Town & Country goes dot-com slumming

A high society bible devotes its entire June issue to dot-com mogul mania

By Janelle Brown

Published June 1, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Living in Silicon Valley, you might forget that a Town & Country world still exists, a magical land where money is an inherited right and the biggest question puzzling society matrons is how much of their fortune should be spent on that 25-carat diamond choker vs. how much should be given to charity. Living in the dot-com world -- where people actually work -- aristocratic society seems such a ... relic.

So imagine my surprise to discover that not only is Town & Country magazine still alive and kicking (after 154 years, no less!), but it has even decided to take a bold 21st century step forward and dedicate its June issue to the "new Wild West" of the Net. The entire magazine is devoted to the closest thing you can find to aristocrats in the Net economy -- really, really filthy-rich entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and Seattle.

Why the sudden interest in all things digital? As editor in chief Pamela Fiori puts it in her most bemused "I am more established than thou" tone, her readers kept asking, "So, who are all those rich guys in Silicon Valley and Seattle, anyway?" And, "How do they live, what do they care about and what in the world are they doing with their fast-made fortunes?" Yes, high society seems to be feeling a bit jealous and resentful of the Left Coast's nouveau riche; it's time to figure out who these newcomers are. (And also, unfortunately, time to provide a handy glossary answering pesky questions like "What is e-mail?" and "What is a chat room?")

To the shocked surprise of the Town & Country staff, these entrepreneurs weren't grunting gorillas: "They were far more sophisticated, articulate, well dressed and well mannered than we ever imagined," gushes Fiori. Who could have dreamed such a thing?

In the main feature, Kimberly Brown Seely turns her approving eye on a passel of self-made individuals who are turning Seattle into a low-key haven for the very rich. Here, software moguls like former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold, Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Paul Brainerd of Aldus are shown spending their days collecting dinosaur bones, oversize Calder sculptures and astronomically expensive lakeside homes. And although they may have retired on their Microsoft stock options, these are no "idle rich" -- they're too busy dreaming up ideas like "venture philanthropy" to worry about wasting their time planning debutante balls.

Other profiles -- and every piece in this magazine is a profile -- include ex-Microsoftie and Seattle philanthropist Scott Oki, author Michael Lewis (who was granted the cushiest writing assignment ever -- an interview with himself), and WebTV founder Steve Perlman, who is building himself a rather fancy loft in San Francisco. There are glossy pictures of women CEOs and the executives who run the "Valley of the Dollars," complete with extraordinarily un-juicy details about their social lives (mornings at the "tony" Pacific Athletic Club and weekend jaunts aboard the private plane). There is, however, very, very little explanation about what these people might actually be doing in their real jobs.

The common thread here, of course, is money. Who cares what these people are really doing on that strange Internet thing ("What is e-commerce," anyway?), as long as they've got lots of hard cash to throw around? Money, or the possession of large amounts thereof, is Town & Country's bread and butter; and it at least partially explains the decision to give glowing coverage to Silicon Valley and Seattle's finest. Town & Country is no snob when it comes to soliciting subscribers -- sure, the Net-riche may be up-and-comers who would never get invited to Bill Blass' bash at the Waldorf-Astoria, but they have money to burn. Advertisers like readers with money. And sometimes we need to make concessions, don't we darling?

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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