MOLLY JONG-FAST. PHOTO COURTESY OF BEN RITTER.
Socialites have murdered for less. In The Social Climber's Handbook (Villard), Daisy Greenbaum's whole Upper East Side world is at stake. To save her husband's crumbling job at The Bank, to ensure his mistress doesn't tattle to Page Six, to feed her own expensive lust and stay on top of the high-society food chain, Daisy slashes and stabs away. Author Molly Jong-Fast is no stranger to chic soirées and competitive Upper East Side private schools, or to successful female novelists—her mother is Fear of Flying author Erica Jong. And Jong-Fast is a brilliant satirist, taking on in her new novel the fall of the American economy and the hungry ghost in all of us that wants more money, more fame, more blood, more Burberry booties for our miniature Poodles. We chatted with her about greed, murder, and the housing market.
ROYAL YOUNG: What drives greed?
MOLLY JONG-FAST: We don't start thinking about it as if it's greed, I think what happens is that you start by thinking it's just taking care of your family. I think that it goes from just a very kind of humble and appropriate sort of want to a kind of three-headed dragon. It spirals into an insane, soul-destroying lust that encompasses everything. But I think it's one of those things where it starts out very innocently and then crushes you.
YOUNG: And kind of feeds on itself?
JONG-FAST: Yeah, like most modern peccadilloes.
YOUNG: This is a question that you pose in your book. I've been fiending for an answer. "What kind of human being needs to live in a house that is $12 million more than he can afford?"
JONG-FAST: My protagonist, and in some ways many of the American people, are on a different scale. I mean, that's how we got into the whole subprime mess. Well, really in the '80s, the idea was introduced that you didn't need to afford what you had. And that just sucked up the American people in a whirlwind. Why I pick the characters I write about, is I like to see the insanity in things. So it's a much more exaggerated sense of what's happened to the rest of the world. A lot of people live in houses that are large multiples of what they can actually afford.
YOUNG: Everyone wants to live above their means.
JONG-FAST: Right. And that's basically what torpedoed the American economy
YOUNG: Do you think everyone wants to take part in this mad race for money and accumulation?
JONG-FAST: I think it's all relative. In academia, there's a lot of a different type of greed. Well, it's not greed, it's vanity, and I hate vanity, because I think it's so stupid, and I much prefer greed. I think greed makes a lot more sense, and I think with greed you can at least conceivably go someplace good with it, which is philanthropy. But I do think ultimately vanity is much worse, because I really, really, really hate pretension. I feel like it's so dishonest. So I'd much rather have a really honest greed, which I think has really fallen out of vogue in the last two years, but I'd much rather see that than the really appalling self-righteous clatter.
YOUNG: How much of finance do you think is forecasting the future?
JONG-FAST: I don't think it's so much forecasting. If you're going to say [what] a successful hedge fund manager's managing is knowing what's going to happen before it does, I don't think it's that. I think it's really being able to make those kind of kamikaze bets and be okay with them. They have the right appetite for risk. But you don't want someone who's too nuts, which happens a lot. You'd be really surprised. I'm not sure if it's the money that makes people crazy or the sycophancy. Whatever it is, I've noticed more and more, the wives seem to go completely off the rocker.
YOUNG: How so?
JONG-FAST: The husbands are totally affected, but it's worse for the wives, because when you're the child of someone like that, you know your parents aren't going to trade you in, whereas if you're the wife, I think there's always that worry. As well there should be.
YOUNG: Why do you think people murder for money?
JONG-FAST: My character, she does it because she's desperate, she's out of options. I think the question is more how do people get so desperate so fast? And why are the stakes so high for these people?
YOUNG: Why are they?
JONG-FAST: Because their ego is invested in everything and they just want to win, as far as I can tell, for no particular reason.
YOUNG: What's the worst thing you've ever done for money?
JONG-FAST: [laughs] Nothing as bad as I would have liked. I should have done something. I don't quite operate that way, but I wish I did, because in my mind I would rather be a person who did operate that way. I think it makes a lot more sense.
YOUNG: Do you find there's a difference between being beautiful and being well-groomed?
JONG-FAST: Without question. And in fact, I would go further than that and say there's a difference between being well-groomed and well-maintained. I'd say most women on the Upper East Side are extremely attractive, but you would never put them on the cover of a magazine. They all look sort of the same way, a certain kind of thoroughbred look to them, and they're tall and much longer than normal people, but they're not beautiful. They're just sort of angular and their voices sound like money: like Daisy from The Great Gatsby, there's a certain giggle filled with jangling change.
YOUNG: [laughs] Yes, yes, yes. And is the quest for money really a quest for love?
JONG-FAST: I think it's more of a quest for wanting to fit in, people just want to find their place in the world. They want to feel comfortable and they want to belong, and that's why people join country clubs, and it's why people do all sorts of weird stuff that seems meaningless and bizarre to me. I came from a family that was very weird, sort of bohemian.
JONG-FAST: So you know, they'd never want to be in a club that would have them. But my suspicion is that the reason why people do want that is just completely the need to belong.
THE SOCIAL CLIMBER'S HANDBOOK IS OUT APRIL 26 (VILLARD). FOR MORE ON THE BOOK, VISIT MOLLY JONG-FAST'S WEBSITE.