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A Cultural Study of the Ladies Who Lunch

Wednesday Martin explores the inner-workings of the Upper East Side in Primates of Park Avenue

Sex segregated dinners are the norm, charitable success calls for a “wife bonus” and former Disney guides have become the new nannies. Wednesday Martin had no idea what she was getting into when she moved to the Upper East Side with her husband and young son in 2004. Surrounded by these social behaviors that immediately reminded her of her undergraduate days studying anthropology at the University of Michigan, Martin began to document her journey into the jungle of Manhattan’s one percent, and her research eventually became her memoir, Primates of Park Avenue.

The book details the juicy lifestyles of Upper East Side stay-at-home mommies—a “closed, secretive culture with a very rigid dominance hierarchy” that was extremely hard for Martin to break into. But ever the social researcher she got these Upper East Side mothers to tell their stories of loss, worry, competition, sex and love. And while listening, Martin used the term “going native” to describe the shift from being an observer to a participant in her fieldwork (teaser: the pivotal moment involves a Birkin).

“It’s really a story of how I broke into another culture and found friendship. The New York Times headline almost makes it sound like I have contempt for these women, but that’s not what it was or what it is,” Martin explains. “The book is really an attempt to tell a story about how I landed in a place that was strange and foreign and a lot of it was funny.”

Here, Martin gives DuJour an in-depth view of the tribal identities found through her fieldwork.

Wednesday Martin

Wednesday Martin

The Contemporary Art Tribe

Upper East Side mommies aren’t just known for their extensive knowledge of prestigious preschools and summer camps—add contemporary art to the list. “Contemporary art is what red wine used to be,” says Martin. “It’s a thing that people collect for cultural capital to show not just what they have, but what they know.” After Martin and her son overcame their perceived roles as play-date pariahs, she found that in a playgroup of just about 20 kids, about a quarter of the mothers were art consultants. “I do think it’s about status—having the right contemporary art, collecting contemporary art, and going to the contemporary art shows are all tribal behaviors… it’s a way they affirm their tribal identity.”

The Exercise Tribe

From SoulCycle to AKT in Motion to Physique 57, Upper East Side exercise tribes bring two things together: sweat and loyalty. While the yoga/pilates tribe is a bit more lenient and often crossover to different routines, Martin noticed there’s a distinct separation between SoulCycle and Physique 57—her own go-to workout. Both exercises are most notably practiced at the Barn, a popular studio located in Bridgehampton. “The Physique57 people will note that there’s a SoulCycle person among them. It’s in the same building, but there’s not a lot of crossover socially.”

The Jewelry Tribe

“On the Upper East Side, ‘understated’ is not where it’s at in terms of the clothing or of the jewelry. They’re much more of a bejeweled tribe than the downtown tribe—I noticed that right away,” says Martin. But mothers aren’t just using their “wife bonuses” for these bejeweled purchases—many women are designing their own jewelry, an identity prevalent for women with children on the UES. To affirm this tribal identity, Martin notes common trunk show events. “It’s sort of like upscale Tupperware or upscale Mary Kay where you have a brand who is selling something… an in-home trunk show is a very big deal.”

The Book Club Tribe

While books clubs are prevalent across the island of Manhattan, Martin observes the ones on the Upper East Side have a “very specific flavor”—typically used to engage in individual interests outside of raising children. With a lack of great childcare options, the highly educated mothers of the Upper East Side “feel obliged to stay home,” but this doesn’t mean they don’t crave intellectual stimulation.

Upper East Side mothers tend towards what a “mommy writer” dubbed The Billionaire Book Club. “Because it’s the Upper East Side and everybody’s so connected, at these book clubs a lot of the time you’re not just reading the book—you can get the author to come because you’re a powerful person or your husband is,” says Martin.

The Food Intolerance Tribe

“If you’re [part of] a Maasai tribe in Kenya, you’re drinking cow’s blood; if you’re a mommy on the UES, you’re drinking kale juice,” Martin says. With women at a higher risk for autoimmune disorders than men, these Upper East Siders have a broad knowledge of health as well as access to the best medical care. Pair this with the intense body display culture and these women have quite specific preferences of the types of foods they eat. Within the food intolerance tribe there’s gluten free, soy free, dairy free—“This is one of the ways identities are formed, through the things that they avoid,” says Martin.

Primates of Park Avenue will be released June 2.