Radical Chic: Reports From London, Tuscany & the Hamptons
"It is little, but in my view his head is not worth more." This was the Afghan religious scholar Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost talking about Bill Clinton. In case any of you missed it, Abdul is the clever chap who offered $113 to anybody who kills the Draft Dodger. He said his offer was in retaliation for the $5 million America is offering for the arrest of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi terrorist who is in Afghanistan under Taliban protection.
Now before I go on about Abdul and his offer, I have to declare an interest in Osama bin Laden. It was just about this time last year when, watching the news one night, I saw bin Laden's face appear on the screen as he was described as terrorist numero uno. Well, I never. According to the CIA and FBI Osama is "the world's most dangerous man," but to some of us old Rosey boys (Rosey is a posh Swiss school where the rich send their children to learn how to count) he has always been simply Harry Laden, a polite if somewhat excitable about religious matters Saudi, a man of impeccable dress sense whose burnoose is made by Turnbull & Asser.
Harry was a terrific skier and member of the legendary Rosey team of 1968 made up of Gianni Agnelli, Jean-Claude Killy, J.T. Theodoracopulos, Christopher Buckley and Harry Laden. (The 1968 bunch was considered stronger than any Olympic team.) Laden did not attend university after Le Rosey, but took a large apartment in the Palace hotel in Gstaad, namely the Kandahar suite. He also joined White's club in London, where he immediately became very popular with English toffs (upper-class chinless wonders) by picking up everyone's tabs. No one within 50 yards was ever allowed to pay.
Harry dropped out of sight a few years ago, but only last week, while in London, lo and behold, he rang me out of the blue and asked me to lunch at White's. He had Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost with him. At first I was appalled. Abdul ate with his hands, spat occasionally on the floor and asked Swain, the legendary hall porter, to go out and feed his camel, which he had tethered at Brooks' club (Claus von Bulow's favorite hangout) across the street. But then I changed my mind. Abdul turned out to be a very wise and practical man. "Just because Clinton has offered $5 million for your head, Harry, it doesn't mean we should match him dollar for dollar. In fact he's not even worth the $113 we've already offered."
His table manners aside, I found Abdul fascinating. He drank whiskey as if it were water and counseled Harry Laden like a father. Abdul sure knew a sexual trap when he saw one. Harry recently received an invitation from Madeleine Albright for an assignation. It included a photograph of Madeleine taken in Belgrade 45 years ago. To his astonishment she was naked! Harry passed the sepia picture around the table, to the disgust of the gay members of White's.
Now, the problem with Harry is sexual, ergo the invite. Laden has not been getting any ever since the American cruise missiles killed his partner last year. I was afraid to ask him, but rumor had it that Aisha, the love of his life, was a goat. With his characteristic candor, however, Harry admitted that, yes, Aisha was a goat and the Americans had murdered it. "I know that Albright is ugly, but something about her reminds me of Aisha," said Harry. "It may be the beard."
As far-fetched as it may sound, England's most respected and oldest continuously published weekly, The Spectator, recently reported how a 29-year-old Albanian Kosovar heroin dealer, Hashim "The Snake" Thaci, had Albright falling head over heels in love with him: "Mrs. Albright was born and raised in Belgrade where the locals still rejoice in the thought that she could never find a boyfriend. At Ramboulliet she asked the Serb delegation whether they wanted to make love or war? War, please, they screamed in terror."
That is when The Snake stepped in and swept her off her feet. Albright decided right there and then to do "whatever you wish me to as long as you keep slam-dunking me, darling." We know what followed.
But back to Abdul and Harry. After lunch we went down to the bar and had a very serious discussion. Abdul thinks, and I agree, that Clinton and Albright?she furious at having been rejected by Harry and bitter at having been used by The Snake?are planning to capture him and bring him to a show trial in Washington around November 2000, election time. The only time Harry Laden is vulnerable is where sex and Aisha are concerned. Both Abdul and I warned him not to fall for Albright's tricks. Which brings me to the point I wish to make:
One year after the Draft Dodger showered a Sudan pharmaceutical plant with cruise missiles in order to divert public opinion from the previous day's disclosure about la Lewinsky, I have been convinced of Harry Laden's innocence. He is a Muslim fundamentalist who thinks Uncle Sam is a bully, but if he's a terrorist, it is we who turned him into one. The chairman of White's club, Col. Sir Rupert Arbuthnot-Buchanan, KCMG, OBE, FRHS, summarily rejected requests by the American ambassador, Phil Lader, for information regarding a life member like Harry Laden. This is as it should be. "Spanker" Arbuthnot-Buchanan knows better than most that opening the White's club files on members would leave it with no members. Harry, wherever you are in Afghanistan, your secret is safe with us.
As the last summer of the 20th century draws to a close, New York's social elite will spend this weekend saying a traditional farewell to the Hamptons. Dogs will be taken for a final walk on Gibson Beach, last suppers will be consumed at Nick & Toni's and boats will be put away for the winter. A lucky few?the elite of the elite?will then make their way to a party in East Hampton where they'll wile away the evening listening to hiphop and hanging out with Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs. The fact that the 29-year-old rap mogul's currently being investigated by the Manhattan D.A.'s office for bludgeoning a rival record company executive with a champagne bottle probably won't diminish the appeal of his annual Labor Day Weekend soiree. Last year it was attended by Martha Stewart, Jann Wenner and Ron Perelman.
Needless to say, I haven't been invited.
I have to confess to being somewhat mystified by the rap-moguls-in-the-Hamptons phenomenon. I completely understand why a bunch of rich white people would want to hang out with them?there's no mystery there. By spending some time in their company they can flatter themselves that they're being democratic and openminded, changing with the times, embracing the new. "It was Puffy who told me there are four major rap songs that use the word 'Trump' in the sense of 'very Trump,'" Donald recently boasted to GQ. It's as though he'd received a medal from the NAACP. But why on Earth do Puff Daddy, Russell Simmons, Andre Harrell, Jay-Z and the rest of them want to hang out in the Hamptons? Why should such an ostensibly cool group of people wish to fraternize with a bunch of fat, balding, middle-age white guys?
To my mind, there's only one explanation: they're social climbers.
Now I realize that's a controversial statement so let me clarify it at once. I'm not using "social climbers" as a coded way of saying they don't belong in the Hamptons, that they should get back to the ghetto. I mean it in the sense that they're socially ambitious, they aspire to join the ruling class. They want country houses and stud farms and membership to the local golf club?the whole Ralph Lauren package. In that respect, they do belong in the Hamptons.
The rap moguls, naturally, would completely deny this. To hear them tell it, their presence in the Hamptons is an expression of black empowerment, a way of getting in the face of rich white folks. Puffy uses the term "ghetto-fabulous" to justify his absurdly ostentatious lifestyle, as if it's intended to advertise his lowly origins rather than his enormous wealth. (According to Forbes, Puffy earned $53.5 million in 1998.) It's all to do with racial pride, a way of letting the White Establishment know that African-Americans have finally broken through. They're players now and they're here to stay, whether we like it or not.
Well, they would say that, wouldn't they. Seventy percent of rap records are sold to white people and most of these are suburban teenagers whose conception of ghetto fabulousness is rather different from Puffy's. To them, the ghetto is a repository of true manliness, an urban war zone where only the tough survive. When 200,000 white kids at Woodstock this year sang along to "My Niggas," DMX's hiphop anthem, it's safe to assume they weren't thinking of the VIP tent at Bridgehampton Polo. It would be a shock to these wiggers to discover that the black entrepreneurs who've profited from their custom want nothing more than to join the Anglo-American aristocracy.
Of course, the fact that the rap moguls have a financial motive for misrepresenting their reasons for being in the Hamptons doesn't mean they're lying. I'm sure they believe they're "keeping it real" rather than trying to assimilate, but their explanation has the whiff of an elaborate rationalization, what a Marxist would call "false consciousness." In 19th-century Britain, the ruling class sought to preserve its power by enfranchising the middle class and persuading them it was in their interests to defend the status quo. This was known as the "aristocratic embrace" and it worked because the bourgeoisie believed they had seduced the aristocracy, not the other way round. When Ron Perelman and Martha Stewart show up at Puffy's parties, he probably thinks they're giving him his due, paying him the respect he deserves. But in reality, they've captivated him.
There's nothing particularly new about the gentrification of black Americans. In Our Kind of People, Lawrence Otis Graham documents the emergence of a black aristocracy he traces back to the 1880s. He even interviews some people who attended a lavish, ostentatious wedding held in 1923 by New York's richest black family. One of the most important institutions within this world is Howard University, the all-black college that Puff Daddy himself attended. In those days he was plain Sean Combs.
In 1970, Tom Wolfe wrote a famous essay for New York about a party given by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein for the Black Panthers. In it he coined the term "radical chic" to describe the efforts of rich white people to express their solidarity with the black struggle. Many of the social X-rays present in the Bernsteins' drawing room that day actually went so far as to dress like the Panthers.
Thirty years later, the tables have been completely turned. This Saturday, the contemporary equivalents of the people who came to the Bernsteins' party will attend a soiree being given by someone who might have been a Panther had he been born 30 years earlier. This time around, though, the black people will be dressed exactly like the rich white folks. The ruling class, it would seem, has triumphed once again.
THE LONDON DESK
I like Pienza in the early morning, before the tourists and the sun fill the narrow streets. The Pienzini pretty much have the town to themselves until about nine, when the Northern Europeans begin pounding the cobbles in their sandals, many lugging recalcitrant children, to see the churches and buy pecorino cheese in the shops. At our rented villa, a few miles away, my children and friends are sleeping. Each morning, while the sun is low enough in the east to leave my table in shade, I sit outside reading newspapers and writing notes at the Caffe Rossellino.
A guidebook tells me that Rossellino was the nickname of the Florentine architect Bernardo Gambarelli, who designed this city in the 15th century. He obviously lived in a better era of city-building than our own, as every Renaissance town in Tuscany attests. (They built for people and God, while we tend to clear the way for cars and Mammon.) The cafe that bears Gambarelli's sobriquet sits next to the tiny, medieval chapel of St. Francis, the only building left over from Pienza's previous existence as Corsignano. Rossellino knocked down the rest of Corsignano at the command of its favored son, Enea Piccolomini, who, luckily for him and Pienza, was elected pope in 1458. He called his town Pienza for his papal name, Pius II, and endowed it with a beautiful cathedral where I attended Mass last Sunday. After Mass, many of the devout Catholics ate dinner down the road at the Communist Party's holiday festa, always great fun, even for non-atheists.
Pius II, as devoted a dictator as any communism later produced, forced his cardinals to build palazzos within the town's new walls. Pius was slightly mad, always calling for crusades against the Muslims. The Western world, unlike its response to President Bill Clinton's holy wars, wisely ignored Pius' exhortations. It is hard, however, to fault Pius II's architectural taste and artistic patronage.
This bit of urban history doesn't have much to do with anything, beyond my telling you, if you just picked this up in New York City, that I am having a better time than you are. All I can say is, the Giuliani family must have lived very low on the Italian social ladder if they left here to spend their Augusts in New York.
A few years ago I lived in Tuscany and, however hard I search what remains of my memory, I cannot recall why I left. Still, I did get out in time to avoid its new fate as summer capital of Great Britain. The New Labor elite is here en masse, dragging along remnants of old Labor, who used to prove how British they were by forcing their spouses and children to endure a few weeks amid gray shingles and clouds that in England passed for a beach. No longer. New Labor is as hip as can be, and Tuscany is where it is at. My children and I made our annual return, some by car via the beauties of Lake Como, to the Tuscan hills only to find that Italy's lovely province has become to London what the Hamptons are to New York: where you must see the people you've been avoiding all year at home.
The First Family, as the UK's American-trained p.r. people have taken to calling Blair's brood, have been spotted everywhere. At the beach, where the police cleared away all Italians who might have spoiled the view?I mean posed a security risk. In restaurants and bars. And at the Palio in Siena. The animal rights lobby, true to form, damned Blair for attending an event in which horses are often killed. Blair has promised to end the foxhunting at home, but slaughtering horses is all right in Dago-land.
A few of my British friends have been granted invitations to dine chez Blair, returning as convinced as those similarly favored by the Clintons that they are a delightful family. The Italians know better, and they remain unimpressed. The Blairs are seasonal specters who disappear in September, like the rest of the t-shirted British tourists who amble along the Corso Rossellino astounded that a country can produce such luxuries as olive oil and wine. They know what happens to politicians to whom the public awards votes, and their temptation to spend citizens' tax money on themselves and their benefactors.
The greatest politician of Italy's postwar era, Giulio Andreotti?a member of every one of the scores of cabinets from 1947 until his abrupt fall from grace in 1992?should serve as a reminder to Blair as he contemplates a long tenure in office. Andreotti, the hopeful young star become grand old man of the then American-backed Christian Democrats, has been under indictment since 1993. He is on trial in two cities, Perugia and Palermo. The Palermo trial concerns his Mafia connections. (Funny how the U.S. government helped Andreotti into power and returned the Honorable Society to Sicily after its removal by the only Italian politician ever to suppress them?Mussolini.)
The Perugia trial is more interesting because it involves murder. You may sympathize with Andreotti when I tell you that his alleged victim was a journalist. Andreotti's lawyer, Franco Coppi, played a popular card by calling the murdered reporter, 51-year-old Mino Pecorelli, "a blackmailer." Coppi added "toward him, Andreotti was supremely indifferent," as if mere hacks were beneath the notice of the exalted Prime Minister. Coppi reminds me of Blair's hatchet man, Alastair Campbell, ex-hack, when he refers to journalists who write about Blair in the way Pecorelli did about Andreotti. (Remember Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley on the press? "They have vilified me. They have crucified me. They have even criticized me.") Perhaps an acolyte overheard Andreotti one night at prayer asking, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent journalist?"
No matter what happens at either trial, Andreotti will not serve time. Like Pinochet, he is a senator-for-life and thus immune to sentencing. If Parliament abolishes his immunity, a dangerous precedent for many of its members, Andreotti would still be too old, under Italian law, to be imprisoned. Perhaps his penalty should be to spend winters in England with the Blairs, who could learn a thing or two from the old guy.
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