By Elma B. & Amra B.
We had the pleasure of meeting the beautiful J & J heiress, Jazz Johnson, and her uncle, an Emmy-nominated film producer, Dirk Wittenborn over a cup of coffee at a plush hotel lounge on the Upper East Side. We were intrigued by their recent project—The Social Climber’s Bible: A Book of Manners, Practical Tips, and Spiritual Advice for the Upwardly Mobile, which through humour and scandalous tales opens-up the conversation about a serious topic—social climbing—or crawling your way to the top.
When we met Jazz, she encapsulated the Gossip Girl meets Carey Bradshaw persona. She grew-up attending debutante balls with society boys, like Gossip Girl’s Serena van der Woodsen, and then she is also like Sex and the City’s witty author Carrie Bradshaw. Jazz has always had the best of both worlds: she is a well-known heiress of the Johnson & Johnson fortune, has travelled all over the world, and attended the most exclusive parties. Despite her posh upbringing and true jet-set experience, she caught us by surprise: Jazz maintains her feet firm on the ground: she is eloquent, intelligent (graduate of Barnard college) and no-nonsense kind of girl.
Her uncle, Dirk Wittenborn, is a well-known novelist and a screenwriter. In the course of his colourful career, he has done everything from covering Prince Charles’s and Diana’s wedding for Playboy to appearing in Saturday Night Live, sketches. He produced the Emmy-nominated HBO documentary Born Rich. Besides having a stellar career in the arts, we witnessed that there was never a dull moment in the room with Dirk present. Having partied and worked with the who’s who of the world, he has truly lived the jet-set lifestyle and delights in telling stories that make you blush and laugh at the same time.
Here is how our conversation went:
1. Out of all of the topics you could have written a book about, you chose “social climbing.” What moved you about this particular subject?
Jazz: Besides wanting to make people laugh and the fun of writing it together, we wanted to stir the pot by bringing to light the taboo subject of social climbing and inviting our reader to ask some important questions. We’re taught to fear other people’s judgment, and people tend to develop a sense of self-worth based on what others think; hence, the endless climb. Well, what is wrong with social climbing? What if social climbing meant going after the person who can make your life…. and you fill in the blank? Or what if it meant seeking out people who can help you in your business or make your life more fun?
Dirk: We wanted to explore the question of ‘How did ass-kissing become networking?’ In New York City, social climbing isn’t just a pastime, it’s a way of life. We constantly saw it at work not just in this city, but everywhere. And after laughing about it between ourselves for years, we decided to write about it. So many people have become incredibly aggressive about it—becoming friends with people they don’t really like just to get their children into private school?
2. Who is the most guilty of social climbing—the rich, the middle class or the poor?
Dirk: We noticed, in countless places, that the really rich are the biggest social climbers in the world. Often, with the ultra rich, social climbing can take the name of philanthropy. And if they weren’t social climbing, their names wouldn’t be chiselled on buildings. The gifts would be anonymous. What’s torturous about social climbing via status symbols for the rich is sometimes there isn’t enough of the best to go around, e.g., how many Picasso paintings are there to go around, or which Picasso is the best?
Jazz: For the wealthy families, social climbing (which of course is never called that) is often about making strategic alliances through marriage for the purposes of preventing the “shirt sleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” problem. Also, you don’t have to be rich for self-promotions. It’s amusing to see entire families who are in on it; for instance, take the Robertsons or the Kardashians, they are climbing together. It is entertaining; social climbers bother some people but they are often the life of the party and worth their tab if they are really good.
3. Why, in your opinion, is social climbing a taboo but corporate climbing is not? In fact, an interviewer will brag about the interviewees ability to climb the corporate latter within the firm. Why the frown upon one and not the other by the society?
Dirk: When networking is used for the purpose of soliciting business, or doing a business merger; in fact, people say will say, “he’s a real go-getter, well done.” However, if you want to hang out with people who are incredible violinists or celebrities, you are a social climber. What is the difference? Is it that one involves money while the other is purely social? One has money and the other just wants to be a guest in your company.
Jazz: One the one hand, networking is an accepted part of the game when doing business, “I will scratch your back, and you can scratch mine.” It’s an exchange. On the other hand, a social climber is interpreted as a user.
Dirk: Money cleans-up anything, e.g., if an oil guy or an arms dealer throws great parties, people are quick to turn a blind eye to what they had to do to pay for that party. It’s the attitude: “If profit is involved, then it’s ok.”
4. Who do you think is the most successful social climber of all time?
Dirk: In my opinion, the most successful social climber would have to be Aristotle Onassis. He made a ton of money and for sure he had the most fun. When he started out he was an immigrant in Argentina with $75 in his pocket, he spent the money on clothes, so he could meet the right people. His first marriage was to the daughter of a Greek shipping family that snubbed him, and he kept working his way up the ladder from there, ultimately marrying Jackie Kennedy. On his yacht, the tops of the bar stools were made from the foreskins of whales. He was a man who indulged himself to the utmost and got rewarded for it.
Jazz: Another good one is the Dalai Lama—for his sheer networking and connections— albeit for a good cause. He is one of the biggest mountaineers but he makes it meaningful.
5. What makes someone a successful as a social climber?
Jazz: What makes a social climber great is that being social is part of their existence. Everything they do in life, business and pleasure, is wrapped up in making connections with other people.
Dirk: Successful social climbers are courtiers; they have an immense charm. They look at you and within four sentences, they have figured out where you are from, what you’re worth and what you want to hear. They make their host/hostess not only make them feel at home in their own home, and yet in a slightly subservient position. A successful social climber makes the person they are climbing shine. They are social beings, who are comfortable in the herd; they thrive when socializing and engaging with others. They are “charm balls.”
6. How do you think social climbing has changed throughout time? Do you think that today’s social climbers are different from the ones you met while growing-up?
Jazz: Social climbing has become part of your everyday life. Now it’s just less shocking e.g., indecent exposure on social media; really, so much of the social media that surrounds us in our everyday lives makes this stuff look less absurd and more common.
Dirk: In the 1920s, millionaire arrivistes threw the best parties to fill the empty rooms of their vast mansions and for everyone to have fun. Today, parties are thrown to raise money for a good cause or to sell something; the dubious ethics of LA and Hollywood have trickled down through the ground water.
7. You touched upon briefly in your book the subject of gender roles in social climbing. Could you elaborate some more on the role of gender in social climbing? Do you think one has more of an advantage over the other?
Jazz: Men can get away with social climbing more because women are often bitchy, competitive and are quick to judge others. It’s oddly more acceptable for men to be charming and schmooze.
Dirk: Beauty has always played a part in social climbing; with that said, the best climbers we have seen are asexual people. Sex is not high on their list of priorities; they do not tolerate intimacy . If passion is involved, you are not thinking straight.
8. Which do you think is more important: to be a great social climber or an extremely hard worker?
Jazz: Social climbing is hard work.
9. How has writing this book changed your life or has it changed your life at all?
Jazz: It has been a bizarre adventure; I am just amazed. I have put myself out there and invited criticism, and judgment from other people.
Dirk: It is interesting to work on a project with someone you are closely related to, you see an illuminating side of the other person. The response has been “that is so beneath you,” but it is funny. Also, people are writing us letters and asking for help. Some take it a little too seriously.
10. What is the easiest way to spot a social climber?
Jazz: There are usually equipped with almost rude inquires like “Who are you? Where are you from? What’s your name? And what are you worth?” If you do not fit the bill, you are looking at their back before you know it. I’ve been snubbed quite a lot. With that said, great social climbers go undetected and never seem like they are gold digging.
Dirk: The easiest way to spot a social climber is when they want to get to know me to get to know Jazz’s dad or other people who are whales, whom I know.
11. What wisdom would you bestow upon your children (and other young adolescents), who lack the life experience, about social climbing?
Jazz: You have to instil integrity into your children, so they are open and honest about what they want to do and that they are genuine about it.
Dirk: Be nice. It’s easier to be nice than not nice. Have manners.
12. What role has social climbing played in your own personal lives?
Jazz: When there are a lot of hangers-on around, the question is “are you insulted or entertained?” If you have access with regard to organizations, clubs or affiliations, you experience people wanting to get to know you because you may be able to help them with something they want.
Dirk: People climb to get to know you and then they realize you don’t have as much to offer as they thought. All of a sudden getting the invitation to an event will turn into you buying a table for $150,000. What happened to being your guest?
13. Can you flatter your way to the top?
Dirk: Flattery will get you everywhere. Women for centuries have advanced themselves through flattery, e.g., they would say to a Prince or a General “you are such a brilliant man,” even if he was retarded fool. A good social climber is like a heat lamp; they will make the person they are climbing think “God, I forgot how great I was; talking to him makes me realize how fantastic and beautiful I really am.” Always be nice to everyone; it is the cheapest and most productive investment a social climber can make with their time.
Jazz: Yes, people only want to hear positive things about themselves. The humorous mantra of the book is what other people say about me, is not it true if I don’t want it to be. Or—say something seven times, and it will become true. You can be a total user but still be diplomatic, polished sophisticated and kind but maintain the façade that you are in control when going out and dealing with people.
14. Tell our global readers in one sentence what they could expect to gain from reading this book.
Dirk: You will laugh out loud at the hypocrisies, absurdities and the pretentiousness of the world and laugh a little at yourself because we’re all guilty of social climbing.
Jazz: Right, laugh out loud at how hard it is to accept yourself as you are without fearing other people’s judgment. Some of this stuff really works.
Now, sit back and relax for their first ever tutorial video on jet etiquette...
Now, sit back and relax for their first ever tutorial video on jet etiquette...