Desperately seeking new readers, advertising revenue, and relevance in the new media, such financial stalwarts as The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and Forbes magazine have in recent years resorted to special supplements that highlight the lives of the wealthy and famous and their expensive possessions. In the latest issue of Forbes Life, dated September 23, 2013, Patrick Dempsey, the successful and handsome actor who stars in the television series Grey’s Anatomy, is portrayed in the cover story as an envious idol as he races about on the roads of Malibu, California, his hometown, in his gull-winged Mercedes-Benz. In their mindless enthusiasm, the editors of Forbes Life and David Hochman, the author of this article, have also painted unawares an image of a selfish, self-absorbed, and potentially dangerous outlaw behind the wheel of a sports car.
The article begins breathlessly in an oversized font:
The road sign reads 35 mph, but the part flashing YOUR SPEED in yellow lights might as well say, “Holy *#@!”
On a cloudless afternoon in the hills above Malibu—where he is giving me a personal tour—Patrick Dempsey is defying the laws of the state of California and modern physics …
There is no need to be concerned about the law enforcement because, as Dempsey is quoted saying: “They know me and know the car, so they don’t give me a hard time.” Apparently “the switchbacks of Mulholland Highway” belong to this “[a]ctor, racer, cyclist, adrenaline-loving family man,” and Hochman (the author) devotedly follows Dempsey through “a beach community where the super-successful kick back in the priciest ways.”
Hochman nearly trips over his name-dropping: Larry Ellison, David Geffen, Eli Broad, Jay Z, and Beyoncé. Malibu “resembles many of its residents: long and lean with physical features so outsize they don’t look real.” Dempsey also evangelizes:
[I]n Malibu, “you’re always choosing—mountain or ocean. It’s like the haves and the have-nots around here. There’s not so much in between.”
Perhaps even more disturbing, Dempsey considers his jaunt behind a mechanical engine capable of 563hp an experience with Mother Nature: “It’s so beautiful being out in nature, don’t you think?” he gushes to Hochman.
The Dempsey house was designed by Frank Gehry. Dempsey collects classic cars and “contemporary works by California installation artists.” But he is not a foodie, though the tour includes Malibu’s gastro hideouts. Instead, Dempsey craves “a candy-red Porsche 911 convertible parked out front” of Malibu Seafood and Patio Café. Local shops for “the famous and fabulous” all warn the paparazzi to keep away.
One can only begin to imagine what Malcolm Forbes, known for his aphorisms about a balanced view of life and materialism, would have thought of this garish depiction of a public figure in his magazine. One can only surmise that Steven Forbes, who once sought the office of President, is unaware how gaudy his namesake publication has become. Forbes, after all, was a magazine founded to describe persons who both created wealth, and acquired it thereby; yes, there were riches, but also at the same time furtherance of the public good. Dempsey is of a different class, one that produces nothing, yet is lauded for wealth accumulated.
Does Forbes Life really believe that its readers are envious of this life of Dempsey and his kind that it has portrayed? Hochman, on the magazine’s website, hints at the underlying insignificance of what he has captured: he describes himself as a writer who covers “everything you didn’t know you needed to know about L.A.” But don’t be a spoiler and ask exactly how many cars and how many houses one person could need. Isn’t 20,000 square feet and one diamond-encrusted skull sufficient for a lifetime?
As in the world of contemporary art, where the money that a work fetches may determine an artist’s reputation and merit, regardless of artistic worth, one may ask if Dempsey deserves his fortune or if he, like so many other transient celebrities, is just lucky that he stumbled onto projects that attract millions of dollars. One would like to think he is appalled by the image created by this cover story in Forbes Life. Or is he himself just another advertisement? One must always, we are told seasonally, have the boldest new bag or bold new look. One must always endeavor to attend the U.S. Open and the latest reunion of septuagenarian rock-and-roll musicians so one can boast in real-time on Facebook.
My grandmother, who came from another continent in another century, once described America as a nation of “businessmen and whores,” referring to both genders in both categories. Later, on Wall Street during its gyrations, I have sometimes thought of Americans as divided not into the haves and the have-nots but into hustlers and their easy marks.
But I have never lost my sense of optimism that this continent is literally and figuratively a promise. One still detects spirited independence and kindness randomly every day in unpublished accounts.
Perhaps there have been and will always be wealthy Dempseys and their acolytes like Hochman whose lives evolve from self-worship.
Yet I also think that many among the young and the newest professionals in this nation laugh at these “celebrated” public figures and their media. Self-important animated mannequins. Idol worship.
Eugene Schlanger, the Wall Street Poet, is the author of September 11 Wall Street Sonnets. He also practices law on Wall Street.