In the nearly eight months since the pandemic shut down life as we knew it, it’s been rare to find glimmers of hope in the media, so I was excited when a magazine I subscribe to included an anecdote in its lead that promised to be “an act of hope—that life would soon resume.”
That act, it turns out, was the purchase of a $28,000 pair of diamond earrings auctioned off by Sotheby’s.
While I wouldn’t call it hope—I would not be enjoying said diamonds—I was somehow, weirdly, possibly comforted by the fact that as everything else is in upheaval this year, Town & Country still runs stories headlined “Bangles in a PANDEMIC? The shelter at home shopping network is here, and it’s all about jewels—lots of them.”
The magazine has basically been my favorite hate read since a Fourth of July weekend away with friends last year, back when sharing a space with people outside your family was an act we all took for granted. As I lazily flipped through my host’s magazine rack, not expecting much, I became instantly sucked into the collection of Town & Country issues, transported to a weird alternative timeline where all of the day’s biggest news and scandals were reframed to focus on the true victims: the unfairly demonized rich. The magazine’s story framing was truly flabbergasting:
- The opioid epidemic? Story headline: “Hello, My Name Is Sackler: When your husband and his family are accused of making billions off the opioid crisis, do you get to be a rebel without a cause?”
- The college bribery scandal? Headlined “Is Your Money Still Good Here: The pay-for-play college scandal threatens to end a time honored system of favor trading.”
- GoFundMe? “Suddenly, scanning your social media feed can feel like a walk down BEGGAR’S LANE [sic]. Can you escape with your wallet and relationships intact?”
- #MeToo? Header cartoon of Les Moonves, Michael Cohen, and Charlie Rose at a steakhouse alongside this headline: “How to navigate eating out—and fellow diners—post disgrace.”
I rushed to buy a subscription.
In the December gift guide I was advised to style myself after Kendall Roy, and I read a glossy spread about a Hearst heir getting married at the family castle. The February issue’s jewelry awards opened with a pair of necklaces, one priced $461,000 and another at $824,00, while elsewhere in the issue there was a taxonomy of the types of safari goers: the dowager countess, the honeymooners, the “mommy are we rich?” set.
While it was new to me, the absurd elitism of Town and Country certainly wasn’t new. It’s one of the longest-running magazines in the country. When a new editor took over in 2011, the New York Times called it “an institution that has been edited, since its founding in 1846, for an affluent, ambitious reader eager to master the art of living well.” Stellene Volandes, the magazine’s editor-in-chief since 2016, has been described on the website as a “known jewelry expert” who “speaks frequently on the topics of luxury and jewelry.” How T&C covers these travails of the rich isn’t trivial: Its print circulation of 425,000 is more than twice ours here at Mother Jones. Movie stars grace its cover. Michael Bloomberg and Chelsea Clinton both spoke at its first “philanthropy summit” back in 2014. Serious, good journalists whose work I enjoy elsewhere, like Taffy Brodesser-Akner and Adam Gopnik, contribute to the magazine. (I have to imagine their per-word rate is great, and so hopefully the executives at Hearst ignore this article when I someday pitch them.) Much of each issue doesn’t read all that different than any other glossy magazine that peddles a vision of high-class life (GQ’s list of the best leather jackets starts with one costing nearly $7,000), but there are about two to five stories in each issue that stop me cold, awed at the way parts of the world have been reframed to best pamper the cloistered elite.
But from the outset of the pandemic, it was clear that the rich were not handling lockdown well. Nor was the magazine. It was, like the people it covers, mostly operating in an alternate universe (one in which the net worth of billionaires soared while more than 22 million jobs were lost). And what I once found amusing, even charming-yet-cringe-inducing, now felt gross.
One week early in the pandemic, as the rich fled to their luxurious vacation homes, imprisoned the help, and sang off-key covers in misguided attempts to calm the normals, I checked T&C’s website. It took a decent bit of scrolling to find the first COVID reference, which came in a bloc on the homepage for “All the Latest Royal News.” Those stories were mostly about how various members of the royal family—even as distant as Prince George’s godfather—donated to various relief efforts. There was an entry titled “Queen Elizabeth Will Not Have a Gun Salute on Her Birthday for the First Time in Her Reign.” The tragedy.
Like many print publications—us included—T&C’s shipping schedule precluded it from focusing on COVID in the first issue to arrive after lockdown. Instead: a guide to improved face lift procedures, with doctor recommendations in NYC, Chicago, LA, and SF, and a story about how just no one wants to retire anymore, pointing, of course, to exceedingly rich retirees (written by Joel Stein, whose latest book is entitled In Defense of Elitism). The only overt mention of the coronavirus came in the opening Editor’s Letter, wherein Volandes notes the issue was started in their offices and wrapped after everyone had to be sent home. It included a staff list of favorite comforts, mostly surprisingly down-to-earth suggestions of alcohol, sugar, and exercise (and one truly shocking shoutout to Jenny Odell’s excellent anti-capitalism manifesto How to Do Nothing; Erik Maza, I see you there as a fox inside the henhouse, though your story recommending a $12,9000 watch has me thrown).
Over the coming months, the influence of the pandemic became more overt, if no less unreal. I knew the world was going to shit, but I still took some gawking pleasure in the summer issue, particularly the “Dreambook” of fancy vacations to take once it’s safe to travel again. One page listed “Healing Havens: Because there’s no therapy quite like travel plus treatments.” (Thankfully no mention of pseudo-science ’rona cures.) The issue also included a list of suggested “simple pleasures,” some of which were actually perfectly relatable. (No. 6 “Say Yes to the Martini” spoke to this writer.) But No. 13 was just too priceless (or pricey) a summation of the T&C ethos. In “Grocery Shop As If You’re Going to the Theater,” longtime Vanity Fair writer Amy Fine Collins offered this practical advice: “Because you are: the theater of the street. Getting dressed with care is a mood elevator; it’s a visual, sensual, and aesthetic pleasure. Try hunting for your disinfectant spray the way I do—in vintage Geoffrey Beene and Jen Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co. jewels.”
The annual philanthropy list in that issue was cringe inducing. Alongside worthy names like Anthony Fauci and Jose Andres, there was New Orleans Pelicans owner Gayle Benson, worth more than $3 billion, getting plaudits for…not being a monster? She “guaranteed wages for workers during the closure, as did others, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis.” How benevolent of the billionaires to pay their employees. Guess that somehow counts as philanthropy?
Things were in full swing by the September issue—and with that, I was nearing my breaking point. The issue featured the aforementioned pandemic jewelry article and a multi-page spread, titled “The Bunker Boom Market,” featuring some of the most expensive home sales of the year, with Jeff Bezos’ $165 million property in Beverly Hills beating Mike Bloomberg’s $45 million Colorado ranch. “Whether they’re purchasing beachside estates, ranches on thousands of acres out West, or multiple apartments to combine into enormous urban skyscraper compounds, in 2020 the ultrawealthy paid a premium for privacy and, above all, space.”
Accompanying this spread was a sidebar about home upgrades: “Today you’ve got to drag your guests to the control room to show off the latest status symbols, like a Zehnder ventilation unit or the UV light that’s connected to your HVAC.” Leaving aside that no private residence should have a space that could be termed “the control room,” it was yet another sign that the uber-wealthy think they can buy their way out of a public health crisis while the rest of us leave our friends locked out of our houses.
It was just too much. I know I’m surely not the target audience for this—I don’t fit their reader profile of a household income of $197,000 or an average net worth of $2.3 million—but it makes this “journalism” of coddling the sensibilities of the sheltered wealthy too stomach-churning in a year of staggering death tolls, racial injustice, and the worst economic crash since the Great Depression.
I left my October issue untouched for weeks, only diving in when I sat down to write this. In it I found a guide to how one should defend themselves if they were photographed with Jeffrey Epstein co-conspirator Ghislaine Maxwell. “To be sure, if you go out enough in New York, you run a distinct risk of being photographed with someone who later becomes infamous,” the magazine put it. Luckily, none of us are going out to parties anytime soon, and when we do eventually return to normal, if this sort of high-society sentiment is left in the garbage heap of 2020, I won’t feel too sad about it. —Patrick Caldwell