The New Immigrants
updated 01/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST
"And besides, the lights don't show the wrinkles."
Club A is the main beachhead for a new invasion of immigrants just reaching America's shores. A far cry from the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free who sought refuge in New York a century ago, these are wealthy aristocrats yearning to stay rich. The new immigrants are not settling in cold-water walk-ups on the Lower East Side or peddling from pushcarts on Delancey Street. These new arrivals are more likely to be peerage than steerage, and many plan to return home after getting a career boost from their New York experience. They are buying expensive condominiums on Fifth Avenue and opening boutiques and restaurants on the affluent Upper East Side. They form a veritable title wave of European high society—among them the Baron Guy de Rothschild of the banking and wine family, Princess Laurence Poniatowska of the Lanvin perfume and fashion family, Olivier Chandon of the Moet & Chan-don champagne family. Nicknamed "Eurotrash," "Eurobrats" and, less caustically, "Multinationals," they include both Old World and Latin American elites who seek business opportunities in New York. "America is the last bastion of capitalism," says Christophe Janet, a French art dealer now working in Manhattan. "Even though we are in a recession, there seems to be more money than ever. The poor middle guys are putting their money in money market funds, but the rich are richer than ever."
A major reason for the new immigration is that things are not quite so wonderful for the rich in Europe. "A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism," Karl Marx wrote in 1848. Today Eurocommunism is merely one of many specters haunting the Old World. Revolutionaries continue to attack the wealthy in Italy. England is in the midst of a grim recession. French Socialist President François Mitterrand had the gall to nationalize his nation's largest banks—even the one belonging to the Baron Guy de Rothschild. Then, in October, Spain elected a Socialist government. To the moneyed classes, Europe today appears economically unstable and rife with anticapitalist sentiment. "If you ride around in a Rolls-Royce, they scream 'bloody capitalist' and throw stones—or if you park somewhere they scratch the doors," complains Hendrik te Neues, 30, a German publishing heir now running his own business in New York. "In America, the people say, 'I want to be like that someday.' The little man wants to become big. It's a very stabilizing factor."
For the new immigrants, only one New World city boasts enough of the amenities of civilized life to make it habitable—New York. "New York is not really an American city," says Ricardo Amaral, 42, the Brazilian co-owner of Club A. "It's always been more European." Te Neues agrees: "New York gives Europeans the impression of being very exciting," he says. "On the other hand, if you said you lived in Detroit, people would say, 'Poor fellow.' "
Wealthy foreigners have visited New York for decades, stopping for a week or two to invest their money on Wall Street or to spend it on Fifth Avenue. Now they stay longer, buying apartments and even starting businesses. "People are deciding to stay rather than just spend in New York," says William Cavendish, 30, the Italian-born scion of a British family who is now running an international marketing firm in Manhattan. "The prospects for better living and successful careers and financial gains are here."
The influence of the European invaders is most apparent on the affluent avenues of Manhattan's East Side. The names of shops along Madison Avenue—Pratesi, Le Monde des Enfants, Verri Uomo, Ménage à Trois—recall Rome's Via Veneto or Paris' Champs-Élysées. Park Avenue is the home of the chichi bôite La Coupole, whose matchbook boasts a slogan that speaks volumes about the transatlantic drift. "In Montparnasse since 1927," it reads. "In Manhattan since 1982."
There are weightier signs of foreign influence as well. The number of foreign banks now maintaining offices in Manhattan has soared in the last two decades. Twenty years ago there were a handful. Today there are some 200. Employment by foreign companies accounts for more than 8 percent of all jobs in New York. "New York has profited from this huge influx of Europeans," says te Neues. "Business wouldn't be booming in this town if there weren't so much foreign investment."
But the flood has also exacerbated at least one of the Big Apple's many problems—the acute housing shortage. The flood of well-heeled foreigners has boosted the demand for ritzy apartments and condominiums and has contributed to an astronomical rise in certain rents and housing prices. It is common now for tenants at a good address to pay more than $1,000 a month for the privilege of sharing a one-bedroom apartment with an occupying corps of cockroaches. The cost of owning such a palace can run more than $200,000. "For the price I am paying for a one-bedroom apartment, I could rent a four-or five-bedroom apartment in Munich," says te Neues. "You have to make more money to live here to really enjoy it."
That problem is more than offset, at least for the younger European immigrants, by the career opportunities in the U.S. "The American system offers young people many more responsibilities and learning possibilities," says Juan Carlos Sanz-Briz, 27, a wealthy Spaniard now working for a New York bank. "In Europe, senior and middle management is very old, and they don't like it when you come up with new ideas. Here, they like it because they did it themselves 10 years ago."
Paola Gradi, 22, a junior systems analyst for a bank, came to Manhattan two years ago for the same reason, in spite of parental fears that it was a "very dangerous" city. A descendant of Venetian nobility, Gradi found the adjustment from her native Rome "very hard" and grappled with some of the same problems as other single working women. "I have been away from my family," she says, "on my own in a really tough city."
New York's crime statistics also didn't stop interior designer Robert Couturier from abandoning his native France. "I left because you have to wait your turn there," he says. "You cannot go faster than the others. It is very boring." At 27, Couturier has already become one of New York's hottest restaurant decorators. He collaborated with Transylvania-born Adam Tihany in designing the stunning interior of Club A as well as La Coupole.
Couturier comes from an aristocratic family who once owned silk factories in Lyons and plastics factories in the U.S. as well as estates in Argentina and Canada. Only the Argentine properties are left. So rich is his patrimony that no relative of his has ever earned a living. "I am the first one to work," he says. Now that he has made the leap, Couturier is pleased to distance himself from the indolent past and those who still live that life. "It's a very superficial world," he says. "It's very desperate. They are like bumblebees. They travel for the sake of traveling. It's completely purposeless."
Since Mitterrand's government took power in 1981 and instituted a tax on wealth, says Couturier, Frenchmen of his background have fled their homeland. "The older ones, my grandparents' generation, are either in Monaco or Geneva," he says. "But the younger French came here." It is the desire to work that separates the generations, maintains Couturier, who even suggests that wealthy immigrants like himself be dubbed "the new working class." Mitterrand might scoff at the term, but Couturier finds it more palatable than "Eurotrash," a label he detests—though he concedes that it has a certain validity. "We are Eurotrash," he says of some of his acquaintances. "We are obnoxious. We are spoiled. We are brats. You name it. But we are not only that. We can also work a lot and prove that we have something to say. We are the beautiful people of the future. We have everything. We're still pretty rich, we're young, and we work. I think all of us are going to achieve something. Otherwise, we wouldn't come here."
It is 3 o'clock on a weekday morning at Club A. At the bar, the elegantly attired couples are sipping their last drinks of the night. The club favorite seems to be Kir Royale, a mixture of champagne and crème de cassis. The bartenders call it "the drink of Kings," possibly because it comes at $15 a glass. A Canadian-born actress named Margaret Davies glides off the dance floor and steps to the bar for a brief respite. She smiles as she talks about Club A and its lure. "New Yorkers are very fickle," she says. "We love something new. This is the place, my dear. A very international, continental crowd here. There are lots of phonies, but no more than any other place where money is around. It has class.... Why am I here? Darling, if I wanted to be with the poor ones, I'd be up in Harlem."
Then, turning, she saunters back to the dance floor, where the low lights glint off the jewels on the lovely lean throats of the immigrants Emma Lazarus would never have recognized.