Vanity Fair Covers Wall Street’s Vainest

Money, as they say, truly can't buy taste. Power? Yes. The awe of financial reporters? In some cases, yes. Perspective or self-awareness? Nope.

This month, along with a cover story on Sandra Bullock’s married life and Christopher Hitchens’ “Oral History of the Blow Job,” Vanity Fair runs an “exclusive report” by Nina Munk about hedge fund muckity-mucks descending (Johnny-come-latelies!) with their nouveaux riches on Greenwich, Connecticut and tearing the old-moneyed town asunder with plans to construct palatial homes that out-McManse their neighbors’ chateaux by thousands of square feet.

Like Greenwich itself we felt torn in two as we read the piece — at once experiencing revulsion and relishing the rubbernecking it afforded.

But for anyone blinded by the idol treatment the business press often bestows on these types (for example, one of the men Munk writes about, Steve Cohen, was once dubbed on a BusinessWeek cover, “The Most Powerful Trader on Wall Street You’ve Never Heard Of”), Munk’s piece may be a bit startling. Money, as they say, truly can’t buy taste. Power? Yes. The awe of financial reporters? In some cases, yes. Perspective or self-awareness? Nope.

The story brimmed with rich details, often presented by Munk with reporterly skepticism (“One wonders: Who uses the 25 parking spots? Does anyone sleep in all those beds?”):

One hedge fund bigwig’s plans to “replace his $20 million house with a 30,771-square-foot neoclassical villa… [which is] almost as big as the Taj Mahal.”

One of the “dying breed” blueblood Greenwich types, during a conversation with Munk, “switching to French to make her well-bred point” that ” ‘Old Money est compl├Ętement disparu’.” That another hedge fund hotshot [Steve Cohen] “paid $14.8 million for one of Greenwich’s beautiful old ‘backcountry’ homes” and then added numerous luxury amenities including “a 6,734-square-foot ice-skating rink (about the size of the one at Rockefeller Center)” and a “720-square-foot shingle cottage that houses [his] ice-resurfacing machine” about which “someone who’s been to the estate assured [the reporter], ‘You’d be happy to live in the Zamboni house.’”

With copy like that, it was easy to breeze past the most interesting (for media critics, anyway) point. At the end of her piece, Munk reports that one of the hedge fund he-men she writes about, Joseph Jacobs, this spring abandoned his plans to build a 39,000-square foot home in Greenwich the day after the New York Times ran a piece on the front page of the Metro section which noted Jacobs’ home “would be twice the size of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch,” chronicled the kerfuffle it had kicked up in the town (with Jacobs agreeing, for example, to downsize “four kitchens and two laundries that the town officials deemed excessive”) and quoted a “mystified” Jacobs describing himself as “a perfectly decent, menschy guy” just trying to build a home big enough to entertain and house his kids and future grandkids.

One day later the Times published a follow-up story which read, in part, “Yesterday, after the New York Times ran an account about the dispute over the house’s size, television stations’ helicopters buzzed overhead and reporters camped out at the development’s two gates in an effort to gain entry to the exclusive community … By mid-afternoon, Mr. Jacobs had hired a public relations adviser, George Arzt, who released a statement from him. ‘In light of the publicity, I no longer have any plans to build this house,’ Mr. Jacobs said in the statement.”

Could it be? Looks like an honest-to-goodness example of the Times afflicting the comfortable! Publicly shaming the powerful … in the Metro section. But still!

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.