America's five largest brokerage houses — Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns — dropped some $25 billion last Christmas on their top performers.
Senior traders and dealmakers raked in $20 million apiece. One top gun, who bet on everything from the price of copper to interest and exchange rate fluctuations, pulled a cool $100 million. A 25-year-old futures trader hit his stride at $1.4 million in just under an hour. The first place to see that kind of instant wealth in action is "the Hamptons" in the summer, the once bucolic patch that became America's Riviera and the world's wealthiest resort.
From Southampton to East Hampton, even houses without an ocean view are out of sight. One recently fetched $37.7 million. Oceanfront mansions seldom come up for sale, but when they do a price tag approaching $50 million is no longer unusual. Long before the Hamptons became a playground for the mega-rich and famous, it was an artists' paradise. In recent decades, the YBAs (Young British Artists) made it their money tree (or trees).
A shark in formaldehyde by Damier Hirst, a world renowned Brit, became the most valuable and iconic symbol of the 1990s. Dead animals (shark, sheep, cows) are preserved, either whole or in parts.
Dubbed "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," the 14-foot tiger shark, in the chemical favored by embalmers, in a vitrine, made Mr. Hirst the second most expensive living artist (after Jasper Jones). Charles Saatchi bought the pickled shark en gelee for $100,000 and sold it to U.S. hedge fund manager Steve Cohen for $13 million.
Chris Ofili, 39, is another local hero, British of Nigerian-Caribbean descent, who paints with elephant dung — and is now world famous. His painting of "Virgin Mary" is a buxom black Madonna with cutout rear views of mature buttocks that frame the image of Mary.
Anyone disturbed about the state of contemporary art should stay away from Bob Wilson's paradise in the woods. Mr. Wilson, 66, an internationally acclaimed American avant-garde stage director and playwright (his production of the "Life and Times" of Josef Stalin was a 12-hour performance from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; it closed after four showings in 1973), is the world's foremost vanguard "theater artist." Louis Aragon, the late French poet and erstwhile Communist Party member, praised Mr. Wilson as "what we, from whom surrealism was born, dreamed would come after us and go beyond us."
Once a year, both the nouveaux riches and old money converge on Mr. Wilson's Watermill Center for a major offbeat event — this year's was named Voom Zoo and the invitation's dress code said "Wild Chic." UPI's reporter wore slacks and a sports shirt.
At the top of a steep, stepped climb, guests emerged onto a plateau where a naked, blindfolded, middle-aged woman with pendulous breasts, body streaked in red ink, was slowly raising two glasses of milk (or at least a white substance) held in her hands. In front of her stage, sat a blindfolded man in front of a computer, which showed seconds and minutes scrolling at clock speed. After pouring the white liquid over her body, she reached slowly for two more glasses, which she then smashed to the ground. Robot-style, she moved inch by inch to the next table — and repeated her unexplained pantomime.
Some 400 guests at a $1,000 a plate (UPI was invited) were greeted by Dita von Teese, sitting naked with sexy seamed stockings and pink garter belt on a trapeze above the long, double-tier tables that formed a large square under a tent. The ringmaster Bob Wilson, mixing camp with burlesque, came on stage preceded by repeated shouted female pleas for total silence.
Finally, when you could have heard a pin drop, Mr. Wilson took the mike — but had nothing to say beyond thanking us for coming. Silence is the centerpiece of many of his theatrical works, "silence so powerful it speaks," said one critic.
Next, world famous auctioneer Simon de Pury bid up a colored, lifesize picture of La Teese by Bob Wilson for a cool $100,000. A partly burned photograph of Audrey Hepburn, with one eye missing, went for $60,000. A color photograph of Andy Warhol's medicine cabinet came in at an overpriced $10,000. Robert Mapplethorpe's photo of a naked lithesome beauty in the pose of Jesus on the cross with a fedora hiding her face went from $10,000 to $50,000 in seconds.
Guests, including platoons of young traders with glamorous squeezes, imbibed Chateau Mouton Rothschild and munched on "heirloom tomato panzanella, marinated bocconcini of bufala mozzarella, miso glazed black cod, strawberry hibiscus soup and ginger mascarpone cheesecake with chocolate crust."
Almost forgot the water: Voss Artesian from Norway. The war in Iraq? A million miles away. It didn't come up once during the weekend.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.