Why Nicolas Berggruen is Creating an Institute for Geniuses

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He was a swashbuckling financier famous for living out of a private plane while dating a parade of beauties, but he gave it all up for single parenthood and his very particular California dream.​

“Do you see? Do you see?” It’s an unusually cloudy day in Southern California, yet the view from Nicolas Berggruen’s West Hollywood apartment is dramatic. Perched atop the 31-story Sierra Towers, the highest residential building in greater Los Angeles, the open plan loft affords sweeping vistas of the metropolis and beyond. You feel as if you’re floating, and suddenly I understand what lured the enigmatic 54-year-old, once known as “the homeless billionaire,” to settle here after a decade of hotel hopping.

“The light is like nowhere else. I have space to think,” he tells me, adding that he has bought several apartments in the building (he prefers not to disclose the number). Maddeningly, this means that despite his nod to conventional homeownership, he remains a mystery.

And Nicolas is a bona fide mystery. Over the years, whether in Los Angeles, New York, or Paris, I’ve heard any number of frustrated media moguls, politicians, economists, philanthropists, architects, artists, and journalists try to engage him, and it always boils down to: Who is he? “He is very unusual, very unpredictable,” says British financier Lord Jacob Rothschild, who has known Berggruen all his life.

His apartment doesn’t reveal much. There are no chattering employees, books, photographs, or music. The decor is minimalist, the art cool. Only the bed is unusual, due to its collection of very old stuffed toys. When I enter, Nicolas, dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans—a ringer for a younger, even slighter Mick Jagger—leaps up from a table strewn with papers and darts over to the floor-to-ceiling windows.

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“See over there,” he says in accented yet precise English, gesturing toward the Santa Monica hills, where the starship-like Getty Center peeks out. Adjacent to the museum property, at one of the highest points in the city, is the place where, it has just been announced, Nicolas will embark on one of the more ambitious projects in the philanthropy world: the construction of a secluded mountaintop campus devoted to sheltering the world’s elite thinkers in a peaceful yet intellectually fervid sanctuary for reflection and dialogue, the so-calledBerggruen Philosophy and Culture Center.

Nicolas refers to the project as a “secular monastery.” Located on a pastoral urban woodland half the size of Central Park, the huge campus will be designed by Pritzker Prize–winning Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, best known for the Tate Modern in London. Nicolas has already launched affiliated fellowship programs with universities all over the world and established a $1 million annual award, the Berggruen Philosophy Prize, that he hopes will recognize the power of ideas, the way the Nobel Peace Prize does with actions, to make us “good or bad humans.” (The first recipient will be announced this fall.)

“Seeing a third of my money disappear overnight made me realize how ephemeral the whole thing is, and how futile it is at the end.”

The eyebrow-raising cost of all this is estimated to be several hundred million dollars, putting Nicolas, if he succeeds, near the Gates, Koch, and Soros orbit of donors. But an intriguing blend of expensive, tasteful, and unusual is Nicolas’s trademark. A French-born German-American, and a polyglot who speaks the languages of all three nations, he made his fortune (currently thought to be around $2 billion) in his thirties—and not, he says, with the help of a trust fund, as has been reported.

Until recently he was conspicuously circumspect about the details of his success, which only fueled speculation, thanks to his eccentric personal life. Fifteen years ago Nicolas sold his homes, cars, and other possessions, claiming they weighed him down aesthetically. (He kept his Gulfstream IV.)

He lived, he would say, out of a paper bag. But his asceticism was at odds with his tendency to show up (invariably accompanied by a startlingly attractive young woman—albeit rarely the same one twice) at every international party and place du jour, whether the Oscars (he used to throw an annual party at Château Marmont), Davos (where he also hosted an A-list gathering), or Art Basel (where he is a bold-faced client).

In recent years he has morphed from a party-hopping investor into a serious-minded plutocrat who hops from the Reichstag to the California governor’s office to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for private meetings with Xi Jinping. Often he brings one of those stunning young women along, driving some of the people in his orbit mad, which is precisely his intention, I believe.

I am friends with Nicolas and his younger brother Olivier, an art historian, and over the years I’ve noticed in Nicolas what looked like discomfort. At parties he rarely seemed to relax; never would I see him touch alcohol, hit the dance floor, or even smile much at his date. He always seemed to be looking around, searching—but for what? I do remember his excitement when he decided to shift from investing to philanthropy and activism. However, these days something about him is new. Last year, when he told me he was thinking of having children, he seemed calm.

Nicolas had long shown zero interest in being a father—not least because it might entail getting married—but in February he welcomed into the world Alexander Nicolas and Olympia Bettina, born three weeks apart via donor eggs and separate surrogates.

Whence the change of heart? Among other factors, he had been reading Siddhartha, Herman Hesse’s classic 1922 novel of self-discovery, the protagonist of which tries different paths to enlightenment. Nicolas had been a financier, then a reformer. Now, perhaps, it was time to stretch himself a different way.

“Won’t your children need a mother?” I ask.

“Not necessarily,” he replies. “People in L.A. don’t judge.”

Disappointingly, I’m not allowed to see the babies, since their pediatrician has banned visitors and they’re on another floor. I do get to see photos; both infants, wearing T-shirts for the Berggruen Institute, the California think tank Nicolas founded in 2009, already look like their father.

“I feel so much younger,” he says over lunch at his regular table at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “Children give you another life.” At the same time, he says, children bring “vulnerability.” “I put myself in a position where I’m clearly the father and the mother. They are totally dependent on me.”

“To understand Nicolas you have to understand that he is driven by competition with our father.”

Vulnerability is Berggruen’s nemesis. At 14 he was sent by his Jewish father to spend a summer in Catalonia with a Jesuit priest, one Father Gofard, who attempted to teach him “the value of accepting that you are affected by others.” “I understood it, but I couldn’t live it,” says Nicolas, who calls himself “rebellious,” “disruptive,” and “very opinionated” as a child. He distracted himself with girls and afternoon visits to Salvador DalĂ­, who was living nearby and served him pink champagne.

“To understand Nicolas you have to understand that he is driven by competition with our father,” Olivier tells me. “Our father was a dominating character, and Nicolas wanted independence from him. He doesn’t want to have to lean on anybody.”