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Getting to the bottom of a Russian’s 26 toilets

Getting to the bottom of a Russian’s 26 toilets
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First Published: Fri, May 30 2008. 12 20 AM IST

Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis
Updated: Fri, May 30 2008. 12 20 AM IST
Michael Lewis
For some months now I’ve made a point of popping into Bloomberg’s offices every now and again to share with readers the secret thoughts of a successful hedge fund manager.
People like me—that is, people with more than $1 billion (Rs4,280 crore) under management and in excess of $100 million in net worth—seldom tell ordinary people what we actually think, for the obvious reason that it doesn’t pay.
As a result, ordinary people—defined as anyone with a net worth of less than $10 million—know very little about the inner lives of the seriously rich, even in places where there are lots of seriously rich people. The uproar in Greenwich, Connecticut, about the rich Russian and his toilets strikes me as an excellent case in point.
To recap: In 2005, Valery Kogan, a Russian whom no one outside of Russia had ever heard of, turns up in Greenwich and buys a five-acre lot with a 20,000 sq. ft house on it. Naturally—he being Russian, this being Greenwich—he expects to tear down this old house and erect his own new 54,000 sq. ft place. Like me, Valery Kogan overcame great odds to become a capitalist success. (I went to Penn, for example; Valery was born in a police state, and given a girl’s name, to boot.)
Having made it this far, he clearly never imagined that anyone might try to stop him from going even further.
But then he met the organized proletariat of Greenwich. And before he knew it, he was all over the American newspapers as the Slavic lout who wanted to build in their suburban idyll a palace with a 12-car garage, a Finnish spa, a dog-grooming salon and 26 toilets.
Need versus want
I would have thought the dog-grooming salon would have caused him his biggest problem with the masses, but it is these toilets that have proven his public-relations nightmare. His desire for a 26-holer is the thing no ordinary person, even in Greenwich, seems capable of understanding.
“Who needs that many toilets?” one of the protesting nimrods of Greenwich put it to Bloomberg News, speaking for the whole miserable rabble.
Well, for a start, Valery Kogan needs 26 toilets. He also needs someone to explain the need. Allow me.
To begin with—and it depresses me that I find myself instructing citizens of Greenwich on the special needs of the very rich—the seriously wealthy don’t use their houses as ordinary people do.
The great indoors
When a rich Russian says he is going for a hike, for instance, he doesn’t mean outside. Out of doors he will encounter ordinary people, who not only don’t understand his need for 26 toilets, but also pester him for money. He can always tell them to go away, of course, but in the process he’s wasted his valuable time. This is one of many reasons a rich Russian requires a 54,000 sq. ft mansion: so he might hike, indoors.
But there is of course one thing that every man knows before he sets off on a long hike: he’s going to need to pee. Ordinary hikers pee in the woods. But Russian multimillionaires aren’t ordinary hikers. No one wants to find himself half an hour into a long rappel down a spiral staircase, or in a hand-over-hand climb along a wall, only to have to retrace his steps to some remote rest room.
Better to have one wherever in your indoor wilderness you happen to be. This brings us to a second practical consideration ignored by the ordinary people of Greenwich: the delicate waste-disposal needs of the rich.
Hidden treasure
Here’s a question you probably have never asked yourself: What, at bottom, is a toilet? To an ordinary person, it’s a device for transferring ordinary human waste from the body to the sewer, as discreetly and sanitarily as possible. But just as all humans are not ordinary, all human waste isn’t ordinary, and the waste of Russians is no exception.
The richer the Russian the more likely he is to have failed to fully digest something or someone of serious value. To simply elbow the silver knob and flush it all down, without further thought or study, would be wasteful and self-destructive, like tossing out a savings bond before the final coupon has been clipped, or closing a silver mine before sifting the tailings. The toilets of the rich aren’t just toilets, in other words. They’re bank vaults. And you can never have too many of those. But these are just the most obvious, pragmatic reasons for owning a house with 26 toilets. Pressing as they are, they are dwarfed by a deeper emotional impulse: the need of every truly successful person to have things that ordinary people can’t imagine the need for.
Bowl superiority
Put this way, you can see the true genius of Valery Kogan. Virtually every other form of conspicuous consumption in America has been bought and paid for; in the brain space that ordinary people reserve for the obsessive contemplation of the rich, there was hardly any real estate left.
Cars, houses, animals, furs, jewels, islands: From the point of view of the ordinary person looking for something to envy, all are “been there, done that.”
“Toilets!” I can imagine Valery saying to himself, late on one cold Russian night, “I will buy more toilets than any man on earth and the American people will speak of me with wonder.” And they do.
Michael Lewis is a columnist for Bloomberg News and the author, most recently, of The Blind Side. The views expressed are his own.
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First Published: Fri, May 30 2008. 12 20 AM IST
More Topics: Wealth | HNWIs | Greenwich | Toilet | Money Matters |