Not since New York magazine in the heyday of the yuppie or Manhattan Inc. at the height of the “Decade of Greed” has there been such a publication as The American Benefactor. Sure, Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., in his “Letter from the Editor” in the premiere issue of the new quarterly, may say that the magazine’s intent is “to celebrate, inspire, and inform the act of giving.” But what’s really going on in the 148-page full-color glossy — between the 52 pages of ads for Rolex, Patek Philippe and Hublot, among other watchmakers; the Mercedes S Class and the Toyota Land Cruiser, among other vehicles; Offitbank, Union Bank of Switzerland, and Credit Suisse, among other private bankers, et opulent al. — is really nothing more than a good old-fashioned celebration of having.
Frankly, it’s long overdue. After seven straight years of economic growth and a Dow Jones Industrial Average cresting at over 7,000, it’s about time somebody had a kind word for those who have benefited the most.
Which is not to say that The American Benefactor is, as its name suggests, devoted to those who give the most. There’s no profile of Mother Theresa here. Now, Bill Gates, Jocelyn Straus, Lucky Roosevelt, Pat Buckley, Bette Midler — that’s another story. They’ve got big bucks, they know even more people who do likewise, and they are here. Aesthetically and morally speaking, it is worthy to celebrate the “community of the charitable,” in Aldrich’s phrase, just as it is unworthy to suck up to the glitzy rich. But practically speaking, that’s a distinction without a difference — the insight of genius that lies at the heart of The American Benefactor.
In truth, I am not meant to be a reader of The American Benefactor. You can’t buy this magazine on the newsstand. Nor can you take out a subscription. The only way to get it is if one of the charities you give to buys it for you, as a thank-you for all the support you’ve given — or if someone (such as, say, a private banking firm) makes a contribution to one of your charities for the purpose of buying subscriptions, thus getting the ad the company bought in the magazine into your hands. On paper, there is a certain brilliance to the marketing strategy behind The American Benefactor, which is the product of Capital Publishing L.P., which in turn is funded by Fidelity Investments. Question: How do we reach the richest people in the country without wasting our time and money and our advertisers’ time and money selling magazines to the lower orders? Among magazine publishers, this question is equivalent to the quest for the Holy Grail. Answer: Go to Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and their nonprofit peers, and get each of them to agree to allow you to put magazines into the hands of each of (say) their top 1,000 donors and send your magazine to not another soul.
There are articles here on Bill Gates (when will he start giving away those billions?), “America’s Greatest Rainmakers” (six society dames who have mastered the rarefied art of shaking down their friends), the Tuscan estate Sir Harold Acton bequeathed to New York University, Jane Austen’s preoccupation with money, and what the baby boomers will do with their estimated $10 trillion inheritance. The writing is pretty good, the photos are glitzy, the design is elegant, and best of all, everybody in the magazine is filthy, filthy rich.
In many ways the most delightful article in the premiere issue is “Benefactors Are Made, Not Born,” which (despite its title) is about how tough a time young people have learning to give away money properly upon coming into their inheritances and trust funds. Author Eva Pomice kisses her way up into places the art of the kiss-up has never probed before: “It’s hard to generalize, but wealthy young people today seem more interested in issues than institutions and don’t want to engage in arm’s length funding of conventional causes. They see themselves not as Daddy Warbucks or ladies bountiful with bags of money to dole out, but as activists who have the means to make a difference.” Wow, a generation wholly superior to the fat cats and blue-hairs who made the money the new generation is inheriting. And so enchantingly unconventional!
Fortunately, help for these “activists” with “means” is just a phone call away. Let Ms. Pomice tell it: “Now in its second year, the Rockefeller Foundation’s intensive 24-day donor-education program trains people with significant inherited wealth to be better donors.”
Of course it does. I take the bit about “significant” inherited wealth to be a subtle caution to would-be social climbers: Don’t come knocking on the Rockefeller Foundation door unless you’ve got a real inheritance, bub. My question as I read, though, is where the Rockefeller Foundation program takes place. Snowmass? Geneva? A private island in the Caribbean?
Two paragraphs later, Ms. Pomice reveals the answer. Clearly, I lack sufficient imagination to inherit significant wealth. Of course not Snowmass again; what a bore. Instead, the program includes “nine days in a developing nation, investigating giving strategies to deal with issues like overpopulation [time to turn the page; Ms. Pomice is going to mention AIDS next, isn’t she?] and the spread of AIDS [yep].”
Ms. Pomice’s may be the deepest kiss-up, but given its sheer relentlessness and its unspoken but boring leftie tendentiousness (the latter attitude is shot through the magazine), it is hardly the most subtle. That honor goes instead to Jack Hitt, author of the cover story on Bill Gates. Brilliantly, Hitt has chosen not to kiss up to Gates, at least not egregiously. In fact, the article (uncharacteristically for the magazine) is actually written with a certain attitude. What Hitt has apparently realized is that there is little utility for him in kissing up to Gates, since persons of far loftier station than he kiss up to Gates all the time.
To whom, then, should Hitt kiss up? Well, he is a contributing editor of Harper’s, a magazine edited by rich-guy intellectual Lewis H. Lapham. Now, it so happens that the visual scheme illustrating “Ready When You Are, Mr. Gates” is a series of collage-like images, each of which includes a quotation on the subject of having and giving a fortune. There are five in all. They come from Andrew Carnegie (“He who dies thus rich dies disgraced”), Julius Rosenwald, Percy Ross, Seneca, and Lewis H. Lapham. Now, that is a quality kiss-up, practically invisible to anyone but the kissed-up-to.
As to what it all adds up to, The American Benefactor has much the same effect on this unauthorized middle-class reader that the magazine Seventeen has on 13-year-old girls. It creates and sustains a fantasy to which to aspire. Ah, to be tippling with Lucky, after a week at Sir Harold’s villa in Toscana. But the decisions to make! A family foundation? A charitable remainder trust? Possibly too conventional. Off to class in Burkina Faso with the Rockefeller Foundation.
In this respect, I think I am the perfect audience for The American Benefactor just as Manhattan Inc. was a magazine not for the nouveau riche but about them, and just as New York once set the style standard for a generation of arriviste yuppies. (Some of us have been grinding our own coffee beans since long before Starbucks, babe.) As to what the rich will make of it, I can’t imagine. But my suspicion is not much. People with real money don’t need to read about people with real money. They get to live it. The term for a 17-year-old reading Seventeen is “pathetic.” She should have moved on to Cosmo by then.
This may turn out to be a serious problem for The American Benefactor’ ‘s marketing plans. Imagine the effect on advertising if it turns out the magazine’s only real readers are The American Benefactors ‘ help. Another potential pratfall is that the participating charities themselves — which would, of course, never sell a mailing list with the names of their thousand biggest donors — may one day realize that rather than paying The American Benefactor for subscriptions, The American Benefactor ought to be paying them for providing its demographically perfect subscribers.
There is one other odd thing about The American Benefactor, and it is this: Its determined focus on the giver leaves the magazine all but speechless on the need for (ahem) the gift. This seems to be a matter of deliberate editorial policy. You won’t be reading about any worthy charities here, except to the trivial extent necessary to illustrate the virtue of those who give money to them. That means — and I imagine the reaction will extend well above my income and asset level — The American Benefactor doesn’t leave you wanting to write a check. It does encourage you to aspire to or fantasize about being the sort who has written checks, but that is rather different. Since all we are required to do is admire those who act charitably, we are off the hook for being charitable ourselves.