Billionaire philanthropist David Koch is in his Madison Avenue office showing me one of his more unusual possessions, a mechanical-looking doodad on the coffee table next to the couch. “This is a plastic version of my artificial knees,” he says. “If you spent as many years as I did begging girls for favors, you’d have bad knees, too.” The 70-year-old Koch actually wore out his knees playing basketball. Until recently, he held the record for most points scored in a single game at M.I.T.: 41. “I played basketball when you could be white and be good,” he says. Koch has a seemingly limitless storehouse of such Elks club–inflected jokes, which are often followed by his loud, wheezy honk of a laugh. Koch is six foot five, with unusually long arms to match. Although the shirt he’s wearing is custom-made and his tie is Hermès (a gift from his late friend Winston Churchill Jr.), he could readily be mistaken for a mid-level executive at a large company in his native Kansas.
With an estimated net worth of $17.5 billion, Koch is the second-richest man in New York City, behind Michael Bloomberg. Across the room on the floor of his office sits a scale model of El Sarmiento, the sprawling yellow Addison Mizner–designed mansion he owns in Palm Beach (the matching yellow “biography” of the house he commissioned rests nearby). Sitting on a shelf is a replica of a Paranthropus boisei skull presented to him by the Smithsonian in recognition of the $15 million he gave in 2009 to build the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History. “You ever been up to Boston?” he asks. He asks if I know about “the cancer building at M.I.T.” The building in question—the one right in front of the Koch Biology Building, and a few minutes’ walk from the David H. Koch School of Chemical Engineering Practice—is the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, funded with an anchor gift of $100 million from its eponymous donor in 2007 and set to open in December. “Isn’t that a marvelous Steuben?” he asks, beaming. He’s pointing at a glass brontosaurus, depicted with a little smile. “It has a sense of humor.” The sculpture was a gift from the American Museum of Natural History, presented to Koch after he donated $20 million to establish the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing. Koch remembers taking a trip to the museum with his workaholic father. “I was gaga about dinosaurs as a kid,” he says. “When we were 14, Father took my twin, William, and I. We’d come to town from Kansas to look at boarding schools. I was blown away. It’s my favorite museum in the city. So when they asked if I wanted to contribute, I said, ‘God! Me? What a thrill!’ ” His sense of wonder could easily read as a put-on, but people who know him say his childlike quality is genuine. “He’s almost guileless,” says his friend Sherry Lansing, the former CEO of Paramount. “He’s constantly surprised when he gets attention.”
Koch and I first met in 2008, just weeks after he’d pledged $100 million to renovate Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater, the longtime home of the New York City Ballet and New York City Opera. Koch (his name is pronounced like the soft drink) was in a buoyant mood. The Times had run a glowing portrait of him; an act of the State Legislature had been undertaken to change the venue’s name to the David H. Koch Theater. That donation marked the capstone of a $500 million philanthropic spending spree Koch had been on since 2000, and he seemed to revel in the attention he was enjoying, especially from the leaders of the city’s great cultural institutions. “Sometimes I feel like a beautiful girl, saying, ‘God! Does every guy that goes out with me just want to sleep with me?’ ” he said. “ ‘Don’t they like me for my personality?’ ” He brayed with laughter.
But several months ago, when we reconnected, Koch’s outlook had darkened. Koch has seen his share of misfortune: He and his brother, William, lived through a protracted falling out; David survived a plane crash in which 34 people were killed; and he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1992 and is still fighting the disease. But his bleak mood had other origins. Earlier this year, he found himself attacked for being the financial engine of the largely white, largely male, very angry crowds that were gathering in towns across the country—a few waving overtly racist or menacing anti-Obama signs—to protest the president’s proposed health-care bill and other issues. Koch denies being directly involved with the tea party—“I’ve never been to a tea-party event. No one representing the tea party has ever even approached me”—but he and his brother Charles were being accused of supporting the group through an affiliated conservative organization. Rachel Maddow had effectively called Koch the tea party’s puppet master. “The radical press is coming after me and Charles,” he said. “They’re using us as whipping boys.” Burnishing his reputation was no longer his concern; now, it seemed, he needed to save it.