Homeless European Billionaire Explains Why He Thinks He Can Save California

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Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Nicolas Berggruen is one of the wealthiest and most eccentric people in the world. As a teenager growing up in Paris, he refused to learn English, he told the Financial Times' Gillian Tett, because it was "the language of imperialism," and a few years ago, the billionaire investor sold all of his possessions and homes and is now virtually homeless. "Virtually" because even though he does not even have a suitcase (he keeps his clothes in a paper bag), he lives out of a series of posh hotels, which he travels to by private jet. "I am not that attached to material things," he said. But he has formed an attachment to one thing: the state of California. Four months ago, Berggruen spent $25 million to create a committee, the “Think Long Committee for California," to promote radical structural reforms that would help tackle the state’s burgeoning debt and bring it out of its fiscal hole. "California is worth saving," he told Tett in a casually awesome way, like it's no skin off his nose either way if the place falls into the ocean, which it isn't, but since he's in the position to do something he may as well. Tett was confused: If he wants to fix a place with a terrible deficit, why not start somewhere closer to home, like Germany? There are, so far as we can tell, three reasons.

One, because he stays at the Peninsula in Beverly Hills every time he goes there, and that place is nice. Two, because he also likes to "throw a star-studded party each year for the Oscars ... where he is usually photographed with a bevy of beautiful stars." And three, because they're the only ones who may be crazy enough to listen:

“If I went to Germany and said, ‘Listen, I’ve got a bag of reforms for you,’ they would throw me out. They would say, ‘We’re Germans, we’re wonderful, we’re perfect,’ ” he says. “But here [in the US] there is a very different attitude. The system is broken, people realise it’s very broken. In California they’re all unhappy.”

Hey, they elected the Terminator governor; maybe he has a shot.

Lunch with the FT: Nicolas Berggruen [FT]