Wanted: Parents for the rich and famous

Recently, I accompanied my wife to a museum to look at royal tea settings from other centuries. Why did I do this? Because I am a really loving husband, and the Red Sox game had just been rained out.
In the car ride there, we were listening to Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette, the 18th-century French queen who would be decapitated by guillotine, a casualty of the French Revolution. Most of what I know about Marie Antoinette I know because of Kirsten Dunst. I saw the 2006 movie in which she played the doomed French monarch.
Actually, that’s not completely true. I built a plastic model of a guillotine when I was a little boy, and it came with two plastic royals roughly the size of Barbie dolls, a male and a female, whose heads could be lopped off. (Yes, I did have amazing parents. There was no toy they wouldn’t buy me, no matter how inappropriate, if it was made of plastic and had some vague connection to learning.) And so I knew also that if Marie Antoinette’s head had been hollow and small and made of plastic, it would be easily lost if it rolled under the bed.
In any case, as I was looking at the elegant tea settings, I found myself thinking of the lavish — and spectacularly time-consuming — rituals that marked Marie Antoinette’s life at Versailles. And I realized that although the world is a different place now than it was two and a half centuries ago, some things haven’t changed: The exceptionally wealthy still have too much time on their hands. And everyone in this country who isn’t exceptionally wealthy — but has the resources for a TV and a satellite dish — is obsessed with how the rich while away the hours.
Moreover, if in addition to being rich, you are young, beautiful and female, how you spend your days (and nights) will be even more interesting to the rest of us. To wit: Every morning my computer’s home page, www.msn.com, will have a story about how Lindsay or Paris or Britney is spending her time, (or in the case of Paris, how she will soon be doing her time). Likewise, on MTV we can see celebrities’ cribs, nests and pads, while the E! Channel offers celebrity dish just about 24/7 (including “The 50 Most Shocking Celebrity Scandals,” and E!’s “True Hollywood Stories”). And, of course, there is that TV grandpappy of them all, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
Our interest is prurient and mixed with a generous dollop of schadenfreude — or pleasure at their comeuppance. Who didn’t smirk when they realized that Paris would be spending time in the slammer?
Nevertheless, lately I have actually felt a little sympathy for Paris and her peers — especially Lindsay, who is back in rehab — just as I found myself feeling bad for Marie Antoinette as her story unfolded for me. Sure, the peasants who stormed Versailles were pretty darn hungry. And, yes, the wealthy we watch stumble today seem oblivious to the poverty that exists deceptively near their walled compounds.
But how much of their bad behavior is the result of bad parenting — a sense of entitlement that is nourished from birth? How much stems from our encouragement that they fill their free time (which is, more or less, every single moment they’re awake), with behavior that we would never tolerate from our own children?
That same weekend when my wife and I saw the tea services and listened to the biography of Marie Antoinette, we attended an awards ceremony at Smith College. What struck us both was the exemplary attitude of service that marked so many of the graduates: The work they had already done with the poor and the needy in the world, and their plans for the future. It was profoundly moving.
I don’t imagine there will be a revisionist biography of Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan in 200 years. But you never know. Their stories aren’t finished yet, and perhaps they do have second acts within them. And time, amazingly, is still on their side.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on June 3. To examine the Antonia Fraser biography of Marie Antoniette, click here.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.