Our daughter had just turned 3 when we applied for admission to the nursery school of the Lycee Francais de New York. At the time, the Lycee occupied one of the Upper East Side’s most impressive buildings, a Beaux Arts mansion on East 72nd Street just off Fifth.
The reception room, with 40-foot-high ceilings and a marble staircase curving away into who knew what nether regions, was daunting enough, but when a pale, thin woman dressed all in black came sweeping down the steps and crossed the enormous room to stop, scowling, before the row of seated infants and their jittery parents, all hell broke loose.
Several children began wailing. After a minute or two, having spoken not a word, she gave a brisk backward wave of the hand, indicating that they were dismissed, not to be interviewed that day and maybe never. The rest were lined up Madeline-like and led away.
Emily was accepted. To this day, I believe that the angry-looking woman was the actual test — that any child who didn’t cry at the sight of her got in. “How come you didn’t cry?” I once asked her (this was a child who cried if a button fell off her coat). “I was too frightened,” she replied.
A few years and another child later, there was this rabbit in a classroom at Spence — but never mind, that’s enough about me and my kids. Let’s talk about Wednesday Martin and hers, and her book “Primates of Park Avenue” (Simon & Schuster, $26), which every Upper East Side mother spending the summer anyplace between Aspen and Amagansett has probably either read by now or is afraid to, lest she recognize herself in it.
Having survived the rigors of apartment-hunting in an unfamiliar part of Manhattan and landed in a building she never identifies but that some Internet troll tracked down as 900 Park Avenue, Ms. Martin looks around her, realizes she’s left all her friends in her old downtown neighborhood, her mother’s back home in Michigan, not a soul on 79th Street or anywhere near it except her investment-banker husband gives a damn whether she and her 2-year-old live or die, and decides to do something to keep away the closet monsters. She’s written one memoir already (“Stepmonster”), so she’ll write another, from inside-out, about the Park Avenue mothers she’s hoping to befriend. Well, outside-in, to start with.
She must have hugged herself when the lightning struck: Tackle this new habitat, and the manners and mores of its female wildlife, within a pseudo-scientific frame, using your college knowledge of anthropology for scaffolding.
When, for example, the predators in the playground fell silent upon hearing that her little son was taking music lessons at “the pedestrian Gymboree” rather than the tony Diller-Quaile School of Music, she approached it as a personal failure. Stay-at-home Upper East Side mommies did have a job, she realized — or, more precisely, “a cutthroat, high-stakes career” — and it came before all else: to ensure the success of their kids. Every step, even the “right” music school for tots, was a rung on the ladder to the Ivies. “I could not help but think of Jane Goodall’s matriarchal chimp Flo . . . whose canny advocacy, sheer ambition, and skillful coalition building on behalf of her offspring . . . catapulted them to the top of the dominance hierarchy of their troop in Gombe, Tanzania. . . .”
(Speaking of dominance, Manhattan real estate brokers, many of them U.E.S. women whose children have grown and gone, get a chapter to themselves, as behooves a tribe within the tribe. The buyer’s broker, who icily informed Ms. Martin that finding an apartment in her desired “quadrant,” Fifth to Lex, 60th to 96th, was “not going to be easy,” turned out to be gelato compared to the seller’s agent.)
What mattered the most, though, and brought out the worst in her “conspecifics,” was the cutthroat competition to get their kids into a top-tier nursery school.
This is an area where only fools, or people with older children already at the school, rush in; all others rightly fear to tread. Ms. Martin’s descriptions of the pre-K “misery sessions” she and her little boy endured will strike terror into the hearts of first-time parents and shudders of recognition, even many years later, into veterans of the application wars. “One day, holding my hand as we were about to enter yet another ‘playroom’ full of kids he didn’t know, he looked up at me and said, ‘Mommy, I can’t do this,’ and I wanted to weep.”
When her son was accepted, apparently after some string-pulling, at one of the “T.T.” schools, she thought she’d won the brass ring, but it turned out to be iron, cold as the shoulders she was getting from his classmates’ moms. “Aside from a shrinking water hole in the Serengeti during the dry season, there is no place more desperate, aggressive, dangerous, and inhospitable than the halls of an exclusive Manhattan private school at morning drop-off and afternoon pickup.”
They were playdate pariahs, mother and child. Was she not thin enough? Blond enough? Rich enough? Dressed-to-the-nines enough?
Bingo. Not only was Ms. Martin an unknown quantity, she hadn’t yet caught on that “the Upper East Side is a body-display culture,” as she informed a crowd that came to hear her read at BookHampton the other night. Although a self-acknowledged “total fashionaholic,” she didn’t understand that what you wore at the beginning and end of the school day mattered here, really mattered, and jeans with a thermal shirt, a la the West Village, did not.
She eventually found another, less predictable, way in to acceptance, but much of what follows — especially a now-infamous chapter on her obsession with the off-the-charts-expensive Hermes Birkin bag — involves the right clothes; for shopping (never carry plastic), for fitness classes in the Hamptons (start with lululemon), for coveted invites to ladies’ lunches: “The impeccably dressed and made-up group couldn’t have been further from the Efe and Aka people of the Ituri Rain Forest,” where “it is common for a woman to walk up to another woman and demand her beads. . . . Saying no is unheard of. . . . Of course, the fastidiously turned out women at Rebecca’s — elegant, refined, polite, and rich — would have fainted if I walked up to any one of them and demanded, ‘Jane, give me your three Pomellato stacking rings and Lanvin Happy bag NOW!’ ’’
This is funny stuff, and “Primates” is full of it, though plenty of people out there have said it’s full of something else. I cannot ever remember a book attracting such a storm of criticism even before it was published, most of it aimed ad feminam — at the author, not the book. Maybe they’re jealous that “Primates” has been optioned by MGM, or that its author is thin, blond, good-looking, and, surely now, rich. Read it for yourself and decide.
Wednesday Martin, who has a house in Sag Harbor, will be signing her book on Aug. 8 at the East Hampton Library’s annual Authors Night benefit.