November 02, 2007
I have never understood the fascination of hoi polloi with the very rich. The moguls ones I’ve known have not been particularly interesting or even nice, for that matter. Gianni Agnelli, the Fiat supremo who died in 2003, was an exception because of his great charm and extremely agile mind. He could fake it even with intellectuals or scientists, such was his cleverness. He and I were friends for close to fifty years, but Gianni did not become nice until the end of his life. He had a mean streak to him and was a terrific gossip. But he was also personally courageous, had fought in the Russian front during World War II, and did not complain when a car crash turned him into a cripple but continued to ski by having tiny skis attached to his poles.
Aristotle Onassis had other priorities when Greece was attacked by Italy in 1940. He was busy making a tobacco fortune in Argentina and chose to ignore the call of the motherland to arms. Later on he became the original Greek tycoon, seduced the great Callas and married the gold digging Jackie Kennedy. He died in 1975 having lost his son in an air crash and blaming Jackie for bringing him bad luck. (Old Aris had a peasant’s superstitions.) Onassis was charming but not at all interesting. He liked only to reminisce and philosophize, something I found quite boring. But at least he was much nicer than the most banal and boring billionaire I have ever met, Stavros Niarchos, who left us back in 96. Niarchis had style, however, dressed impeccably and had a rare eye for paintings, and rare objects of art.
Henry Ford II, as he styled himself, was a slob without manners or charm, but I am told he was a terrific businessman. I used to date his daughters so I got to see him quite often. He once goosed my first wife and I grabbed him and pushed him to the floor. People were so impressed by his wealth they said I overreacted. I should have broken his jaw. Mind you, Ford was third generation money and he should have known better. But I guess a slob is a slob is a slob. I don’t know many of today’s billionaires, but the couple I know I like. Ron Perelman and Alfred Taubman are rough diamonds but both make an effort and try to be nice with lesser souls. By far the most disgusting individual—thank God I have never met him but boat crews do talk and I have had the lousy luck to be anchored next to him on the Riviera—is Larry Ellison, of Oracle fame, an unpleasant sociopath who has found the only sport where you can become a hero while others do the competing, the America’s Cup. Unlike Ted Turner who won the Cup back in the early eighties by skippering his boat, Ellison is on board as ballast.
Martha Stewart I find quite nice, and not at all the dragon lady which she’s supposed to be, although her rough edges do show at times. But I like her. No Leona Helmsley she. Ah yes, and Armand Hammer, the old ogre and Soviet agent, bought my father’s flat at the Sherry Netherland in 1965 and I saw from up close what a bullshitter and phoney looks like. On the other hand, yet another billionaire who is no longer with us, William Paley, of CBS fame, famously asked why he had to die. Paley was not only civilized he was also erudite and a connoisseur of fine things.
The reason I write all this is the publication of All the Money in the World, a book about the Forbes 400 richest Americans. I have not read it and do not plan to buy it. Most of the very rich I’ve met have been quite awful human beings, so I’m not very interested. As papa Hemingway said to poor F.Scott who was fascinated by the rich, “They just have more money, that’s all.”