Charles W. Engelhard, Jr., was “the platinum king” of South Africa (and was evidently the model for Ian Fleming’s James Bond nemesis Goldfinger). He lived mainly in a “Rhinelike castle, turrets and all,” in Far Hills, New Jersey, but did shuttle via his own fleet of aircraft among four other palatial homes in Johannesburg, South Africa, Boca Grande, Florida, the Gaspé Peninsula, Canada, and the Waldorf Towers in my hometown, New York City, and he had business dealings in 50 countries. He was not my father.
My dad, Charles L. Engelhardt, known all his life as “Len” for his middle name, “Leonard,” lived in a rent-controlled apartment at 40 East 58th Street in Manhattan that he and my mother had found after he was demobilized from World War II. For part of my childhood, he shuttled between there and the gas station he ran on Governor’s Island, an Army base just off the southern tip of Manhattan — until, for a terrible period in the golden 1950s, he was largely out of work and shuttled between nowhere (except possibly bars and home).
Still, I did manage to cross paths with the other Charles, the incredibly rich one, several times in my life. There was that moment when his wife’s hat bill was mistakenly delivered to our house in the worst of economic times and my dad briefly went nuts. There was the butcher in my neighborhood decades later who, if I gave him a check, always said with a little mischievous smile, “Engelhardt… I should have invested in platinum when I had the chance!” And there was, of course, Yale, my personal introduction to big-time inequality in a society that, compared to the present gilded age described so vividly by TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon today, would look like a nirvana of economic equality.
At the time, Yale was still a prime staging ground for the WASP elite. I was a Jewish kid from New York applying (under pressure from my Charles Engelhardt, who saw it as the upward-mobile route to another universe) just at the moment when that school was finally removing its quotas on Jews. That was in every way another age. With the recent set of scandals over college admissions in mind, I was certainly typical in 1961 when I simply walked into my SAT tests one day — no preparation, no courses beforehand, no tutors, no special payments, little understanding of what they even were. Later that year, I had an interview with some Yale alum and bumped into the other Charles for the last time. I no longer remember the context, but my interviewer somehow brought up that Engelhard (no “t”) and ever after I wondered whether he had confused the scions of two very unequal Engelhard(t) families. (It’s unlikely, since I got into Yale off the waiting list and went there — to my deep disappointment– under strong pressure from my parents who could, then, ill afford it.)
And that was how my introduction to what inequality meant in this country began. Keep in mind that I attended Yale with George W. Bush and what seemed like a bevy of other George W.s, future CEOs standing around beer kegs. Despite a genuinely fine education, when I left, I felt like I had been freed from jail and yet, as Menon points out today, when it comes to gilded ages and gilded cages, those of more than half a century ago were pikers compared to the present moment.