I don’t know that much embodies better the Great Recession than the rise and fall of the Siegels, the Floridian couple profiled in The Queen of Versailles.
David and Jackie Siegel are living large when the documentary begins. They are in the process of building America’s largest house, a modern day Versailles. David is a billionaire from a very successful real estate empire he has built over many years, Jackie is a former Mrs. America and engineer. They are looking forward to living in splendor (“He deserves it. He works so hard,” says Jackie about David) and spending the rest of their days with their seven children. (They are incredibly fertile as well as tremendously wealthy: the overabundance in their lives is a major factor of what makes the story so compelling.)
“My husband, when I got married to him, I wanted nothing but love from him. He always said ‘trust me’ and I put my trust in him. So, we’ll see what happens.”
Jackie Siegel, 2007
Florida’s wealthy citizens are quite different than the wealthy of San Francisco. Even new money acts like old money here, and being rich is much less conspicuous and more tied to cultural events, like the Opera or Symphany or the De Young museum. Homes are rarely built, they already exist and are older. Think the famous Victorian mansions you see in the movies.
Judging by The Queen of Versailles, instead of Prada and the opening of the Rudolf Nureyev costume exhibit, in Florida, you become a patron of the Miss America pagent and wear Versace. You invest in Vegas. Disney (and its idea of beautiful princesses marrying rich princes) looms ever large. Women are valued for the way they look in a swimsuit.
In 2007, the Siegels were at the top of this scene. Trying to top themselves, they were in the process of building their dream home, Versailles, overlooking a swamp. They even specifically designed a window to be able to watch the Disney fireworks. Apparently, the design was influenced by the infamous palace in France and the Paris hotel in Las Vegas. Yes, for real.
But the home and David’s empire were leveraged by cheap credit. And that was not a good place to be in 2008.
The second part of the movie chronicles the fall in status and wealth of the Siegels and how various house staff members, business employees and family members cope. Most touchingly, a nanny from the Phillipines who has not seen her own son in 10 years talks about how she sends all of her money back to her family and her father so he too might be able to live in a concrete, comfortable home. Eventually, he dies never being able to live in one, although his tomb is concrete. (“And isn’t that almost the same thing?” the nanny asks heartbreakingly.) At one point, Jackie appears overwhelmed by all of her children (she says she had so many because she had all of the nannies to help her) and tons of pets in the still enormous home they live in. David tries to keep his company afloat and prevent his enormous Vegas property from defaulting. Instead of buying french antiques in vast quantities, Jackie goes on shopping binges at Wal-Mart.
Halfway built, Versailles languishes and fills with cobwebs and dirt. The echoes to Xanadu are inevitable.
As the grim economic crisis doesn’t change for the Siegels and time passes, a funny thing happens. Jackie seems to rise to the challenge. She begins to cook for her kids and throws casual parties for family and friends. She realizes that money comes and money goes; she’s been lucky to have what she has. Her love for her husband (even though I personally wonder if he deserved it: I didn’t like his overly attentive displays toward the Miss America contestants) and children remains strong. In the end I found her resilience kind of inspiring.
“If we had to buy just a normal house, like a $300,000 dollar, 3 bedroom house, I would do it. I would be fine with that, I’d make it work. (I’d) Just get a bunch of bunkbeds, you know.”
Jackie Siegal, 2011
I guess this is what the economic crisis has done: it has made us shrink our expectations of what we need and deserve. I like to think it made me focus much more on what’s most important: shelter, food, friends, family.
Have you seen Queen of Versailles? What were your impressions of it?