Monthly Archives: April 2017
A great deal of material was ultimately edited out of what will be the published version of Survival of the Richest. I will be sharing much of that material here on my blog. I’d like to start with what was to be the longest chapter in the book, which examines the entangling alliances and incestuous nature of fame and success.
Chapter Two: Relations and Connections
Everybody gets everything handed to them. The rich inherit it….I mean what people take for granted among the upper and middle classes, which is nepotism, the old-boy network.
– Toni Morrison
Much research has been conducted over the years, establishing that most of the United States presidents were related to one another. Lineage specialist Gary Boyd Roberts found that George H.W. Bush was the tenth cousin once removed of his Vice President, Dan Quayle. Both Bush and Quayle, Boyd found, were related to Abraham Lincoln and, oddly enough, Charles Stanley Gifford, long thought to be Marilyn Monroe’s seemingly low life father. Even odder is the fact that Monroe herself was a Mayflower descendent. Boyd also stated that Bush was related to nine other former presidents. (USA Today, November 15, 1988).
Actor Tom Hanks is a descendent of Nancy Hanks, Abraham Lincoln’s mother. So is George Clooney, who is Lincoln’s half-first cousin, five times removed, according to ancestry.com historians. Ben Affleck, despite what seems on the surface to be a fairly humble background, is supposedly related to sixteen different Presidents, including Barack Obama, who has a lot of prestigious figures in his family tree for the first black man to hold the office (Obama is also said to be a distant relative of another famous actor, Brad Pitt, who we are told is a distant cousin of director Spike Lee as well). Playboy founder and publisher Hugh Hefner is an eleventh cousin, twice removed, to President George W. Bush, and like the Bushes and Marilyn Monroe is descended from the Mayflower. Entertainer Madonna is descended from President John Tyler, and is also a distant cousin to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Actor Richard Gere can also trace his roots back to the Mayflower, as well as Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and James Garfield. Clint Eastwood is a real blue blood, with ties to King Henry I of England, President Franklin Pierce and Nancy Reagan. Sarah Palin is a ninth cousin, once removed, of FDR and yet another Mayflower descendent. Actress Angelina Jolie, meanwhile, is related to Hillary Rodham Clinton (who in addition to Madonna and Jolie, is also distant cousins with two more entertainers, singers Alanis Morrisette and Celine Dion, and if it can be believed, beatnik author Jack Kerouac and Camilla Parker-Bowles, wife of England’s Prince Charles). Longtime hack party politician and war aficionado John McCain is a sixth cousin to former First Lady Laura Bush. (Quad City Times, March 25, 2008). Model Kate Upton is the niece of U.S. Rep. Fred Upton. Johnny Cash’s wife June Carter Nash was distant cousins with President Jimmy Carter. Actress Olympia Dukakis is a cousin of one time Democratic Party presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Actor Ralph Fiennes was born into what Business Insider called “an aristocratic family,” and is eighth cousins with Prince Charles.
These roots sometimes go back several generations. Standard Oil of New York chairman of the board Henry Clay Folger, for instance, was descended from Abiah Folger, Benjamin Franklin’s mother. Americans cherish the image of Abraham Lincoln being born in a log cabin under desperate circumstances, but in reality his grandfather amassed over 5,000 acres of prime Kentucky real estate, benefiting from the advice of family relative Daniel Boone. Another president depicted as rising from nothing was Harry Truman, whose grandparents had a 600 acre farm, who took piano lessons as a child, and who at age sixteen was a page at the 1900 Democratic Party convention. Two time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II’s grandfather was Jesse Fell, an important Republican Party figure and personal friend and campaign manager of Abraham Lincoln. His other grandfather was even more illustrious; Adlai Stevenson I was Grover Cleveland’s vice-president. His grandmother helped establish the Daughters of the American Revolution. Gulf War Commander-in-Chief General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. had a father who was the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, and presided over the bogus investigation into the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. The fact that both his father and grandfather had been four-star Admirals certainly helped John McCain start off on the right foot in his military career. Former Secretary of State and Democratic Party presidential nominee John Kerry’s background is littered with prestigious names like Forbes and Winthrop. Another Democratic Party presidential standard bearer, ex-Vice President Al Gore, had a father who was a U.S. Senator and a mother who was one of the first women to graduate from Vanderbilt University Law School. Astronaut Alan Shepherd, dictionary impresario Noah Webster, actors Alec Baldwin, Dick Van Dyke and Christopher Reeve, crooner Bing Crosby, Union General George McClellan, the first “super” chef Julia Child, reclusive author Thomas Pynchon, painter Grandma Moses Robertson, poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and child “expert” Dr. Benjamin Spock are just some of the celebrated figures descended from the Mayflower.
Renowned explorer Ferdinand Magellen was born into a “Portuguese noble family.” Jonathan Swift’s grandmother was related to the poet John Dryden, his grandmother’s aunt was a first cousin of Sir Walter Raleigh’s wife Elizabeth Throckmorton, who was one of Queen Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting, and his uncle married the daughter of the godson of William Shakespeare. Charles Darwin was born at his family home “The Mount” (you know you’re rich when your family’s home has a name). His father was a wealthy doctor serving high society, and both his grandfathers were prominent abolitionists. Karl Marx was descended from a series of Rabbis, and his father was a wealthy lawyer who owned multiple vineyards.
Jack London’s mother’s family (the Wellans) were very wealthy. Writer Miles Mathis alleges that London’s ancestors had testified at the Salem Witch Trials. Radical leader John Reed was born in his wealthy grandmother’s mansion, which featured a staff of Chinese servants.
Gary Cooper’s father was a judge. So was Marion Davies’, long time mistress of tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Katherine Hepburn was, to quote Wikipedia, “raised by wealthy, progressive parents.” Her father was a urologist and her mother an outspoken feminist advocate. Actress Carole Lombard had parents who each came from wealthy families; biographer Robert Matzen termed her childhood her “silver spoon period.” Imdb tells us that actress Miriam Hopkins was “born into wealth,” and attended private “academies” like her arch-enemy, Bette Davis (whose father was an attorney). Actor Franchot Tone was born into what Imdb describes as “a well-to-do upstate New York family.” Actress Paulette Goddard’s father was the son of a “prosperous cigar manufacturer,” in Wikipedia’s words. Director Howard Hawks had a father who was “a wealthy paper manufacturer,” and a mother who was the “daughter of a wealthy industrialist,” to quote Wikipedia. Director William Wellman’s upper-class bloodlines went back to the Declaration of Independence, which his great-great-great grandfather signed. Howard Hawks’ father was a “wealthy paper manufacturer” and his mother was the daughter of “a wealthy industrialist.” Sisters Joan and Constance Bennett came from a prestigious acting family, with theatrical roots dating back to the eighteenth century. Their nephew was Morton Downey, Jr., who briefly achieved fame in the late 1980s with a sensationalist talk show, and whose own father, Morton Downey, Sr. was a noted singer and composer. Actor Robert Montgomery was the son of the president of the New York Rubber Company, and his daughter Elizabeth, well remembered as Samantha in television’s Bewitched, continued to “build” on his success. Myrna Loy’s father was a banker, rancher and the youngest man ever elected to the Montana state legislature. Jayne Mansfield’s father was an attorney who practiced with a future New Jersey governor, and her grandparents were wealthy enough that she inherited what would have been over $1 million in current value from them. Margaret Sullavan’s father was “a wealthy stockbroker,” to quote Wikipedia. Jane Wyatt’s father was a Wall Street investment banker, and her mother a drama critic. According to Wikipedia, Norma Shearer’s childhood in Montreal was “one of privilege.” Orson Welles was born to an affluent family, and as a youth he once spent the summer at a private New York art colony playing with the children of the Aga Khan. He was yet another Mayflower descendant. Grace Kelly’s wealthy father had won three Olympic gold medals in his youth, and was appointed the National Director of Physical Fitness by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Audrey Hepburn had a slew of Baronesses and other aristocratic relatives in her background. Imdb provided an illuminating anecdote, noting that one time leading lady Lynn Bari happened to remark to her co-star Anabel Shaw, during the filming of Shock (1946) that she was a direct descendant of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. An astonished Shaw revealed that she was directly descended from the man who killed Hamilton in a duel, U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr. Can we picture two construction workers, or janitors, or file clerks, ever having such a conversation?
Actress Tallulah Bankhead’s father was the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and both her grandfather and uncle had been U.S. Senators. Humphrey Bogart’s father was a surgeon and his mother a renowned illustrator who had studied under the famous painter James McNeill Whistler, and he was still another Mayflower descendant. Speaking of Whistler, he grew up the son of a “prominent engineer,” to quote Wikipedia. Artist Henri Matisse, again in the words of Wikipedia, was the son of a “prosperous grain merchant.” Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, had a judge for a father. Nathanial Hawthorne was descended from a family of judges and important members of the community; his great-great grandfather was one of those who oversaw the Salem Witch trials. T.S. Eliot’s grandfather had founded a church, his father was president and treasurer of a brick company, and his mother was one of the first social workers. Ezra Pound’s grandfather was a U.S. Congressman. So was Emily Dickinson’s. Black poet Langston Hughes had mixed ancestry; the Langston branch was described by Wikipedia as “elite, politically connected,” and had led the Ohio Anti- Slavery Society. Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, had a father who managed “the family brewery,” in Wikipedia’s words. Author Booth Tarkington’s uncle was the governor of California, and his wife was related to the mayor of Chicago. He attended the ultra-prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy. As a Princeton undergraduate, he socialized with future President Woodrow Wilson. F. Scott Fitzgerald was named after his second cousin, three times removed, Francis Scott Key; Wikipedia informs us he came from “an upper-middle-class family.” Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books, was descended from a prestigious banking family, and his father was a long time member of the English Parliament. Socialist writer and politician Upton Sinclair had what are invariably described in accounts as “wealthy maternal grandparents.” His father came from an aristocratic southern family, too, that lost their fortune after the Civil War. John Cheever grew up in his prosperous family’s large Victorian house. William Faulkner’s father owned several businesses, and his grandfather owned a railroad. John Irving’s stepfather was on the faculty of the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, where the fledgling writer received an elite education. Wikipedia tells us that James Joyce’s father and grandfather both married into wealthy families. Vladimir Nabokov was born into a “wealthy and prominent family of minor nobility,” to quote Wikipedia. Gertrude Stein’s father was a “wealthy businessman,” in Wikipedia’s words. One of the few verifiable aspects of William Shakespeare’s biography is the fact his father was a wealthy official in Stratford-upon- Avon, and that his mother came from an important, respected family.
Cole Porter was “the only child of a wealthy family,” to quote Wikipedia. His grandfather was “the richest man in Indiana.” Composer Stephen Sondheim was another only child of wealthy parents. Composer Richard Rodgers was “born into a prosperous German family,” according to Wikipedia, and his father was a prominent physician. Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II had a grandfather who was a theater impresario. When his father died, he was eulogized in the New York Times as “the Barnum of Vaudeville.” Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber came from a prominent musical family, was a Queen’s Scholar at Westminster School and studied at the Royal College of Music. Wikipedia tells us that Agatha Christie was born into a “wealthy upper middle-class family.” Oscar Wilde’s father was Ireland’s most renowned eye surgeon, who was knighted and known as “Sir,” while his mother was Lady Wilde. W. Somerset Maugham’s father and his grandfather were both prominent English lawyers. Archibald MacLeish grew up on what Wikipedia termed an “estate,” and his mother was the president of Rockford College. In a biography that is clearly missing some essential pieces, Clare Booth (later to marry Time-Life founder Henry Luce, who attended exclusive private schools himself as a youth), was referred to publicly as a “socialite” as a young girl, attended private “Cathedral” schools in New York, took a tour of Europe as a girl with her mother and stepfather, and at age ten was Mary Pickford’s understudy on Broadway. Ring Lardner was, according to Wikipedia, “the son of wealthy parents.” Virginia Woolf was born into a wealthy family; her father was a “Sir.”
We see the same trends from generation to generation, and the list is endless. Rock star David Crosby came from the very prominent Van Cortlant family, and his father was Academy Award winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby. Future Byrds’ band mate Roger McGuinn had a mother and father that co-wrote the best seller Parents Can’t Win during his childhood. Singer Linda Ronstadt’s family was affluent enough to be featured in a 1963 issue of Family Circle magazine. Another notable folk-rock performer, Gram Parsons, came from a very wealthy family (his mother was the daughter of a citrus fruit magnate). Singer Bonnie Raitt’s father was a Broadway star. Go-Gos guitarist Charlotte Caffey’s father was a well known television director. Pop singer Lesley Gore had a father, according to Wikipedia, who was “a wealthy manufacturer of children’s clothes and swimwear.” James Taylor’s father came from a “well off family,” to quote Wikipedia, and he was a physician and university professor, while his mother was an aspiring opera singer, who had studied at the high brow New England Conservatory of Music. His one time wife, fellow music star Carly Simon, came into the world as the daughter of Richard L. Simon, co-founder of publishing giant Simon & Schuster. Former Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth’s father was an eye surgeon who, according to Wikipedia, “made millions via his practice and real estate.” Glee star Darren Criss had a father who sat on the Board of Directors for the ritzy San Francisco Opera, and is the chairman and CEO of EastWest Bank. Little Feat’s Lowell George was born in Hollywood, and his musical career was initially funded by his grandfather’s stock. His father was a furrier to the stars. Motown record mogul Berry Gordy was descended from a white plantation owner, and related to President Jimmy Carter.
Comedian Billy Crystal’s father was a jazz promoter and record store owner, his uncle was the well-known musician and songwriter Milt Gabler. Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel’s father was an executive with IBM. Kimmel’s one-time girlfriend, comedian Sarah Siliverman had a mother who was Senator George McGovern’s personal campaign photographer. Adam Carolla’s father was a psychologist, and his step-grandfather was a Hollywood screenwriter. Carolla expressed his feelings about rich people and poor people clearly (and seriously) in an interview with The Daily Caller. “They’re better than poor people. They just are,” he declared. “They (rich people) work harder, generally. More focused. …the poor people I grew up with, fairly lethargic, did a lot of complaining., they smoked a little too much, drank a little too much, blamed everyone but themselves a little too much.” It is difficult to picture the son of a psychologist, raised in North Hollywood, Los Angeles, having any poor people around to “grow up with.” Ari Emanuel is one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood. His brother is former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Yet another brother is noted bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel, who was one of the architects of Obamacare. Their father was a doctor who was active in the Irgun, an Israeli group that many consider to have been terroristic in nature. ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr., who is the foremost NFL draft “expert” in the country, experienced one of those unexplained assists up the ladder, when as a high school student he was encouraged by then Baltimore Colts executive Ernie Accorsi to sell his research to fans. Do NFL executives normally give advice to high school kids? Kiper has built a $7 million fortune out of analyzing one annual event.
Actor Armie Hammer is the great-grandson of oil tycoon and advisor to numerous politicians Armand Hammer. Designer Calvin Klein’s daughter Marci fought her way through the morass of show business to become a very successful TV producer. Comedian Jon Stewart’s brother is a powerful figure with the New York Stock Exchange. Actor Chevy Chase is distinctly upper crust on both sides; his mother was a concert pianist and the stepdaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt Crane, his father was a prominent editor and writer, his grandfather was a well-known illustrator and a grandmother was an opera singer who performed regularly at Carnegie Hall. Chase was listed in the Social Register at a very young age. He, too, can trace his ancestry back to the Mayflower. CNN talk show host Anderson Cooper is the son of Gloria Vanderbilt. Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfuss was born to a billionaire father, and her great-great grandfather founded the huge French conglomerate Louis Dreyfus Group in 1851. ESPN’s Chris Berman’s mother was a reporter for Time magazine and his father was a corporate executive vice-president. Singer/Actor Harry Connick, Jr. had a mother who was a Louisiana Supreme Court justice, and his father, Harry Connick, Sr. was the District Attorney of Orleans Parish, who succeeded Jim Garrison in office, and was one of his political enemies who did everything in his power to keep any information about the JFK assassination away from the public. For good measure, his parents also owned a record store. Actress Sigourney Weaver’s father was Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, a television pioneer who was once president of NBC, while her uncle was actor and comedian “Doodles” Weaver. Meryl Streep’s father was a pharmaceutical executive, and her family was among the first landowners in Pennsylvania.
While no details about his parents are available, Rolling Stone co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner attended the prestigious Chadwick School, whose alumni include Liza Minnelli, Joan Crawford’s Mommie Dearest daughter Christina, the children of actor Bruce Lee, screenwriter/director Robert Towne and Maureen Reagan. Wenner benefited from one of those fortuitous quirks of fate, as influential jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason somehow became his mentor while he was attending college at Berkeley, and helped him find a job at Ramparts magazine, then co-founded Rolling Stone with him. Actor Robert Duvall’s father was a Navy Admiral, his mother was descended from Robert E. Lee. One of Bruce Dern’s grandfathers was a former Utah governor and Secretary of War. His granduncle was poet Archibald MacLeish. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s father was a U.S. congressman and one time Mayor of Baltimore; she is one of the richest members of Congress, turning all those years of “public service” into an estimated worth of more than $58 million. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s father was a prominent figure in California politics, and as a boy he met famous people like future Chief Justice Earl Warren. Best selling author Danielle Steel had a father who was descended from the founders of Lowenbrau beer, and her mother was the daughter of a diplomat. As Wikipedia tells us, “…from an early age, she was included in her parents’ dinner parties, giving her an opportunity to observe the habits and lives of the wealthy and famous.” Best selling crime writer Patricia Cornwell is a descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her father was one of the leading appellate lawyers in the country, and served as Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s law clerk.
Time and again, when investigating those who’ve “made it” big, one encounters strange missing links. While there often is little information about what their parents did for a living, when a prep school props up, or an Ivy League university, or an unexplained internship with some individual or company that is a guarantee of future success, the conclusion becomes inescapable that this particular person grew up in a decidedly wealthy family. Robin Leach, for example, an ordinary looking man with no discernible talent, has amassed a $15 million fortune, primarily from hosting the pretentious television show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, which was little more than weekly promotional advertising for greed and materialism. Leach, too, had a strange jump to prominence, as his limited public biography informs us only that he somehow became a general reporter for the Harrow Observer, a mainstream weekly British tabloid, at age fifteen. Sam Zell, founder of Equity Group Investments, was the son of a “successful grain trader,” and while he was in college, he benefited from a unique arrangement; in return for managing a fifteen unit apartment building, he was given free room-and-board. In short order, he was managing all of this owner’s investment properties, and won a contract with an even larger developer. During a 2012 appearance on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Zell arrogantly declared, “I succeed because I am driven and I take the risks. Deal with it.”
Some beneficiaries of the system at least acknowledge how fortunate they were. Actress Jennifer Anniston once uttered these refreshing comments; “My dad became a soap opera actor, and I was an extra in a skating rink scene on the soap. I didn’t audition. It was nepotism all the way.”
The two most popular “advice” columnists of the twentieth century were “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers. Their real names were Pauline and Esther Friedman, and their father owned a chain of movie theaters. Whatever the odds are of the two most high profile figures in an industry that seemingly requires no special talent, being sisters, it is hardly surprising that they came from a family of substantial means. Another pair of famous siblings, actors Julia and Eric Roberts, had parents who ran an acting school. Among their students were the children of Martin Luther King, Jr. As a thank you for their services, Coretta Scott King paid the entire hospital bill when her mother gave birth to Julia. Talk about literally entering the world on an exceptionally fortunate note! Brothers Bryant and Greg Gumbel had the decided economic advantage of having a judge for a father. Sibling actors John and Joan Cusack had a father who owned a film production company, and was close friends with high profile political activist Philip Berrigan. Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s father was a director and producer, their mother a screenwriter. They are descended from Swedish nobility. Actress Joan Collins and her best-selling author sister Jackie had a father who was a theatrical agent whose clients included the Beatles and Tom Jones. If any of these celebrated figures had been born to fathers that were chronically unemployed alcoholics, for example, would they ever have been able to “build that?”
Film Director and Producer Judd Apatow’s mother managed the record labels founded by Judd’s grandfather, music producer Bob Shad. His father was a real estate developer. Both of actor David Schwimmer’s parents were lawyers; his mother boasted high profile celebrity clients like Elizabeth Taylor and Rosanne Barr. Schwimmer’s Friends’ co-star Matthew Perry had a similar comfortable upbringing; his father was an actor and model, and his mother was at one time the Press Secretary to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Actor Geoffrey Owens, who was one of the regular cast members on the 1980s Cosby Show, was the son of United States Congressman Major Owens. Actress Kyra Sedgwyck is a true blue blood. Her father was a rich “venture capitalist,” and she is descended from a slew of luminaries, including the founder of the prestigious Groton School and an owner of The Atlantic Monthly. Her actor husband, Kevin Bacon, while not boasting quite the same sterling set of genes, did have a very prominent architect for a father, who was a long time Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. Actor Edward Norton has a similarly impressive set of relatives; his father was a lawyer and Carter administration federal prosecutor, his grandfather was a prominent developer who developed Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Boston’s Quincy Market, and is generally credited with inventing the modern shopping mall. Fresh out of Yale University, the future actor was able to begin his working life comfortably as a “consultant” with one of his grandfather’s companies in Japan.
Dan Akyroyd’s father was an adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Chris Farley had a father who owned his own oil company. Andy Sandberg had a grandfather who was a “philanthropist,” to use Wikipedia’s term, and served as executive chair of the American Jewish Congress, and he is a third cousin to U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin. Robin Williams had a father who was a senior executive with Ford Motor Company, a mother who’d been a model, and his great-great grandfather was Mississippi Senator and Governor Anselm J. McLaurin. Nick Kroll’s father was the founder of “the world’s leading risk and security consulting firm,” to quote VH1. Glenn Close grew up on a five hundred acre estate in Connecticut, the daughter of a “socialite” mother and a father who was renowned enough in the medical world to be the personal physician to Zaire President Mobuto Sese Seko. Her grandfather was married to an heiress of the Post Cereals family, and was the director of the American Hospital Association. She is also a second cousin to Brooke Shields. Nicole Kidman’s father was a noted psychologist and author. Her great-great-great grandfather was a “Sir,” who owned a huge chunk of the Australian outback. Actor Paul Giamatti’s climb to the top was made much easier by the fact his father was an affluent Yale professor who would go on to become Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Another sports Commissioner, current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, had a father who was a United States Senator.
Burt Bacharach’s father was a well-known syndicated newspaper columnist. Stewart Copeland, drummer for the band The Police, was the son of CIA officer Miles Copeland, Jr. Actress Olivia Wilde was the daughter of successful journalists and according to VH1, “comes from a long line of British nobles.” Filmmaker and actress Lena Dunham had famous artists as parents and spent her childhood summers vacationing next door to Meryl Streep. Actor Tom Hiddleston, again according to VH1, “grew up the son of a wealthy scientist and pharmaceutical company owner, and attended school with Prince William.” Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine, according to Pop Crush, is the son of Fred Levine, founder of giant clothing chain M. Fredric. He met two of his fellow band members at the exclusive, private Brentwood School. Ariana Grande’s father is CEO of a design company that includes FAO Schwarz and Eddie Murphy as clients. Model/singer Cassie attended a very expensive (Pop Crush reports the yearly tuition is upwards of $26,000) prep school, so her ethnically diverse parents (Filipino and Mexican/African-American) must have had some money. Actress Michelle Williams is the daughter of commodities trader and author Larry Williams, who was also a two time Republican U.S. Senate candidate. Game of Thrones star Rose Leslie is certainly at home on the set; she was born in a castle (just one of those owned by her family), and is descended from an impressive line of nobility. Celebrity scientist Neil Degrasse-Tyson’s father was the human resource commissioner for New York City mayor John Lindsay. Bill Nye, another celebrated scientist, attended the exclusive Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. Henry Beard, co-founder of National Lampoon, is the great-grandson of Vice President John C. Breckinridge. Screenwriter and playwright Robert Sherwood, a member of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table, was born to a “rich stockbroker” and a mother who was “a well-known illustrator and portrait painter.” Sports columnist and short story author Ring Lardner was “the son of wealthy parents,” and his son Ring, Jr. continued to “build” on the family success, becoming a renowned journalist and screenwriter.
Barbara Walters’ father was a Broadway Producer and Entertainment Director of the Tropicana casino in Las Vegas. Perhaps this explains why her speech proved to be no impediment to her astonishing success in the broadcasting world. Wikipedia tells us that news anchor Brian Williams was raised in a “well to do” home. His father was an executive vice-president of the National Retail Merchants Association. His daughter, Allison Williams, is upholding the family tradition, and “building” a promising acting career. Veteran reporter Diane Sawyer’s father was a judge. Producer Dick Ebersol’s father was a chairman of the American Cancer Society, and again, in one of those strange leaps to prominence, he temporarily dropped out of Yale University at the age of 20, to become ABC’s first ever “Olympic researcher.” Media mogul Ted Turner’s road to success was made much smoother by the fact he inherited his father’s business, worth $1 million, in 1963, when he was only 24 years old. Turner’s father committed suicide, but unlike most children in such tragic circumstances, young Ted was able to console himself with a lucrative, ready-made career. Right wing journalist John Stossel was raised, again in Wikipedia’s words, “on Chicago’s affluent North Shore,” and went to Princeton. Fellow conservative Rush Limbaugh grew up in a family full of lawyers, including his father. His grandfather was a judge and member of the Missouri House of Representatives. Journalist Hannah Storm’s father was the Commissioner of the American Basketball Association, and later moved to the NBA, where he became President of the Atlanta Hawks. Conan O’Brien’s father is a physician and a Harvard professor, while his mother is an attorney. MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski not only had a father who was Jimmy Carter’s National Security advisor, she is the grandniece of a former President of Czechoslovakia. ABC’s Cokie Roberts is the daughter of long time Congressman Hale Boggs, who was also a member of the Warren Commission. Ben Bradlee, long time editor of The Washington Post, was from a wealthy Boston Brahmin family. His lineage included various royal figures, including a Roman emperor. His close friend in childhood was future CIA big wig Richard Helms. (Newsweek, October 21, 2014). His third wife, author and reporter Sally Quinn, was the daughter of a renowned military figure who was connected prominently to the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency. One of Bradlee’s ace reporters, Bob Woodward, was the son of a chief judicial court judge.
Young music phenomenon Taylor Swift is descended from three generations of bank presidents. Her mother was a former marketing executive who became a homemaker. Her father was an executive with Merrill Lynch, who according to The Richest, “provided the initial seed money for starting Big Machine Records, which had Taylor Swift as the first signed artist.” The Richest described it as “a very upper-class upbringing.” Lady Gaga’s father was Joseph Germanotta, whom The Richest called “a successful and wealthy internet entrepreneur.” A child star from an earlier era, Brooke Shields, had a father who was a wealthy Revlon executive, and she is descended from several noble Italian families, including her grandmother, who was a princess. Shields’ marketable “value” was perhaps best displayed when she was chosen to be a spokesperson for a federal anti-smoking campaign, and commented, “Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.” (Orlando Sentinel, June 21, 2013). Actress Dakota Fanning’s mother was a professional tennis player, her grandfather was a former NFL player, and her aunt is one time ESPN reporter Jill Arrington. Musical artist Robert Ritchie, better known as Kid Rock, had a father who owned multiple car dealerships as well as a six acre orchard where, according to Wikipedia, young Ritchie would “help pick apples and cared for the family’s horses.” At least Kid Rock appears to understand how absurdly our wealth is distributed, as indicated by his comment that, “Athletes and musicians make astronomical amounts of money. People get paid $100 million to throw a baseball! Shouldn’t we all take less and pass some of that money onto others?” While appearing to be regularly active in charitable work, Kid Rock has still managed to accrue a $40 million fortune.
Even those who are infamous rather than famous often come from upper-class backgrounds. Monica Lewinsky, whose “fame” was achieved by providing oral sex to President Clinton in the Oval Office, came from an “affluent family in Southern California,” to quote Wikipedia, where her father was an oncologist and her mother an author. She went to Beverly Hills High School. Lewinsky netted a reported $500,000 from the book Monica’s Story, and $1 million for a 1999 interview with Barbara Walters. (New York Times, March 5, 1999). Showing little embarrassment, Lewinsky appeared as herself in a few 1999 Saturday Night Live sketches. She went on to form her own handbag manufacturing company, The Real Monica, Inc., and made $300,000 from a Jenny Craig endorsement deal. In later years, she hosted a dating show, studied at the elitist London School of Economics, and presently is rumored to be joining the cast of The View. That’s a lot of “building” from some blow jobs. Donna Rice, only slightly remembered today as the attractive blonde whose affair with married Senator Gary Hart derailed his 1988 presidential campaign, grew up in an upper middle-class home, and started modeling at age thirteen. She was on the same high school cheerleading squad with future Entertainment Tonight host Leeza Gibbons (whose own father was the state superintendent of education). Rice has turned into a moral crusader, serving as CEO of Enough is Enough, an anti-pornography organization.
Business leaders who are not celebrities tend to come from the same kind of stable, fortunate backgrounds. Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes was born, in Wikipedia’s words, “to an affluent Lutheran family.” His father was an executive with Norton Simon. Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie’s grandfather founded General Cinema, one of the largest movie theater chains in the world. Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman descends from prominent figures on both sides of her family; she is the great-great granddaughter of U.S. Senator Charles B. Farwell, and the great-great-great granddaughter of a member of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly. She is also the great-granddaughter of a judge and the great-great granddaughter of a general. Her father was the president of his own financial advisory firm. NBC President Jeff Zucker’s father was a cardiologist. His connections were such that he was able to catch on with the Miami Herald while still in high school, as an extremely rare “teenage freelance reporter.” Former Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit was raised in an “affluent Brahmin family,” to quote Wikipedia. His father was an executive with Sarabhai Chemicals. Steve Burke, former CEO and President of NBC Universal, had a father who was the president of Capital Cities Communications, the company that then owned the ABC network. Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham inherited the newspaper from her wealthy father, Eugene Meyer. Her mother was an intellectual who was close friends with famous figures like Albert Einstein, Madame Curie, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Granddaughter Katherine Weymouth went on to become publisher of the Post, keeping alive the family tradition of “building” it. Multi-billionaire Donald Bren, chairman of the Irvine Company, had a father who was a movie producer and a mother who was, in Wikipedia’s words, a “civic leader.” His father would re-marry, to actress Claire Trevor. Anne Cox Chambers, of Cox Enterprises, is worth $13.5 billion, and was the daughter of newspaper publisher James M. Cox, who was also the 1920 Democratic Party presidential nominee. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s father was Sir Keith Murdoch, who owned two Australian newspapers and a radio station. Philip Anschutz, worth over $10 billion, had a father who was an oil tycoon and a grandfather who founded a bank. Nick Woodman, founder of GoPro, who saw his income rise some 5000 percent in 2014, to at least 77.4 million, although Bloomberg estimated that his total compensation package was actually more than $285 million, had a wealthy father who founded his own investment bank. Heather Bresch, CEO of giant pharmaceutical company Mylan, is the daughter of U.S. Senator Joe Manchin. Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman’s father was a photographer for Life magazine. Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers had a father who was an obstetrician and a mother who was a psychiatrist. Coca-Cola Muhtar Kent’s father was the Turkish consul-general in New York. And top executives who “built” upon parental success has been so prevalent in the corporate world that USA Today would headline a December 4, 2009 story, “Second-Generation CEOs Find it Tough to Follow Dad’s Footsteps.”
Weymouth’s Washington Post headlined its February 4, 2014 story lauding Microsoft’s new CEO as, “America Needs More Immigrants Like Satya Nadella.” Nadella’s father was a prominent figure in India, who was a member of the prime minister’s Planning Commission. Apparently we “need” more immigrants whose background reflects the upper class backgrounds of so many successful American citizens. Another highly successful immigrant is author and new age physician Deepak Chopra. He too hailed from a wealthy Indian family; his father was a cardiologist and head of the department of medicine at a large New Delhi hospital. Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei has distinguished family roots that trace back to the Ming Dynasty. As Wikipedia tells us, “his family lived in the upper echelons of society.” His father was a banker. Mexican-born actress Selma Hayek’s father was an oil company executive; VH1 described him as “fabulously wealthy.” Gangham Style performer “Psy” comes from the wealthiest district in Korea, and his father is the executive chairman of DI Corporation, while his mother owns a restaurant.
Mehmet Oz, better known as television star “Dr. Oz,” was born in Cleveland, but his physician father emigrated from Turkey a few years before his birth, and his mother came from what Wikipedia calls “a wealthy Istanbul family.” “Judge Judy,” or Judith Sheindlin, was the daughter of a dentist; as of 2013, she had a contract that paid her $47 million per year, or an incomprehensible $900,000 for each of her fifty two workdays. (Parade Magazine, October 24, 2013). Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau had impressive bloodlines; his great-grandfather established a New York sanitarium, and a bishop and prominent New York politician are among his great-great-great grandfathers. One of his older ancestors, Gerardus Beekman, was one of the first colonial governors of the Province of New York.
While we’ve already listed a few examples, things appear to be much the same in Great Britain. Simon Cowell, best known as the acerbic judge of shows like American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor, had a mother who was, to use Wikipedia’s term, a “socialite.” His father was a music industry executive. Actress Helena Bonham Carter’s father was a merchant banker, her mother a psychotherapist, and her great-grandfather was Prime Minister Herbert H. Asquith. In the words of the internet movie database, “…her blue-blooded family tree also contains barons and baronesses, diplomats, and a director, Anthony Asquith, who made Pygmalion and The Importance of Being Earnest, among others.” Mick Jagger supposedly grew up in a “middle class” family, but he studied at the London School of Economics, one of the breeding grounds for new members of the elite, and an odd place to find a future rock star. Former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham, who went on to marry one of the world’s most famous soccer players, was “embarrassed by her family’s wealth,” to quote Wikipedia, and begged her father not to drop her off at school in their Rolls-Royce. Author Salman Rushdie’s father was a Cambridge-educated lawyer. Writer Christopher Hitchens’ father was a Naval officer, and he studied at Oxford, as did his brother, fellow writer Peter Hitchens. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s father was the editor of the London Evening Standard, her mother had a father who was a Harvard professor, and her great-great-great grandmother was novelist Lady Elizabeth Foster, Duchess of Devonshire. Kirstie Mary Allsopp, a British “television presenter,” had a father who was a Baron and a former chairman of Christie’s, the renowned international auction firm. Another British journalist, Alastair Bruce, grew up on an estate and is a direct descendent of Robert the Bruce. Actor Eddie Redmayne is from a family of British bankers, according to VH1, and was classmates with Prince William at Eton. Alan Napier, best remembered for playing Alfred on the ’60s television version of Batman, was a cousin of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.Then there is Lady Victoria Hervey. You know someone comes from wealth when their name is prefaced with “Lady.” Hervey is a very American-style celebrity; she appears frequently on British television, and is a well-known model and party “it girl.” Hervey’s understanding of poverty was revealed when The Daily Telegraph quoted her comments on the homeless: “It’s so bad being homeless in winter. They should go somewhere warm like the Caribbean where they can eat fresh fish all day.”
All of these examples are not being cited to chide the specific individuals in question, or to bemoan their success. Many of them are extremely talented, and might very well have won any kind of competition on their own merits. I’m a huge fan of some of them. Creativity must normally be nurtured and supported, financially and emotionally, so it’s understandable perhaps that artistic people especially would tend to come from upper-class backgrounds. But it’s undeniable that starting out in life with a financially secure household, not to mention extremely wealthy and well connected parents, gives one a tremendous edge in the fight for success, and supports Barack Obama’s contention that they didn’t “build that” by themselves, and were the beneficiaries of good fortune.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, most people cling to visions of Lana Turner being discovered in her tight sweater at Schwab’s Drug Store, as the kind of fluky good break very few get in life. It is true that, unlike most actors of her generation (or any generation since), Turner came from genuinely humble origins. But they neglect to note the obvious; Turner, like most actresses, singers and journalists, was very good looking. Beauty is just about the only quality that can trump wealth, and thus we do see a number of apparent “rags to riches” stories involving females (and a much lesser number of males) who just happen to be exceptionally attractive physically. This is not merely to postulate a “casting couch” explanation, but recognizing a very simple, time honored truth, although writers like Daniel Hamermesh, in his book, Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, overthink the proposition.
The establishment, which of course consists exclusively of successful people, recoils at any notion that “luck” has anything to do with where one winds up in life. In his book, Skinny on Success, Jim Randel claims to have determined that 99% of the 1000 entrepreneurs, actors, musicians and other noteworthy figures he investigated didn’t get a single break, even if they themselves acknowledged it. Forbes magazine, in a story promoting this terribly misleading book, declared, “…the truth is big breaks just don’t happen, People make them happen, through hard work, networking, courage, passion and pain. As for lasting success, it has a lot less to do with singular, transcendent moments than it does with incremental progress and unflagging grit.” I hope that this chapter alone thoroughly exposes just how untrue this contention is. Reading these kinds of declarative statements, which try so desperately to convince the unwashed masses that those who’ve “made it” deserved to, and in effect did so because they simply out-hustled and outworked the rest of us, it’s easy to understand why Obama’s “you didn’t built that” elicited so much hostility from Forbes and other pillars of the status quo.
I’ve only scratched the surface here. In searching through the backgrounds of many celebrities and successful figures in other industries, past and present, there have been very few I’ve found that didn’t come from at least stable, upper middle class families. I had to pick and choose, to edit this chapter significantly so that it didn’t become the primary thesis of the book. I also left out almost all the connections within the same field; it’s perfectly reasonable for the sons of politicians to enter politics, or singers to have children entering the world of music, actors begetting actors, etc. I’ve included essentially just the most notable examples, who were clearly aided by the circumstances of their birth in “building” their success.
Certainly, there are numerous examples of people rising from the lower class to positions of prominence, but these are exceptional cases when one factors out the worlds of sports and (to a lesser degree), entertainment. However you look at it, we are far, far removed from the kind of meritocracy Thomas Jefferson dreamed of.