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Survival of the richest

A guide offers a quasi-scientific analysis of how the wealthy behave like beasts.

November 13, 2002|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

If he isn't careful, Richard Conniff will become the next A-list party must-have, invited in the hopes that he will display his "gift," like a spoon-bending psychic. Since the publication of his new book, "The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide," a quasi-scientific analysis of the personality traits of the very rich, people have been asking him to do the most extraordinary things.

One took him to lunch at Four Seasons in New York and asked him to deconstruct the posture of nearby diner Ron Perelman; another wondered if he would provide an analytical commentary for a fashion spread -- what do certain clothes say about the ladder rung of the wearer.

"What I don't understand," says Conniff, "is when rich people want to talk to me about rich people. About themselves, about their friends. They want to know what it all means, what their behavior means."

Personal primate-behavior consultant -- really, darling, you must get one.

The premise of Conniff's book is that the rich are different from you and me. That the rich ($5 mil or more) form a cultural subspecies, different from the rest of humankind. And within that subcategory, their actions and affectations are as explainable, and predictable, as any group of baboons.

For years, Conniff has been both science writer, following Amazonian expeditions and baboon exploits in Botswana for Smithsonian and National Geographic, and style scribe for Architectural Digest. The book is chockfull of dope on the mating habits of the mayfly and the gender bending of stickleback fish. But mostly, it shows that traits of alpha males, and females, are pretty much the same if the animal in question is a squirrel monkey or Ted Turner.

With chapter titles like "Take this Gift, Dammit!: Dominance the Nice Way," the book, for all its references to field studies and footnotes, is a fun read. And, as he makes very clear in his introduction, Conniff believes that the cross-species parallels he draws -- from grooming patterns (alphas get better hair care whether monkey or man) to family structures (power is maintained by producing few legitimate offspring) -- are genuine but limited.

People, even rich people, do not have an enormous amount in common with dance flies -- just the tendency to present a so-so gift in fabulous wrapping. "Males are supposed to present their mates with luscious bugs that they wrap in silk," says Conniff of the flies. "But some suck the juice out first, and some find really old bugs and some just wrap up air. I call this the natural history of the Tiffany box."

Although not in the book, the anecdote captures the book's tone. "My intent," he writes in the book's introduction, "is to use the tool of evolutionary psychology with gleeful caution ... to provoke and entertain."

'Comfortable,' not rich

And perhaps to reassure the hoi polloi that different isn't always better even if it comes with six zeros attached. The rich according to Conniff are isolated, competitive, often quite unhappy and almost always self-deluded. In fact, he says, the first sign that a person is really rich is when he or she denies this. "Even if they're billionaires, they're never rich," he said. "They're always 'comfortable.' "

He is sitting with his back to the rolling lawn of the Ritz-Carlton Huntington in Pasadena. The afternoon is fading into cool shade; there are few people out on the terrace and no one is asking him to explain this woman's walk or that man's glance, which is OK with him; he spent five years wealth-watching for the book, and two years more convincing himself he really had something to say about it.

He also knows that the popularity of the book has as much to do with the subject as his particular take on it. If the poor are always with us, so inevitably are the rich, and they have much better luggage. They do things like cover barstools with leather made of whale scrotum (Aristotle Onassis) and cut off each other's yachts while vacationing in Capri (Larry Ellison and Paul Allen). The super rich fill magazine and newspaper pages, fuel a trickle-down economy and simultaneously spark envy and disdain among the middle class.

"We are always looking up the social ladder," Conniff said. "That is what primates do. We look to the alphas because they will give things to us -- protection, food, other goodies -- and in this society, the alphas are rich people. These people control our lives, decide if we're going to have a job."

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