Kovner said I should call him, and if we could agree on ground rules we could have some type of interview. He would clear time for me. We had a phone conversation. He described his concern about ideological agendas in journalism; he said that he wished to work in a positive way. I gained the impression that everyone I had talked to gave me: that of a thoughtful, unpretentious, and highly reserved person, a man with a musical voice and a self-effacing manner who wanted to be seen as nice. He also seemed to be protesting too much, to be conflicted about the attention. “Anyone else but me,” he had said. Well, then, why didn’t he banish me?
I offered to write down the things I wanted to ask him about, so I dropped off a letter setting forth my interests, from his family’s socialist background to dating Mary Wissler in college, to religion and real estate.
A day or two after that, I saw Kovner at the Manhattan Institute’s annual Alexander Hamilton dinner at Cipriani. He sat at one of the head tables. Others took credit and gave one another awards, but his name was mentioned only once. Still, he looked the Medici at Table 2, huge and smiling, hugging friends as they came off the stage. One of them, Richard Gilder, told me as he left the hall that Kovner had become a “huge force.”
“He is not reclusive, not Howard Hughes. He has a large appetite for beautiful things.”
Surely Kovner is one of the most powerful intellectuals in the country. But unlike most intellectuals, he does not have to defend his views. And his wealth has made him the 800-pound gorilla. He does whatever he likes. I’d raised that question in my letter. Does he feel any degree of public accountability for his political activities?
He was leaving the hall when I went up and introduced myself.
Kovner took an informal tone. We were just two guys. “You know, you wrote me a really scary letter. You know more about me than the last three women I’ve gone out with.”
“Well, maybe they’ll buy the magazine,” I said.
He laughed, the eyebrows hopped once. “No. I’m going to send them out of the country . . . ”
Then, saying, “We have to talk,” he bid me good night and sailed out into the spring night. Our flirtation continued for a couple more e-mails before he closed the door. It was one thing to get together to chat about the homely interests he and I share—dogs, trees, Dutchess County, and a little policy—but quite another to talk about himself. He was a private person, and he wished me well.
The secrecy with the girlfriends, the refusal to talk to the press, the tragic family history, the neocon vision of the world, the awkward back-and-forth with me, the lead-lined room—I got the sense that Kovner was, like all geniuses, a nutty one. His nuttiness was paranoia.
On a weekend six weeks after 9/11, a dark blanket of security fell over eastern Dutchess County, and the Taconic Parkway was shut down so that Dick Cheney, a friend and colleague of Kovner’s from AEI’s board, could visit the neighborhood of Kovner’s estate. Rumor had it he was skeet-shooting. The vice-president’s office repeatedly declined to answer my question: Was he visiting Kovner?
The hedge king’s country borders are heavily defended. The shapely wooden gates are all locked. The berms keep the curious from glimpsing the glades and rock walls and water features that visitors have said lie inside. Still, it appears that “Altamont Farms” is even more impressive than Kovner’s pied-à-terre. You can see the hilltop manor house from the road, and something else that seems brick Federalist, something else in Carpenter Gothic. Then there is the “Glass House Complex,” a stunning array of large greenhouses adjoined by a barn and the head gardener’s residence. The spread is the best answer there is to Kovner’s revolutionary Russian grandfather, for it is Tolstoyan in scope. Neighbors talk of his indifference to invitations from the horsey set, even as he brings in trailer-truckloads of exotic trees and plants. It is always the same story with him: lordly, vast, abstract, and ringed by fear.