Outtakes and Vagabonds: What’s wrong with King Charles and other very rich people?

I’m pretty sure Rebecca Mead did not intend to spark my pity for Charles Windsor, et al., in her excellent and lightly dishy article, “King Me,” in the May 8 New Yorker.

Yet she did. And she did it within one paragraph:

…When, in the days after the Queen’s death, [Charles] took part in ceremonies establishing his kingship, he got into not one but two altercations with malfunctioning pens, and his irascible response the second time–“I can’t bear this bloody thing, what they do…every stinking time”–was recognizable to anyone who has spent time observing him. As his biographer Catherine Mayer puts it, “The world is against him–even inanimate objects are against him. That is absolutely central to his personality.”

I don’t think so. I believe Ms. Mayer has been spending too much time in the hermetic world of British royalty. Charles’ frustration with “inanimate objects” is not central to his personality; it’s central to the environment encasing and infantilizing very rich men, not only princes.

(I came to the conclusion a while ago that Charles wasn’t stupid as rumored. Years ago, before Diana, he came to the U.S. on one of those visits the purpose of which is ephemeral. A cheeky American reporter asked him, “Do you have any tips for being a prince?” And Charles responded, “Use the facilities whenever you have the chance.” Hm, I said to myself; he’s got wit. And anyone who has wit has a brain.)

I’ve had experience working for very rich men and the opportunity to observe the way they function. And do not function. Even those not born into and trapped within it, as Charles certainly is, create that environment as soon they have the wealth with which to do it.

Great wealth and the people who wield the power they acquire with it are loathsome — from a distance. Get close to any of them, though, and your reaction could be more complicated. Loathing, yes, but contempt, as well. Because when they fully use that wealth, they wind up relinquishing control over their intimate personal lives.

I absorbed this when I worked for Malcolm Forbes. His desk accessories were Fabergé, once property of the last tsar, but his desk clock was contemporary. At that time, before the digital era, the clock was analog. When the two time-changing days each year arrived, Malcolm would have one of the maintenance guys — and not just any maintenance guy but one designated maintenance guy, E. — come up to change the clock. You know. Change, like, go forward one hour or forward twenty-three hours, enough to effectuate backwardness.

You know how to do it, and I know how to do it. My two-year-old grandnephew probably could do it, given his aptitude with challenging toys.

Malcolm Forbes could not change his clock. He could have learned how but had gradually allowed his money to eat into what should have been his normal adult capacities. He did not summon E. as an exercise of his own power; he summoned him as an inadvertent  display of his powerlessness.

That’s a single example out of many how very rich people can lose the simple experiential skills for taking care of minor switches and glitches in life. What they relinquish is independence.

The incident with Charles and the pens reminds me of a time when, before personal computers, I wrote on legal yellow pads with a pen. I was having problems with my Mont Blanc, a gift from a previous love. It had stopped filling properly. Did I curse at the pen or throw it across the room? I did not. I brought it to the Fountain Pen Hospital on Warren Street, a few blocks from my office.

A young, yet commanding, man listened to my pen woe. Then he took the pen from me, opened it, brought up an ink well, and filled my pen.

My mouth dropped open in joy. “How did you do that?” I said.

“Oh,” he said, with intentionally comic menace, “I intimidate balky pens. I give them one of my looks and they behave.”

King Charles, a sad toddler trapped inside the process of life, will never have such pleasure. That’s why I feel pity for him and for others like him, perpetual children. If they have no power over their intimate lives, they have no power at all.

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