By Eileen Conlan
Ever drive through a neighborhood full of four-car garages and waterfront views and wonder, Who are these people and how did they get here? Author Ryan D'Agostino knocked on the doors of 500 residents of America's wealthiest enclaves and asked them exactly that. Just in time for the recession, he shares what he learned in his new book, Rich Like Them. The takeaway:
MC: An almost scary level of focus and intensity was a common thread among the people you spoke with. What's an example?
RD: One guy was a broker in the '60s when the market was pretty bad. He decided to sell municipal bonds when no one else was doing it and spent all day cold-calling for hardly any commission he'd make $35 an hour doing $5 million trades. His coworkers thought he was nuts, but when the market turned, a client called and wanted to buy big. Others followed. Once the broker had a client with a private plane, the guys at work changed their question from "What are you doing?" to "How did you do that?"
MC: A lot of the people you interviewed have an inherent modesty about them.
RD: You'd think the instinct would be to join the upper class and mention The Club and your new Porsche, but most bragged about what they weren't buying. The first thing one couple in Atlanta told me, before I even got through the door of their $5 million house, was that they drove 10-year-old cars. Another guy said, "It's not like we have a plane or anything." One family didn't have a dining-room set and were proud to say they didn't care. Jeff Weisfield, a produce broker/real-estate speculator worth millions, bragged that he flies coach and stays at a Motel 6 when he travels. It was sort of heartening in a way. Something made them want to say, "Just so you know, we keep it real."
MC: When they did splurge, what kind of stuff did they buy for themselves?
RD: One man had a human-scale chessboard in his backyard. He would have massive parties, where everyone would stand in as a chess piece, and he'd have a gondola in the swimming pool and a guy dressed as a gondolier. There were lots of security cameras built into trees. One guy bought the Ferrari Mondial convertible that Pacino drove in Scent of a Woman.
MC: What are you going to do with the money you get from writing this book?
RD: I'm going to put it toward the all-important down payment for a home. I just want a house with a big backyard. It's the dream. Of course, a home theater would be nice, too.