“It is an act of the worst kind of buffoonery. Schwarzman is horrid.”
This statement was made to me by a member of New York’s Protestant establishment in reference to the renaming of the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue at 42nd Street after Stephen A. Schwarzman, C.E.O. of The Blackstone Group, a private equity company. In March news broke that Mr. Schwarzman had agreed to lead the library’s current fundraising campaign by pledging a $100 million gift—the largest the institution has ever received. In recognition, the library announced, his name would be would be carved onto the exterior of the lion-guarded building.
Within senior Wasp circles, Schwarzman and the distinction he has received for his gift have set off a great deal of concealed outrage. Perhaps the best way I can describe it is to say that when I sat and talked with several Wasps about the diminishing influence of their clan, they often waited until the interview was winding down and I had folded up my notebook, and then they jumped back into conversation about Schwarzman and the library.
Old-guard Wasps appear to feel threatened by the newly rich and their growing influence around the city, and dismiss new money as “tasteless and gauche.” When discussing vastly rich people who are Jewish, it is not uncommon for them to use anti-Semitic slurs.
“Come on, though, it’s not Wasps giving Jews a bad name, it’s Jews giving Jews a bad name,” one said. Another told me, “The Astors knew to put their name on the inside. It’s good taste, that’s the difference between old and new.” A third said Schwarzman, who is Jewish, “is cleaning himself up, that’s what new money does. I suppose my family had to do the same thing hundreds of years ago, but look at us now, we’re like deities.”
The comments reveal the extent to which elitism, and, even more disturbingly, anti-Semitism still exist in certain quarters of Wasp society. There’s absolutely no basis to the claim that renaming the library edifice for Stephen Schwarzman represents a new form of philanthropy. Wasp patrons have had buildings at Manhattan’s cultural institutions named after them for centuries. The Frick Collection and The Peggy and David Rockefeller Building at The Museum of Modern Art are two examples in this tradition. Additionally, Schwarzman indicated that the building was renamed at the library’s request, not his.
Many of the affluent Wasps and affluent Jews I chatted with on the subject preferred not to openly acknowledge the traces of snobbery and elitism that still exist within the Wasp community. When I asked directly, Wasps told me that although their community had excluded people on cultural, ethnic, or economic grounds in the past, it certainly didn’t happen anymore. Affluent Jews responded to my question by saying that they didn’t feel discriminated against at all when hanging around their Wasp friends.
Eric Richman (35), a successful attorney and New York social fixture who counts the great-grandchildren of William Randolph Hearst and the children of Saul Steinberg among his many friends, was quick to tell me that ” I don’t think about it, being Jewish doesn’t come up when I’m around my Waspy friends.” But as our discussion continued, he remembered an awkward incident he had had with one of his closest friends (a Wasp). They were out drinking and once they had gotten a little drunk they started to talk about religion. He recalls a moment when the tenor of their conversation changed and his friend looked at him and said, “what’s interesting about you is that you have no idea how much we really hate you.” Eric told me that it was probably intended to be a joke, “yet there was something in it that seemed like a real residual sentiment. After a few drinks, it came out.”
Schwarzman himself would comment neither on his gift to the library, nor on any old-money resentment or anti-Semitic sentiments it may have provoked. Peter Rose, the managing director of public affairs for The Blackstone Group, responded to my request for an interview on the matter by saying that Mr. Schwarzman was “very unenthusiastic about that.”
The library also preferred to sidestep the issue. A spokesman for the institution acknowledged that there was some controversy over the renaming, but added, “you’re not likely to get much out of the library on this.”
What does it mean that a generous gift to the cultural future of the city is being condemned? Apparently, that old prejudices and insecurities have not entirely disappeared from our society. Wasps haven’t come up with a Schwarzman-sized gift to the library since the Astors and a handful of other families founded the library in 1911. Now Wasps are watching their establishment crumble, and generations of elitism and exclusionary behavior are hastening the collapse as power shifts away from them.