Someplace High Over America -- She walks past like a 6-foot-tall vision, a Vogue magazine cover come to life. And yet, no one seems to notice but me.
This is the kind of woman for whom kingdoms have been lost. The kind who exist only in epic poetry and, more recently, in Lancome ads. And still, as she settles into her private stateroom, the other passengers are busy attending to their seats, as if sitting down were suddenly the most important thing in the world. Nobody even looks up.
Meanwhile, the flight attendants are offering pillows and champagne and slippers. And all I want is a name to the perfect, un-air-brushed face. Just for the record, you understand.
"We're not allowed to say," says the first flight attendant I ask.
But another, kinder soul, whispers the name -- supermodel Linda Evangelista -- who, I would learn later, takes home as much as $30,000 for a day's work of walking her body up and down a fashion-show runway.
It's no wonder that she settles into her stateroom as if it is her right. Maybe it is. For this is where money lives -- here on MGM Grand Air, the ne plus ultra of first-class air travel, billed as the Orient Express at 30,000 feet in the air.
Turns out, the rich are different from you and me. They fly better. Much better.
You see, money doesn't simply live here. It spreads out and puts its feet up. It relaxes here. It belongs here in much the same way that the gentry belong in English clubs, only with fewer cigars. Money buys a lot of things, and that includes the possibility of traveling without being stared at by schlubs like me.
Besides, why would you stare at supermodel Linda Evangelista if, for instance, you're in the next stateroom and you're super editor Tina Brown? All Brown ever did -- first at Vanity Fair and now at the New Yorker -- is re-invent magazine journalism in her own high-profile image, so that every would-be writer in America worships at her well-heeled feet.
I understand this even before I settle into my improbably luxurious airplane seat, which is not only made of a leather deeply rich and Corinthian, but also fully reclines and swivels. Yes, swivels -- and, for all I know, does your taxes. Did you ask about leg room? I've got leg room like Shaquille O'Neal's got legs.
You can expect leg room when they spread 34 seats throughout an entire Boeing 727 onto which another airline might squeeze 180 people, squeeze 'em until they bleed, or at least sweat. I'm not squeezed. I haven't sweated since I boarded. In fact, I've got my feet propped up on my very own ottoman (it matches the seat) delivered by a flight attendant who seems as if she could not possibly be happy if I were not entirely comfortable.
My seat, not far from the bar that is the plane's centerpiece, is meant to evoke those New York glass and brass lounges, which seems right as I sip my Moet Chandon and munch on warmed nuts (no peanuts, no vacuum-packed bag, certainly no plastic cup for the bubbly) as we take off from Kennedy.
As I look down through the smoggy mist -- or is it misty smog? -- the Statue of Liberty comes into view. All I can think to do as I see the old girl with her lantern upraised, giving light to the myriad possibilities of the human experience, is to lift my glass and proclaim, "God bless America."
Or maybe it's: "I don't think we're flying Continental anymore, Toto."
MGM Grand is certainly not peanuts class. It's first-class from fore to aft, if airplanes have either fores or afts. If you've never heard of MGM Grand Air, that's because you don't need to. Perhaps you're familiar with the the old line that if you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford it. This baby runs $1,423 for a trip from New York to L.A. One way. Don't ask.
A select group
It's a very small subset of humans who can actually afford this decadence/opulence (pick one: depending on your world view). On this day, there are only eight passengers -- me and what I like to call the rich folk. The newspaper's paying my way. And the rich folk, whose accountants are paying, are all off to L.A. before the tans begin to fade and the last pool-side deals are made.
"Nobody needs to fly this way," allows Michael S. Geylin, the passenger who's sitting nearest me. Not near. Being near someone on an airplane means you're in a middle seat scrunched between two guys who have never missed lunch and who seem to have matching mustard stains on their matching bowling shirts.
Mr. Geylin is across the way from me, across an aisle big enough to bowl on, a chasm so great that you expect to hear yodeling. A flight attendant has set up a table, just for him, for his appetizers, and he invites me over as the flight attendant rushes to set up mine.
"This is a gift I give myself," Mr. Geylin says. "I fly all the time. It's mostly from New York to Detroit and back to New York. You know what those flights are like. Usually, I fly whatever is most convenient for my schedule.
"But once in a while, when I go to L.A., and I feel like pampering myself, I fly like this."
He looks up and smiles. Here's what "like this" is like. "Like this" is a plane built for luxury. It has four private compartments, which they modestly call staterooms, in the back, each with four seats. If you buy all four seats -- that would be $5,692 one way, if you're keeping score -- they can be folded into a queen-size bed. According to my flight-attendant source, the bed is sometimes used for activities other than sleeping. You know how those rock stars are.
"Like this" is a bar to socialize in, where money can brush up against money. It's where 34 seats are served by eight TV screens, with a wide range of movie choices, meaning you're not stuck with something like "Little Big League." (I'm watching "The Producers," Mel Brooks' spoof on musicals. You can sing along: "Don't be stupid/be a smarty/Come and join/the Nazi party.")
Only the best
"Like this" is a choice of five entrees for lunch. And caviar for dinner. And a red rose on your tray. And a footstool. And fresh-baked cookies. And flight attendants who seem to sincerely like you. It's five hours' worth of the kind of smiles that Nancy Reagan reserved for Ron at very special photo ops.
And "like this" is a bathroom so tastefully appointed that it actually took me five minutes to find the toilet (it's under the seat that matches the rest of the plane's decor). Maybe there should be a map.
My new best friend Mike and I are laughing at Mel Brooks -- they bring you popcorn during the movie, honest to God -- and maybe at our luck. Mr. Geylin is president of a New York P.R. firm. He used to be a mere journalist before he gave up the business to get rich so he can fly on planes like this one with the celebs (recent sightings include Billy Crystal, Carl Reiner, Jon Lovett and Meg Ryan) who live on one or both coasts, never in what
was long ago dismissed as fly-over land.
hTC "It's a great way to kill a day," Mr. Geylin says of the flight. "One day I'm sitting in front of a guy who's the attorney for the Rolling Stones. We talked music the entire flight. It was great fun."
That explains him. But what am I doing here?
It isn't like I do lunch with super-model Linda Evangelista and talk pret-a-porter or Calvin's new spring line. In fact, if you want to know the truth, she never calls. And neither, by the way, does super-editor Tina Brown.
I'm here because I thought this would be the place to find how the rich live -- since rich people, in the new political culture, should be again as popular as a capital-gains tax cut. In other words, don't throw away your Donald Trump trading cards.
At the height of the Trump Era, there was a luxury line called Regent Air, which went under. At MGM Grand, they understand. Their first shot at regularly scheduled commercial flights didn't take, either. The airline evolved into a high-class charter outfit, which it remains today -- and more.
Last September, MGM Grand (owned by billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, who also owns the Vegas hotel of the same name and about 50 other businesses of various names) renewed its commercial service, with flights connecting New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, which the ad boys call the Golden Triangle.
There are flights every day but Saturday. And high rollers are certainly welcome.
On this flight -- "A Tuesday, so you don't expect a big crowd," says chef/bartender Stephen Jacob -- there are only the eight of us, which isn't a big crowd except on a bicycle. Actually, there are nine if you count the dog, who has steak for lunch. Rare.
The passenger list
A family of three, with the dog, has one stateroom. Linda Evangelista has another (the curtains are drawn, perhaps for napping, perhaps to discourage the curious); Tina Brown yet another. And regular rich person Olga Altman has the fourth. Mr. Geylin and I, up in the cheap seats, round out the guest list -- eight of us served by six flight attendants/servants.
Just like home.
Ms. Altman, who hails from L.A., is a huge MGM Grand fan. She flew it in the old days. "It was a terrible day when they stopped running," she says. "I remember the date -- Dec. 31, 1992."
Ms. Altman is a woman in her 60s who's wearing a suit so expensive that even I know it's expensive. Everyone dresses on this flight, as of old. What I mean is, nobody's wearing anything with a Nike logo. Ms. Altman appears to be used to what you might call living well.
She can't stand to fly commercial. For one thing, she says, everyone and his brother can now upgrade to first class, thanks to those pesky frequent flier plans.
And besides. "I don't like to be rushed," she says. "I don't like to be jostled. I don't like the way the air recirculates on those flights. Every time I fly commercial, I come back with a cold."
Then she adds: "They can't be making money with only eight passengers. Not that I'm worried about Mr. Kerkorian. But I hope they keep flying. It's really not that much more expensive unless you're flying . . . oh, what is it . . . you know . . . [she finally gets the word] economy."
Actually, she's right.
A one-way ticket on American Airlines' premium class, New York to L.A., is $1,400. Of course, some of us sometimes have to fly . . . oh, what is it . . . you know . . . economy.
There are essentially three kinds of people who fly MGM Grand:
There are those like Olga Altman, who figures it's her due to fly this way. There are those like Michael Geylin, who knows it's decadent, but still loves it.
And then there is super-editor Tina Brown, who's actually embarrassed. Who doesn't want to be seen here. Who acts as if she's been caught in flagrante delicto (translated loosely to mean, with hand in cookie jar), as if she, a working girl after all, isn't quite comfortable in these circles, as if a typical day for the glamorous New Yorker editor/diva didn't blend into a night at Le Cirque or some other place with foie gras on the menu.
I knock on the door to her stateroom to ask if she would talk.
Her smile is pained as she looks up from the hand-written manuscript she's studying, which was probably written by Updike or somebody.
"I do this once in a very great while, when I have a great deal of work to do and I need to escape," she says of her MGM flight.
I ask her if, say, one of her reporters has a great deal of work to do and needs to escape, would she let him fly MGM Grand.
Another smile, not quite so painful.
"No" is all she says.
I go back to my seat. Finish my lunch. Eat my oatmeal-raisin cookie, hot out of the oven. And when the plane lands -- even at these prices, the plane still bumps -- I get my luggage and head back into the real world. Where, it should be noted, I am the only MGM Grand passenger not to have a limo waiting.
A postscript. My editors thought it would be funny if I flew back coach -- on the red eye. You've done this, right? There are no more miserable people than those flying a red-eye. Get off the plane, and it's like the night of the living dead. I don't remember much, except that every seat on the plane was taken. I also remember that when I awoke, after about 45 minutes' sleep, to the voice of the captain saying we were coming in for a landing, I left my dream-world with a start. In fact, I screamed. I don't remember the dream exactly, but it might have had something to do with a supermodel, a flying dog and a middle seat.