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IMG: Gersh Kuntzman
The Rich Are Different  
Inspired by the ex-Tyco CEO’s spending habits, our columnist goes browsing like a billionaire  

    Sept. 30 —  I needed to find that $6,000 shower curtain. Of all the big-ticket items that turned up last week in Tyco’s internal corruption report on ex-CEO Dennis Kozlowski—a list that included a $6,300 Italian sewing basket, a $445 turtle-shaped pin-cushion, a $2,200 gold trash can, a $17,000 toiletry box, a $2,980 pair of bed sheets and a $15,000 umbrella stand carved in the likeness of a French poodle—the one that excited me was that $6,000 shower curtain.  

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  THE GOLD WASTEBASKET? The turtle pin cushion? The traveling toilette that cost more than a PT Cruiser? These things didn’t surprise me. They’re antiques, after all. I’ve lived long enough in New York to have learned a very important thing about homo weathius: Members of this human subspecies are born with a muscle group located just about mid-thigh that flexes spontaneously—ejecting a wallet or other cash-containing purse—whenever antiques are present.
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        And with antiques, it often doesn’t matter what they look like as long as the price is high enough. So it’s no surprise that Kozlowski’s money-extrusion muscle kicked in at the first sight of that $15,000 poodle umbrella stand. In New York City, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some overpriced antique item that looks, well, like a dead poodle.
        How else do you think that Tiffany’s stays in business?
        But the $6,000 shower curtain didn’t make sense. How could someone spend so much on an item on which the rest of us spend so little? Check out the Bed, Bath and Beyond Web site and you’ll find dozens of shower curtains ranging in price from $39.99 for a fabric model to $79.99 for a “woven jacquard” job that would beautify any bathroom, even Dennis Kozlowski’s. So couldn’t he have just pointed, clicked and purchased like the rest of us? Of course he couldn’t; he’s rich!
        “The real story here is not what Dennis Kozlowski bought, but that the media doesn’t understand what real wealth is and what wealthy people buy,” said Scott Salvator, an interior designer who is so high on the top end of New York’s interior design food chain that I had to promise to redo my apartment in a Louis Quatorze floral-print motif with bronze wainscotting and pure silk fluted remoulade just to get him on the phone.
        “The public perception of wealth is completely wrong,” added Salvator. “If a townhouse costs $24 million, a $6,000 shower curtain is nothing.”
        Salvator said he only works with clients who understand this implicitly. “My clients are old money. I mean, really old money. These are families that thought the robber barons of the 1880s were new money.”
        Hearing Salvator describe the lifestyles of the rich and famous made me realize how out of touch I am with the super-rich. In my middle-class world, salesmen sometimes tell me, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” In Salvator’s world, salesmen say, “If you have to ask, perhaps you’d be interested in the Van Eyck instead of Van Gogh, sir.”
        Clearly, it was time for one of my famous fact-finding missions. Now, I’ll admit that when I say “fact-finding mission,” I usually just mean that I went “to the corner” to get “lunch.” But this time—convinced that one of my columns could transcend its typical superficiality and actually lift the veil on that little-known American subculture of excessive, gratuitous wealth—I grabbed a dirty-water hot dog from a street vendor and headed to 979 Third Avenue.
        It’s safe to say that you (and when I say “you,” I mean me) have never been to a place like 979 Third Avenue. Nondescript from the outside, 979 Third Avenue is an entire Midtown skyscraper devoted to very expensive (read “difficult to pronounce”) home furnishings and to the people who love them.
        And when I say, “People who love them,” I mean people who understand people who say things like this: “Bunny Williams apprenticed for Parish-Hadley for 18 years and this man, who has been in the business for only four, calls himself a designer? I think not!”
        In this building, Dennis Kozlowski isn’t a serial spendthrift who turned his home into part Hearstian Xanadu, part Ali Baba’s den of thieves. In this building, Dennis Kozlowski is a penny-pinching miser.
        Six-thousand dollars for a shower curtain?
        Boutonniere money!
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        At 979 Third Avenue, fabric prices range from $150 (for the stuff that Dennis Kozlowski wouldn’t even use for the wallpaper in his dog’s house) to $3,000 a yard (for fabric made by the same Moscow weaver who made the silk wallpaper in Catherine the Great’s stable). Considering that it takes 10 yards of fabric—and days of labor—to make a shower curtain fit for a CEO, this could run into some big money.
        I stopped in at Clarence House, a fabric wholesaler for interior designers and architects (the public is, sniff, not invited). I told manager Brigitte Ple that I was confused about how a man could spend $6,000 on a shower curtain (and still call himself a man), so Ple led me to racks of the shop’s most-expensive fabrics.
        “Look at this, Tigre Velous Soie,” she said, running her hands across the pure silk fabric that costs $675 a yard. I felt it, too, but to me, it felt like an expensive velour sweatsuit from a Las Vegas casino. Why is it so expensive, I asked.
        “Why? Because it is made by hand. The man who weaves it cannot even leave the loom for his entire shift because if he is replaced in the middle, the weave will not match. You are paying for that labor.”
        Next, Ple showed me a fabric for $472.50 a yard (a bargain compared to the stuff that sells for $473 a yard). “This is a work of art,” she explained. “Look, it has gold threads sewn through it. But it’s too delicate for a shower curtain. I’d use it for a pillow or a small settee, nothing heavy duty (I don’t know about you, but my wife and I use our settee for some pretty heavy duty).
        Buying 10 yards of fabric from Clarence House would cost close to $5,000 right there. But that’s just the start. A truly top-notch shower curtain would also need trim around the edges (another $400 a yard) and perhaps some fringes (also $400 a yard).
        And of course, top designers don’t go to Clarence House without picking up a set of tassels to finish the job. Tassels—and what fancy window treatment or curtain is complete without ‘em?—are Clarence House’s trademark. A set of handmade tassels cost $900—which means you need to spend $1,800 to cover both sides of a regal shower curtain.
        When I suggest to Ple that $1,800 sounds like a lot for a decorative item, she pulled out the current copy of House and Garden magazine, pointed to the red tassels on the cover and then pointed to the set hanging next to us on the showroom wall.
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        “These are the ones they used on the cover,” she said. I know it’s not much, but I actually felt that I was in the presence of celebrity as I held the tassels in one hand and the magazine cover in the other. I vowed then and there to never buy cheap, department store tassels again.
        I mean, cheap tassels may be good enough for Blaze Starr, but not for me.
        Salvator, the top designer, was pleased to hear that I had learned a valuable lesson about the pressures and responsibilities of being rich.
        “You see, there is no off-the-rack in fine design,” said Salvator, the top designer. “This is not Crate and Barrel!”
        Obviously not. If it was, I could get a clear-vinyl Unikko shower curtain for $39.99—tassels extra, of course.

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His website is at
       © 2002 Newsweek, Inc.
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