Old Money, New Money (and Everything in between)

by Catherine Bigelow

From blue bloods to nouveaux riches, the nine wealthy people you meet in San Francisco.

In the beginning, San Francisco society was neatly encapsulated in the local edition of the vaunted Social Register.

First compiled in 1887, this black clothbound bible devoted to reigning blue bloods who composed Newport, Rhode Island, and Manhattan society was launched by Louis Keller, an ambitious golf promoter and gossip sheet publisher, who, ironically, never would’ve qualified for inclusion on his own list.

San Francisco, charmingly, plays fast and loose with its social mores.Our Gilded Age dawned in 1848, as Gold Rush riches poured into pockets of enterprising “robbers,” whose crushing wealth inspired “baron” to be added to that sobriquet.

Amid our metallurgical onslaught, random hordes of fortune hunters sailed on schooners to San Francisco’s rough-and-tumble Barbary Coast. These original 49ers were a somewhat ragtag bunch, escaping constraints of the Eastern establishment and European conflict, along with prejudice, religious intolerance and, possibly, the law.

Once the “Big Four” (Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins) built ostentatious monied mansions atop NobHill, newly minted respectability was thrust upon them. And they carefully guarded who passed through their gilded gates.

A friend once determined that San Francisco “old money” derives from the invention of some sort of humble mechanical widget—the patent of which was replicated a gazillion times for railroad tracks or washing machines. Or it descended from early, unbridled West Coast industrialism in oil, lumber, shipping, newspapers, banking and blue jeans.

Come the late 1980s, the days of Tom Wolfe’s vainglorious “Social X-rays,” skeletal ladies-who-lunch while wearing the latest haute couture, were numbered. The SF Social Register still proclaims who is a socially approved who. But as card-carrying WASPs married Catholics or embraced SoMa edginess at late-night gay dance clubs, our scene’s once-rigid lines became blessedly blurred.

The Blue Blood

Old-money designators, as in “My great-great-grandfather-received-a-Spanish-land-grant-rancho,” were downsized by development. Amid current world affairs—from security concerns to our city’s new have-and-have-much-less population—excessive blue-blood displays downshifted into shrouded subtlety. Yet coveted residences of these reigning society kingpins still announce their relevance. Located along the Gold Coast or Presidio Heights’ wall, many were designed by such storied SF architects as Willis Polk, Julia Morgan or William Wurster. Lush salons brim with Old Master art. Interior styles are defined by Sister Parish or Michael Taylor. Slightly threadbare 18th-century Lancaster chairs (sourced from Grade-1 British piles via Sotheby’s or Christie’s auctions) still welcome guest backsides with original intent.

Generational memberships are retained at exclusive institutions like the Pacific-Union Club (gentlemen-only); Town & Country (a ladies-only enclave) or Burlingame Country Club—never, ever, referred to by its Hillsborough geotag.

Female progeny are invited (hopefully, fingers-crossed) by the formidable ladies’ committee of the Cotillion Club of San Francisco to make their December social debut curtsey at the Palace Hotel. Though private jets were once de rigueur, some now opt for rentals. Complex taxes also diminished a surplus of international abodes. But if the season demands an exotic getaway, just remember, a property is never rented. Rather, blue bloods “take a house.”

The Startup Billionaire

Eschewing the strip-mall vibe of Silicon Valley (except for enclaves like Woodside and Atherton), these “youngish” Titans disrupted not only traffic but the once-placid San Francisco real estate scene, where stately homes rarely changed hands or are still referred to (among blue bloods) by their original owner: “The old Mitchel Mitchell house is on the market.”

Befriended by old-money denizens who embraced (and were often enriched by) the city’s changing zeitgeist, tech titans launched a ravenous real estate run—from the Mission to Pacific Heights, gobbling up properties like Pac-Man. But neighbors may not know that: inherently paranoid about privacy, tech types shield their purchases via mysterious LLCs.

When they land prized property, a lattice-encased Porta-Potty immediately pops up—a sidewalk signal that a Spanish Revival manse will retain its classic facade as the old-school interior is gutted, replaced with a palette of muted white and reclaimed wood. Walls are knocked down to create “Great Rooms” filled with an array of next-next-gen toys and contemporary art (often digital in nature) sourced by their art advisor.

Neighborhood welcomes vary depending on how the SB treats their new ’hood: Do they hog precious parking spaces with private security detail, long past construction? Are city bus lines conveniently (for them) relocated? Or do they thoughtfully bus construction crews in and out during a day’s work?

Initially the SB was wooed by donation-driven cultural institutions, which hungrily eyed tech types like an Hermès handbag stuffed with divested stock options. But cultural poo-bahs are rather underwhelmed by the lack of largesse. Like the attention-span-busting electronic doodads they created, the SB is easily distracted—as apps advise them where to score a $180 Wagyu beef sandwich.

The Trust Fund Kid

Today, most are too embarrassed to appear as if they don’t need a job. So trust-funders speak in code: They’re traveling to a family trust meeting; in the midst of harvest; producing a film or serving the board of a major arts institution.

Their mother is oft referred to as “Mummy.” Her father, usually some captain of industry, is always “Grandfather”—preceding his historic family name, followed by a series of Roman numerals. Unless they’re boarding-school bound, these blue-blazer kiddos typically matriculate from the city’s exclusive private-school system: preschool at SLS (formerly St. Luke’s), followed by some combination of single-sex schools: Cathedral, Stuart Hall or Town (boys only); Burke’s, Hamlin and Convent of the Sacred Heart (for young ladies). While etiquette and waltz moves were learned at midweekly dances, these young Turks easily maneuver atop a slightly-fractured social landscape.

But when an engraved invitation arrives, instructing required Black-Tie or White-Tie dress, rest assured, the Trust Fund Kid not only knows the difference—he also owns a set of both.

The Pretender

You’ve seen them as they pushed past you at some society gala, like a heat-seeking missile in pursuit of the photographer. Subtlety is not their strong suit—they can’t wait to slavishly describe every detail of their bespoke, just-off-the-runway gown exclusively created for them by their dear friend, who also happens to be the season’s hottest fashion designer.

With the advance of black-clad PR gals wielding iPad guest check-ins, the Pretender’s party-crashing ability is diminished. But amid the pre-Internet years, dropping bold-face names like a tissue was a clever access game.

But never underestimate the power of good, old fashioned gossip—done, naturally, in the service of good. Years ago, folks questioned the authenticity of an Impressionist art collection improbably hanging in a Belvedere home owned (or possibly, rented) by a mysterious, newly arrived, socially ambitious tech entrepreneur. Not long after, his Ponzi scheme unraveled and this con man got sent to the clink for 22 years.

The Financial Guru

These masters of the universe burst onto the scene like meteors in the mid-’80s, hedge-fund heyday. They peddled junk bonds as quickly as the ice-cream truck vendor sells Drumsticks on a hot summer day.

Initially their kind was not wholly embraced by the Nabob ruling class. But you have to give it to these gurus: Unlike their tech counterparts, they understood the concept of pay-to-play: They lived large amassing art, homes, trophy wives and flashy cars. But they also gave big.

Now wholly integrated with the social set, these fund managers and venture capitalists are embraced for their knowledge, sophistication and largesse that’s influencing culture, politics and the environment. But in the aftermath of Wall Street’s 2007-08 meltdown, some gurus examined the morality of high-flying investments that made them richer than Croesus. They responded with socially responsible and green energy investment funds—especially if their amassed billions derive from less than environmentally pristine investments.

Patron of the Arts

The arts patron occupies a rarefied position that always commands a power seat at the table. Their support—from cold, hard cash tobequeathments of art—can make or break a cultural institution.

Before sports stadiums got in the game, these savvy institutions long ago calculated the value of naming rights for deep-pocketed patrons who “donate” big bucks to sit on world-class boards. So every nook and cranny, even entire wings, of music halls and museums bear tastefully burnished name plaques.

Usually arts patrons are fun, too. They’ve reached a point in their lives—via divorce, death, third marriages or Gold Rush leftovers—where they enjoy giving away their money. Who really minds if a few-strings are attached?

The Star Athlete

There is no person more universally beloved in San Francisco than a championship hero. Everywhere they roam, ropes are lifted, adoring lines of fans form and hard-to-get restaurant reservations are easily scored.

The Bay Area is blessed by a bursting roster of high-profile gridiron greats, super sluggers and three-point kings. Even hockey players are adored—well, at least when they’re on a streak.

Post-career, many of these superstars now lend their fame to raise funds for the less fortunate, especially educational assists to low-income kids. For the few who have fallen from grace, redemption is eventually conferred by loyal fans who devotedly recall cheering on the athletic prowess of their heroes—even if their team pulled up stakes and left its namesake city.

The Star Designer

Architect, interior designer or event planner, these tastemakers area key social subset. Often lured from small towns by San Francisco’s social freedoms, these inherently creative and burgeoning talents discover that the city’s colorful stage provides a perfect proscenium for self-reinvention.

Prior to eliciting “wows” for exquisite designs and events, the designer begins their career as a closely guarded secret. Their company is carefully shared among society matrons, who jealously guard their budding artistes. But as clamor for their talent grows, the designer must politely move out of their patron’s mink-lined pocket to embrace their role as an arbiter of taste.

The fully realized designer transforms into a lure for socially ambitious aspirants: Architectural Digest-worthy homes are built; interiors are wildly reimagined; mind-blowing gala budgets are funded. When the designer reaches the zenith of turning down a job, they’ve arrived.

Political Influencer

California, now a redoubt of democratic Blue, wasn’t always that color. The Golden State was long a Red stalwart, giving rise to its GOP hero, former California Governor and, later, President Ronald Reagan. Republican influencers often hedge bets by writing checks to both parties—and there’s more in our 49 square miles than one might imagine. But when they host major Republican fundraisers, it’s decidedly on the down low or even out of town.

Republicans here seek to recapture the dawn of Reagan’s glorious “Morning in America.” As mellow San Franciscans, they eschew their party’s partisanship and extreme religious right. Instead they’re laser-focused on free-market policies, along with corporate and personal tax cuts; especially if the latter assists write-offs for private jet maintenance. But the holiest of grails? A reduction to the inherited estate tax.

Ironically, major Democratic donors are often Republican progeny. But peace-sign protesting Dems don’t mix and match their donations. They’ll even boldly protest polices of their party’s president. Their “laissez-faire” is steeped in patchouli-scented “Summer of Love” experiences tempered by sixties-era movements (Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Free Speech). Mostly wealthy (thanks to inheritance and/or ’70s-era innovation), these influencers not only fight for social reform but advocate on behalf of our climate-change-distressed planet.

Just try not to seat these two together at dinner. But, then, since January 20 of last year, they may no longer be speaking to each other.

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