How Millionaires Get That Way
The millionaires next door? To me, Donald and Mildred Othmer — the “unassuming” Brooklyn couple who recently left a staggering $800 million estate to charity — were the millionaires in the basement.
In the week since reports were published about the immense fortune accumulated by this onetime Brooklyn Polytechnic professor and his wife, the Othmers have become paragons of thrift: save your money, invest carefully, and you, too, can become rich. And that’s true, so far as it goes. But thrift is a virtue more comfortably praised than practiced.
In the spring of 1989, my wife and I arrived in New York looking for a place to live. Those were the last days of the 1980’s real estate boom, and it quickly became apparent that we could not afford to live in Manhattan.
So, a week or so later, we found ourselves in the Othmers’ parlor, drinking sherry and discussing the rental of the third floor of their brownstone in Brooklyn Heights.
It was a magical apartment, with a balcony overlooking New York Harbor, a great old fireplace and a six-foot-long bathtub. The house had been built in 1840, and a century and a half later still boasted its original doors of Honduran mahogany.
Nothing vanishes so irretrievably as the manners of another age, but the Othmers had somehow preserved intact the domestic habits of respectable society in their native Omaha during the first decades of this century. Mrs. Othmer spoke in the way that elocutionists used to teach, with round vowels and gentle tones. We came to terms without lingering a second longer than necessary on the distasteful subject of money, and then spent the rest of the hour talking about Edith Wharton.
A few months after we moved in, the Othmers invited us to dinner. This became a regular kindness, and each time they apologized for not having us more often.
They practiced a very old-fashioned style of hospitality: highballs and canapés of sliced American cheese on white bread before dinner, a brass bell at Mrs. Othmer’s elbow to summon the first course, sauces made from cream-of-mushroom soup, water with the meal, port and Madeira afterward.
They showed us their collection of Japanese fans and swords, bought at flea markets while Dr. Othmer was advising the Occupation forces after World War II.
I once asked them whether they knew their fellow Nebraskan, Warren Buffett. Mrs. Othmer replied that her mother had known Mr. Buffett’s father and had become one of the junior Buffett’s first clients when he went into business for himself. “Mother,” she said, “always believed in encouraging young people.”
The Othmers were clearly rich: the newly restored Brooklyn Historical Society had a big plaque thanking them in its lobby. But it was also clear that they knew the value of a dollar in a way that our softer generation does not. As our money slipped through our fingers as money does in New York, we often found ourselves wishing we could be more like the Othmers. But we never quite pulled it off. Nor did we ever quite adjust to being on the receiving end of their frugality.
Although crippled by a stroke, Dr. Othmer insisted on personally examining every household problem before permitting a repair service to be called in. He would put his special handyman’s baseball cap on his handsome, tall head, gather his toolbox, painfully haul himself up the stairs, reminisce for a while about his wartime work distilling gasoline out of banana skins in Central America, gaze at the problem, tinker with it and then gaze at us reproachfully.
He would point to our toaster oven and comment gloomily: “That’s the biggest toaster I’ve ever seen. Do you know a toaster oven uses as much power as a motorboat?” (I still have no idea whether this is true.)
Dr. Othmer cooled his own body with a wheezing electric fan. He was prepared to concede that not everybody could live up to his standards of self-denial. But he was scandalized that we had bought the second-largest window air-conditioner sold at Macy’s. “What do you need such a big air-conditioner for? You’ll blow out every light in the place.”
He was right about that. The Othmers’ house had undergone a major renovation during the Wilson Administration, when it acquired electricity and running water, and had been left largely untouched since then.
In the mornings, the hot water lasted about 30 seconds. Never mind the air-conditioner: there was not enough power to make toast and coffee at the same time. The wires leading to the fuse box on our floor were wrapped in an antique insulating cloth, and if you were not careful as you tried to get the lights back on, sparks would shoot out, landing disconcertingly close to the woodwork and dried paint of the hallway.
Every once in a while, and especially once our first baby was on the way, I’d remonstrate with Dr. Othmer about the sparks — invariably without success.
Even in his frailty, he was a man of decided views. The front doorbell rang one afternoon when I happened to be home writing. I sprinted for it, knowing how painful it was for Dr. Othmer to drag himself out of bed, but he managed to reach it only a minute or so after I did. There was a shaggy young man canvassing for Greenpeace. I was politely telling him “no thanks” when Dr. Othmer shuffled up behind me.
“Greenpeace?” he barked. “Aren’t you the folks who blew up that French boat in Australia?”
He was referring to the Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace vessel blown up by French intelligence lest it interfere with a Pacific nuclear test.
The canvasser stammered in amazement. Dr. Othmer slammed the door. As he headed back to his apartment, I could see him worrying that his memory had betrayed him.
“It was Australia, wasn’t it?” he asked me.
“That’s right,” he said with relief, satisfied that he had remembered the essentials of the story.
The Othmers have been hailed as representatives of what is best in America. They were indeed fascinating, cultured people, who carried into the age of Ivan Boesky the hardy frugality of the pioneers. They epitomized virtues that sometimes seems to have vanished altogether.
But looking back on those two curious years upstairs from them, I must say that these virtues are best appreciated from a bit of a distance.