Meet the new generation of 'bi-central' Brits commuting between London and New York

Anne Mcelvoy
City state of mind: Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, Frank Lampard, Jemima Kirke, David Cameron and Vicky Ward

You can spot them trundling onto the early BA flight from Heathrow — and tumbling off the red-eye a few days later back in London. They’re at screenings and suppers in clubs with liveried doormen, meeting via dating apps at bars in Chelsea and Soho — both the New York and London varieties.

The NY-LON (New York-London) link that launched in the late Eighties, when Liz Hurley, Hugh Grant and Tina Brown held court in both cities, has been reinvigorated, as established tribes of Brits in the Big Apple are joined by fresh waves of Londoners seeking their fortune in the city of opportunity. When Boris Johnson and David Cameron were snapped together at a bar in Harlem last week, they were, as far as worldly Manhattanites were concerned, just the latest evidence of a trend: Brits in town for business with a twist of social life or enjoying a respite from London.

The in-and-out crowd mingles with established NY-LONers, such as Hearst Magazines’ chief content officer Joanna Coles and former Tory MP and author Louise Mensch. Mark Thompson, the genial business boss of The New York Times is a former head of the BBC who pops back to London for book launches and landmark show appearances. You can find him rubbing shoulders at media-clan gatherings with John Micklethwait, former Economist editor now at the helm of Bloomberg, and the affable ex-Telegraph editor Will Lewis, who commutes between north London and his job as head of the mighty Dow Jones.

These “Brahmin Brits” inhabit the upper echelons of big companies and come with established track records at the top. But there’s a new wave of arrivals making a mark. Yasmin Green is a Sheffield-born champion basketball player and LSE graduate who runs Jigsaw, the think-tank arm of Google. She lives in Brooklyn and is chic enough to grace the pages of US Vogue this month, drawing attention for the very British habit of wearing floral dresses to the office.

Recently I have joined the band of Atlantic commuters, making a series of Indivisible, a live weekly show for American radio, co-produced with The Economist. It means regular long hauls to set up National Public Radio’s offices on Varick Street, and a parallel life. “I can be on air on Monday in New York and do a day or two of New York-style meetings — ‘She has a window of 15 minutes at 1.10pm’ — and then get back to sort out the messy pigeonhole in the London office.”

It means short nights and long days. The time difference necessitates reading work emails the moment you wake up. But the feeling of being “bi-centred”, as my American colleague puts it, is energising.

Damian Lewis (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

A number of factors has driven the trend of living and working across the Atlantic. The first is the impact of digital products in media and business, disrupting established hierarchies and patterns of promotion. Companies fearful of their margins or with cash to splash look globally for English-speaking talent. The second consideration is Brexit, which estate agents on the Upper East Side estate say is driving more cosmopolitan Londoners to seek at least a foothold on the other side of the pond.

This logic is known as making a post-Brexit “Bren-trance”. If this sounds a bit like frying pan to fire in the Trump era, just reckon that New Yorkers don’t really consider themselves to be much to do with President Trump, oddly given that the place launched him and contains so many of his name-emblazoned buildings. The only Trump-ites social New York admits to knowing are Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner.

Part of New York’s appeal is that it has so many overlapping circles of Brits-in-residence to seek out or just ogle at. Jemima Kirke, the British actress who plays Jessa, the most troublesome of HBO’s hi-maintenance Girls, is around town, so too is Damian Lewis, promoting Billions (though opening here in Edward Albee’s The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia in the West End next week). Nicolas Niarchos, son of Daphne Guinness, is a food columnist for The New Yorker. Ex-Chelsea player Frank Lampard has a following in the quaintly fashionable sport of soccer at suddenly in-vogue New York City football club.

John Oliver (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

John Oliver, that staple of sarkily incisive US talk shows, flits in and out of the studios. Behind-the-scenes powers, like Michael Jackson, another BBC-émigré, does TV drama deals.

It helps that this is a relentlessly social town, albeit one that parties with a sense of purpose and carefully maintained connections. John Studzinski, the financier, can convene the top brass of Wall Street, while Lady (Lynn) de Rothschild might be hosting a dinner or cocktail soirée — her political network ranges from Henry Kissinger and Senator John McCain to the Clintons. Gillian Tett, the US managing editor of the Financial Times, hosts cosy Sunday-night suppers at her brownstone where the Brit pack and natives swap news.

The social rules are beneficial to out–of-towners — we’re often drafted in or co-invited at the last minute, often by kind hosts with very little idea why we’re around.

Smaller micro-sets of NY-LONers proliferate. The “Brit-storians” set features sociable Amanda Foreman, who turns out books on the American Revolution and TV series on the history of women from her house in Gramercy. Andrew Roberts and Flora Fraser can be found judging history-book awards or giving speeches on their respective specialisms of Napoleon and the Washingtons. Niall Ferguson graduated from being a fixture on the NY-LON scene to professorships at Harvard and Stanford.

That circle interacts with writers (who still have a bit more cachet than the London sort) — such as Vicky Ward, a long-stay NY-LONer. She chronicles tales of finance and the complexities of Trumpworld for Esquire, with insights derived from living with a property mogul whose balance sheet makes The Donald’s look modest.

Emboldened by the new supply of Brits who like living in “the city” — as opposed to their American colleagues heading back to Williamsburg or The Westchester — Wetherby prep school is opening up a branch on the Upper East Side to capture the offspring of stray hedge-funders.

For ambitious early career stagers without big deals and the budgets to match, New York is a challenge to the wallet but a convivial one. “Always drink in a place that’s nicer than your apartment,” says Rose Kingman, a young artist I meet in a queue for a sample sale on the Lower East Side. They may take visitors to watch the Bergdorf Blondes at play in the Fifth Avenue stores but savvy NY-LON sorts scour sample sales for our designer goods, which means a lot of waiting in line outside tenement buildings reminiscent of Thoroughly Modern Millie. For a shot of culture, we buy the Metropolitan Opera’s on-the-day tickets and sit a few rows behind the big donors in furs. The upswing in British New York seems to have fed a desire for more British cultural: Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party has just had rave reviews, Frieze founder Matthew Slotover has set up a New York art fair.

The only rules of acceptance I have so far divined is doing as the natives do in small matters, so that other Brit oddities are forgiven. There is an entire website dedicated to things Brits do “wrong”, including attempting to eat pizza with a fork and affecting not to know how much to tip. I would add that complimenting a radio co-host on his “jumper” gets a barely suppressed chuckle, and I cannot yet use the word “excited” about something perfectly mundane, but adaptation happens by stealth. We have learned to call getting in touch with someone “reaching out” without sounding mocking about such phrases. We realise that people will always reply to the reach-out, claiming that it would be “exciting to meet” — but this does not necessarily translate into a commitment to actually do so.

Sometimes, we get brushed off, sometimes with all the charm of Seinfeld’s Elaine on a bad day. “More notice next time”, read one reply, or just “Diary says after June”.

On the upside, we find being a “friend of...” (practically anyone we ever knew in New York) opens doors more readily than cliquey London. It just led to a bunch of us ocean commuters being invited by Peggy Siegal, a PR doyenne influential in shaping the Oscar and Golden Globes nominations, to the premiere of the new Spielberg-backed movie Five Came Back.

And we keep coming back, because New York always has a door temptingly ajar and the next step of a deal to pursue or a plan to follow up. For those who wfancy ditching the red-eye commute and becoming longer-stay NY-LONers, Josh Glancy, installed not long ago as a Sunday Times correspondent, recommends “getting connected to the private Facebook groups” that new arrivals seek out.

Key advice? “Two days of browsing on Janelle List and Sloane’s List can get you a job, a flat and a dog” and, for the forseeable future at least,“don’t get paid in sterling”.

Anne McElvoy is senior editor at The Economist and a co-host of Indivisible with WNYC radio

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