Montecito transfer sits well with Manhattan couple
March 9, 2006 12:00 AM
Katherine and Matthew Stewart used to play a game called “rat catcher” with their young daughter Sophia in the Manhattan neighborhood of Soho, where they lived until just the other week.
The game worked a bit like chicken. The Stewarts would go to the park and Mr. Stewart would put Sophia on his shoulders and they’d run toward the biggest rat they could find. They never did catch one, but “they were big,” says Ms. Stewart, a slender brunette hovering somewhere around 40, and she illustrates her point by putting her hands far apart, fisherman fashion. If you live in New York City and you’re interested in the animal kingdom, you’ve got to take it as it comes.
When the Stewarts visited Santa Barbara last winter, she says she fell in love with it in about 11 seconds, even though it was raining that day. To become fond of Santa Barbara so quickly is fast by any measure, but especially so for a woman who grew up in Boston and spent the past two decades in Manhattan.
East Coasters tend to be like the British in at least one sense: They believe there is something culturally lacking west of them and, even though they’ll rarely admit it, jealousy partly underlies the sentiment.
The Stewarts, both writers, moved to Montecito in December and, unwittingly perhaps, they are part of a new cohort of families that has come here over the past few years. Many of them are good-looking, wealthy and have young kids; the other day I ran into a woman from an established Montecito family who described them as “the shiny people.”
One of the things I’d like to do in this column is find out who these newcomers are and why they’ve moved here, although this second question may be as dumb as asking the old man (if only we could) why he married Anna Nicole Smith.
Not surprisingly, the Stewarts moved to Santa Barbara in large part because of its beauty. The town’s small size was appealing to them, too, especially to Ms. Stewart, who doesn’t drive yet, having spent most of her adult life in Manhattan. Puttering on surface streets seems manageable to her; driving on freeways seems a little more daunting.
People settle here for the quality of life, but for the ambitious and hypereducated, the move often comes with the feeling that they’ve opted out somehow.
When the Stewarts announced they were moving here, their New York friends expressed the inevitable and odd East Coast obsession about earthquakes. No one reads books in Southern California, they also pointed out, and they wondered out loud if the Stewarts were going to become surfers. Underneath all this, of course, was the troubling hedonism.
“They also view (California) as kind of immoral . . . that we’ve given up on self-denial and (are) giving in to pleasure. That we’ve gone over to the soft side,” says Mr. Stewart.
Mr. Stewart’s got a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University, and he recently retired from a management consulting company he helped establish. While Mr. Stewart liked management consulting, he was constantly flying here and there and staying in hotels. As the bio on the flap of his newest book (“The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World,” Norton 2006) proclaims, Mr. Stewart “retired in order to pursue a life of contemplation.”
Living in Montecito won’t prevent him from writing and contemplating. Most of the texts that Mr. Stewart is relying on for his next book, about the philosophical underpinnings of the American Revolution, are either scattered among dusty little New England libraries or they can be found all in one place: the Internet.
Ms. Stewart went to the University of Chicago, was an investigative reporter for the Village Voice and has just finished her second novel (“Class Mothers,” Berkley Books, due out this summer.)
As a novelist, all Ms. Stewart will need to access in Montecito is her imagination. What will be interesting, though, is to see how sunny and fun Santa Barbara changes her writing.
Her first novel, “The Yoga Mamas” (Berkley Books 2005), is a lively, satirical read about the adventures of five pregnant ladies who meet in a Soho yoga class. It has a decidedly edgy, New York sensibility.
Ms. Stewart believes, however, that there are cultural similarities between Santa Barbara and New York. Santa Barbara is an “incredibly cultural place for its size. I think of it as (New York’s) sixth borough,” she says, waits a beat and then laughs.