At the Back Fence Issue #307

June 16, 2008

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

Rich Guys

Thirty year old CEOs may be as rare as hen’s teeth, but not in romance novels. Thanks to Bill Gates even geeks have found their place in some books. Which led me to thinking…

Are the rich men in romance novels anything like the real thing? Is it ever okay to try to marry money?

Of the wealthy romance heroes outside of historical romance my favorite is Roarke, Eve Dallas’s main squeeze in J.D. Robb’s In Deathseries. Roarke is the perfect rich tycoon. Not only is he generous, he actually gets annoyed when Eve won’t take his gifts or spend enough on beautiful clothes. Roarke spends a lot of time traveling on business and at the office, which is fine with Eve, because she has her own demanding career. But he’s never too busy to help Eve out with a case if she needs help. He owns just about every building in New York, which is convenient because whenever someone is murdered, he owns the apartment.

In other words Roarke is romanceland rich…not real rich.

America seems fascinated with the question of women marrying rich. This seems strange to me, because women today have so many ways to make their own money. My daughter watched the Bravo reality show Millionaire Matchmaker a few weeks ago. The show follows the business of matchmaker Patti Stanger, who as the Daily News put it, “has perfected the art of pairing pretty women with wealthy guys.” My reaction to this premise was a hearty, “Yuck!’ – even after Stranger explained to her disappointed clients that she had a “no sex” rule.

Like a lot of reality shows, Millionaire Matchmaker is simultaneously creepy and fascinating. The millionaire guys in the show weren’t just wealthy guys who wanted a date. Hey, they could get dates, they explained. What they wanted were women who were appropriate to their station, their money. They wanted the kind of woman who had her choice of men. In other words, they wanted the kind of women who had been turning them down.

Patty Stranger and her staff ran right out and found these guys a group of eligible women, that is, women who would at least agree to come to a cocktail party. And the millionaires showed up and asked a few of the women out for dates. When they went on the dates, it became immediately apparent why these two men had been reduced to paying a matchmaker for her services. They were rude, insensitive, self-centered, and boring. In other words, not romance hero material.

Coming away from the television I could not help but conclude that going to the Millionaire Matchmaker has got to be the least romantic idea I have ever heard. It was more like Losers with Money.

Why I asked myself, are we still pushing this idea of money for sex? Isn’t it a whole lot easier to make money than to limit yourself to men who have it? I have heard more than one woman my age talk casually about encouraging her daughter to marry a wealthy boy, or at least one with what looks like earning potential.

But maybe when I think of men with money, I am aiming too low.

I’ve been reading some autobiographies this month and the wealthy writers struck me as elegant, witty, and fun. Would these men have made good romance heroes? Lets take it from the top. If you are going to go after a rich guy, why not do it right and find a Rockefeller?

David Rockefeller (who would be very surprised to know see his book referenced in a romance column) recounts in Memoirs a remarkable life where money was a given from the first. Rockefeller recounts roller skating up the East Side of Manhattan with his brothers in the morning, their limousine driver following slowly behind.

The most amazing thing about this book is the focus of money and position as a grave responsibility rather than a privilege. David’s grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, made it clear that money was not something to be squandered and that his children must focus on the responsibility that it entailed. Sometimes this can be funny. For example, Rockefeller describes how his father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., approached his mother’s father, Nelson Aldrich, to ask for her hand. Rockefeller Jr., the only son of the richest man in America, began his request with a description of his future financial prospects. .

Another example of Rockefeller not taking advantage of privilege was his mother’s early insistence that he enlist as a soldier after Pearl Harbor. Rockefeller, a graduate of Harvard and London School of Economics, enlisted as a private in the Army. His fellow soldiers were amazed to see a Rockefeller painting barracks along with his fellow soldiers.

Rockefeller talks about his courtship and marriage. He married within his class, in a far more class conscious society that the one we have today. But you can’t help but feel that love was important to him. He talks about the love of his late wife and how much he misses her.

William F. Buckely’s memoir, Miles Gone By, is another autobiography of a man of privilege. I have always admired Buckley as a writer, though his politics are far to the right of mine. His book stands up regardless of politics, mainly because Buckley had such a sense of humor about himself. He had good friends of all political persuasions including such liberals as John Kenneth Galbraith. (In one mischievous passage Buckley threatens to encircle Galbraith’s house with pickets because “he has vowed never to cross a picket line,”

Buckley adored his wife Pat, and took every occasion to compliment her intelligence and beauty. In one funny chapter he describes a project he and Pat carried out, tricking their son Christopher into believing that he had found buried treasure on an island. After Pat is forced to shell out ten dollars in Woolworth’s jewelry for the project, she hits on the idea of burying some antique family silver on the island. This ploy would have worked wonderfully had a storm not kicked up and covered the places where the treasure was buried. According to Buckley the island still holds the missing silver!

In a famous exchange been F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald purportedly said, “The rich are different.” To which Hemingway replied. “Yes, they have more money.”

What struck me about Memoirs and Miles Gone By is that sometimes Hemingway was right. Sometimes the rich are different ‘because they have more money.” Neither of these books is very romantic, but both mention the women the men loved with love and respect.

In other words, neither of these men are what I would call a romance hero. But both would were good husbands.

Perhaps Rockefeller and Buckley are not good examples. Contemporary romance heroes are almost all self-made, just as historical romance heroes have mostly inherited wealth. Accomplishment in contemporary America holds a good deal more status than wealth itself. It’s hard to imagine a romance hero whose money came from a 19th century entrepreneur. This is probably a good thing, and of course its much more common. Most people with a lot of money make it themselves.

But would real CEOs make good romance heroes? My personal feeling is no. The thirty year old CEO is far too busy to make a really great lusty hero. Personally I would stick with the Navy SEAL.

Questions to Consider:

What do you think is the appeal of wealthy heroes in contemporary romance novels?

What do you think of the focus of marrying money on television shows like The Bachelor or Millionaire Matchmaker ?

Is anything lost when a book makes the point of making the hero wealthy?

Do you purposely look for books with rich heroes? Avoid them?

If you contrast most wealthy historical romance heroes to contemporary heroes, the legacy of title and/or privilege stands out. Do we think about self-made men differently than we do men with generational money, if not today, than historically speaking, and if so, why?

Does money have a different import to people of different generations, or people of different nationalities? Are Europeans as obsessed with “making it big” as Americans…what about members of Generation Why as compared to Baby Boomers or Generation X?

Robin Uncapher