Social climbing is an ancient art, as old as society itself. The character of the high society imposter—the fake aristocrat, the soi-disant marquis, the “professor” with no degree—has been known in every era. Social climbers and charlatans have been described over and over in fiction. Think of the “king” and the “duke” who swindle Huckleberry Finn, or of Madame Verdurin, who claws her way upward throughout the course of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past—or of the Melanie Griffith character in Working Girl.
Over the centuries, some societies have been more susceptible to these sorts of swindles than others. Catherine the Great’s Russia, for example, was positively swarming with phony English duchesses and Italian princes: Imperial St. Petersburg was aspirational enough at that time to want the company of “real” European aristocrats but far away enough from London or Naples to make it difficult to check their pedigrees. One also thinks of Edith Wharton’s New York, for similar reasons: Her characters are precisely the sort who would fall into a mésalliance with a dodgy Polish aristocrat just off the boat who invariably turns out not to be what he seems.
To that notable group of societies we can now add 21st-century Washington, D.C. Like 18th-century Russia, it is a world of neophytes, a society whose members have only recently “made it” into an elite magic circle and who don’t necessarily know the other members all that well. Like 19th-century New York, it is also a world where appearances matter. You get invited to the party—whether the White House Hanukkah party or the state dinner—not just because of who you are but because of what you represent, which costume you wear, which ethnic group you come from.
Above all, it is a world that seems to offer both wealth and fame to those outsiders who manage to enter it. And it was in pursuit of both that Tareq and Michaele Salahi bamboozled their way into last week’s White House dinner for the Indian prime minister. Just like all charlatans and swindlers over the centuries, they managed it by looking and acting the part. He looks as if he could be of South Asian origin, which seemed right; he also wore black-tie and what looks, in the photographs, like a state decoration or medal. She is a striking, professionally coiffed blonde and wore an expensive red lehnga. * Having wrangled their way into meetings with Prince Charles and Oprah Winfrey (Michaele even swindled her way into Washington Redskins cheerleader alumni parties), they knew how to behave around the contemporary aristocracy. Simply act as if you belong: Don’t stare too hard at the celebrities, don’t eat or drink too much, and do engage your neighbors in light chitchat about the Kashmir conflict and the Indian GDP. Since hardly anyone knows anyone else at this kind of party, you can get away with it.
But there are differences between the Salahis and, say, Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, a self-described “Spanish aristocrat” who set himself up as a glamorous “faith healer” in 1770s St. Petersburg and made his living by borrowing money from gullible courtiers (and, possibly, by renting out his wife, the “Princess di Santa Croce,” to Prince Potemkin). The Salahis are hoping to cash in faster—a lot faster. It has been less than a week since they crashed the president’s party, and already they are demanding a six-figure sum for the exclusive TV appearance in which they either will declare themselves to be offended, on the grounds that they “thought” they were invited to the White House—or will boast of having pulled off the social-climbing coup of the century.
They also have a lot more help than did the swindlers of yesteryear. Michaele had a TV crew film her preparations for the party at a Georgetown beauty salon, so there is footage ready for whoever has the money to pay. A publicist has been booked and is prepared to negotiate. Plenty of “legitimate” news outlets are ready to play: According to the Washington Post, a CBS reporter has already slipped a note under their door, offering an interview with Katie Couric. Next will come the book contract, the movie rights, and—who knows?—maybe the TV talk show. I can just see it: Famous for Being Famous: At Home With the Salahis.
Unless, of course, they meet the same fate as their many predecessors. Spanish Count Cagliostro was eventually expelled from St. Petersburg after the empress learned that he was neither Spanish nor a count. The king and duke in Huckleberry Finn were tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail. A century ago, the Salahis, too, would be shamed, embarrassed, and finally banished from the elite world that they had contrived to enter. Even now, they ought to expect to be under arrest for lying to the Secret Service, if nothing else—unless the rules of polite society have changed so much that there are no longer any rules at all.
Correction, Nov. 30, 2009: This story originally and incorrectly said that Michaele Salahi wore a sari to the state dinner. (Return to the corrected sentence.)