Manners November 2001


Thrift, stinginess, eccentricity, and tact

As the early-twentieth-century wit Logan Pearsall Smith observed, the rich would never be so stingy were they aware of the pleasure their stinginess gives their friends.

Take the late tenth Duke of Northumberland, who stayed each July of the 1970s at Milton, the family seat of the Earls Fitzwilliam and the house on which Daphne du Maurier modeled the interior of Manderley. The visit was always timed to coincide with the Peterborough Royal Foxhound Show, the highlight of the year for fox-hunting folk, in which the hounds of the various packs are compared and contrasted in a canine beauty contest. The Duke had his own hunt, the Percy, and his own pack of hounds. He vastly enjoyed this great annual event, at which the custom of bowler-hat wearing is still observed. For the supporters of the show there was an official lunch, for a nugatory sum. However, the old Duke was never among those to be seen enjoying the camaraderie of the marquee. Not long ago a family friend told me admiringly, "He was far too stingy to shell out for lunch. He would ask the Milton butler to give him a packed lunch, which he would eat in his car. It became an absolute tradition. 'Here are His Grace's sandwiches,' the butler would say as the party left Milton for the show."

In this way Northumberland was the soul mate of the Texas oil billionaire H. L. Hunt, who always took a bag lunch with him. Other self-made men have discovered their own ways to be thrifty. Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, famously drove an old pickup truck that he refused to replace. J. Paul Getty had a pay phone installed in the foyer of his mansion. To be fair, let it be said that Getty himself found it inconvenient to make international calls when staying with friends; he always wanted to pay his hosts back, but doing so was embarrassing.

Often, in fact, if you look closely, you will see the reasons for stingy behavior on the part of people with no need to be stingy. Cyril Connolly was, reportedly, once stopped by Somerset Maugham as he left the latter's Villa Mauresque, at Cap Ferrat. Maugham made him open up his suitcase, wherein was revealed an unripe avocado, a windfall Connolly had found in the garden. Maugham insisted he leave it behind. Jeremy Lewis, Connolly's biographer, declares that this oft-told tale is untrue—and yet it has a ring of truth about it. Connolly was "a disconcerting guest," the historian Paul Johnson explained to me. "He once used a slice of bacon as a bookmark."

Queen Elizabeth II as a child kept detailed accounts of her shilling-a-week pocket money. When Prince Charles was a boy, he once mislaid a dog leash at their Norfolk estate, Sandringham. The Queen was greatly annoyed and sent him back to look for it, explaining, "Dog leads cost money." The old rich, or experienced rich, know that inattention to details such as dog leashes will be noted and held against them, because it exaggerates the differences between them and other people.

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