Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Many years ago, when I was married to pretty high ranking Boeing executive, we received an invitation from her boss to go to dinner.  This is a story from that night…

Her boss invites his entire team. However, the dinner is not at his house.  The dinner is at Norcliffe, at the Highlands.  That’s it.  There is no address.

There are directions.  It’s next to a golf course, so I assume that it’s the country club restaurant at the golf course.  I try to google it and I see no mention of it.  Hmmm…what kind of restaurant doesn’t have a web site or even a review?

All in all, it’s all very mysterious. We get there.  It’s located in pretty far North Seattle.  There’s a guard that has to let us in.  I’m assuming that this is the guard for the country club.  He takes down my license plate and then lets us go through.

We end up descending on a very narrow barely two lane road.  It immediately becomes obvious that this has nothing to do with any golf course.  The Highlands is a private, very private, gated community catering to only the top 1/2 of the top 1/2 of the top 1 percent.

Although it’s dark, as we go down the road, we pass houses that are mansions unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Between the two of us, we make several hundred thousand dollars.  We live in a nice house.  We’ve been to houses of friends and co-workers that are even nicer than ours.  We’ve been to homes of millionaires.

However, these houses are on a completely different scale.  This is like some top secret society that I’d vaguely heard about but have never really understood before.  The homes of people who make more in a week than we make in a year.

Norcliffe (and yes, that is literally its address, there is no other, no house number, no street, just Norcliffe) is at the very end of the drive.  We drive for close to 10 minutes to get there.

The house has a separate building, just for parking.  It doubles as a full-sized basketball court. We park the car and then take a little nature path to the front door, complete with waterfalls.  It resembles nothing more than a large Italian-style villa more at home on Lake Como than Lake Washington.

We walk in.  The first thing we notice are the hats.  In one room, there are literally thousands of hats, arranged by color and style.  There are red hats, blue hats, hats from the 20’s, hats from the 40’s, men hats, and women hats.  There are sailor hats, duck hats, flapper hats, and peacock hats.

The owner of the house explains that she’s going to run a charity auction in support of a foundation supporting foster children.  Apparently, there’s a tea party where people choose the hat that they want to wear and then participate in some kind of silent auction in support of the charity.  It’s not at all totally clear to me.

What does become clear is that the couple that lives there are collectors.  Pathological collectors of random stuff.  Next to the front door is a collection of walking sticks.  Probably a couple of hundred of them of various shapes and sizes.  Some of them have the head of a dog on the handle.  One opens up to expose a compass (you never know when you get so lost with your walking stick that you might need a compass to find your way).

We go into a library and find another collection.  This is a collection of baseball paraphernalia.  Among many other things:

  • There is Babe Ruth’s 1917 contract with the Boston Red Sox
  • There is the 1973 Oakland A’s World Series championship trophy (not a replica, the actual fucking World Series trophy)
  • There is Pete Rose’s jersey the night that he broke Ty Cobb’s all time hit record
  • Speaking of the Georgia Peach, there is Ty Cobb’s bat
  • There is Lou Gehrig’s jersey
  • Cap Anson’s baseball card (he was a turn of the century first baseman).

And so much more.

It’s things that you’d expect to only see at Cooperstown.  A whole room of it.  Hundreds of items.

We go into another room.  There is a collection of paintings.  There is a painting by Thomas Moran.  There is a painting by Albert Bierstadt.  These are both famous American landscape artists.  There is a Claude Monet.  There is a real Tiffany lamp.

The owner of the house strolls in.  He introduces himself as Chris Larsen.  It all becomes much clearer.  He was something like employee number four at Microsoft.  He is one of the minority owners of the Mariners.  He might not be a billionaire but definitely in the centi-millionaire department.

He asked if we had any questions.  Someone asked how he amassed such a large collection of baseball paraphernalia.  Being an owner of the Mariners as well as with the extensive collection, we’d assumed that he’d wax poetic on how important baseball was to him growing up and that he’d wanted to collect ever since he was a kid and that this was a product of many years of work.

However, he simply shrugged his shoulders and said that he’d heard that some auction was putting a number of things up for sale and that he bought the whole lot.

End of story. All in all, he seemed bored with it.  You just got the idea that he has this whole shitload of money, and not sure what to do with it, basically just goes out looking for semi-random things to spend it on.

That’s how the house looks.  The house is jam-pack full of paintings, statues and other things collectible, but you get no sense of any warmth or passion or anything like that from the house.  It’s just a large, beautiful house packed with beautiful things.  No sense of life at all.

I stood there wondering to myself, why would anyone want to live like this?  Is he trapped by his own financial success?

We ended up eating dinner there, using Tiffany silverware.  The food is nice but is all banquet style (aka no choice at all in the manner). There was some kind of pumpkin squash soup.  There was some kind of frou-frou salad.  The main course was some kind of pork entree, followed by a selection of cheeses and then chocolate mousse.  It was a good meal but I really like to be able to choose my own food.

During dinner, the truth of how this came about comes out.  My ex’s boss is head of Human Resources for all of Boeing Commercial.  He serves on the board of the Woodland Park Zoo.  He attended some auction to bring in money to support the zoo.  One of the prizes was dinner for 20 at this house.  He bid and he won it.  He didn’t say how much it cost him, but his wife did comment that his entire family (he has five kids) could have flown to China and back on what he bid.  So, you can only imagine how much this night cost him.

All in all, an interesting night.  As we left, I once again thought to myself how I would never want to live like that.  At what point do you acquire so much money that you essentially become a prisoner to it?  Can you avoid that fate?

I still flash back to when I first graduated out of college.  I joined up at Boeing after having lived a lower-middle-class life in Rat City and then later in Tacoma while going to school.  I literally had no idea how I was going to spend my first paychecks.  I was making something like $24K a year and I have never felt as rich as I did during those first couple of years.

At what point will people / society realize that, once you have enough money for food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, and retirement, that money really doesn’t make you happier and in fact, can make you miserable?

As we left the house that night, I flashed back to an issue of Time magazine that focused on happiness.  There was a series of articles in it.  One was about what can only be described as a slightly mad sociologist who’d figured out how to quantify happiness.  Seriously.

He would ask people a set of questions and then would generate a number that represented their happiness.  Bizarre.

He then went literally around the world to all kinds of different countries, peoples, and occupations and asked them the same set of questions.  He then was able to produce what was essentially a world-wide gauge of happiness.

I don’t remember too much from it but the one statistic that I do remember was that American centi-millionaires and Bangladeshi goat herders ended up with the exact same happiness score. That statistic struck me as hilarious.

As I left, the truth of that statistic struck home to me.  Perhaps, maybe the Bangladeshi goat herder was actually under-scored?

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