Sunday, October 30, 2011

If I Were a Rich Man...

I'd build a big tall house with rooms by the dozen
Right in the middle of the town...

The 1964 words by Sheldon Hamick and Jerry Bock, inspired by Sholem Aleichem's 1899 short story "Ven ich bin Rothschild", have spawned countless literary works. And memories for each of us.

Recently a stranger at a 92Y concert told me that if she won the lottery she'd hire a private car service and chauffeur. It ignited a volume of reflections in my criminal mind.

Actually, I've been lucky to have had some very lively encounters with the rich over time. One friend (and former colleague) in Manhattan actually has her own car and driver. We met for tea one afternoon at the Mark Hotel on East 77th St. When we were ready to leave, she called her driver on her cell phone and drove me home in style. Yes, I could get used to that myself!

When I was in the 5th Grade, in Burlington, NC, I had a friend whose family owned the biggest mill in town. Burlington was the hub of hosiery mills then, like in Burlington Industries. She had a doll house in the backyard that was as big as my whole home! And her mother had a private masseuse who came weekly for her and her daughter. I'd never heard the word - it was as exotic a concept to me at age ten as Arabian Nights!

Some rich people really do watch their pennies! I once visited the mother of a friend who had pots of dough, and she presided over every penny. Generous in other ways, she was a miser about her phone bills. She made me pay her 77 cents once for a call I'd made, not 75 or 80 but 77 exactly!

The same gentlewoman let me use her membership at the Park Avenue Colony Club to swim in their elegant indoor pool one summer. I'll never forget the first time I stepped out of the pool, dripping wet of course, and a maid in a starched grey uniform followed me back to the dressing area, wiping up the gleaming floor after me with a white cloth!

When I worked in Newport, RI, I belonged to the English Speaking Union, which was big in that town of swells, castles, real-life Upstairs-Downstairs and fancy balls with imported orchestras, just like Grace Kelly's movies.

I'll never forget one reception for some British Big Wig. I was so thrilled I drove up to Boston and bought a gorgeous gown at the original Filene's Basement. I knew the food would be out of this world, so I skipped lunch to save room.

At the most elegant castle I'd ever been to on these shores, out on a promontory high above the Atlantic Ocean, this was what they served: On trays like the kind in public school lunchrooms, the liveried servants passed out saltines topped with a dab of Velveeta Cheese Spread!

That was it!

Where was the paté, the gourmet cheese, the stuffed squab and whateverthehell they munch on at QE2's house in Scotland???

I recall going home, yanking off the wretched dress, and dashing to the nearest Newport Creamery where I ordered hot dogs and a hot fudge sundae!!!

Once I had an ultra rich student in my Latin class at a prep school on Lake Michigan. Her father owned most of Chicago and its ball teams, and sent his private plane to take her down to the Kentucky Derby.

When I first called on her to translate some Caesar, she replied, "I don't want to. You do it, Miss Straw. You do it so much better than I do!!" Little rich kid...

To end this trip down memory lane on a humorous note, once at a hoity-toity horse show in rural Connecticut, I was in the charity bazaar sale tent, buying some old pieces of initialed silver that would go nicely with my hodge-podge collection of old silver. As I handed over my money, I overheard the blue-haired matron say to her fellow volunteer, "Oh, my dear, what SOME people will do to buy an ancestor!"

You can't make up these things!

Thelma Jacqueline Straw


  1. T-
    The only rich elbows I ever rubbed I owe to my first wife whose surrogate dad owned a factory in Providence, R.I., that manufactured store display cases, and owned a power boat that slept four, that he berthed among the sloops in Newport Harbor. Once, I remember, was enough (I'm no sailor), but I did appreciate the guest lobster in the nice restaurant dockside. My sympathies.

  2. T, once at a girl lunch with colleagues, two of them, compulsive clothes horses, asked the five of us around the table what each of us would do if we were Bill Gates. The others of us had day dreams of travel and doing good works. Those two declared they would wear brand new clothes every day. I challenged the veracity of their claim, citing what would be for me sheer drudgery of constant clothes shopping the acquire such a wardrobe. I told them that their heaven sounded like hell to me. That I would much to prefer to wear old comfortable rags and writes novels, if only I could. They smirked at lack of glamor of my heaven. But today I will have my heaven on earth! I dont know where they are!

  3. Bob, I'd give my kingdom any night for one of those Newport lobsters!
    Pat, so glad you got your heart's desire!