Long before the word “oligarch” became a substitute for major Russian crooks and fraudsters, and a decade before Tom Wolfe invented masters of the universe, we had Wall Street Croesuses posing as gentlemen in Scottish moors. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Clay Felker, my editor at Esquire magazine, assigned me to write about this new breed of American multimillionaires who were busy shooting down everything that flew, and lots of things that didn”t. I did as I was told and rang up my friend Peter Salm, an Austrian-American aristocrat whose property near Southampton, Long Island, was famous for its shoot.
Peter is no longer with us, and his lovely “Port of Missing Men” estate has been sold to a master of the universe, as it happens, but he clued me in rather well. Until the late 1970s, American nouveaux riches did not bother with shooting birds. A trip to Miami and a winter suntan were enough to distinguish themselves from the rest of us. Some went even far enough as to go skiing in Canada or Austria, but God’s flying creatures were left alone. Then it happened: Some wise-guy Englishman took an upwardly mobile visiting Wall Streeter for a shoot on a weekend, a shoot that included all sorts of dukes and earls and other such British species that “blew” the Wall Streeter’s mind. Upon his return he talked at length about his recent acquaintances, and presto, the northeastern seaboard of America had discovered a new way to infiltrate the British aristocracy. By killing everything that flies.
Mind you, it wasn”t as simple as I make it sound. There is etiquette involved in shooting birds, especially in Britain, so Esquire deemed it necessary to publish an article by Alistair Horne, an English historian, explaining the lingo. For example, shooting verbiage includes words such as “pricked,” “running cocks,” and “Did you have a good bag today?” Such words would easily have American ladies blushing until it was explained that the lexicon meant no harm. “Don”t go running to the doctor when a running cock is mentioned” had many a man feel silent relief. Ditto for the words “bag” and “pricked,” no blushing or punching necessary.
Nevertheless, things did not always go smoothly. It began in Southampton, L.I., when a new gun”English country word for a hunter”shot low and instead of peppering a beater he hit no less than five joggers. Worse, the joggers did not see their getting shot as an inevitable risk that those exercising outdoors must accept. They called the cops. And in Southampton, the fuzz are mostly Polish and love the law. When they heard about the gunfire they armed themselves with heavy artillery and charged behind armored personnel carriers. Soon the place looked like a Chicago speakeasy after a gang battle. Ironically, it was St. Valentine’s Day.
At another shoot, again in Southampton, an Italian-American socialite shot across the line of guns, decimating a group of newly rich record executives out trying to impress their girlfriends with their knowledge of potato farms. While they lay writhing in their brand-new tweeds and cursing the “dirty dago,” the predictable happened. The police were summoned by one of the hysterical women more used to discos than cocks. When the host of the shoot, Peter Salm, explained to the cops that the offender was not only a gentleman but also the finest shot in Italy, they were not impressed. “No wonder,” said one officer, “the way he shoots, he must be the only one left.”
Needless to say, the masters of the universe began shooting in merry old England come the “80s. Purdey, Holland & Holland, and other purveyors of guns and clothes pertaining to country pursuits made fortunes. As did broken-down English and Scottish lairds with shooting estates galore but not a shower, piece of soap, or warm room in the vicinity. Steve Schwarzman, the multibillionaire head of Blackstone Corp., heads the list of new rich adhering to the code “If it flies, it dies.” He has shiny new guns and tweeds old King Edward VII would envy, but has yet to master self-deprecation, a sine qua non for an English gent. A friend of mine who shoots with him told me he wouldn”t know what the words meant.
Personally, I only shoot and kill clay pigeons. Although friends invite me to shoots, I do not enjoy watching the massacres. Still, it’s an English tradition, just as it’s an American one to hunt animals. Live and let live, say I, but try telling this to the joggers who got peppered on a quiet Saturday in Southampton. They”re still looking for that “dago” who did them in, but the poor guy expired 20 years ago. Apparently he shot, but missed, a couple of angels on his way up.