The Magazine

I Knew I Forgot Something

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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A few years ago, reading along in Katherine Graham’s soppy autobiography, I came across a sentence that mentioned that the author’s father, Eugene Meyer, had accumulated a fortune of 30—or was it 40?—million dollars while still a young man. I smacked my palm against my forehead. “Damn,” I exclaimed, “I knew I forgot something.” What I forgot, of course, was to acquire a vast quantity of money while still young, so that I could spend the remainder of my days never again having to think, let alone worry, about money. 

I like money, like what it can do: among other things, allow one to acquire quality goods, help out family and friends and worthy causes, above all bring one freedom to maneuver smoothly through life. I have never discounted the importance of money, yet neither have I ever been able to concentrate upon getting more of it for longer than 50 seconds.

“I call people rich,” a character in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady says, “when they’re able to meet the demands of their imagination.” What are the demands of mine? Rather modest, perhaps even pathetic, I fear. I have never yearned to live in a large house, nor wanted servants. (I am told that it is a mistake to accept a job that brings with it the services of a chauffeur; when you leave the job, you will miss him so much that life will never again seem quite so good.) Nor have I wanted apartments or villas in foreign capitals or beautiful countrysides. I would only worry, mundanely, about the plumbing going on the fritz when I was away. I like good cars but I wouldn’t be comfortable driving grand ones—Rolls-Royces, Maseratis, Porsches—for I would be nervous lest they bring me invidious attention, causing even mildly envious people to hope that I crash. 

All I can think of is that I would want money so that I didn’t have to be concerned about money, ever. I would want it so that I didn’t have to check the prices on menus in restaurants, or hunt up and be pleased by bargains, or be derailed from satisfying small desires—for books or clothes or tickets to concerts and sports events—because of the cost. I was taken to dinner a few years ago by a very wealthy couple, and, as the husband was pouring the no doubt costly wine into my glass, he noted he’d read somewhere that I objected to expensive wine. “Not at all,” I answered, “I only object to paying for it.”

The problem, as I hope that little anecdote makes clear, is that my damnably sensible middle-class habits were too long ago formed and reinforced by being acted upon over decades for me to partake of conspicuous consumption with the clear conscience required of the happy hedonist. “A cynic,” Oscar Wilde reports, “is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” I think myself a man who knows the price and value of everything, which can be inhibiting. 

I don’t anticipate the prospect of a vast sum of money heading my way between now and the grave. I am in for no large inheritances. I do not play the lottery, which, as a clever fellow once said, is the tax the state levies on people who don’t understand basic arithmetic. I cannot concentrate on the stock market, have never put myself to learning its rudiments—forget about penetrating its inner workings—and wouldn’t see a good thing if it bit me in a tender place, and so am unlikely to score there. Nice to fantasize that one of my books will break the bank by becoming an enormous bestseller, but in my authorly vanity I prefer to believe that, as Frederic Raphael puts it, “Literature is what doesn’t sell,” which puts paid to that notion. 

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor,” said Gertrude Stein, “and rich is better.” No doubt true. Yet having an immensity of money doesn’t seem to bring all that much in the way of happiness either, or so it would seem from the glum visages of the billionaires who appear on television. The effect of great wealth is usually desire for even greater wealth, or worry about one’s money not bringing in even more. 

The money question, then, turns out to be like so many others: Married or single, children or no children, extremely wealthy or merely getting by—the answer to all appears to be that neither is a solution. “Money is funny,” Miss Stein also said, and concluded that, funny though it may be, in the end everyone recognizes its significance. I, certainly, do. I also recognize the significance of gravity. But one of the nice things about gravity is that, unlike money, I don’t have to think about it all the time. 

Joseph Epstein


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