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Billionaires Are Free

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In books, the billionaire has become a symbol of ultimate power and freedom—they’re Gatsbys, yes, but they own the light at the end of the dock. In Michael Tolkin’s The Return of the Player, the player tries to make a fortune working for a $750,000,000 man (a pauper) and the billionaire who pulls his strings. The billionaire tells the player: “You don’t know what a few extra decimal places taste like. There are wines—my God, you don’t know what they do for you—from vineyards that stopped selling to the public about forty popes ago … The provenance of this [Rembrandt] is without blemish, and the painting has never been publicly catalogued, like a lot of the most amazing pieces in the world, and I paid for it using the interest of the interest of the interest. A hundred and twenty-five million dollars. I had more money an hour after I signed the check than I did when I bought it.”

But art falls short when describing the lives of billionaires. Steve Wynn is free enough to afford to buy a Picasso, even when his eyesight is famously challenged, and to rip a hole in that Picasso with his elbow while distractedly showing the painting before he closed the deal with hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen to buy it for $139 million, which would have been the highest price ever paid for a work of art. Convinced that the elbow gaffe was fate, Wynn decided to keep the picture—what’s $139 million, after all, to a man like him?

A billionaire has the wherewithal to match his moral vanity: While the rest of us struggle to keep our heads above water, billionaires are saving the world. There’s Branson’s pledge to invest the next ten years of profit from his Virgin Group’s airline and train businesses in renewable-energy initiatives, worth $3 billion. Bing, along with Burkle and others, has pledged $1 billion to do the same. In June, Warren Buffett, the thrifty bridge player with the five-bedroom house in Nebraska, donated $31 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for education and global development. Buffett plans to give away 70 percent of his fortune. “If I wanted to,” he has said, “I could hire 10,000 people to do nothing but paint my picture every day for the rest of my life. And the gross national product would go up.” But “there’s no reason future generations of Buffetts should command society just because they came from the right womb. Where’s the justice in that?”

Billionaires can seem to have a power to conceal their actions that the Greek goddess Athena would have understood—and they are as susceptible as any mortal to believing their own mythology. But this can lead to problems when their power is questioned, as possibly happened to this year’s chattering-class billionaire, Ron Burkle, the mysterious 53-year-old who made his fortune in the very non-mysterious business of investing in supermarkets. Burkle—who also works with President Clinton—is a fixture at the Mercer Hotel, where he prefers to have breakfast and meetings when he’s in town, instead of in his office at Clinton’s headquarters in Harlem. He has a pied-à-terre under renovation in New York—which he splits with Leonardo DiCaprio—but is looking for something nicer. He offered $17 million in cash to the owner of Sky Studios, the city’s preeminent bachelor pad, with rooftop pool, on lower Broadway, several times, but the owner, himself a rich man, won’t take anything under $17.2 million. They go back and forth about it—pennies between stubborn men.

A large part of Burkle’s life is spent doing business for unions—hence the script on his 757 private plane, “770BB,” or Box Boy Local 770, the union he was in when he started as a bag boy. He has given generously to the Urban League, Harlem Children’s Zone, and UCLA, among others. Some portion of the other half of his life is spent being glamorous. He’s invested in Scoop, the fancy boutique chain, and has anonymously underwritten model enthusiasms, like his $200,000 contribution to Petra Nemcova’s charity benefit for tsunami victims. His stunning home in Los Angeles, Green Acres, is the most exceptional charity-event space in the city—$100 million has been raised there in the past year, with $1 million at a recent Clinton event. This fall, when the California governor asked his help, he flew the Dalai Lama from New York and back.

“I could hire 10,000 people to do nothing but paint my picture every day for the rest of my life,” said Buffett. “And the gross national product would go up.”

It’s difficult to live in the public eye while keeping full control of your image, even for a billionaire, as Burkle found when he made the acquaintance of a “Page Six” writer of questionable wardrobe and integrity named Jared Paul Stern. Burkle caught Stern on tape allegedly trying to shake him down—but possibly in this case the cure was worse than the disease, with Burkle, by many accounts an ordinary guy who does his own laundry, suddenly as famous as Brad Pitt.


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