Is it cold outside?” Nicolas Berggruen asks, glancing through the picture window of his penthouse suite at the Carlyle. “Maybe I need another jacket.” He darts into the bedroom, where his clothes are stored neatly in a black wool duffel, and emerges in a zipped black cardigan. “Let’s go!” says the billionaire founder of investment company Berggruen Holdings and the Berggruen Institute, a think tank with the modest goal of solving the world’s problems, funded with $100 million of his own money and staffed with an impressive roster of boldface names from the international business community. A trim, tiny 50-year-old Ken doll, Berggruen looks like he’s 30 and acts like he’s 20. He’s always bounding restlessly around in search of action, so much so that a decade ago, he gave up his full-time residence and most of his belongings in favor of shuttling between luxury hotels on his Gulfstream—a haute-itinerant lifestyle that has earned him the moniker “the homeless billionaire.”
“It’s simpler,” he explains, as we make our way across the street to Café Boulud, where the maître d’ greets him by name and seats us next to a table of thin women with small dogs, Berggruen’s part-time neighbors. “Are you traveling a lot?” one of them asks. “A little bit,” he says, and everyone giggles.
Berggruen has just returned from Brussels. (“A terrible city,” he says, “boring.”) There, members of his Institute’s Council for the Future of Europe—including former heads of state Gerhard Schröder, Felipe González, and Tony Blair—had presented their ideas to solve the eurozone’s money troubles. And he’s about to leave for California, to meet members of the Institute’s Think Long Committee—Condoleezza Rice, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown—hammering out a proposal aimed at easing that state’s economic woes.
“Europe has been so chaotic,” says Berggruen, brushing back a stray piece of graying hair. “I am jet-lagged,” he informs the waiter. “I need a cappuccino. No! An espresso.” He squints at the menu. “Brunch is boring,” he notes. “But that’s part of the charm of it.”
In some respects, Berggruen is an unlikely political activist. The son of a German actress and a renowned art collector, he attended Swiss boarding schools and later NYU, after which he made an estimated $2 billion turning around distressed companies like PRISA, which publishes El País. Along the way, he’s burnished a reputation as an old-fashioned international playboy. Every year, he holds an Oscars party at the Chateau Marmont, with guests ranging from Gray Davis to Paris Hilton. “I don’t have a house, and I don’t have a lot of time for socializing, so every year I have a party for all of my friends,” he explains. He dates models and actresses, with whom he takes a Clooney-like stance. “I tend to end relationships,” he says, as the women at the next table strain to listen in, “so she can find somebody better than me. Because I want to be fair to people. I cannot devote enough energy and time and devotion to her. I think that is fair, no?”
Like many in his cohort, Berggruen believes governments should be more like businesses, and the proposal the Think Long Committee released last month contained suggestions for how California might curb its inefficiencies, among them the implementation of a service tax. “You tax a doughnut, but you don’t tax a lawyer’s services?” Berggruen says, putting down his fork in a way that suggests the foolishness has cost him his appetite. Needless to say, he is an idealist: At 15, he wrote a constitution for a utopian country. “California is a place that’s got fantastic underpinnings,” he says—the tech industry, the natural resources. “It’s facing hard times, but it needs structure, it needs attention. It’s like a plant—you give it air, you give it water, you give it sun. As long as there’s fundamentally something good, you make it flourish again.”
While he is hopeful, Berggruen is also the first to admit that none of either committee’s suggestions may ever be implemented. “The West needs to dramatically restructure, and a lot of sacrifices will be needed. People don’t like to sacrifice.” At least, he figures, he has bought attention. “I can point to this group we have, this group of knowledgeable, accomplished people, and say, at least, listen to this group.” He shrugs, as if to say, Hey, I tried. If you people want to continue screwing everything up, it’s no skin off my nose, I have a private jet and billions of dollars.
As we’re sitting there, a man, perhaps an actual homeless person, ambles up to the curb and begins to serenade the café’s patrons. Berggruen lights up. “Oh, music!” he says. “Except I have no money with me.” Neither do the women at the next table, so I pull out a $20 and drop it in his bucket, for all of us. “There,” says the billionaire, beaming. “You did a good thing.”