Champagne schemes and caviar glitches

TREY ELLIS is a screenwriter, novelist, essayist and an assistant professor at Columbia University.

"The moment has arrived for a battle that looks to most of the population like a battle among peers ... but it also pits two highly distinct groups, the merely rich and the superrich.... The richest are getting richer almost twice as fast as the rich."

The New York Times, Nov. 19, 2006


FOR THE FIFTH straight day, sectarian violence rocked the snow-covered hamlet of Aspen, Colo., as a marauding band of investment bankers ambushed a group of hedge-fund managers Tuesday. This latest incident comes on the heels of Monday's daring punch in the nose by a gastroenterologist to one of the co-founders of YouTube.

Although there has always been tension between the haves and the have-mores, today, from St. Moritz to St. Barts, class warfare is raging to an extent not seen since the 1980s. Recent attempts to bring the two sides to the table have failed, most notably last month's summit at La Colombe d'Or in St. Paul de Vence. Some progress was being made until it came time to order the wine. The hedge-fund managers and dot-commers insisted on a 1978 Le Montrachet (Domaine Romanee-Conti, $23,929 a bottle) while the coalition of corporate lawyers and plastic surgeons were united around the 1961 Palmer Margaux ($2,000 a bottle).

Valet parkers have been unwitting victims of this widening conflict. Restaurant parking attendants are thinking carefully before parking an Aston-Martin DB9 ($172,350 MSRP) in the most visible spot. In New Canaan, Conn., an incensed gang of Porsche 911 Carrera 4 ($78,200 MSRP) drivers grabbed a valet by his red vest and hurled him into a nearby duck pond.

Strife has even spread to the skies. Last month, the bankers pooled their fractional private jet time (1/16th share, $975,000, plus $260,120 annual operations fees) to chase a squadron of fund managers in their single-owner Gulfstream 550s ($38 million, not including crew and maintenance) high above the Cayman Islands. No one was hurt, but one fund manager reported dismay at seeing every window of the menacing fractional jets filled with a pair of naked buttocks.

Both sides have been vigorously lobbying Congress and the White House, turning to the Nieman-Marcus Christmas catalog for gifts. The funders are rumored to be offering the vice president the Virgin Galactic flight to space for $1.764 million. The lawyers, physicians, studio heads and professional athletes are said to have purchased a 7-foot-tall skyscraper made out of pencils ($40,000 each) for each member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Few can agree on exactly what set off this recent round of violence, but tensions have been simmering since eBay bought out PayPal in 2002. Good-natured teasing between the company's founders and top managers at the celebratory barbecue turned ugly. Within weeks, Silicon Valley dinner parties began to segregate along millionaire and billionaire lines. By the time one of the Google guys wore a T-shirt to work proclaiming, " 'M' is for 'mediocre.' 'B' is for 'brilliant,' " the battle lines were drawn.

The two warring camps are using every trick in the playbook to get the upper hand, including espionage. Donald Trump tried to infiltrate a strategy session of the hedge-funders but was found out. He was then bound, gagged and delivered to the doorstep of the American Bar Assn. The billionaires had cruelly scrawled on his forehead, "Past performance is no guarantee of future results."

The war is tearing at the very fabric of every four-star restaurant, yacht broker and Patek Philippe dealer in the nation. If the president of the United States cannot defuse this crisis, then who can? The newly founded organization, "Peace Is Priceless," thinks they have found just the man: Bill Gates.

Gates, with a personal net worth of $50 billion, has not joined the army of single-digit billionaires. PIP is calling for Gates to summon both sides to his Medina, Wash., home ($113 million) to see if they can find common ground. If he agrees, Gates is expected to rely on the argument that both groups stay at five-star hotels. Is the difference between a junior suite and a presidential suite worth a riot?

PIP is cautiously optimistic that Gates can bridge the gap and get the millionaires and billionaires to sign a pact. They'll both be using Mont Blancs.

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