“There is no more potent instrument of fate in 19th-century fiction than the legacy.” So writes a female columnist in Britain’s best newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, before going on to say some rude things about trust-fund babies. According to the lady, a will stands as a symbol of the “baleful power of crabbed old age over hopeful youth.” What rubbish. Judging by my own children, the moment I mention money—spending it on myself, that is—all hell breaks loose. And basically, they’re right. After all, I didn’t exactly earn my fortune through my business acumen. I earned it the old-fashioned way: I inherited it. What could be more pleasant than that? Are there debilitating effects when inheriting money? Obviously there are, but it depends on the sort of person who inherits.
The Fords, of Ford automobile fame, seem to have done very well with their inheritances, and most of them became useful members of society. Horace Dodge, Jr., of Dodge cars, did not fare as well. Booze and a dizzy blonde got the best of him. I remember him in Palm Beach during the 50’s, sitting in the Alibi with Gregg, the dizzy-blonde wife, until the wee hours, finally passing out and being carried out.
Well, it beats begging for a living, but not by much. Americans work for their living—or at least they used to. This was the big difference with Europeans. The latter were brought up to defend landed fortunes and spend their days in their clubs drinking and chasing girls and, in the case of the English, boys. When I finished school and became a man about town in New York, all my friends were working on Wall Street. Working, of course, is relative. Most of them had three-hour lunches and quit early in order to play squash, take some steam, and get ready for an evening out. Still, they all belonged to a Wall Street firm and engaged in the pretense of earning a living. Where I came from, there was no pretense. A recent development in America among the superrich is the benign disinheritance, as practiced by Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and others of their ilk. All I can say is, I sure hope so. Gates and Buffett are worth close to $100 billion between them, both are rather nerdy and totally uninteresting, and both have made disproportionate amounts of money compared with those who work for them. When they announce they will leave no money to their children, it’s a bluff and a publicity stunt. Even one 50th of their fortune would make their children billionaires, so whom do they think they’re kidding? Nowadays, the most spoiled children are those of modern celebrities, young people who were brought up by maids—not by strict Prussian nannies like yours truly—the Paris Hilton type, if you get my drift. The Hiltons were always hayseeds, Beverly Hillbillies, but, unlike the fictional ones, with pretensions. Inheriting money can be great fun, but in fiction it always seems to involve bitterness and gloom. That’s because writers hate those of us who earned it the old-fashioned way. Unearned wealth is corrupting, according to the scribes, but I remember well people like the Guests and the Cushings and the Vanderbilts who had great wealth but even greater manners. Ditto in England, where the upper classes are known for their easy manners and charm. Add countries like France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain, and Portugal, and you see why in the good old days life was worth living. One lived among one’s equals and didn’t have to deal with the Kardashian types who seem to be everywhere today.
An English friend I haven’t seen since our bachelor days, Roddy Campbell, recently wailed over the £250,000 he spent in school fees on his two daughters. Both have become leading models, so the old Etonian dad—tight as hell with his purse strings—now says their education was a waste of his money. I’m not so sure. At least the girls will have their education to fall back on when time forces them off the catwalk. My son, a painter living and working in Paris, never worries about money and gave most of his to his ex-wife, whom he married and had two children with, in his 20’s. My daughter, on the other hand, does nothing but worry about money, and earns a lot as an interior designer and editor of Takimag. Go figure. If I ruled the world, I would decree that all parents leave their money to their children, unless—and it would be a very big unless—the little piggies had no manners, treated people who couldn’t answer back cruelly, tortured animals when no one was looking, and displayed other such habits of the nouveau riche. Alas, I do not rule the world, not even my own household, but one is allowed to dream.
And speaking of dreams, it is a rare parent who doesn’t wish to leave his worldly goods to his children. From the poorest to the richest, people strive to leave their kids better off. Forget Bleak House. Dickens was a novelist and had to create drama, conflict, and invent the debilitating effects of inheritance. If wills didn’t exist, we’d all be gambling, whoring, and drinking our fortunes away. I know I would. Thank heaven for little girls. And little boys.