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Primates of Park Avenue

Wednesday Martin

To truly understand America's super-rich, observe them as an anthropologist would - that's what Wednesday Martin has done, and her memoir Primates of Park Avenue is provoking whoops of rage from wealthy wives.

From Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities to Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City, New York's Upper East Side has long offered novelists and satirists a rich seam to mine. But until Wednesday Martin came along, no one had thought to use primatology in a portrait of one of America's wealthiest - and most competitive - urban enclaves.

Martin, mother-of-two and wife of a banker, is the author of Primates of Park Avenue, part-memoir, part-study of young East Side mothers and their social customs. The book, published last week, has been variously described as sexist, harsh and inaccurate.

In her book, Wednesday Martin describes being 'charged' by older women and forced off the sidewalk. It has certainly struck a nerve. Not necessarily because society types object to being compared to bonobos and apes, but due to Martin's observations on motherhood, social status and wealth. One claim by Martin is that uber-rich hedge fund and private equity husbands, satisfied with their partners' work maintaining the household, raising children, staying slim and working on behalf of the family's social position, regularly issue negotiated 'wife bonuses'. The women of the district are up in arms. Prominent socialite Debbie Bancroft told the New York Post that Martin gets it all wrong: 'She's no anthropologist.'

Martin is wary of saying more on the subject, and it's a small detail in the book. But the notion of 'wife bonuses' has exposed fissures between old money and new, and left almost everyone angry with the author.

'I set out to write a memoir with some anthropology, social research and some dish,' Martin, who describes herself as a 'cultural critic at large in high heels', told the Observer. 'But that apparently is a problem for people.'

Many have objected to the idea of introducing primate studies to describe human dynamics. Martin describes, for example, her quest for a status-enhancing Hermes Birkin handbag as akin to the display of a chimp, observed by famed primatologist Jane Goodall, who signalled his status by swinging an old kerosene can. In another passage, she describes being 'charged' by older women and forced off the pavement. It was after that encounter, Martin writes, 'when she realised it was time to start paying attention, really paying attention, to Upper East Side primate social behaviours'.

Some women, she concluded, were using their handbags to assert dominance, even brushing rivals with them. 'It was not simply 'get out of my way' but something more pointed - 'I don't see you, because you don't even exist'.

Martin, rich and diminutive, is no stranger to treading on sensitive territory. A previous book, Stepmonster, drew upon her own mixed experience as a stepmother. For Primates of Park Avenue, she concedes, she picked another minefield – privilege and motherhood.

The Michigan native, who moved to New York 26 years ago, asked women in her social circle and mothers she met at her children's school if they would participate. Many agreed. 'I tried to interpret the culture I had access to, and to tease out the meanings,' she says. 'I also tried hard to be diplomatic.'

In one passage, Martin paraphrases British ornithologist David Lack when she describes interviewed mums as 'appearing to sprout the darkened feathers and sharp beaks and compassionless, glinty eyes of birds ... bird mothers, to be specific'.

What has particularly caught New Yorkers' attention is Martin's portrait of isolated women - 'Manhattan geishas' - locked in an extreme body-display culture that rivals Hollywood, raising children in a condition of almost limitless resources. Martin calls this the dark side of motherhood - 'an affliction of the privileged', according to sociologist Sharon Hays – that plays out in extremis on the Upper East Side. With their exercise classes, pricey beauty routines and charity causes (what legendary banker Felix Rohaytn once called 'cancer dances'), many women lead highly pressured parallel lives, rarely spending time with their spouses.

'Of course, these are not the same pressures as being impoverished or unable to find work,' Martin says carefully. 'But if you look at it with a neutral eye, there is gendered pressure to be that attractive and on display all the time.'

Town and Country magazine sniped that Primates reads like several episodes of the American reality-TV series The Real Housewives of New York City stitched together. For Martin, watching her human primates is a kind of bleak zoological entertainment. The women, she writes, were willing to 'practically kill themselves' in the quest to have the bodies of childless twentysomethings. 'As for food, fat-free and low-cal was pathetically passe. It had to be organic, biodynamic, detoxifying and antioxidant-rich.'

Accurate or not, Martin is not the only author turning her attention to the enclave. Jill Kargman, a novelist with a native's eye to the subject, is behind a new TV series, Odd Mom Out. She recently described the contemporary line-up of neighbourhood characters: 'Blonde tits on sticks, nannies in zip-up outfits, rexi pregos, Park Slopers who nurse three-year-olds, foodies, Wall Street schmucks, the usual.'

Nor is Martin alone in running into criticism for attempting to describe the local customs of Upper East Side. Several years ago New York Times writer Alex Kuczynski faced a backlash after describing how using a surrogate mother after failing to conceive herself spared her the fat and body issues that come with pregnancy.

Primates, Martin concedes, is 'titillating for people who want to see that rich isn't all it's cracked up to be; and disconcerting for women who don't work outside the home and are married to wealthy, powerful men to recognise there are power imbalances in their marriages'.

As the rise of inequality and income disparity becomes a political issue, wealthy women are soft targets, she argues. They're stuck in a contradiction: they don't need to work, and if they did they would be criticised for leaving their children.

What of the men? Martin describes them as choosy, coy observers of the women on display. Disparities in the ratio of women to men adds to the pressure on women to compete. 'The women have these fantastic bodies, the beautiful outfits, but there's an amazing lack of flirtation,' Martin observes. In the book, she writes how the men always seem 'distracted and bored ... by the endless smorgasbord of stunning women all around them, all the time, preening and primping for their benefit'.

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NORTH of New York's 59th Street and just east of Central Park is the natural habitat of a peculiar breed of higher-order primates. Among the females, a fiercely competitive tribal culture and a dramatic imbalance in sex ratios (reproductive females outnumber males by a factor of two to one) have yielded some evolutionarily extravagant adaptations. Food is plentiful, but calories are severely restricted and often consumed as fluids. To reinforce status and strengthen monogamous pair-bonds, females engage in extremes of ornamentation and elaborate 'beautification practices', which include physical mutilation and gruelling endurance rites. Although they appear powerful, these females occupy a socially precarious position: they rely on males for access to scarce resources and their lives are almost wholly consumed by descendant worship. Because children are such costly status objects, large numbers are a conspicuous sign of wealth.

Such are the customs and rituals of motherhood on Manhattan's Upper East Side, which Wednesday Martin, a social researcher, chronicles in 'Primates of Park Avenue', an amusing and occasionally incisive new memoir. Born in the Midwest, Mrs Martin moved to New York while in her 20s and ended up marrying a native. When they began having children, they decided to trade their downtown house for a place uptown near the park. But a seemingly simple switch of zip codes was marked by some cruel rites of passage.

Gaining access to a flat in a coveted building involves an invasive interview by potential neighbours. Placing her son in pre-school requires a rigmarole of pleading phone calls and sadistic 'auditions' (for both mother and child), with the understanding that for a mere $35,000 a year, the right place can set a child on the path to the Ivy League. All the while Mrs Martin must navigate the aggressive inhospitality of fellow stay-at-home mothers. As with so many non-human primates, her transfer into a new troop meant she was 'stuck at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy, regarded with suspicion, alternately ignored and harassed.'

Eventually Mrs Martin goes native. The sight of so many women toting around Hermes Birkin bags drives her to want one of her own, despite the five-figure pricetag and absurdly long waiting list. On her way to the hospital to deliver her second son, she makes a pit-stop to get her hair and nails done in order to look more polished in photos - only to lament that she couldn't get a full-leg and bikini wax, too.

As both spectator and increasingly keen participant, Mrs Martin makes for a wryly entertaining guide to this rarefied subculture. Alas, this 'stranger-than-fiction story' also traffics in make-believe. Reporters have found evidence of exaggeration and inconsistencies in the chronology of her account. Mrs Martin excited imaginations with her expose of so-called 'wife bonuses', or annual, merit-based financial transactions between husband and wife, but has since admitted: 'I don't necessarily think it's a trend or widespread.'

Still, it would be a shame to throw out the pedigreed baby along with the lavender-scented bathwater. 'Primates' may not be a work of serious scholarship, but Mrs Martin has created a portrait of extreme wealth that makes the whole condition seem stressful and unfortunate. At a time when such riches stretch ever more out of reach of the average person, readers with more banal woes may enjoy the chance to feel spared.

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