Primates of Park Avenue is a controversial new memoir by Wednesday Martin that purports to examine and explain the preposterously well-off women of the Upper East Side of Manhattan in a rigorous, attentive fashion, much like Jane Goodall studied chimps in Tanzania. Martin's prominent pre-publication essay in the New York Times mocked those "poor little rich women" for betraying feminism by being "dependent and comparatively disempowered."
Times reporter Anne Barnard, who had previously lived on the UES, reacted to the essay with a political rant on Facebook: "I did feel that a new and more extreme form of wealth, somehow inextricably paired with astonishingly retrograde gender politics, had set in. Now I see I was actually underestimating it."
The obsessed Times ran no less than three reviews of the book.
But the New York Post outclassed its rival in journalistic integrity by actually vetting the dubious claims in Martin's book, including the most provocative at all, the alleged "wife bonus." The Post found many factual errors that will result in future editions of the book containing a note that some of the memoir’s details and chronologies were changed for effect. Some of the faults unearthed by the Post's Isabel Vincent and Melissa Klein:
A Post review of the best seller found holes big enough to drive an Escalade through.
Author Wednesday Martin -- whose real first name is Wendy -- claims in the memoir to have spent six years “doing field work” with her two kids on the Upper East Side conducting an armchair anthropological study.
But Martin only lived there for three years, with one kid, and mentions stores and services that didn’t exist, calling into question the scenes and behaviors she describes.
“Primates” includes eyebrow-raising anecdotes, such as the claim that some women receive yearly “wife bonuses.” After readers expressed doubt, Martin backpedaled, telling New York magazine: “I don’t necessarily think it’s a trend or widespread. It was just one of the many strange-seeming cultural practices that some women told me about.”
In the book, Martin says she and her husband moved from the West Village for her toddler son. She describes being forced to undergo an unusual interview to purchase her Park Avenue abode.
The co-op board, she says, held the interrogation in her bedroom, where she was confined because of a difficult pregnancy. She wears a strand of pearls while propped up in bed, the board members gathered around her.
It’s an amusing scene.
Except, while property records show her and her husband bought an apartment at 900 Park Ave. in January 2004, she does not appear to have been pregnant at the time.
Martin’s first son was born in 2001 and her second was born in 2007 -- the year she moved from the Upper East Side to the Upper West Side.
The Post's investigation got results, as the Times mentioned in a report buried on page 6 of the Monday Business section. Mention of her Times opinion piece was relegated to paragraph 12 of 13.
On Sunday, after a report that there were factual errors in the book, the publisher, Simon & Schuster, said it would append a note to future editions of the book, written by the social researcher Wednesday Martin, clarifying that some of the memoir’s details and chronologies were changed.
Martin's pre-publication Times op-ed made Page 1 of the paper's influential Sunday Review May 17:
And then there were the wife bonuses.
I was thunderstruck when I heard mention of a “bonus” over coffee. Later I overheard someone who didn’t work say she would buy a table at an event once her bonus was set. A woman with a business degree but no job mentioned waiting for her “year-end” to shop for clothing. Further probing revealed that the annual wife bonus was not an uncommon practice in this tribe.
A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance -- how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school -- the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks. In turn these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don’t just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting.
Martin ended with a picture which played into the stereotypes of aggrieved liberal feminists.
The wives of the masters of the universe, I learned, are a lot like mistresses -- dependent and comparatively disempowered. Just sensing the disequilibrium, the abyss that separates her version of power from her man’s, might keep a thinking woman up at night.
Times Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard took the article as gospel in a politicized rant on Facebook May 18:
Revolting. During the five years I spent with small children on the Upper East Side, I sometimes thought perhaps I was blowing out of proportion the sense that the place was increasingly full of people from another planet. After all, I grew up there. But during my occasional encounters with what is defined here as the "west-of-Lexington" set, at, say, toddler music class, I did feel that a new and more extreme form of wealth, somehow inextricably paired with astonishingly retrograde gender politics, had set in. Now I see I was actually underestimating it.
Later, in the face of skepticism, author Martin became far more vague about the "wife bonus." In an interview with New York magazine she backtracked: "I don’t necessarily think it’s a trend or widespread. It was just one of the many strange-seeming cultural practices that some women told me about."
Before the Post's investigation puts the book's anecdotes into dispute, the Times was fascinated with the anthropological treatment of its cities most prominent denizens, flooding the zone publicizing Primates of Park Avenue, though not every discussion was positive. Outside critic Vanessa Grigoriadis reviewed the book for the Times and found it rang true.
House critic Janet Maslin didn't like it, while city columnist Ginia Bellafante wrote two stories. Quite liberal herself, Bellafante nevertheless faulted Martin's book for catering to prejudices against wealthy stay-at-home mothers: "Any entertainment that comes along with the goal of convincing us that rich, stay-at-home mothers are ridiculous or pathetic or miserable, or all of those things, which is to say anything that comes along to confirm our biases, is going to win out, obviously, over an alternate narrative..."