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The Billionaire's Party

Koch at an Americans for Prosperity Foundation Defending the American Dream Summit.  

In addition to his primary residence—a 9,000-square-foot duplex on the fourth and fifth floors of the famed 740 Park building, where his neighbors include his friend Stephen Schwarzman—David Koch owns a home in Aspen, another in Southampton, and El Sarmiento, in Palm Beach. In 1995, David paid $9.5 million for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s Fifth Avenue apartment but moved out in 2005. “It was run-down. She had a lot of money, but she was tight financially. The only rooms that were in good shape were the ones she allowed her guests to visit—the dining room, living room, and library. The back rooms were in awful shape!” (Koch did an extensive restoration.) He has a chauffeur-driven Mercedes that shuttles him and his family around town, and a personal chef. Most years, Koch spends several weeks in the Mediterranean on the Leander, a 246-foot megayacht that costs up to $500,000 per week. Bill and Melinda Gates have rented the Leander. And “Prince Charles was on it with Camilla,” Koch says. “I know because he painted a beautiful watercolor of the Leander in the guest book. He’s very talented.”

In 1991, Koch met Julia Flesher, the attractive blonde daughter of an Arkansas junk dealer. He was 50, she was 27. Julia was working as an assistant for the designer Adolfo, on occasion actually dressing Nancy Reagan in her famous knit suits. The couple was introduced by another couple. Their first date was a flop. “I was a little too, how should I say it, forward with my humor,” Koch says. “Julia was smiling, but weakly.”

Three days later, on the afternoon of February 1, 1991, Koch, who had been on a business trip in Ohio, boarded USAir Flight 1493, from Columbus to Los Angeles. He and an older couple named the Weths were the only passengers in first class on the 737, which was carrying 89 people in all. It was an unremarkable flight until the plane landed at LAX. Five seconds after touchdown, the aircraft crashed into a small SkyWest commuter plane that an overworked air-traffic controller had mistakenly directed onto an active runway. The twelve people onboard the commuter flight were killed instantly in a ball of fire. The 737 veered off the runway and smashed into a utility building. “It was almost as if I was out of my own body looking back at myself as another person going through this extraordinary experience,” Koch wrote in a lengthy account he later sent to hundreds of his friends. “I thought to myself I had had a lot of interesting experiences in my life, and I am about to have another unusual one, that is, the experience of death.” Through a wall of smoke, Koch fumbled his way through the plane and found a service door through which he could see sunlight. He jimmied the latch with his fingers (“I felt like Superman!”), jumped to the tarmac, and ran for his life. Twenty-one people on the plane died of smoke inhalation, including the Weths, whose bodies were found still strapped into their seats. Koch arrived at the hospital with badly burned lungs and some minor cuts but was otherwise healthy. “This may sound odd, but I felt this experience was very spiritual,” he tells me. “That I was saved when all those others died. I felt that the good Lord spared my life for a purpose. And since then, I’ve been busy doing all the good works I can think of.”

Several months later, Julia approached Koch at a party. She had heard about the plane crash, and she told him how glad she was he hadn’t died. Shortly after that, the couple began dating. A year later, Koch was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “I found mine too late to be curable,” he says. (All three of his brothers have subsequently been diagnosed with the disease and cured.) But radiation, surgery, and a decade of hormone therapy have kept his PSA under control. “I’ve been living with it for sixteen years,” he told me two years ago. “I look pretty healthy, don’t I? My doctor thinks the treatment I’ve been getting will work for many more years, but eventually it will fail. So I’ve been financing the development of other treatments that could kick in when the traditional treatments I’m getting stop working.” In 1996, Koch and Julia got married. They have three children, David Jr., 12; Mary Julia, 9; and John Mark, 4.

David and Julia go out no more than several times a week, mostly to fund-raisers or the ballet. Julia, who feels she was unfairly characterized in a 1998 New York Times Magazine story about her debut as co-chair of the Met’s annual Costume Institute Gala, tends to avoid the limelight. Unlike his own parents, who maintained a certain English distance, Koch likes to get down on the floor and wrestle with his kids. His carousing days are definitely behind him, he says. “My wife knows that I’m as devoted as a choirboy to her,” he says. “I would never, ever do anything to compromise my relationship with Julia.” The hormone treatment has been difficult on his marriage, he says. “You get breast enlargement, you know. And it takes away your sex drive. Of course, I can still admire beautiful, attractive women, but that kind of primordial sex drive is sort of missing, you know. Do I miss it? Oh, yeah, sure.” He’s silent for a few moments. “The power of the family overwhelms these other things. And people who have been married a long time say that their sex drive disappears, too.”