The summer of 1997 was an extraordinary time for Britain. Tony Blair had just won a triumphant election, the Spice Girls had goosed Prince Charles, and a bubbling London scene was busy ushering in a new era of Cool Britannia. Last but not least, Michael Bloomberg was about to burst onto the social scene.
The London scene differs from New York's in its inherent suspicion of the socially agile. And there's no benefit circuit the ambitious businessman can easily surf to success. So, taking a characteristically pragmatic approach, Bloomberg hired a modish public-relations outfit to set up his own private party network. Julia Hobsbawm's HMC offered a sort of bespoke introduction service to the city's elite, organizing a series of discreet, informal dinners with social tastemakers like newspaper baron Conrad Black (now Lord Black of Crossharbour to you) and his wife, the conservative commentator Barbara Amiel, through to the influential art dealer Jay Jopling.
"Mike wanted to be launched, and it was our job to introduce him, judiciously, to everyone who mattered," says one who works with Hobsbawm, whom the industry describes as having "one of the most envied little black books" in London. "He was unknown one minute -- and very hot the next."
The U.K. publication of Bloomberg's memoir proved the ideal social battering ram. With HMC vetting the guest lists for his launch party, Bloomberg invited the ubiquitous thriller writer Ken Follett, along with some Fleet Street editors Hobsbawm, daughter of the left-wing historian Eric Hobsbawm, plumped for. Ever the clever publicist, Hobsbawm then devised a longer-term strategy of raising the billionaire's profile by suggesting some tactical sponsorships of London's best-loved arts institutions.
One of her most successful dinners came that fall. With London in a state of shock shortly after the death of Princess Diana -- the organizations that she had supported felt particularly bereft -- an American mogul on the make seemed like the ideal savior. Julia Peyton-Jones, director of the Serpentine Gallery, an avant-garde art dealer located in the glorious middle of Hyde Park, was intrigued to receive an invitation to a Bloomberg soirée at Sir Terence Conran's Bluebird restaurant. Curiosity turned into delight when she found herself seated next to the host.
"I found him absolutely hilarious and extremely endearing," Peyton-Jones says. "He was completely irreverent and talked about the arts in a very straightforward way."
Flattered by his interest, Peyton-Jones did a most un-English thing: She screwed up her courage and asked him for money directly. The check Bloomberg wrote for £250,000 got him a seat on the Serpentine's board alongside one of the city's social lions, Lord Jacob Rothschild. "He missed very few meetings," says Peyton-Jones. "His dedication was remarkable."
Though there might have been questions -- in fact, his predecessor, Mayor Giuliani, would certainly have had questions -- about his taste. The following year, as the canapés circulated at a party to mark the Serpentine's reopening, Bloomberg steered the revelers to an exhibit he found especially stimulating. Titled Merda d'Artista, it featured 35 tin cans of human excrement.
The art world firmly in his grasp, Bloomberg moved swiftly on from HMC, taking up with Aurelia Cecil, another publicist -- and friend of Prince Andrew's -- with ties to the rock-chic crowd of Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry, Paloma Picasso, the TV presenter Sir David Frost, and the comedian Stephen Fry.
"There's always rancor when someone uses money to buy leverage in society, and that's what Mike did," says one partygoer who nevertheless admired his social stealth. "Some people might think it a bit vulgar, and he certainly did exert a lot of muscle, but you can't deny that he was successful in propelling himself into the Establishment."
Royal Ascot, the horse-racing spectacular in June, set near Windsor Castle, is the high point of the English Establishment "season." Undaunted by a strict dress code -- ladies must wear hats, men morning suits -- enforcing a stiff-upper-lip formality, Bloomberg boldly sponsored his own race at the event: the Royal Lodge Stakes. If that weren't enough, he further impressed his new London friends by ferrying them from town to his private box (and back again) in his helicopter. "It was one of the most enjoyable events of the year," one of the fawned-over recalls.
Bloomberg's 1,500 British employees also got a taste of his hospitality with the London office's 2000 Christmas party (said to have cost an estimated £1 million). Billed by the tabloids as Britain's most extravagant office celebration ever, it was based on the seven deadly sins. Among the attractions were several neck-massage stations, manicure booths, a sushi bar, cabaret, casino, drag queens, and live bands. Set up in the "lust room" was a 25-foot-wide bed covered in purple satin. One of the ten bars, based on the theme of gluttony, was lined with a trough packed with truffles and candy.
But it was clear Bloomberg aimed to make a permanent mark on London. At one point, word spread across the city that he was trying to rename Finsbury Square, the address of his London office, Bloomberg Square. The company denies the story, but Bloomberg did take the unusual step of erecting several large signs around the square proclaiming his company's commitment to London's "sustainable development."
Once noticed, Bloomberg wasn't left alone. shortly after Bloomberg's sponsorship deal with the Serpentine became public, London's more prestigious galleries and venues began pursuing him -- and his ample wallet -- assiduously. The Tate Modern, the most successful recent addition to the capital's arts scene, received some money, as did the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. Another beneficiary of his largesse was the Old Vic, which, infused with the spirit of Sir Laurence Olivier, holds a special place in British hearts. Sally Greene, its director, was introduced to Bloomberg by Jane Procter, at that time editor of Tatler magazine. They immediately started talking about the theater. Greene says she found Bloomberg "utterly charming and plugged into the arts." Dinner at her house followed, and then came a letter inviting him to join Lord Dickie Attenborough, Sir Richard Eyre, and Kevin Spacey on the board of trustees.
"It was a very good mix-and-match with the Serpentine," says Greene, who estimates that Bloomberg gave the theater a quarter of a million dollars. His contribution was considered sufficiently important for the other trustees to organize meetings around his schedule -- a difficult feat given that his trips to London were sometimes as brief as two days.
A close friend, Greene says she has not seen the flamboyant side of Bloomberg's character. The only party she attended at his house in Cadogan Square, not far from Harrod's, was a "discreet" Americana gathering where the guests, "a mix of social and business," ate hamburgers.
Though Bloomberg has resigned both of his London trusteeships, this Thursday Greene will host a lunch at Bloomberg LP offices in New York to kick off American support for the Old Vic. And the London office now has a special department titled "Philanthropy in Europe," which next month will open a gallery in the Finsbury Square headquarters. The specially designed hall will include evolving art installations. Jemma Read, who runs the department, says she receives around 70 proposals a day from art and community projects around Europe.
Still, the members of Bloomberg's British circle, having grown accustomed to seeing him several times a month, albeit briefly, are reconciled to coming here. The only question is whether they'll hold out for the same ferry-service treatment they received for Royal Ascot.