The Rich and Those Who Serve Them, Then and Now

We don’t know exactly why Uma Subramanian wanted to become an engineer. Did she believe her fascination with how things work could help make the world better place? We’ll never know for sure. What we do know:  Subramanian, the aerospace engineer turned CEO of the luxury private-jet company Aero, now believes she has truly made humanity an awesome contribution.

“It just so happens that we might have built the perfect product for Covid,” Subramanian recently told Vice World News.

Her new company, founded by Uber founder Garrett Camp, has launched a luxury “semi-private jet” experience that offers safe and comfy virus-free flights. Seats in Aero’s suede-walled jets sit six feet apart in single file. “Hand-stitched Italian leather seats” aboard Aero’s “sleek black planes” combine with “sophisticated art lighting” to create a “renaissance of luxury travel.”

That “renaissance” is building from another direction as well. Brokers of used private jets have been enjoying a boom in sales ever since the pandemic began.

“Looking back we had a very good year and much, much better than expected,” Werner Slavik, chief banker for aviation at Societe Generale SA told a virtual Corporate Jet Investor conference earlier this month. “We saw, especially in the smaller jet market, quite strong demand.”

Bankers like Slavik cut deals for 2,598 used planes in the pandemic year of 2020.

“We have a lot of first-time buyers,” says Rebecca Johnson from the Kansas City-based aircraft sales broker JetHQ. “Covid has just seemed to drive most people over the edge.”

“You can’t go on vacation on Zoom,” explains Robert Gates, chief of international sales for Global Jet Capital Inc. “You need to get to your vacation house some way.”

Heaven forbid that those houses go vacant. In our staggeringly unequal world, people like Gates, Johnson, and Subramanian will always be there to make sure the rich — whatever the crisis of the moment may be — have what they want whenever they want it.

We’ve structured our society, in a sense, to serve the richest among us. This has happened before, at an even grander scale. At the height of America’s original Gilded Age, the nation’s richest had a veritable army of servants at their beck and call. Last month brought a glimpse at that history when the American Irish Historical Society put up for sale the mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue — right opposite Central Park — that has been its home since 1939.

This Beaux-Arts manse at 991 Fifth went up originally in 1901, one of the many lush fine homes on the avenue that belonged to the era’s leading plutocratic families. The original owner of 991 Fifth — a widow who had inherited, in today’s dollars, $113 million — passed away in 1905, and her manse ended up as the property of the banker David Crawford Clark.

This new owner had plenty of help with his lavishly appointed dwelling. According to the 1910 Census, his urban mansion hosted eight live-in servants: one butler, five maids, and two cooks. All but one had emigrated to the United States earlier in the Gilded Age, between 1872 and 1906.

We don’t know much about banker Clark’s servant army. But we do know that rooms in his mansion had “call buttons” to summon servants at a moment’s notice and a “back staircase, dark and cramped, that maids used to move quietly from floor to floor.” Not for the servants’ humble pleasure, apparently, the “intricate moldings, decorative glass, classical columns and large bay windows” of their employer’s home.

The home at 991 Fifth Avenue would go on to have one more wealthy owner, a former president of Carnegie Steel who died in 1934. By then, the original Gilded Age had fizzled away into Great Depression, and the nation’s immigrant millions no longer felt they had to accept those dark and cramped back staircases. Their families were fighting for real futures, demanding a much greater share of the wealth their labor was creating.

By 1939, after a decade of struggle that empowered America’s workers and left the rich paying taxes at record rates, the luxurious mansions and estates of the Gilded Age rich had begun evolving into embassies, cultural institutions, and multiple apartments. At 991 Fifth Avenue, the American Irish Historical Society would welcome the sons and daughters of the Gilded Age’s Irish maids into the world’s finestcollection of materials celebrating the Irish-American experience.

Now that collection will be leaving Fifth Avenue. The American Irish Historical Society has put 991 Fifth on the market for $52 million. The buyer, realtors expect, will almost certainly return the edifice to its private-residence origins.

Amid our contemporary new Gilded Age, we’ve in effect come full circle. The private palaces of the original Gilded Age, structures that shed their private-pleasure status in the much more equal America of the mid-20th century, are reverting back into private palaces. The rich rule. They expect the rest of us to serve them. Some of us will cook and clean. Some of us will get them — to their vacation homes — with a minimum of hassle in the middle of a pandemic.

But this era will not last forever. Our forbears ended the first Gilded Age. We can end the second.

Sam Pizzigati writes on inequality for the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book: The Case for a Maximum Wage (Polity). Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970  (Seven Stories Press).