The putative purpose was a charity for underprivileged local children, though it was also the latest tour stop in a long circuit, and a victory lap of sorts for the bestseller, which has just sold its movie rights.
"The reaction had surprised me until I realized I was writing about so many hot-button topics," Martin said of the book's massive sales . "I mean, everyone has an opinion about motherhood, and there's a lot of voyeurism for the rich, so… " she said, her voice trailing off as she spoke to a reporter.
The institution's publicity firm, Hollywood power player Sunshine Sachs, had helped bring out a surprisingly star-studded crowd for a Saturday afternoon reading at a children's museum. (Martin and her husband, Joel Moser, live part of the year in Bridgehampton, and Moser is on the board of the museum, the Children's Museum of the East End.) The group included Debra Messing, who waited patiently in line with her publicist to have Martin sign her book. Guests ate finger foods and drank wine from the open bar, leaving glasses on top of a John Deere tractor that was parked in the lobby.
"You would think we're the children's museum of Park Avenue based on the number of Range Rovers," the museum's president, Stephen Long, said to the crowd, before encouraging patrons to buy copies of the book.
"Primates" examines the competitiveness and rituals of wealthy mothers on the tony Upper East Side. Martin, a Yale Ph.D., has been lauded for her wry voice in chronicling her time a number of years ago as a wife and mother in the New York neighborhood, and for ironically applying a sociologist's lexicon to the mores of the Wall Street rich, the way "Mean Girls" used the rules of the jungle to capture the behavior of high school cliques.
She has also been the object of scrutiny for an alleged fudging of facts, including exaggerating her stay on the Upper East Side by several years, citing a company and store that didn't yet exist at the time the book's events took place and for trumping up details like a "wife bonus" that some husbands supposedly paid their nonworking women at the end of the year.
Much of this skewering has been in the blue-collar New York Post, which has taken a kind of sub-textual pleasure in knocking Martin for being a perpetrator of the same sins she is allegedly exposing. (As a result of the paper's reporting, "Primates" publisher Simon & Schuster agreed to put a disclaimer in future editions.)
If the allegations had gotten to Martin, though, there was little sign of it. She air-kissed a few of those who had come to get their books signed, posed for requested selfies and made her charity pitch. "Did you know 40% of the children on the East End do not speak English as a first language?" Martin, in a sleeveless white top and leather Capri pants, told the audience before she began reading. "Every penny you spend on these books will go to support the kids in these programs."
In an interview, she said that she did not put much stock in the criticism.
"I know what women actually told me. I know the life I lived and feel confident about what I wrote," she said. "So many people come up to me and thank for showing the struggle and making it funny. So I feel confident."
In person, Martin has an irrepressible cheer, slightly in contrast to the book's tone, which might be described as a kind of chipper drollness.
Her upbeat attitude may be from her book's bestselling status and its Hollywood activity. When it went on the block recently, "Primates" stirred interest among a wide range of studios, who saw in it the peeking-in-on-the-rich appeal that has animated "Downton Abbey" and countless other screen entertainments. The auction was won by MGM, the recently restarted film company that hoped in "Primates" it had hit upon a pre-sold literary franchise — E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey" in its ubiquity, if not its saltiness.
It is unclear whether Martin will be producing or writing the film, though she certainly seemed interested, describing the process thus far as a Hollywood "tutorial." After being informed that authors like James and "Twilight's" Stephenie Meyer exerted a lot more control over film adaptations than writers of a previous era, she laughed and said, "I'm going to remember you said that and tell that to Jon Glickman," referring to the MGM president.
Messing has no formal attachment as an actor but seemed interested. "I'd love to play one of the roles. Especially one of the crazy mothers," she said.
Becca Tobin, best known as the cheerleader Kitty Wilde from "Glee," was also at the reading. She gushed over the book -- "It's outrageous; all those things you knew were true and now get to see up close" -- then wondered how a different locale might fare under the microscope.
"I think Wednesday should go to Hollywood next. I'm thinking Brentwood," said the 29-year-old, who lives in Los Angeles. "Because that's even better than the Upper East Side. There they pretend to be down to earth but they're really not."
Messing's turn came for a signing, and she and Martin had a quick exchange. The actress had recently moved to the Upper East Side and had expressed some reservations. "I gotta get out, I gotta get out," she said to Martin, perhaps only half-joking, then added, "All right. A couple of years." Martin gave a big laugh and embraced her.
The author posed for a few more selfies and hugs, then she and Moser left the museum and climbed into a waiting black car.