company after the CEO had cavalierly transferred the family abroad one too many times. “It might have cost us dearly, but he just thanked me and they gave him another job.”

Another woman hit the ceiling when her spouse’s company called during Christmas week and told him to be on the next plane to Asia. Even though her husband’s boss abjectly filled their apartment with flowers as a peace offering, she remained unmoved.

Barbara of Darien says her husband’s million-dollar bonus isn’t worth the 22 weekends he had to travel last year. “We were happy when it was half that, and maybe even two-thirds less we were even happier,” she says wistfully. “I think there’s a direct inverse relationship between that and happiness.”

Her husband agrees that his absences haven’t helped their marriage. “You’re not quite clear what the rules are anymore,” he observes. “Your son misbehaves or he does something that you think is amusing, and your wife goes, ‘He’s forbidden to do that.’ It creates these conflicts.”

Ironically, when the husbands divorce and remarry these days, they’re not going for the trophy wives of the eighties, according to Harriet Cohen, a divorce lawyer who represents her share of successful husbands and spurned wives, but to female peers of the sort their wives were before they abandoned their careers for motherhood.

“It’s two high-powered people who are getting together, and there’s not a disparity in age,” Ms. Cohen observes, adding that these days, men are as likely to find their follow-up wives across a conference table as at the bar at Cipriani. “The wife is doing what she was told to do, and she’s not stimulating anymore.”

Barbara says she’d forsake her husband’s bonus, or a substantial portion of it, anyway, for a more normal family life. “But nobody has asked me to,” she notes wryly.

Indeed, at lunch, the question the women most want to ask one another is the one that never seems to come up – how much their husbands earn. “You’re dying to know,” Barbara confides. “I was joking with a friend that I was happy about my husband’s bonus and I couldn’t tell anybody. She had the same feeling. You really don’t know if their husband earns $300,000 or $3 million. The range could be that big. The wife might be thinking he’s making a lot of money; all of a sudden, it’s awkward. There’s a real hierarchy in terms of how much you make and are you with a top-tier firm or a second-tier firm.”

Another popular conversation starter is sex, or more specifically finding a handsome surrogate for an indifferent, globe-trotting spouse. “We have our lifeguard fantasies,” one woman concedes. “I have a friend who thinks the young trainers would be fun for a roll in the hay. We’d be supportive, certainly.”

However, the allure of an affair seems less about sating one’s sexual lust than about taking measures to restore the balance of power in relationships that have turned lopsided in the husband’s favor. Everybody seems to know a personal trainer or coach who will do the deed in case of emergency.

“I used to threaten him with a divine tennis instructor,” says Kate, the wife of a $1-million-plus-a-year executive. “He adores me,” Kate goes on, referring to her coach, not her spouse, “and my husband knows it. We’re not too old to have an affair with somebody else, and I’d do it in a minute if I wasn’t satisfied.”

But she is. In fact, Kate reports that her husband’s business trips have added a tantalizing new dimension to their sex lives. She points to one memorable encounter at the Savoy in London where they rendezvoused when he was on his way back from a business trip to Thailand.

“I took off all my clothes and got into bed,” Kate recalls. “It was almost like having a liaison. He arrived in the middle of the night. We were all over each other. We get away from our kids quite a lot.”

She agrees with the shrink who calls them cowboys, and draws a correlation between the size of their libidos and their swelling bonuses. “If anything, it increases their sex drive,” she observes.

Dana meets so many flirtatious married investment bankers, not to mention doctors and lawyers, on her nightly dog walks along Park Avenue that she has sometimes wished she’d paper-trained her pet. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten hit on by guys walking dogs,” she reports. “A couple of times, I’ve had to change my routes because these guys are relentless. Mostly men do the night walks, so it’s a woman’s market out there.”

The challenge is finding one you won’t run into at the next Wall Street dinner party or at one of those charity balls at the Pierre or the Waldorf celebrating your firm’s senior partner’s contributions to humanity. However, Barbara doesn’t see it as a big problem. “You just have to go outside your circle,” she says breezily. “You don’t stay on the Upper East Side. You go to SoHo or the Upper West Side.”

It should be said of investment bankers that they don’t have a monopoly on a commitment to career that verges on religious fanaticism. In fact, it wasn’t a money manager but someone in the movie business who announced to his wife, weeks after the birth of their child, that he was heading off to Morocco for half a year.

“I said, ‘Six months?’” recalls his usually supportive spouse. “‘Are you going to come back in between?’”

He told her he couldn’t. “It’s not Concordable,” she explains with uncalled-for understanding, “and they were shooting six days a week.”

It was his next comment that pissed her off. “He said, ‘Just think of me as going off to war.’ Of course, I found that hard to do. War doesn’t usually come with hotel suites and assistants and movie stars – unless you were drafted with Elvis.”

In defense of these topflight players, having a family couldn’t come at a worse time – just as their careers are catching fire, as beautiful women who wouldn’t give them the time of day back in high school suddenly find them alluring, and as they experience that first euphoric rush of fame when strangers they meet at cocktail parties have heard of them.

One wife, whose husband attributed his long hours at work to the need to guarantee his family’s financial security rather than to his quest for glory and his corporation’s top job, finally challenged him when his salary approached $10 million.

“Is there a point where he would say that he had reached financial security?” she wondered. “I tried to commit him to a number. It turns out it’s not really a number.”

Kate doesn’t buy the husbands’ explanations that it’s all for the family. “It’s like a drug,” she says. “They’re addicted. They never wish they could make the kid’s Christmas play. If I absolutely make him, he comes. If not, he doesn’t give it a second thought.

“I fight very hard,” she goes on. “He took a two-week vacation last summer – but don’t put that in print. I just booked a dude ranch in Wyoming for two weeks and said, ‘Be there.’ It works.”

Sarah, the wife of an executive, the mother of two teenagers, and an artist, says that a friend recently described her as a “beacon” because she refuses to give up her career, even if her family might run a little more smoothly if she did. Her paintings are often-lonely, Hopperesque Manhattan landscapes that sell well whenever she has a show.

“The husbands make you feel guilty about taking a course or doing something that’s not directly related to taking care of him or the house or the other house or the travel plans,” she says, nodding toward a businessman sitting across the restaurant where we’re eating who’s talking on his cell phone. “I think most of the guys get to a certain point and say, ‘I missed the whole damn thing.’ They go to the jamboree at school and they bring a video camera.

“My own personal feeling comes from that Clairol commercial – ‘If I have only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde.’ It hit me like a ton of bricks about the time I had the babies. I do have only one life. It can be miserable or nice, and I was goddamned if I was going to let it be miserable. I’ve arranged for myself a very gratifying life, and fuck ’em.

“My mother also raised two good children, but it didn’t allay her discontent in the end,” she goes on. “When she died, we had a nice memorial and all her friends came – she was very glamorous and funny – and talked about her. You couldn’t pin down what everyone adored about her, and I felt the wonderfulness of her evaporating like smoke.

“I don’t mean I want to make paintings that live for 500 years. But I want to feel some satisfaction in a sustained effort. Raising the children is a big sustained effort, but that’s like smoke, too. In a minute they’re off at college, and if you’ve done a good job, you don’t hear from them.”

The seeming cause of her bitterness – which her thriving career hasn’t quite conquered – is her belief that women remain, first and foremost, in her opinion, sex objects. “Once you’re past the age of being a sex object, you have no function,” she argues. In fact, she admits that one of the reasons she’d never move out of Manhattan is that she gains sustenance from the looks men give her on the street.

Another woman hit the ceiling when her spouse’s company called during Christmas week and told him to be on the next plane to Asia. Even though her husband’s boss abjectly filled their apartment with flowers as a peace offering, she remained unmoved.

Barbara of Darien says her husband’s million-dollar bonus isn’t worth the 22 weekends he had to travel last year. “We were happy when it was half that, and maybe even two-thirds less we were even happier,” she says wistfully. “I think there’s a direct inverse relationship between that and happiness.”

Her husband agrees that his absences haven’t helped their marriage. “You’re not quite clear what the rules are anymore,” he observes. “Your son misbehaves or he does something that you think is amusing, and your wife goes, ‘He’s forbidden to do that.’ It creates these conflicts.”

Ironically, when the husbands divorce and remarry these days, they’re not going for the trophy wives of the eighties, according to Harriet Cohen, a divorce lawyer who represents her share of successful husbands and spurned wives, but to female peers of the sort their wives were before they abandoned their careers for motherhood.

“It’s two high-powered people who are getting together, and there’s not a disparity in age,” Ms. Cohen observes, adding that these days, men are as likely to find their follow-up wives across a conference table as at the bar at Cipriani. “The wife is doing what she was told to do, and she’s not stimulating anymore.”

Barbara says she’d forsake her husband’s bonus, or a substantial portion of it, anyway, for a more normal family life. “But nobody has asked me to,” she notes wryly.

Indeed, at lunch, the question the women most want to ask one another is the one that never seems to come up – how much their husbands earn. “You’re dying to know,” Barbara confides. “I was joking with a friend that I was happy about my husband’s bonus and I couldn’t tell anybody. She had the same feeling. You really don’t know if their husband earns $300,000 or $3 million. The range could be that big. The wife might be thinking he’s making a lot of money; all of a sudden, it’s awkward. There’s a real hierarchy in terms of how much you make and are you with a top-tier firm or a second-tier firm.”

Another popular conversation starter is sex, or more specifically finding a handsome surrogate for an indifferent, globe-trotting spouse. “We have our lifeguard fantasies,” one woman concedes. “I have a friend who thinks the young trainers would be fun for a roll in the hay. We’d be supportive, certainly.”

However, the allure of an affair seems less about sating one’s sexual lust than about taking measures to restore the balance of power in relationships that have turned lopsided in the husband’s favor. Everybody seems to know a personal trainer or coach who will do the deed in case of emergency.

“I used to threaten him with a divine tennis instructor,” says Kate, the wife of a $1-million-plus-a-year executive. “He adores me,” Kate goes on, referring to her coach, not her spouse, “and my husband knows it. We’re not too old to have an affair with somebody else, and I’d do it in a minute if I wasn’t satisfied.”

But she is. In fact, Kate reports that her husband’s business trips have added a tantalizing new dimension to their sex lives. She points to one memorable encounter at the Savoy in London where they rendezvoused when he was on his way back from a business trip to Thailand.

“I took off all my clothes and got into bed,” Kate recalls. “It was almost like having a liaison. He arrived in the middle of the night. We were all over each other. We get away from our kids quite a lot.”

She agrees with the shrink who calls them cowboys, and draws a correlation between the size of their libidos and their swelling bonuses. “If anything, it increases their sex drive,” she observes.

Dana meets so many flirtatious married investment bankers, not to mention doctors and lawyers, on her nightly dog walks along Park Avenue that she has sometimes wished she’d paper-trained her pet. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten hit on by guys walking dogs,” she reports. “A couple of times, I’ve had to change my routes because these guys are relentless. Mostly men do the night walks, so it’s a woman’s market out there.”

The challenge is finding one you won’t run into at the next Wall Street dinner party or at one of those charity balls at the Pierre or the Waldorf celebrating your firm’s senior partner’s contributions to humanity. However, Barbara doesn’t see it as a big problem. “You just have to go outside your circle,” she says breezily. “You don’t stay on the Upper East Side. You go to SoHo or the Upper West Side.”

It should be said of investment bankers that they don’t have a monopoly on a commitment to career that verges on religious fanaticism. In fact, it wasn’t a money manager but someone in the movie business who announced to his wife, weeks after the birth of their child, that he was heading off to Morocco for half a year.

“I said, ‘Six months?’” recalls his usually supportive spouse. “‘Are you going to come back in between?’”

He told her he couldn’t. “It’s not Concordable,” she explains with uncalled-for understanding, “and they were shooting six days a week.”

It was his next comment that pissed her off. “He said, ‘Just think of me as going off to war.’ Of course, I found that hard to do. War doesn’t usually come with hotel suites and assistants and movie stars – unless you were drafted with Elvis.”

In defense of these topflight players, having a family couldn’t come at a worse time – just as their careers are catching fire, as beautiful women who wouldn’t give them the time of day back in high school suddenly find them alluring, and as they experience that first euphoric rush of fame when strangers they meet at cocktail parties have heard of them.

One wife, whose husband attributed his long hours at work to the need to guarantee his family’s financial security rather than to his quest for glory and his corporation’s top job, finally challenged him when his salary approached $10 million.

“Is there a point where he would say that he had reached financial security?” she wondered. “I tried to commit him to a number. It turns out it’s not really a number.”

Kate doesn’t buy the husbands’ explanations that it’s all for the family. “It’s like a drug,” she says. “They’re addicted. They never wish they could make the kid’s Christmas play. If I absolutely make him, he comes. If not, he doesn’t give it a second thought.

“I fight very hard,” she goes on. “He took a two-week vacation last summer – but don’t put that in print. I just booked a dude ranch in Wyoming for two weeks and said, ‘Be there.’ It works.”

Sarah, the wife of an executive, the mother of two teenagers, and an artist, says that a friend recently described her as a “beacon” because she refuses to give up her career, even if her family might run a little more smoothly if she did. Her paintings are often-lonely, Hopperesque Manhattan landscapes that sell well whenever she has a show.

“The husbands make you feel guilty about taking a course or doing something that’s not directly related to taking care of him or the house or the other house or the travel plans,” she says, nodding toward a businessman sitting across the restaurant where we’re eating who’s talking on his cell phone. “I think most of the guys get to a certain point and say, ‘I missed the whole damn thing.’ They go to the jamboree at school and they bring a video camera.

“My own personal feeling comes from that Clairol commercial – ‘If I have only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde.’ It hit me like a ton of bricks about the time I had the babies. I do have only one life. It can be miserable or nice, and I was goddamned if I was going to let it be miserable. I’ve arranged for myself a very gratifying life, and fuck ’em.

“My mother also raised two good children, but it didn’t allay her discontent in the end,” she goes on. “When she died, we had a nice memorial and all her friends came – she was very glamorous and funny – and talked about her. You couldn’t pin down what everyone adored about her, and I felt the wonderfulness of her evaporating like smoke.

“I don’t mean I want to make paintings that live for 500 years. But I want to feel some satisfaction in a sustained effort. Raising the children is a big sustained effort, but that’s like smoke, too. In a minute they’re off at college, and if you’ve done a good job, you don’t hear from them.”

The seeming cause of her bitterness – which her thriving career hasn’t quite conquered – is her belief that women remain, first and foremost, in her opinion, sex objects. “Once you’re past the age of being a sex object, you have no function,” she argues. In fact, she admits that one of the reasons she’d never move out of Manhattan is that she gains sustenance from the looks men give her on the street.

I tell her I spoke with two women that morning, both of whom sounded short of breath and as if they were taking my call on their treadmills. “Because that’s all they are, and it’s a losing battle, and they know it,” Sarah insists. “There’s a kind of desperation. If he threw her over for you, he’ll throw you over for the next one – unless you get one old enough to bury him.

Susan sits on the staircase at Lotte Berk Method, an exercise studio in a 67th Street brownstone that is the first stop on many an Upper East Side socialite’s daily rounds, waiting for the start of the 8:30 a.m. beginner class. Demand for the classes – known for a combination of stretching and strengthening exercises that devotees say guarantees one a gravity-defying butt and sleek, rock-solid thighs – is so great that clients who fail to cancel their reservations 24 hours in advance are charged for the class anyway.

“You’d be amazed what these women can do with their bodies,” says Barbara, a Lotte Berk regular before the move to Darien. “Women who are doing it five days a week can touch their toes with their noses and curl up into all these pretzely positions.”

One suspects that Susan will never become one of those leotarded ladies dangling from “the Rack” on the floor above, a warm-up exercise that would pass for torture in an Iraqi prison.

“I came this close to getting a disgusting jelly doughnut, but I was afraid I’d get kicked out,” Susan confesses, explaining that even though she’s already rail-thin, she joined to prevent developing “fluffy arms.”

The women offer various explanations for making the daily pilgrimage to Lotte Berk. Besides the documented benefits of exercise, these include the sense of empowerment you feel flexing your biceps in public in a strapless Armani; the luxury of spending an hour that belongs wholly to you rather than to your husband, children, or charities; and, not insignificantly, the fact that Lotte Berk has a satellite studio in the Hamptons, where everybody seems to have a weekend house.

“Mine is less than a mile from the Bridgehampton studio,” boasts a flat-tummied new mom who says she felt like exercising “about three hours after the baby came out” but that her doctor forbade her from returning for six weeks.

“I’m on Halsey Lane,” chimes in another stick figure.

“I’m on Ocean Road,” reports a third.

Of all the reasons for their devotion to the Lotte Berk Method, perhaps the most compelling is the one least mentioned – that it may persuade their testosterone-oozing husbands that, despite the sexual opportunities their power and money confer, the best takeover target remains the one at home.

“They see the change in their wives’ bodies and in their sexual performance,” instructor Elizabeth Halfpapp states clinically. “You’re more confident about yourself. You can control the muscles that control your pelvis and move it in ways you’ve never moved it before. We have husbands thanking us – ‘I can’t believe how you lifted her seat.’”

Dana doesn’t go to Lotte Berk. As a ballet dancer, she couldn’t possibly have a seat any higher or legs any harder than they already are. And she already has all the male attention she can handle. In fact, once Mark announced he wanted a divorce, Dana started walking their dog around the block at night a little more slowly and no longer changed her route to confound her admirers.

“I’ve had more sex since September than in the last ten years of my marriage,” she reveals.

In the fall, Dana started living the dream – she’s dating a tennis instructor. And even though she has no illusions about the relationship’s long-term potential, she says it feels good to be free.

“I’d never go out with another investment banker,” she states flatly. “I don’t want anybody controlling my life.”

Dana says Mark knows about her romance but is less jealous than disappointed in his wife’s taste in men: “At least,” he told her, “you could go out with someone who has the potential of making more money.”

Certain names and identifying details in this piece have been changed.

Married to the Market