Newport News


The “narcissism of small differences” began life as a description of the uniquely tedious brand of sectarian infighting that afflicts the intellectual left. Clearly, though, the concept applies with at least equal force to the higher empyrean of our economic order. Consider the recent New York Times Home and Garden dispatch on the lavish Newport spread of Richard Saul Wurman, the high-concept impresario behind the TED (technology, education, design) conference, and his novelist wife, Gloria Nagy. The culture-making pair has been holed up in their 13-bedroom mansion for the past 17 years, but as Times overclass-warren correspondent Penelope Green notes, they fancy themselves to be “in Newport, but not of it.”

Sure, it’s a 19th century copy of a French country estate-a “super mansion,” as Green dubs it, replete with its own historic estate name, “the Orchard,” presumably in partial reference to the verdant eight-acre spread in back. Sure, a pair of Lexuses, one white, one black, are parked in the circular drive out front with the ur-preppy vanity plates “Momsie” and Popsie.” Sure, Nagy once happened upon a smartly dressed middle aged woman and her daughter waiting in the front hall under the mistaken impression that they were awaiting an admissions interview at the Salve Regina University across the street.

But when Wurman hails her into the cavernous interior with the disarming greeting, “Isn’t it pretentious?” Green immediately takes the bait. Wurman may be grinning at his own excess, she writes, but “the joke’s not on him. It’s on his adopted city, its name still associated with the last vestiges of high WASP society.”

And how does that joke work, exactly? As Wurman’s designer confrere Massimo Vignelli explains things, the fusty smart set in Newport “need each other. They need their booze at 5, their costume parties. They need to know who is who, and who married what and how much money. It’s a kind of zoo. In that zoo, of course, Ricky has his own private pavilion, and he never goes out. I think he is considered an alien.”

In reality, of course, American prophets of social mobility have been marveling at the decay of the WASP establishment practically from the moment it first arrived on the Mayflower, not too far from the stately spreads of Newport. So it’s a safe bet that many diehard fixtures of the Newport scene, from to Caroline Astor to Claus von Bülow, haven’t imagined themselves born to those particular manors, either. Long before it became the province of hipsters and (what amounts to the same thing) TV writers, social irony was a diverting plaything of the members of the power elite-and they relished nothing more than the chance to deploy it on their own social backgrounds.

So Wurman’s potshots at the squares in the neighboring mansions come off chiefly as the fine-grained invidious distinction that privileged souls have always used to mark themselves off as proper star-bellied Sneetches. The Rhode Island swells around him are “humorless,” he sniffs, trapped in “an intellectual wasteland.” Why, he confides to Green, “if you asked me to tell you when I last had lunch with anybody but my wife or someone that came to see me from India or New York or Boston or Germany, I couldn’t come up with a name.”

Indeed, as Green notes, one of the perks of establishing the TED series-basically a version of the Burning Man festival for the self-regarding global info-elite, save that admission at Burning Man won’t set you back a cool $6,000-is that you get to hold court among way-new boldfaced names in your 11-fireplace old-money sanctum. During the lunch hours in a recent week, she writes, “a member of the Clinton Foundation came to visit, as did a rear admiral, the dean of a design college, a digital entrepreneur, a German urban planner working in Bangalore and Martha Stewart, who phoned as she was driving through town (Mr. Wurman wasn’t home). ‘I’ve had better lineups,’ he said later.”

You hear that, Newport? Even as powerful an avatar of the good life as Martha Stewart isn’t enough to fill out Wurman’s idea of a decent week’s lunch card. And this is all to say nothing, of course, of the “appealingly eclectic” interior trappings that the couple brought with them from previous tours in L.A. (where they met) and Manhattan. There’s the player-grand piano banging out Baroque chestnuts; there are the Jim Dine, David Hockney and Dale Chihuly artworks. Outside, there’s a modified French formal garden, which Wurman, in a nod to his past career as an architect, has festooned with “contiguous landscapes of circles: there are roses planted in a spiral; a labyrinth of stones; a whorl of Indian columns; a pool shaped like a semicircle. He has collected giant iron submarine buoys that look like planets or land mines and deployed them about the place.” Well, decorative eccentricity, too, has long been a WASP calling card, after all.

And of course, there’s a corps of four fulltime employees to keep the whole grand works functioning and maintained, “including a house manager and the couple’s personal assistant.” And there’s that most treasured elite possession of all: the grown kids that Wurman and Nagy have raised, both from respective earlier marriages and their own union. Tony Wurman is a glass-blower and artist; his brother Joshua, “a severe-weather chaser”; son Reven, a New York photographer; and their daughter Vanessa, who “has developed an equestrian center in Charlestown, R.I.”

These are the very kinds of edifying pursuit, in other words, that any other scion of Newport would train their handsome family legacies and classbound upbringings on. In other words, it turns out that the big joke of the Wurman-Nagy Newport alliance isn’t on the couple themselves, or the self-involved WASP elite surrounding them, but rather on the rest of us. As I’m sure the young Wurman-Nagys learned in some boarding school or another, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Chris Lehmann’s book, Rich People Things, which is not at all a collection of these columns, is available now for pre-order! “Social criticism at its scorching-hot best,” says Barbara Ehrenreich!

Photo by dnbkdotcom, from Flickr.