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 multi-millionaires 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 o’ Missing Men” estate has been sold, although he clued me in rather well. Until the late 1970s, American nouveaux riche did not bother with shooting birds. A trip to Miami and a winter suntan was 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 with a nose for making money 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 phrases 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. Before heading for Blighty, prospective great shots took to training over on these shores. It began in Southampton, when a new gun—English country word for a hunter—shot low and, instead of peppering a beater, 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 loves overenforcing 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 Saint 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. 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 Eighties. Everyone who was anyone had to be seen shooting in Yorkshire and Scotland come the autumn. Purdeys, 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 but with no shower and barely a piece of soap or warm room in the vicinity. Eventually, some famed shooting estates fell into American hands. The plumbing improved to no end. Gunnerside, considered one of the best shoots in England, was bought by my friend Bob Miller, the duty-free billionaire.
Personally, I only shoot to kill clay pigeons. Although friends invite me to shoots, I do not enjoy watching the massacres. It’s an English tradition, just as it’s an American one to hunt animals. Live and let live, says I, but try and tell that to the joggers who got peppered on a quiet Saturday in Southampton. They’re still looking for that “dago” Duke who did them in, but the poor guy is long gone. Apparently he shot, but missed, a couple of angels on his way up.
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