Kovner has reclaimed his soul in the traditional way of the world-beater: in the arts. He gives money to Juilliard, the National Theatre of London, and the Israel Philharmonic. But his love is the most private of arts: books. He named his hedge fund Caxton, after the first printer of books in English, in the fifteenth century, and his own collection is said to include obscure illustrated works from Eastern Europe. His former wife produced books of exquisite drawings on fine paper (the one held by the New York Public Library is refined past most tastes: pictures of 36 plates of food, mainly desserts, during a nine-month, seventeen-country family trip around the world in 1992–93). But other books he has financed have been more weighty. In 1985, at a book party at the old Gotham Book Mart for a Truman Capote story, Kovner said to the artist whose paintings were in the book, “Is there something you really want to do that you have never been able to do?” “Yeah, a Bible. But I don’t think I’m old enough or wise enough to do it,” Barry Moser responded. A few years later, Moser, a lapsed preacher, sought Kovner out, and Kovner agreed to finance what has proved to be a historic edition of the Bible, the Pennyroyal Caxton, with 232 of Moser’s wood engravings. Over five years, Kovner spent about $2 million on the Bible, searching out the finest papers and finest bindery. “He never once told me what to do,” says Moser. “I said, ‘What kind of input do you want?’ ‘None,’ he said. And he is a man of books. But I did put him in the book. He is the face of King Solomon,” Moser says, laughing. The image is of a big, wry, salty man with a giant forehead and those devilish eyebrows. Moser drew it from pictures he got from a friend. “His friends call Bruce ‘The Rabbi,’ ” says Claudia Cohen, who bound the Bibles. And Lionel Tiger, who has a house in Dutchess County not far from Kovner’s 200-acre spread, says, “He’s just a sweetie. He is a big, fuzzy, warm uncle.”
Kovner’s relationship to Moser is similar to Kovner’s relationship to Liz Diller, the high-toned architect of the redesign of Lincoln Center. Diller’s work has an experimental, progressive quality, combining experimental theater, installations, and provocative gestures. When she offered her plan to take Lincoln Center off its plinth and into the real world of the West Side, she thought she would lose out to more sober visions. But Kovner, who was the head of the group of seven institutions in the West 65th Street portion of the plan, got behind her, and got others behind her.
“We are opening up Lincoln Center to the city, making it porous, turning it inside out, eroding its edges,” Diller says, sipping tea from a graduated beaker in her downtown studio. “I think Bruce would articulate it in the same way. It’s an ideal he shared about the project. He is extremely respectful of our views as architects. He’s the best of what a client can be. He steps back, lets us have our space, but at the same time detects weakness with surgical precision.”
“How democratic can Lincoln Center be?” I ask. “The last time I walked down the steps off Milstein Plaza, there were all these LaGuardia High School kids sitting there with their knapsacks all over the place.”
“It will be a self-editing place,” Diller says coolly. “A kind of urban bucolic . . . a park like the MoMA sculpture garden. . . . I think it’s going to be a contemplative place. You don’t think of sharing those places usually with other people.”
Her studio has a communal feel. Empowered assistants mill about. Over Diller’s shoulder, you can see a bulletin board on which somebody clever has tacked up a number of photos of George Bush. The president’s head is interspersed with ape heads. Or he is giving someone the finger. Or he holds up three fingers and a speech-bubble says FOUR MORE YEARS.
“Do you ever talk politics?”
“We talk ideas. Politics never comes up. The democratizing politics of Lincoln Center, that comes up.”
Kovner is so downbeat, culturally, that you might say that he lives blue but thinks red. Three weeks before the election last fall, Kovner (and the woman he is said to be dating, Amy Stevens, weekend editor of the Wall Street Journal) showed up on Tenth Avenue for a party for The Surrender, that paean to anal sex by former Balanchine dancer Toni Bentley. His former wife is also of a feminist bent. Sarah Peter somewhat undid what her former husband did for Bush by making large contributions to John Kerry and to Emily’s List and to just about any Democratic female candidate for Congress. Political gifts by the couple’s second child, Katherine, a 22-year-old theater director lately working in London’s East End, were very similar to her mother’s.