Bill Weld strides into the Knickerbocker Club with the self-confidence of a man completely at home in this pretentious, old-world gentleman's enclave. And well he should: The former Republican governor of Massachusetts grew up on a vast Long Island estate with a full Social Register pedigree. But he has always relished the role of patrician rebel, and so for tonight's dinner speech, he's wearing a pin-striped charcoal suit with his usual brown lace-up shoes. His amused explanation of this defiant sartorial mismatch: "It's the Yankee in me!"
Six foot four, with aristocratic good looks and ashock of red hair, Weld banters easily with a group of Dartmouth business grad students and wealthy CEO alumni in one of the club's grand rooms overlooking Fifth Avenue. It's a vintage Weld performance: self-deprecating ("Everyone in this room knows more than I do"), glibly well connected ("Rumsfeld's a tough old bird, really good"), and spiked with non sequiturs ("That's all I know about penguins"). As a newly minted New York venture capitalist, he insists he doesn't miss politics: "I'm thrilled not to be managing anything larger than ten people." There's a breezy, devil-may-care quality to his remarks, as if he has no need to impress anyone. When the subject of his third novel, Stillwater, published this week, comes up during cocktails, he downplays the achievement, joking, "It's my thirteenth or fourteenth career."
New York City should invent a new Zip Code for all the out-of-work politicians who have recently immigrated to our small, ego-intense island. Just in the past year we've seen Bob Kerrey and Ann Richards and, of course, Bill Clinton relocate here. But at 56, William Floyd Weld's return to the Empire State, after a three-decade absence, has been most memorable for his startling embrace of a completely new life. Elusively charming, headstrong, and erudite, Big Red, as he was known in Boston, has rewritten his entire existence in a mere four years: He's getting divorced from his wife, with whom he has five children, to live with another woman on the Upper East Side; he quit politics and then the law for investment banking; and though he's already written two novels as a weekend hobby, with this new one he's striving for serious literary respect. He's even tried acting, with a bit part in Traffic. As he says, with his trademark mischievous grin, "My greatest motivation in life is fear of boredom."
As his older brother Francis "Tim" Weld, a Manhattan cardiologist, affectionately says, "This isn't his midlife crisis, it's Willie's old-life crisis." Which would all be a private matter, except Weld keeps loudly hinting that he might want to run for governor of New York some day, after his good friend George Pataki decides to leave the stage. "I'd never run against George Pataki," Weld says. "You couldn't get a piece of paper between me and Pataki, we agree on so much." Is Weld really serious about running for office here? "I have to believe Bill's still interested in elective or appointed office. It's what he's done for 30 years," says Mort Zuckerman, Daily News chairman and an admiring pal since the early seventies. "Bill's iconoclastic, he's not someone who fits the constraints of the Wasp world. He's voracious in terms of learning, doing, experimenting. The guy is dazzlingly brilliant." And oh, so restless.