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Authors: Wednesday Martin

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Primates of Park Avenue

BOOK: Primates of Park Avenue
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“If anthropologist Jane Goodall had landed on Park Avenue with a Birkin bag instead of the wilds of Tanzania with a notebook, this is the book she would have written…a smart, funny, and original dissection of the tribal rites of rich and striving New Yorkers.”—Steven Gaines, author of
Philistines at the Hedgerow

What happens when a modern Dian Fossey moves to the social jungle of Manhattan’s most exclusive zip code…and raises her children there?

When Wednesday Martin arrived on the Upper East Side with her husband and young son, she discovered a tight tribe of glamorous, uber-wealthy mommies with sharp elbows and massive ambitions. In a world where morning greetings went unreturned, getting play dates was a blood sport, and even walking down the sidewalk was an exercise in dominance and submission, she was a culture-shocked outcast.

Using her background in anthropology and primatology to find her footing, she made like Goodall in Gombe, observing mating practices, display rituals, and moms acting like olive baboons at school drop-off. She channeled Margaret Mead to understand the tribe’s seasonal migrations, cultish exercise rites, and her own overpowering desire to possess a fetish handbag. But she also saw that not even sky-high penthouses and chauffeured SUVs could protect this ecologically released tribe from calamity. When Wednesday’s life turned upside down, she learned how deep the bonds of female friendship really are.

I absolutely loved this memoir and could not put it down! It's incredibly clever…astonishingly illuminating. Somehow, Martin manages to be caustically perceptive but also generous, funny, moving, and erudite all at the same time. This is one of the most fascinating books I've read in a long time.”

— Amy Chua, Yale Law Professor and author of
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
The Triple Package

“When mean girls and wannabes grow up, they become the women so perfectly depicted in Wednesday Martin's funny and intelligent memoir. How wonderful that she survived the jungle of Park Avenue with strong female friendships intact.”

—Rosalind Wiseman, author of
Queen Bees

“Wednesday Martin's blissfully funny memoir is also the definitive guide to survival on the Upper East Side—or wherever there are social ladders to climb. What a fresh new voice!”

—Molly Jong-Fast, author of
The Social Climber's Handbook


Dear Reader:

Every city has an Upper East Side—an exclusive neighborhood where the wealthy live and socialize and shop. All of us can recognize the superficial markers of social hierarchies, and have at least once succumbed to the unreasonable and compelling desire to climb them. Why do we want that status-bestowing handbag when we know it’s really just a handbag? What makes one particular preschool an elite institution when it’s really just kids coloring and singing in a circle? Why do people who seem to have everything they could ever want still lie awake at night?

Luckily for us, we have Wednesday Martin to explain it all. Wednesday is one of those women, one of Manhattan’s wealthy, beautiful, thin, blonde, beautifully dressed women. If you caught a glimpse of her getting into her chauffeur-driven SUV, you probably wouldn’t suspect that she has a PhD from Yale and an academic background in anthropology and primatology. One day, a chance run-in on East Seventy-Ninth Street with a lady wielding an Hermès Birkin handbag caused Wednesday to begin looking at her world of Upper East Side mothers as an anthropologist would. The result is this original, intelligent, funny, and openhearted book.

We love novels like
The Nanny Diaries
The Devil Wears Prada
because they reveal the juicy, secret details of a hidden world. Primates of Park Avenue is full of these delicious revelations: why most dinner parties are sex segregated; the surprising norms of alcohol and drug use; what to wear (and what your real estate agent should wear) when you go apartment hunting; and the economics of marriage, including year-end bonuses for wives. But Wednesday goes deeper than the glossy, moneyed surface, showing us how mothers everywhere, from Manhattan to Miami to Mali, are driven and united by the same fears and desires.

I’m convinced that
Primates of Park Avenue
is going to be a big bestseller; it will be in every beach bag from the Hamptons to Malibu, and it is a superb example of social research. I’ve had a blast editing this book, and I know you’re going to love reading it. If you’d like to share your comments with us, please e-mail
[email protected]

Best wishes,

Trish Todd | Executive Editor | (212) 698-4659 |
[email protected]


Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think,
Feel, and Act the Way We Do

Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020

Copyright © 2015 by Wednesday Martin

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information, address Simon & Schuster Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of
the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition June 2015

and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

For information about special discounts for bulk purchases,
please contact Simon & Schuster Special Sales at 1-866-506-1949 or
[email protected]

The Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau can bring authors to your live event. For more information or to book an event, contact the Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau at 1-866-248-3049 or visit our website at

Interior design by

Manufactured in the United States of America

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

ISBN 978-1-4767-6262-3
ISBN 978-1-4767-6272-2 (ebook)

For B. B.
and Daphne. And for all the mommies.


the first gifts I received after my older son was born was a baby book from an old friend, a mom of two who still lives in the small Michigan town where she and I grew up. The gift both welcomed my son and acknowledged that I was living in New York City now, a place very different from the one where she and I spent our childhoods.
Babies Wear Black
is a whimsically illustrated board book that lists, with the succinctness of a five-minute sociology lecture, exactly how urban babies are different—starting with their outfits (black and stylish versus pink or blue and cutesy-pie), going on to what they eat and drink (sushi and latte versus hot dogs and milk) and how they pass the time (going to operas and art galleries versus the playground). I’m pretty sure I loved this book more than my baby did. In our first weeks at home together, I read it to him over and over. Sometimes, I even found myself reading it while he napped.

Eventually it dawned on me that the appeal of the book was that it also had things to say about the babies’
These creatures were visible only in small, alluring pieces—a high heel here, a fancy dog leash there—as they strolled and jogged and taxied and toted their tots across the pages of the book, making their babies chicly urban, being chicly urban themselves. I scrutinized the manicures and the fur baby carriers closely as I read aloud to my son. Who were they really, these glamorous, stylishly turned out women with sophisticated babies? What did they do? And how did they do it?

I wanted to see more of these mommies of urban babies because I wanted to know more about my peers, other Manhattan mommies. Because I was a woman with kids in the industrialized West, I was mothering utterly unlike the people I had studied and written about for years in my work as a social researcher focusing on, among other things, the history and evolutionary prehistory of family life. Hunter-gatherers and foragers, living as our ancestors once did, raise their babies communally, in a rich social network of mothers, sisters, nieces, and other conspecifics who can be counted on to care for (and even nurse) the infants of others as if they were their own. My mother had a version of this support system when my brothers and I were growing up in Michigan: a dozen or so other women in the neighborhood who mothered full-time were fictive kin she could call on to watch us when she needed to run an errand or take a nap, or simply craved some adult company. Meanwhile, we got to hang out with other kids. Backyards connected homes, mothers, and children in a web of reciprocal altruism: You help me, I’ll help you. I’ll watch the kids from my back window today, you do it tomorrow. Thanks for the flour, I’ll bring you a slice or two of cake when it’s baked.

In stark contrast, my New York City baby and I lived in an intensely privatized way in spite of our proximity to so many others. I seldom even
my hundreds of downtown Manhattan neighbors, who were busy with their own lives. Everything they did transpired in spaces—offices, apartments, schools—sequestered from public view. Having left my natal group, living far from my natal land, I had no nearby kin to call on. My closest adoptive relatives were elderly in-laws, enthused to see us but unable to lend a hand. And, as we live neolocally in the US—leaving extended family to form our own separate households upon marriage—they were a half hour journey’s from us, anyway.

Meanwhile my husband, like my own father and so many fathers in the West, and particularly the ones in Manhattan—an extraordinarily expensive town, where the pressure on wage earners with dependents is tremendous—went back to work after just a week home with the baby and me. For a time we had a baby nurse, a fixture of Manhattan babyhood who is hired through word of mouth to help with the type of baby basics our mothers and grandmothers used to teach us. She arrived cheerily every morning to lend a hand and remind me of what I had learned from the hospital maternity ward’s brief baby care classes, and from babysitting so long before. Aside from her and the friends who visited, though, I was mostly alone with our neonate, and with my anxieties about getting mothering right, day after day.

I was also something of a shut-in. We had a lovely little jewel of a backyard garden where I loved to sit with the baby. Other than that, I had very little desire to leave the house. The kamikaze cabdrivers, throngs of rushing people, jackhammers, and car horns made the town I had loved for over a decade feel newly inhospitable, even dangerous, to my son. A good friend, who had given birth just before I did, was so disenchanted with big city motherhood that she had fled to the suburbs. And I hadn’t made friends at Mommy & Me yoga studio around the corner. While none of us seemed to be working, the downward-dogging new moms scattered with polite nods each day after class, presumably to shut themselves up in their individual homes with their individual babies and do their individual things.

Who, I frequently wondered, was going to teach me to be the urban mommy of an urban baby?

A Midwesterner born, I had a slow and relatively traditional childhood. I walked to and from school with a pack of mixed-age neighbor kids every morning, then played kick the can and mucked around our backyards and the nearby woods with them, unsupervised, into the early evening. Weekends, we all rode bikes and did Girl or Boy Scouts. When I was older, I babysat some evenings and weekends, too, a logical first job for a hands-on big sister and a popular pastime among the young pre-reproductives in our neighborhood.

Probably the only notable thing about my background, the thing that could help me find my footing now, was my mother’s fascination with anthropology and the then-nascent field of sociobiology. Margaret Mead’s
Coming of Age
in Samoa
was one of her favorite books. Mead’s suggestion that Western childhood and adolescence wasn’t the only or right way, and that Samoans arguably did it better, scandalized the country when it came out in 1928, and all over again when it was reissued in 1972. Mead, my mother explained, was an anthropologist. She studied people in different cultures, learning about them by living among them and doing what they did alongside them. Then she wrote about it. Being an anthropologist struck me as an impossibly exotic and glamorous and appealing job, growing up as I did surrounded by mothers who were mostly housewives and fathers who were doctors and lawyers.

This was also the era of Jane Goodall, a beguiling, ponytailed blonde in khakis and a pith helmet who became the public face of primatology. Goodall—who observed and protected her brood of Gombe chimps in Tanzania, introducing them to the world via
National Geographic
—was my idea of a rock star. Over dinners at our house, we talked about my father’s day, my mother’s day, what my brothers and I had done at school—and Dr. Mary Leakey, a cigar-chomping mom of three whose fossil discoveries in Olduvai Gorge and Laetoli, Tanzania, were forcing everyone to rethink human prehistory.

When my younger brothers bickered at dinner, my mother invoked Robert Trivers’s theories of parental investment and sibling rivalry. When they were nice, she talked about kin selection and altruism. Wasn’t it odd, she mused one day when I was around ten, E. O. Wilson obviously on her mind as she folded the laundry, that if I were about to get hit by a car and she pulled me out of the way, she would be doing it to protect not just me but also her own genes?

This unsentimental (if oversimplified, circa 1975) take on the sociobiology of motherhood, this entirely novel theory of relationships between parents and children, got my attention. Along with my mother’s book collection—Mead sat alongside Colin Turnbull’s books about the Ik of Uganda and the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire, Betty Friedan,
The Hite Report
Silent Spring
, and towering piles of
History Magazine
—it also likely set me on a course to study biological and cultural anthropology, with a focus on the lives of women. Nothing fascinated me more than grooming, friendship, and struggles for dominance among savannah baboons. Or the strangeness of worlds within worlds like my college campus’s Greek system of sororities and fraternities, with their choreographed “pledge week” rituals and passionate loyalties and rivalries. I studied Old World and New World monkeys and
Homo habilis
Homo ergaster
brain sizes, and wrote about how sorority girls weren’t so different from great apes.

In my twenties, seeking excitement, I moved to New York City to pursue a doctorate in cultural studies and comparative literature. Manhattan changed everything about me—my goals (I finished my doctorate but decided I didn’t want to be an academic after all), my fashion sense (clothing, always an interest, became a near fixation in a town of beautiful and beautifully turned out women), even who I was on a cellular level (the sheer excitement of being in a big city altered my cortisol levels and metabolism, transforming me into a stereotypically skinny Manhattanite with insomnia). Energized, I wrote and edited for magazines and taught a few courses in my discipline to pay the rent.

In my mid-thirties, having delayed marriage and childbearing as highly educated women living in affluent metropoles tend to do, I married a wry native with deep professional and emotional roots in his town. He was born and raised here, a reality as exotic and appealing to me as, say, being from Tahiti. Or Samoa. He had an appealingly nerdy microknowledge of the city’s history and seemed to have a personal anecdote about nearly every street corner, building, and neighborhood in his town. If I had had any hesitation about making a life for myself in New York, he swept it away with his passion for the place. It was appealing that his parents and brother and sister-in-law were here, with his teenage daughters from his previous marriage living with him on weekends. His was a cozy, ready-made family for me, with my own family so far away.

New York City had the added benefit of being one of the few places a writer like me could thrive, in ecological niches as diverse as advertising, publishing, and teaching. Teeming and vital, the city reminded me of a rain forest, the only other habitat that could support such extreme and robust variation of life forms. At one point I had lived in an Indian neighborhood abutting a Peruvian one, then moved near an enclave called Little Sweden. My husband wasn’t budging, and I was fine with that. We settled downtown, and six months after marrying, I was pregnant. We never thought about leaving New York City. My husband had been raised here, after all, and I had gone to the significant trouble of moving to Manhattan from halfway across the country. Why wouldn’t it be good enough for our offspring, too? And so, our moment of discovery—
We’re having a
—was not just personally joyful. It was also the beginning of something much bigger than me or my marriage or my background or my feelings about being a mother. It marked a transition, I only realized later, my initiation into another world—the world of Manhattan motherhood.

This book is the stranger-than-fiction story of what I discovered when I made an academic experiment of studying Manhattan motherhood as I lived it. It is the story of a world within a world, a description I do not use lightly. We moved to the Upper East Side just after 9/11, craving both physical distance from the tragedy and closer proximity to my husband’s family. This felt especially important now that we had a child. We longed, at a moment the world seemed so dangerous and our town seemed so vulnerable, to give ourselves and him the comfort of a tight band of loving relatives. That would be the easy part. There were also the other mommies to learn about and live among.

We eventually settled on Park Avenue in the Seventies. From my base camp, I went to Mommy & Me groups, applied to exclusive music classes, wrangled with nannies, coffee’d with other mothers, and “auditioned” at preschools, for my firstborn son and then his little brother.

In the process I learned that motherhood was another island upon the island of Manhattan, and Upper East Side mothers were, in fact, a tribe apart. Theirs was a secret society of sorts, governed by rules, rituals, uniforms, and migration patterns that were entirely new to me, and subtended by beliefs, ambitions, and cultural practices I had never dreamed existed.

BOOK: Primates of Park Avenue
13.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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