47 Minutes With Peter Peterson

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Peter Peterson, 83, has been thinking an awful lot about death lately. Not his, yours. He’s frustrated that people don’t understand that sometimes Granny needs to let herself go for the good of everyone else. Barefoot and sun-browned as a berry, the chairman emeritus of the Blackstone Group, the private-equity firm he co-founded and cashed out of for $1.9 billion in 2007, is sitting in a wicker chair in the sunroom. A gentle breeze coming off Mecox Bay rustles the saw grass, and a houseman serves him decaffeinated iced tea.

“Obama’s so-called health-care reform ignores the real issue,” Peterson says in his calm, persuasive paterfamilias voice. “They don’t address the underlying problem, which is the cost of the last few months of life. We’re often not prolonging the quality of life, we’re just prolonging life. You’re accused of demagogy if you even approach the subject; but if it’s unlikely that you’ll enjoy a decent quality of life, doctors should send patients home and allow them to die what used to be called the ‘old man’s death,’ usually from pneumonia, the way most people used to die in this country.” In other words, the longtime Republican is in favor of the kind of end-of-life decision-making that some other Republicans have parodied as “death panels.”

Peterson was forced to consider his own mortality after the Blackstone Group went public. Although $1.9 billion richer—paid to him in a single money wire the day of the IPO—he was already a billionaire. “Several things happened to me around the same time,” he says. “I left Blackstone, I retired as the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, I was no longer the chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, and I had two falls walking down the stairs. When you’re old, the combination of physical illness with the loss of who you were in your career becomes a metaphor for the process of dying.” The ensuing depression sent him back into therapy and onto antidepressants—which he wrote about, against friends’ advice, in his recent memoir, The Education of an American Dreamer. “They think going for therapy shows some kind of weakness,” he scoffs.

The best antidote to his malaise was a billion-dollar cure. “I had lunch with George Soros, and it became clear to us that old men get great pleasure out of giving away money,” Peterson says. In 2008, he funded the $1 billion Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which gives grants to promote civic engagement, fiscal literacy, and personal responsibility.

Although Peterson sees signs that the recession will level out in six months, he’s adamant that the economy is in long-term trouble. “The total liability of the United States is $60 trillion—that’s four or five times the value of the whole economy. It’s just not sustainable. So when people ask me, ‘Isn’t it harsh to discuss how we’ll handle the end of life?’ I say that when you have limited resources, it’s not moral to slip the check to your own children.”

Certainly his own children—he has four sons and a daughter from the first of his three marriages (he’s been married to Sesame Street creator Joan Ganz Cooney for 29 years)—will have no trouble paying almost any check when it arrives. According to Forbes, Peterson still has nearly $2 billion. In 2007, he bought David Geffen’s Fifth Avenue apartment for $37.5 million. A needlepoint pillow in his living room says, YOU NEVER KNOW HOW MANY FRIENDS YOU HAVE UNTIL YOU GET A HELICOPTER. His 18-year-old grandson, Peter Carey Peterson, is in the reality-TV series NYC Prep, coming across as a world-weary brat whose observations include “The recession is my bitch.”

Peterson’s daughter Holly, 44, author of The Manny and an Emmy-winning TV producer, drops by with a parking ticket she got on one of his cars. She had just come from surfing. “If I didn’t take care of the parking ticket it would be exactly the kind of irresponsible thing that drives him crazy,” she says.

The two like to tease each other over the relative success of their books. Holly’s novel made the Times best-seller list, but, her father grouses, “only for one week.”

“How many foreign sales do you have?” Holly asks. “Zero?”

“At least my book appealed to the clean, serious book market,” he jokes. “I was so embarrassed by portions of her book, I needed somebody to explain it.”

Counters Holly, “There was a blow-job scene he needed to have explained to him?”

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47 Minutes With Peter Peterson