The suicide of the youngest son of the richest man in America leads a nation to ask: how can someone with such a fortune be so unhappy? Upon the death of Zachary Smith Reynolds in 1932, the anonymous author Y.Y attempts a misjudged analysis of who has it better, the rich or the poor? While this piece is not a devoted defence of the rich, it does not consider the roots of wealth inequality, or consider that such problems might be systemic. Instead, the author attempts to make the rich more relatable – “It is true that the rich man has his own troubles” – and tries (with poor judgement) to make them sympathetic – “he feels acute distress when he considers the wickedness of the poor and his own helplessness to remedy it”. The article is a fascinating insight into the attitudes of the aristocracy and the foundations of the modern class system.
There is nothing like the violent end of a millionaire, or indeed of any rich man, for turning the ordinary man into a philosopher. Even the barmaid in her comments becomes as wise as Aristotle, and puts the whole thing in a nutshell as she informs her customers: “Too much money – that’s the trouble.” And the tram conductor, as he punches a ticket, endorses the profound remarks of the dean on “the mad pursuit of pleasure”. Who would be a rich man, able to command all the pleasures that money can buy, if after a brief experience of pleasure comes an aposiopesis with a pistol-shot? To aim at happiness, we tell ourselves, seems to be the surest way of missing it. To be rich enough to purchase pleasure is apparently to be too rich to enjoy it.
At ordinary times, when several weeks have passed without the report of a millionaire’s suicide, we are not so sure of this. Money has its charms in a period of calm weather. Stroll in the paddock at Ascot on a perfect day in June, and you will see the rich waking to and fro, like immortals, immune from the poisoned darts of fate. Even a ninny seems enviable on a fine day at Ascot. He seems to live under the benediction of perpetual sunshine and has in his possession a magic that all men but the philosophers desire. He is a being out of a fairy-tale to whose cradle fairy godmothers brought every precious gift except brains, character, and a capacity for being interested in the things that are worth being interested in. If the rich have not been so enchanting a spectacle, the poor would have abolished them long ago.
It is true that the rich man has his own troubles. He feels acute distress when he considers the wickedness of the poor and his own helplessness to remedy it. Some years ago he could scarcely sleep because of the stories he was told of the wanton extravagance of miners. Today he is sad because his gardener has resigned his job in order to take work that will qualify him for the dole. While the rich have always been an enchanting spectacle to the poor, the poor have never been an enchanting spectacle to the rich. It must be obvious to everyone that in this matter the poor man has the better of it. It is better to be a poor man and experience the happiness of looking at the rich than to be a rich man and experience the misery of looking at the poor.
It might even be argued that the people who enjoy riches most are not the people who possess them, but the people who adore them from a distance. I have seen a great landlord looking intensely bored while the crowd that surrounded him shouted with enthusiasm; theirs were the shining faces because they admired him; he, unfortunately, could not admire them and had too much sense even to admire himself beyond reason. Who can measure the amount of happiness the poor obtain from their nobly irrational admiration of the rich? Many people contend that the ordinary attitude of the poor to the rich is one of envy. It seems to me, however, that the poor man who envies the rich is as a rule a man who has given up hope of ever being rich. Give an ordinary human being even a faint hope of becoming rich, and he will find that there is much to be said in defence of millionaires.
A small proportion of mankind has no desire to be rich, but philoplutia is in the blood of most of us. I have heard even a famous author and wise man arguing at his table that money was the most important thing in the world and that it could buy everything. A lawyer asked him what he meant by everything. “Power, pleasure” – the author gave his catalogue – “travel, food, clothes, women.” “What kind of women?” asked the lawyer; and there was no answer possible that would not have shattered the author’s argument. Yet, though we can all see through the argument, there is still a lurking suspicion in our minds that money can really buy everything. That, I believe, is the prevalent view of money until a millionaire either shoots himself or is shot by an enemy – or a friend.
This week we have been compelled to take a more philosophic view of money by the murder of a “boy millionaire” in North Carolina. Mr Zachary Smith Reynolds, a week ago the 20-year-old heir to a fortune of £5,000,000, but now merely a corpse, has been described as “a pampered Broadway playboy”. By the age of 20 he had married and divorced one woman and then married another. He was apparently rich enough to enjoy himself, but did not know how. All he could contrive to do with his money was to become considerably crazier than people who had none. “He had” we are told “flirted with death in the air since his early teens… He lived a crazy, reckless life. One night he drove his motor car straight into a lake.” Certainly, it is only a man of means who could afford to do that, but one cannot help believing that, if one were a rich man, one could find a more amusing way of spending one’s money. On the other hand, it is said that this unfortunately fortunate boy had “found life utterly empty” and had often threatened suicide; and it is, perhaps, more amusing to drive a motor car straight into a lake that to die by suicide.
Had he been a character on the screen Mr Reynolds would, no doubt, have found at the right moment that life was not empty at all but was filled with the presence of an incredibly good and beautiful woman. It is an illusion of which almost all boys are capable in their twenties. It is an illusion, indeed, which it is almost impossible to escape at that age unless one happens to be an heir to millions. Possibly, even the young millionaire harboured the illusion at least for a moment. The woman he chose to idealise must certainly have been a woman of some character. A “dark beauty” six years older than himself, she had graduated at a university and taken the degree of Bachelor of Law before she resolved to attempt the arduous life of the stage. “For years she struggled against ill-health and rebuffs, until she archived stardom.” Having struggled into stardom she, too, became rich, and “matched drinks with other girls at wild moonlight bathing parties and boasted she could hold as much whisky as any man”. That sounds more amusing than driving a motor car into a lake, but it is apparently possible to be able to match drinks with other girls at wild moonlight bathing parties and yet not to live happily ever after as a married woman. Her husband, instead of enjoying her love, “became haunted with forebodings that he would lose her love”.
“He always carried a gun for protection against shadowy dangers.” “He was so sensitive to slights that half a dozen times he had stood before her with a pistol at his forehead threatening to shoot, till she dissuaded him.” Freedom from fear – fear of the loss of love, fear even of the loss of money – is, it is clear, one of the pleasures that money cannot buy.
Why is it, however, that misery linked with money is so much more conspicuously common in the new plutocracies than in the old aristocracies? I do not think it is an illusion that aristocrats on the whole preserve their sanity amid wealth better than plutocrats. The aristocracy has never been free from madmen, neurotics and wastrels; but even these do not seem to give way to utter despair and weariness of life quite so readily as the newly rich. Even though an aristocrat may be a perfect glutton for money, he has been brought up at least to pay lip-service to a tradition that regards many things, from ancestry to honour, as being more important than money. He may live as though money were everything, but his code denies this. His acceptance of his code may be hypocritical, but hypocrisy has its uses in making men think more or less like other people and so in keeping them sane.
The plutocrat, on the other hand, has frequently a code according to which money is the most important thing in the world. He is led on by a mad belief that to have more money than other people is the supreme way of being superior to other people, whether in power or in happiness. Other people encourage him in this and a thousand flattering faces are the lying mirrors of his glory. He proceeds to surround himself with material things that similarly reflect his glory. He has the magical powers of Faust without having made a bargain with the Devil. He proceeds to prove his greatness by buying everything that money can buy, and, if he does not, his son does. Breaking away from the traditions of the poor among which he was brought up, he enters a new world with no traditions apart from the worship of money. He either becomes a megalomaniac, or, suddenly realising how little money can do even to heal an unhappy marriage, he sinks into despair, aghast that his gods have played him false.
Remembering how much the better kind of millionaire has done for science, the arts, and social improvement, I am not suggesting that to be a millionaire is the first step towards becoming a madman. But riches without tradition, whether social or religious, seem to me to lead to the desert no less than literature without tradition. To make money or the spending of money the only things worth living for is to make nothing worth living for. A week hence, I may think differently, but today, as a result of the death of an unhappy boy in North Carolina, I am a bit of a philosopher.
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