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Wealth

The 'Homeless Billionaire' Settles Down


Berggruen in Berlin in June

Photograph by Britta Pedersen/Corbis

Berggruen in Berlin in June

The New York Times published a fine piece yesterday by Rachel Donadio about the adventures of Nicolas Berggruen, the man known as the “homeless billionaire,” at the World Economic Forum at Davos. It was full of keenly observed detail about the wealthy think tank proprietor. She described Berggruen as a slightly impish 52-year-old with blue eyes and a cool charm. She captured him hobnobbing with the likes of Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and Boris Johnson, mayor of London.

Did the Times bury the lead? In the final paragraph, Donadio dropped a bombshell:

“Back at the party at the Swiss chalet, as Daft Punk’s Get Lucky played, Mr. Berggruen talked about his fascination with which governments work and which don’t, about his interest in East and West. He said that he hated the ‘homeless billionaire’ moniker, and that anyway it would soon no longer apply. He had recently bought houses in New York and Los Angeles, which are under renovation. ‘I haven’t moved in yet,’ he said.”

In other words, the homeless billionaire is no longer homeless. That’s worth pondering. Berggruen may not like his former nickname. Still, he did rather well by it. He attracted a considerable amount of attention because of his unorthodox lifestyle. Fourteen years ago, Berggruen made a life-changing decision: He disposed of his apartment on the 31st floor of Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel and his Art Deco home on a private island near Miami, choosing to rough it instead at four-star hotels around the world.

This undoubtedly helped attract a group of high-net-worth individuals and political leaders to his think tank. There are plenty of rich people with think tanks. Berggruen has done better than most of them because he is more colorful and beguiling, enlisting the likes of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Google (GOOG) Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.

Now that he’s drawing crowds at Davos, Berggruen may not feel the need to cultivate a mystique. The question is, will he still throw his annual Oscar party at the Chateau Marmont, which attracts such celebrities as Paris Hilton, Woody Harrelson, and Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s one thing for Berggruen to settle down. But if he becomes too domesticated, he may find himself a little lonelier the next time he goes to Davos.

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Leonard is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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