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.

We all prefer relationships without hypocrisy built into them—and hypocrisy readily makes itself at home where there is great financial inequality. A host who has invited people for a cruise aboard his big yacht may be a crashing bore or badly behaved, but how tempting it is for guests to just smile complicitly, perhaps satisfying their consciences by drawling something ambiguous like "You're so eccentric" before tottering below deck in blissful anticipation of retiring to their feather beds with stomachs full of foie gras and Chateau Petrus. How admirable, then, if the rich prefer to weed out hypocrites, spongers, and social climbers at the source by giving them no material incentive to suck up.

When a very well off friend of mine lent a car to a not well off houseguest, who proceeded to crash the car, while drunk, on the first day of his stay, my friend made him pay for half the cost of the repairs. She explained at the time, "To have paid all of it, just because we could afford to, would only have made him hate us—particularly because he would have felt his guilt was unabsolved."

As the Roman historian Tacitus observed, "Good turns are pleasing only in so far as they seem repayable; much beyond that we repay with hatred, not gratitude."

Lady Selina Hastings, the biographer of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, laments the demise of the late Lord Faringdon, about whom she told me recently, "He ran two enormous country houses, a house in Ovington Square, and a castle in Malta, but was famous for being able to carve a grouse for six and for his keenness on saving on heating bills. One guest was greatly embarrassed when his suitcase burst open on arrival at Buscot as the footman was carrying it upstairs, revealing a cargo of coal intended for his bedroom fireplace."

But one has to wonder if Faringdon actually saw through to some essential truth about his condition. A popular bachelor of my acquaintance has, as they say, looked at life from both sides. Now comfortably established, he says, "The only rich people I know who are happy are the ones who behave as though they are not rich."

I think of the local branch of the Guinness family, the brewing billionaires, who live near me in Wiltshire. All members of the extended family go around in jeans, gardening and farming all day; never throw out a pheasant carcass without making stock from it; put hours of energy into preparing bramble jelly from their hedgerows; and look furious, briefly, if anyone breaks an ordinary wineglass.

The upshot? The money saved goes into a charity that supports worthy causes. Some of them are vast—earthquake relief, for example. Others are more particular, such as a little-known arrangement the Guinnesses have set up in their own village. This provides people to go around to the houses of the elderly who are unable to bend over, and clip their toenails for them.