Necessary Luxuries

James Wojick

Say “luxury” these days and watch what happens. Eyes tend to roll. Mouths twitch. Fists may even pound the table. It’s not that luxury is dead, says Wall Street Journal wealth reporter Robert Frank, “but conspicuous consumption is.” So what of that basic human desire to acquire, identified some hundred years ago by economist Thorstein Veblen in his oft-quoted, much-dissected Theory of the Leisure Class? The need to indulge occasionally is, Frank admits, very much alive and well in America but, as he points out, the motives driving that need have fundamentally shifted. “We are moving out of an era of wants—‘I want to buy that for status, to show I can afford it, to make an impression’—and into a time when we want things that fuel our passion and fulfill a part of our identity,” he says.

When we asked some of those we admire the most to define the term “necessary luxuries,” their answers were revealing, quite personal, and sometimes unexpected. Take the reply from one well-known New York screenwriter, who said he would talk to us “for ten hours about any other subject but not shopping, not now.” Other responses were alternately amusing, no-nonsense, and downright inspired. Author Fran Lebowitz defined necessary luxuries as “the things you can’t afford but have anyway.” Choreographer Mark Morris spoke of the “moral luxury” of wearing fully sustainable white linen shirts from India while reminding us that, as always, everything is relative. “The need is a blanket to keep you warm; the luxury, whether it’s cashmere or cotton, is that you have one at all.”

Charles Gwathmey: Architect

  1. My wife, Bette-Ann
  2. Cricket ties from J. Press
  3. Le Corbusier’s Oeuvre Complète
  4. My 1995 Porsche Cabriolet
  5. My dear friends

Fran Lebowitz: Writer

“Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition. My dad bought it from a door-to-door salesman and I took it when I left home at eighteen.

“John O’Hara’s daughter gave me this sterling-silver cigarette case that Random House had given to her father, engraved with on the occasion of the sale of the 100,000th copy of a rage to live.

“My 1979 Checker Marathon. I bought it new, and then they went out of business. Now the cars are like $8 million. Everyone thinks I should sell it. It’s like having a child in medical school who will never actually graduate and support you. It’s the only example of monogamy in my life.”

Chiara Clemente: Filmmaker

“My Bolex Rex 3-5 film camera. Bruce Weber taught me how to use it—click, then count ‘one alligator, two alligator, three alligator.’ It works.”

Mark Morris: Choreographer

“I’m not very luxurious. No helicopters required. Still there are Pacific Music Papers Magic Writer pencils, which can write on faxes. Mephisto sandals, a folding hand fan, socks from Hackett in London, and Advil—the miracle drug. I used to keep a bowl on my desk for the dancers: two tablets four times a day.”

Mario Batali: Chef

“Sicilian bottarga, that wonderful salted roe of tuna or mullet I get from and grate over hot toasted bruschetta or on a plate of spaghetti with oil, jalapeños, and fresh sea urchin. And Dom Pérignon Rosé 1988 in a magnum served with some good beef jerky.”

Nora Ephron: Director

“A seam slitter is a small thingamadoodle that removes tags without a trace from your clothes so they don’t show through and make you look tacky and horrible. It’s in the sewing department. Everyone needs one of these babies.”

Matthew Weiner/ Don Draper: Creator, producer, and genius behind Mad Men

“I myself couldn’t live without Macallan 18 Scotch whiskey on special occasions—like the first time someone paid my airfare. The sixties Rolex Explorer I bought on eBay when I got my second job. Kona coffee put through a French press. And—I know this makes me sound less masculine—Bulgari ‘White Tea’ body cream.”

As for Don Draper, the character who in two seasons of Mad Men has become a cultural icon? “Canadian whiskey, Lucky Strikes, Brylcreem, and a woman bathed in Shalimar.”