A Childhood Mansion

The Wall Street Journal has a real estate section that comes out every Friday. In true @WSJ style, it’s not called Real Estate, or Homes, or even Estates. No, it’s called Mansions. I guess if your target audience is the One Percent you can just put it right out there.

Jaw-Dropping Houses

The Wall Street Journal has a real estate section that comes out every Friday. In true @WSJ style, it’s not called Real Estate, or Homes, or even Estates. No, it’s called Mansions. I guess if your target audience is the One Percent you can just put it right out there.The section is filled, as you might expect, with enormous, jaw-dropping, outrageous homes with asking prices that range from seven to nine figures. You could fit a small village into some of them and the people wouldn’t bump into one another from day to day. And that’s without going outside.

The Mansion section always has a front page story on a notable dwelling that is over the top in some way from towers and tunnels to wine cellars and full-out yoga studios. It also includes “House Call,” a half-page story told by a famous person about the house(s) in which he or she grew up.

These personal stories are very interesting and usually the first thing I read in Mansions. The funny thing, though, is that the homes of these notable folks are never anything special. They might be a simple apartment in a big building in the Bronx or a tract house in a New Jersey suburb. None of the people who made themselves famous in their chosen profession grew up in the kind of mansion that ornaments the section’s front page. Coincidence? I think not.

Perfectionist and Poet

Here are three examples of recent cover-story topics compared to the more modest home in “House Calls.”

  • Cover:The Billionaire Perfectionist” – four homes around the country that have been meticulously planned and executed
  • House Call:An Attitude Grows in Brooklyn” – Judge Judy Sheindlin’s childhood apartments in the Bedford-Stuyvesant and Flatbush neighborhoods of Brooklyn, NY
  • Cover: “Take the Car for a Spin: — Electric car turners to address narrow driveways or offer a bigger “bling” factor
  • House Call:From Lost Boy to Poet” — Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s childhood of frequent abandonment and multiple “homes,” including an orphanage
  • Cover:  “IndyCar Racer Marco Andretti’s Pennsylvania Palace” – the childhood mansion of the son and grandson of racing legends
  • House Call: “How a Family Fight Saved His Life” — Singer Dion DiMucci’s childhood tenement in the Bronx
To give Marco Andretti credit he says, “I want to work for my money. I’m still not there. I still have a lot of work to do.” This despite growing up in a mansion of 12, 222 square feet with six holes of golf, cascading koi ponds, interlocking pools, 500-bottle wine cellar, six-car garage and 10 rolling acres.

Marco Andretti’s House
Erica Gannett for The Wall Street Journal

Wide and Deep

The gap between the world of people for whom money is no object and the world of people who fight their way up from nothing, sometimes despite many obstacles, is wide and deep. It reminds me of the story about the little girl who was raising chickens for a science fair project. When the chicks began to hatch, she felt sorry for the tiny birds trying so hard to peck their way out of the shell. So she began to help them by peeling pieces of the shell away. She worked diligently until all the chicks were hatched and fluffing themselves out under the heat lamp. Then she went to bed. When she woke up, all the chicks were dead. It seems that pecking at the shell strengthened them, particularly their necks. When she took that necessary effort away, they emerged too weak to survive.

It seems that pecking at the shell strengthened them, particularly their necks. When she took that necessary work away, they emerged too weak to survive. I don’t know if this story is true or apocryphal. I have never raised chickens. But it seems like an apt metaphor for how people grow stronger by overcoming adversity.

Children who grow up in mansions don’t face much in the way of hardships or adversity. Their path is smoothed by money and their parents’ resources. Getting in trouble means that daddy’s lawyer bails you out. Failing in school means that the dean gets a call from an influential alumnus. Getting fired mean you get a job in mommy’s company.

Born on Third Base

Some also grow up thinking that they have all this bounty because they deserve it when, in fact, they have done nothing to merit the wealth around them. In the words of Football Coach Barry Switzer, they were born on third base and think they hit a triple. This is not the experience of people who lack means or influence.

In a January article, The Boston Globe quoted a classmate of Jeb Bush’s at Phillips Andover Academy, a private, upper-class prep school in Massachusetts, one of the best in the country.

“The thing that really struck me about Jeb more than anyone I ever met, is he understood that he was from the world that really counted and the rest of us weren’t. It really was quite a waste of his time to engage us. This was kind of his family high school. There wasn’t anything he could do to be kicked out so he was relaxed about rules, doing the work. This was just his family’s place.”

Once on the old Cosby show, the Huxtables youngest daughter, Rudy, asked, “Daddy, are we rich?” Cliff Huxtable responded, “Let me be perfectly clear. Your mother and I are rich. You have nothing.” To give Marco Andretti credit he says, “I want to work for my money. I’m still not there. I still have a lot of work to do.” This despite growing up in a mansion of 12,222 square feet with six holes of golf, cascading koi ponds, interlocking pools, a 500-bottle wine cellar, a six-car garage and 10 rolling acres. He’s got the right mindset to get ahead on his own. 

What Our Parents Give Us

If you grow up in a childhood mansion, however, it’s difficult for that message to come across. To be fair, we all do this to some extent. I grew up accepting that we lived in a house with a yard and had a car when my mother was raised in a walk-up apartment with one bathroom for 10 people and streetcars for transportation. To her, our suburban house must have seemed like a mansion.

How a Family Fight Saved His Life” -- Singer Dion DiMucci’s childhood tenement in the Bronx

Dion DiMucci’s house in the Bronx’s Belmont section
Photo by Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal

My kids grew up accepting that they would each have their own room and go to college without having to work their way through, whereas I cobbled together scholarships, loans, co-op jobs, work-study jobs, part-time jobs and typing papers to pay tuition.

My grandchildren are growing up accepting that they live in a beautiful home — much bigger than either of the ones Mom grew up in — and go on wonderful vacations that involve airplanes. We can’t be criticized if we take for granted the things that our parents give us. Or believe that everyone lives the way we do.

And yet—there is that really big gap. I wonder what it truly means for the kids who grow up in childhood mansions. Do they try harder because, like Marco Andretti, they want to make it on their own? Or do they go with the flow and enjoy not having to earn their own living? It would make an interesting study.

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