If Tom Wolfe were writing “The Bonfire of the Vanities” today, he’d need a scene in the Grand Havana Room in New York City. It’s an Olympian den fit for what Wolfe called “Masters of the Universe” — the super-rich gods of finance who today go by “the one percent.” Taking up the penthouse floor of 666 Fifth Ave., the Grand Havana Room is a private, by-invitation-only cigar club and four-star restaurant.
Named by Business Insider as one of the “11 exclusive clubs Wall Streeters are dying to get into,” the Grand Havana Room is where powerbrokers and celebrities hobnob with captains of industry in one of the last places where it’s still legal to smoke in the Big Apple.
Immune as I am to the seductions of class resentment and Jacobin envy, I will admit it: I love the place. If invited, and if I could afford it, I’d join.
The one question I have is: Who’s paying for Al Sharpton’s membership?
“The Rev.” is an omnipresent member of the club. After his MSNBC show, he'll swing by for dinner and cigars amidst the other Masters of the Universe. I couldn’t confirm that he repaired there after he broadcast his radio show, “Keeping it Real,” from Zuccotti Park to show his solidarity with the 99 percenters.
The reason I ask who’s paying for his membership is that Sharpton’s relationship with money has always been complicated. When he claimed he didn’t have the resources to pay damages in a defamation suit he lost, Sharpton was asked in a deposition how he could afford his suits. He didn’t own them, he replied, someone else did. He was merely granted “access” to the garments as needed. The same went for his TV, silverware, etc.
There’s a metaphor in there somewhere. In our overly therapeutic culture, we talk a lot about “enabling” pathologies, self-destructive behavior, etc. Well, Sharpton is a pathology enabled by the very system he loathes.
In a healthy society, Sharpton might be on parole now — not the must-get guest for “Meet the Press” and “Today” on issues of racial justice. He was a ringleader in perpetuating the evil Tawana Brawley hoax, in which he and two corrupt lawyers (now disbarred), falsely accused assistant district attorney Steven Pagones and others of gang-raping a 15-year-old girl in a racist attack.
If he’d been locked up for that, he might not have helped incite the Crown Heights riots in 1991. After a tragic car accident in the New York neighborhood in which a Jewish driver accidentally struck and killed a black child named Gavin Cato, Sharpton stoked anti-Semitic rage. At the funeral for Cato, amidst shouts from the crowd of “Heil Hitler!” (one banner read: “Hitler did not do the job”), Sharpton didn’t call for reconciliation; he inveighed against “diamond dealers.” During the riots Jews were beaten in the street, and eventually a Hasidic tourist from Australia, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed to death.
Perhaps if he’d been shunned for his role in that, he might not have encouraged yet more violence in 1995, when Sharpton led protests against the eviction of a black-owned record store. Sharpton fueled rage on his radio show and at rallies to the point where one of the protesters ran into a Jewish-owned store whose owner was wrongly blamed for the eviction, shot several people, and then burned the place down, killing seven occupants.
But he was shunned for none of it. Nor was he shunned for his sometimes cavalier compliance with tax laws or his shabby shakedowns of corporations for donations. In fact, in a culture that increasingly rewards shamelessness, Sharpton got in on the ground floor and has been cashing in on his access ever since.
Sharpton is even hailed as an expert on racial tensions, which in a funny way is true. The establishment he constantly seeks to “speak truth” to has enabled him in every conceivable way. He doesn’t just have access to his suits, he has been given access to just about everything the 1 percent has to offer, including the best cigars.