Well Above Average

One man’s immodest, chest-pounding, vainglorious quest to find the ultimate Minnesota status symbol

I don’t think this is going to work. I’m about to crash the Twin Cities’ most exclusive country clubs—blowing past the “Private” and “Members Only” signs, the gate houses, and possibly the hounds—and apply for membership. Only, I’m driving a red Honda Civic made during the Clinton administration—the first one. Worse, I forgot to take off the note stuck on all the cars in my neighborhood advertising “Earn an extra $800—$1,000 a month—CASH!” This car has been through a flood, and the muffler has more gaping holes than my investment portfolio. It sounds like poverty.

But how else am I going to investigate status in Minnesota—a place where modesty is supposedly the state religion? Where conspicuous consumption is spoken of like a disease? Where the state’s wealthiest citizen—Carl “Penny Pincher” Pohlad, whose net worth is estimated at twice the gross domestic product of Belize—is reputed to sleep not in a penthouse, or a Lake Minnetonka mansion, but a humble rambler? So screw it—I’m breaking the secrecy, and possibly a few laws. It’s WWTD (What Would Trump Do?) time. Time to find out what passes for status in the state where everyone is above average.

Status symbols, by definition, are elusive creatures. In the past year alone, the media has declared the following as the latest status symbols: big broods, small carbon footprints, cocaine (in India—they’re a little behind). And I suspect that whatever our state’s quintessential status symbol is, it has evolved far beyond the classic “Minnesota good life” of a cabin, a fishing boat, and a mess of walleye. We’re officially a rich state now, and the relationship between Minnesotans and their money is changing faster than you can say trophy wife.

Until recently, we perennially ranked around 20th among the states in per capita income—about average—and then suddenly we ascended, peaking at seventh place in 2004. By the time the only Maserati dealership in the Upper Midwest opened here, in 2006, we’d left our neighboring states in the dust; we are now a solid top-10 state, keeping company with the blue-blooded likes of Connecticut and Massachusetts. The question is no longer how did we get here but how will it change us?

BACK IN 1985, the definition of high society in the Twin Cities was scientifically determined by researchers studying how companies choose their boards of directors. Country-club membership, particularly at Woodhill in Wayzata or Somerset in Mendota Heights, was considered essential. To gauge if this is still the case, I head to Wayzata, arguably the region’s ground zero for status. There are four country clubs here within five square miles—you could practically tee off at one and land your ball in another.

At the Lafayette Club, founded by railroad baron James J. Hill as a Lake Minnetonka resort, I’m welcomed like a Rockefeller, despite the noisy Honda. “Are you a swimmer?” asks the receptionist. “A golfer? Tennis?” It’s old-school—chairs sporting the Lafayette crest, a jar of Vitalis hair tonic and a gallon of Listerine in the locker room—but in a good way.

But as I’m handed a membership application, I’m reminded of the old Groucho Marx line: “I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me as a member.” Could it really be this easy? At club after club, I have the same feeling: The real status-seekers have moved on.

At the last club I visit, I sense the direction they’re headed. Spring Hill Golf Club opened fairly recently, in 1999, and was No. 1 on a former golf pro’s ranking of the most exclusive local country clubs. The only background I could find was in a magazine called the Chief Executive, in which the CEO of SuperValu discusses his favorite Spring Hill hole. The club’s website offers little more than “rules for guests.”

“We’re a petite little club for our members,” a rep tells me, refusing to elaborate. But everything about it, from the McMansion-like clubhouse to the fact that it formed at the height of the stock craze, shouts nouveau riche—or at least the desire to draw a more definitive line between those with status and those without. Chief Executive reported just 185 members for Spring Hill, or .0000358 percent of Minnesota’s population.

The richest Americans, as we know, are pulling away from the rest of us—financially and socially—at the speed of day trading. Is Minnesota headed that way? I need some perspective, so I call a guy who should know—Dave Keiski, a.k.a. Dave the Lake Guy, the editor of a clubby lake-area newspaper called the Lake Minnetonka Navigator. “The breakdown,” he assures me—meaning between the rich and everyone else here—“isn’t a black-and-white, cut-and-dried thing. I know multimillionaires whose circle of friends include the waiters and waitresses who serve them.”

Status means nothing? “Well, there’s a bravado among the young and successful—they’re cocky sons of bitches. But I love ’em. Everybody who really lives out here, they might wear different hats, but everybody loves each other.”

How is this possible? It’s not love a status-seeker is supposed to want, it’s envy. Perhaps wealthy Minnesotans truly are different from the rich in, say, Richistan, a new nonfiction book that portrays the moneyed class as living in a world apart. Those people are forever talking about “liquidity events” (corporate buyouts) and “non-correlated assets” (like paintings)—and what would a waitress know about that?

On my way out of Wayzata, I drop in on the state’s most exclusive residence—a 12.9-acre Lake Minnetonka estate built for a Pillsbury in 1918 and currently on the market for $53.5 million, or about “f— you” in real people terms. This place has 16 bathrooms, multiple outbuildings. President Bush reportedly stayed here last summer. And yet: no gate. In fact, I stand close enough to ring the doorbell—classic Minnesota, as if even the super-rich here can’t quite bring themselves to seem too distant, too unapproachable. But will the new owners feel the same way, or put up a fence as soon as they move in?



It would be easy to dismiss Minnesota’s storied egalitarianism as myth, no more real than Lake Wobegon. But our history says otherwise: Those lutefisk-loving Scandinavians who shaped our state had cooperative, not competitive, ideas about organizing society—not unlike, well, Scandinavia today. “What is it the classic Minnesota mom would tell you?” muses Dane Smith, the former Star Tribune reporter now heading Growth & Justice, a St. Paul think-tank promoting economic equality. “‘You’re no better than anybody else.’”

Yet, as Smith will tell you, it’s an “uncontested fact” that we’re no longer encouraging such values, at least not at the policy level. Since the state overhauled its tax structure in 2001, under Jesse Ventura, the wealthiest 1 percent of Minnesotans are paying less as a percentage of their income in state and local taxes than everybody underneath them. And a recent survey on Twin Citians’ spending habits, Smith notes, seems to show that we’ve lost our famous sense of propriety, too: We ranked first, among 24 American metropolises, in spending on entertainment and home furnishings.

The increasing difference between old money and new money in Minnesota can be seen any summer weekend on Lake Minnetonka. “There are basically three kinds of people on the lake,” says Kyle Pillsbury, who sells boats worthy of his last name over at Marine Max Wayzata, one of the major dealers on the lake. At the top are the two lucky so-and-sos who own Rivas, classy Italian-made wooden cruisers that Pillsbury calls “the Bentley of boats.” One was previously Rita Hayworth’s vessel, given to her by her third husband, Prince Aly Khan. Then there are the middle-aged members of the Power Squadron, a sort of watery fellowship based on Big Island. Both these cotillions have little to prove, says Pillsbury, and they definitely don’t mix with the lake’s most conspicuous inhabitants: the status seekers, “the forty-somethings buying on serious credit.”

These are the guys who want to be seen. Who tie their boats together at Big Island every summer weekend—monster party yachts that eat bass boats for lunch and leave mega-wakes like so much post-coital smoke. Most are new money, some just act that way. “There are a lot of posers,” Pillsbury says. They sport in-your-face boat names, like Shredder. They’ve got TVs on board, underwater lights to cast an aura around them, $10,000 stereos that, according to one installer, “blow ducks off the water.”

Boats with bling are the new sports car. In fact, at the Minneapolis Boat Show this month, the hottest watercraft is expected to be the new Malibu Corvette Limited Edition Sport-V. As much as nautically possible, this boat resembles the classic midlife-crisis car, down to the 512 horsepower—perfect for when you need to reach Lord Fletcher’s in 5.6 seconds. “If you take this on Lake Minnetonka, you’re gonna be bombarded,” the boat’s local dealer, at Minnesota Inboard Water Sports, assured me. Meaning blonde-barded, with bikini-clad bombshells.

Minnesota’s creeping immodesty isn’t limited to lakes, of course. On a Saturday night, I head to Bellanotte, the downtown Minneapolis restaurant and bar whose curb is generally lined with Lexuses, Hummers, and the odd Rolls-Royce. It opened in 2004, incidentally the year Minnesota’s per capita income peaked, and if there is a place to covet and be coveted in the Twin Cities, this is it. I once saw a tiny fiftysomething dude in a cranberry-colored zoot suit and a shark’s tooth around his neck emerge from a sports car with a bottle-blonde half his age and nearly twice his height. Here, it seems, anything is possible, given a long enough line of credit.

I pull up behind a Maserati and a monster truck that I fear hasn’t yet eaten its daily ration of Hondas. A customer shouts at the valets: “Where my Lex at?” And I ask the valets how people here demonstrate their status. “What does that tell you?” one says, pointing to a monster truck. It’s yellow, painted with flames and a single word: Crave. “It’s all about the flash.”

Inside, the bar is packed with women in little dresses and men in big watches. The latter hang back a bit from the bar, observing, shark-like, in the shadows. The place is darker than the inside of a wallet.

Who are these people? And where were they hanging out before this place opened? Miami? California? Probably not. More likely these flashy folks are us: Minnesotans playing at pretension, no longer afraid to showboat. With practice, perhaps we won’t look so ridiculous.

A 40-ish man in a navy blazer, his remaining hair slicked back, enters the restaurant with a young brunette on one arm and an even younger-looking blonde on the other. Later, by the bar, he kisses the dark-haired one and slips his arm around the blonde’s waist. If you’re in the market for a sugar daddy, this is the place. “A lot of our clientele are recently divorced men,” the valet tells me, “old guys looking to pick up something young.”

Just then, a gaggle of women wearing blue, glow-in-the-dark penis necklaces practically fall out of the bar onto the sidewalk. “Who wants a condom?” cries the ringleader, holding one up and looking over at me. And that’s when I realize I’m practically leaning on the Maserati. If this is what a $110,000 car gets you in Minneapolis, I’m out. Where my Honda at?

Here’s the dirty little secret about Minnesotans: We’ve always wanted status—admiration, recognition, maybe even the blonde with the four-inch heels and fake everything. Why not? We may be frozen, but we’re not petrified. The guy flashing his Rolex at Bellanotte is just being more honest about it.

The same was true of Wilbur Foshay, the Jazz Age entrepreneur who plunked a giant phallic tribute to himself in the middle of downtown Minneapolis and commissioned John Philip Sousa—the equivalent of hiring Paul McCartney today—to compose a march for the grand opening, which reputedly went down with half-nude dancers and a gold watch for every guest. And what did we do with him? Ran him out of town. Same with F. Scott Fitzgerald, once he started strutting around Summit Avenue.

Minnesotans have a different, less gauche way of pursuing status. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I suspect it has something to do with a Volvo.

In the list of “The 9 Handy Rules of Minnesota Living,” included in the cheeky travel guide How to Talk American, the first is “Do not be caught in a Mercedes. The preferred vehicle is a beat-up Volvo.” Indeed, an analyst at Volvo’s North American headquarters confirms our infatuation: The carmaker’s share of the luxury new vehicle market in Minnesota is almost twice as large as its typical share in other states.

So I’m surprised when I poll my friends regarding Minnesota status symbols and their most frequent response is: Volvo. Isn’t this nondescript Swedish car, once known as the “box on wheels,” our anti-status symbol?

To find out, I visit Borton Volvo in south Minneapolis, which could hardly be more Scandinavian if it served lefse at the door. The salespeople all wear warm, fuzzy sweaters, no ties, and are almost studiously unassuming, like selling you a car is the last thing on their minds. After 10 minutes of small talk, I’m practically begging them to show me around. “Help yourself,” says the sales manager.

The latest, greatest Volvo—the C30—has a clean, smooth interior, very few protruding knobs. Supposedly, this is for safety, so you don’t pierce yourself in an accident, but I can’t help relating it to the Midwest mentality of not wanting to stick out. “Volvos fit in everywhere,” a salesman assures me. Volvos, in fact, were once the choice of diplomats the world over, because Sweden was neutral—it was the car you drove when you didn’t want to make a statement. (More recently, a major marketing survey found Volvos to be the cars with the greatest percentage of Democrat-voting owners.)

Borton is run by a Norwegian transplant named Kjell Bergh, who was test-driving race cars for the largest men’s magazine in Norway when he was persuaded to settle down in Minnesota and sell Volvos. Many Daytons and Pillsburys, he says, are clients, as is former Governor Wendell Anderson. “The mentality of traditional Minnesotans has not changed,” he asserts. “I have friends who are wealthy in the extreme who are still driving cars in the $20,000 to $30,000 range. They’re uncomfortable flaunting their wealth because most of their friends and neighbors don’t have the same kind of means. It’s not because they’re trying to save money.”

In Florida, where Bergh has also sold cars, “If your neighbor bought a 500 series Mercedes, you had better have one in your garage,” he says. “Status was a blood sport. Minnesotans, by and large, are smarter than that.”

Or, at least, we’d like to think so. Here, an anti-status symbol is a status symbol— to be able to afford a Porsche but buy a Volvo instead. Thinking of one’s collective self as not being status conscious seems a particularly Minnesotan form of status consciousness. Stuck out here in flyover country, so easily overlooked, we have always been self-conscious but pretend we don’t care; we pretend to be better.



This conspicuous—and deliberately inconspicuous—consumption is starting to get to me, or rather, the banality of it all: cars, boats, babes. We may be richer than ever, but I fear we’re status-poor. Eighty years ago, the greatest Minnesota status symbol might have been a mention in The Daily Dirge, a newsletter written by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, a kind of proto-Onion in which the Summit Avenue elite—the Ordways, even the governor—were name-dropped in such ersatz stories as “Frightful Orgy at University Club.” What’s the contemporary equivalent? C.J.? Only B-list anchormen would be caught dead in that space. Barbara Flanagan’s column? The people she mentions probably are dead.

There must be something every modern Minnesotan wants but cannot, probably, have. Something even money cannot buy—the prize of fate not mere accumulation. I can think of three things (your list may vary).

I decide to start with, presumably, the easiest goal: Getting my name emblazoned on a table at Peter’s Grill in Minneapolis, our very own Sardi’s. Sure, only two people so far have received the brass table plaque at this 94-year-old institution: Barbara Flanagan, the venerable Star Tribune reporter; and President Bill Clinton. But I eat there all the time—the joint is in my office building, for Peter’s sake—and I’ve never hesitated, in the pages of this magazine, to hyperbolize about the meatloaf. Shouldn’t that be enough?

I grab the booth nearest the door—this will be the one. Peter himself is busy seating a businessman tugging a rolling suitcase. “Would you recommend the meatloaf?” the visitor asks me. I would, but think how much more weight my endorsement would carry if I had my own booth.

And then I notice that all the diners around me are at least 30 years older, and my waitress knows them by name. “You behave yourself now, John!” she kids an ancient customer on his way out. “See you next week.” How does that happen? Was he ordering his 110th apple pie when the waitress set down her notepad and asked, “Hey, bud, what’s your name?” I bet all these guys sit in the same place every time—they already have their own booths, just unofficially.

“What do I have to do to get my name on a booth?” I query the waitress. “I dunno,” she replies absentmindedly. “Become a Hollywood star.” This may take a while.

Next up: Inspiring a character in Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon. I write Keillor via his public-relations person: How often have the characters in his fictional pantheon—Pastor Inqvist, say, or Myrtle Krebsbach—been inspired by real people? And what it would take to find oneself referenced in a future monologue on A Prairie Home Companion?

I receive a reply from his assistant—a three-paragraph explanation of all the reasons why Keillor has no “wiggle room” in his schedule and cannot respond himself: He just finished a six-week book tour; the radio show; a speaking engagement; a photo shoot; another speaking engagement; recording The Writer’s Almanac, his other radio bit; a reading at his bookstore; a phone interview; a meeting; several deadlines; and he’s taking two days off.

I can take a hint.

Eventually, though, Peter’s Grill will serve its last apple pie and Garrison will stop mythologizing. I need a more timeless Minnesota status symbol. And what could be more iconic, more beloved, more eternal than Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes?

I want my name on a lake.

Apparently, I’m not the first to have this thought, since “How do I go about naming a lake?” appears on the Frequently Asked Questions page of Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources website. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

With few exceptions, you can’t rename a lake that’s had the same moniker for at least 40 years. You also need a petition, a countywide public hearing, the DNR’s approval, the federal government’s approval, and probably God’s. Because you can own all the land around a natural lake, you can even own the land under a lake, but you can’t own the water itself—that’s in the public domain. You see the difficulty.

Occasionally, this renaming process does work, according to Pete Boulay, the DNR’s guru of geographic place names. And sometimes, he tells me, it’s even about status. The humble name Mud Lake, for instance, doesn’t always sit well with today’s lake-home owners. “They feel they need to elevate the status of the lake,” says Boulay, who’s seen Mud Lakes become Lake Camelot and Golden Pond. There are so many Golden Ponds now that he’s asked counties to think twice about approving more.

This is far more disturbing than the bling at Bellanotte. If Mud Lake was good enough for Great-great-grandfather Sven, why shouldn’t it be good enough for us? Would a little more jingle in our jeans pockets cause us to abandon not just our tastes but our whole identity? “I think there is something else going on,” says Dane Smith of Growth & Justice. “As time goes on, each state and region gets to be more like the others—they feel like everywhere else. People lose their accents, their distinctions. Maybe we are getting a little less Minnesotan.”

I’m not helping. Because as much as I hate to trade in our humble heritage for a lake-sized vanity plate, I kinda want my name on the map. Fine, says Boulay. There’s just one catch.

“You’d have to be dead,” he tells me. “Your ‘status’ would be six feet under.”

You’d have to kill me? “No, but you’d have to be deceased for five years. Federal guidelines.”

Figures. What could be more Minnesotan, after all, than not quite getting what you want? Being slightly unsatisfied—and being okay with it. Isn’t that what we still pride more than anything? I can wait.

Tim Gihring is senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.


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