In the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Part V)

A twenty-first-century pilgrim ends a year-long journey where the seventeenth-century Pilgrims ended theirs—on the coast of New England, not far from where his travels began

The history of art is full of these misunderstandings, of misunderstanding, in which you see a great artist living or acting as though he were convinced he had chosen the wrong genre. We know the case of Stendhal, thinking he would owe his immortality to his plays. And that of Chateaubriand, persuaded that his masterpiece was not Les Mémoires d'Outre tombe but Les Natchez. I myself have seen Paul Bowles explaining, with his last breath, that his great works, the ones that would stand the test of time and that had to be taken care of after his death, were not The Sheltering Sky and Let It Come Down but the delightful musical pieces he composed every spring for the end-of-the-year celebration at the American School of Tangiers and its director, Joe McPhilips. But this case, the case of this great filmmaker coming every Monday to perform: this case of the formal innovator you feel would give up the most beautiful shot in Purple Rose for a well-played bar of music, able to switch successfully from the sound of a bugle to that of a reed flute—this case surpasses anything I know.

I will get to see the other Allen. The next day, in his office, on Park Avenue, I'll get to see the filmmaker and the intellectual, a New Yorker through and through, who will have many things to say, not just about his films but about the mediocrity of Kerry, the nullity of Bush, the state of political collapse of the country, the neo-puritanism that's winning over the middle classes. Of which, I ask him all of a sudden, wasn't his affair with his daughter ("She's not my daughter," he jumps in), just as much as the Lewinsky affair, the harbinger? And about his conviction (the height of pride, when I think about it) that a guy like him, Allen, doesn't have the right—do you understand? the right—to get involved in politics, since he's so unpopular, since he so perfectly embodies all that this Puritan, suicidal America execrates, and since he is at the same time so incredibly famous that each word that might come out of his mouth would be held not for but against his champion, and would thus only weaken him and contribute to his defeat …

But the great moment, the real Woody, the hour of emotion and truth, the one that in any case most impresses me, since I feel that here we are in contact with his most intimate identity, is his euphoric, squandered jazz performance.

Three Tycoons

It's his hardness that strikes you first. His air of icy, cautious ferocity. His wolf eyes, unusually far apart, very green, piercing, but which don't really go to the trouble of studying you. His way of making no excuses for himself, never explaining himself. His insistence in declaring, as I distill it, I am Henry Kravis, master of the world; I am the head of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Co., the best private equities business there is; I am the son of Ray Kravis, a small-time oilman from Oklahoma, and I have built this enormous business, this empire, where the very practice of forced takeovers has become an industry in itself. People are mad at me? I know. They see me as a predator, a lackey for Bush, an asshole? I couldn't care less! I won't bother to tell you the history of the New York City Investment Fund that we founded with a few friends seven years ago. I won't lower myself to telling you about the tens of thousands of jobs we create with our money in the neighborhoods the state has abandoned; or about its moral code and our own; or about its principles and mine, which are those of big business—and I never for an instant doubted how good they are, not just for me but for America and the world …

After a while, though, something else shows through. A crack in the mask. A fissure. Maybe an old clumsiness. Maybe fear, too. Yes, I'd swear it, Henry Kravis is afraid. Of what? Of whom? Of other people, his fellow men, and of the war of everyone against everyone else that reigns in the jungle of big American capital? Of his own ruthlessness, which he knows only too well? Does he, like Gatsby, live in the obsessive fear of seeing his original sins come back to the surface and inscribe themselves on this face of his, which he has gone to such pains, over so many years, to make as smooth as the varnished mahogany paneling in the library where he receives me? All of that, undoubtedly. And then this picture, over our heads, which I hadn't really noticed at first, this hyper-realist painting, probably done from a photograph, which represents a charming adolescent in a blazer and a white shirt open over a hairless chest—college boy, little prince—his son, who died at the age of nineteen, and about whom he is disconsolate.

Henry Kravis, then, can talk for two hours without saying much about his New York philanthropies. Barry Diller, though, does better. He asked Frank Gehry, the architect of the Guggenheim museums, to plan the future headquarters of his empire in Chelsea. For this Gehry conceived of a building constructed almost entirely of glass, with a façade that shows no hint of steel or concrete framework underneath: a great ship of crystal, an intelligible mirage, that will float over the Hudson. In other words, Diller is putting his mark on the city. He is imprinting his signature on it. He is legitimately joining the illustrious lineage of Stuyvesants, Rockefellers, Reynoldses, Singers, Woolworths. But Diller spends a large part of our meeting trying to convince me that, considering the absurd rent he pays here, in these old offices; considering the prices of downtown real estate and its potential for appreciation; considering the impact the building will have, the publicity it will generate, and the energy its sheer possibility is already radiating to his staff, this pharaonic project, this pure gift, this masterpiece, will not only cost his company nothing, it will in fact bring in a substantial profit. Arrogance again, or a supreme form of humility? Is this the honesty of a man who refuses to play the conventional (and excruciatingly European!) game of the ashamed billionaire who expiates his success and strives to appear acceptable—or is it the height of self-punishment and modesty? I observe Barry Diller, with his powerful, vulnerable skull that conveys the air of a Picasso, with his smile that's habitually so melancholic but which, now that I've stopped pestering him about his memories of Paramount, his tussles with Murdoch, his conversion to teleshopping, has become curiously childlike. I listen to him talk passionately about the architectural model, placed between our chairs, of what may be the great work of his life, but for which he begs me to give him no credit, none at all. There is a kind of madness, too, in this man. A mixture of gratuitous talent, potlatch, glorious eccentricity, and, when he explains to me that he couldn't care less about posterity and only his own people count—that is to say, his close friends; his wife, Diane von Furstenberg; his younger, heroin-addict brother, who died alone at the age of thirty-six, shot in a fleabag motel—there is suddenly a brash insolence, a mutely enraged violence, an amorality, that's too flaunted to be completely sincere and not betray some kind of hidden wound.

And then Soros. The implacable George Soros, the impenitent speculator, the virtuoso of hedge funds, the remorseless trader who, when he was playing the currencies market more than a decade ago, almost brought down the pound sterling and, beyond that, the international monetary system. He doesn't regret anything either. He doesn't criticize the operating procedure of the American tycoon, or the notion according to which money is born noble and, everywhere, finds itself in chains. With one exception, though—which makes his case an interesting variation. His style. His looks. His tousled aspect, which reminds you of Elias Canetti. The slight sloppiness of his clothing, which lends him a professorial guise. His accent—this Hungarian accent that, in him, seems like the sign of a resistance to American-ness. And then this way he has, during the lunch we're having in a rather modest dining room adjacent to his office, of talking only about prisons, about the new fascism that is looming, about public-spirited investments, democracy, open society, Karl Popper—this way of quoting his own Popperlike books as though everyone had read them, and his childish disappointment when he understands that I'm here not so much for Sunday philosophy as for the flamboyant, paradoxical billionaire himself. On the one hand, this supertycoon who, when I ask him whether he is sometimes burdened with a guilty conscience, because of these fortunes that are so curiously won, isn't far from replying that attacking a whole currency, throwing banks into a panic, forcing them to react and invent, is not a crime but a service, a revolutionary gesture, a duty. On the other hand, his nostalgia for European values and concerns, which in his mind doesn't seem the least bit contradictory—a nostalgia that leads him to take back to Europe (especially Eastern Europe) the money earned in America, while importing to America (especially Democratic America) whatever European memories remain enclosed within himself. For his problem is Europe. He is in mourning, not for a son or a brother but for Europe. And if there is but one thing for which he is inconsolable, it's being merely George Soros and not one of those Czech or Viennese philosophers he's admired since his youth; a part of him dreams of being their secret successor. Human, too human. Another embodiment of a system that is regarded by half the planet as inhuman, and this touching, pathetic share of humanity. Is he the most peculiar of the three? The most romantic? Or the wackiest?

Back to Square One (or Nearly)

Boston. One year later—or almost. And in this loop that's closing, in this mixed impression of endgame and beginning, the curious feeling of finding myself in a city I scarcely know but where I already have memories.

I return to the Union Oyster House, where The Atlantic hosted its breakfasts during the Democratic convention. I walk back to Copley Square, where on election night the population of Democrats waited so many hours, in vain, for their conquered champion to appear. I wander through the now empty hallways of the Fairmont, where the announcers officiated. I linger in the reading rooms of the Boston Public Library, which I visited briefly one morning between meetings with aides to Obama and Kerry. I didn't realize at that time how beautiful the city is. In the whirlwind of the instant, I didn't take enough note of its affluent, literate charm, aristocratic and European, which so impressed Tocqueville that he stayed here for three weeks, the longest stopover in his journey. Boston was the only American city to have so lastingly bewitched him …

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