Did you get your invitation? You couldn’t have missed it:
the gold-embossed wooden box, the faux Fabergé Easter egg nestled in a satin
pillow, the creamy stationery, the Pushkin passages.
And the pronouncement itself: “Paul G. Allen cordially
invites you and a guest to experience the inspiring grandeur of St. Petersburg,
Russia. Friday, August 17th to Monday, August 20th, 2001.”
Paul McCartney got one. So did Dan Aykroyd and his wife,
Donna Dixon. As did Rolling Stone
editor and publisher Jann Wenner. Writer Tom Wolfe, too. Also receiving one was
banker to the stars Herbert Allen. Rumor has it that Tom Hanks got one as well.
In 1988, financier Saul Steinberg spent a reported $2
million on the wedding reception of his daughter Laura to Jonathan Tisch, held
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A year later, Malcolm Forbes rented out the
Concorde and flew 800 of his “closest friends” to Tangier to celebrate his 70th
birthday. Those were events that, even then, seemed over the top, out of sync,
symbolic of excess and fun and glamour and gauche, all at once.
Today, Mr. Steinberg is close to bankruptcy, his daughter
and Mr. Tisch are now divorced, and Mr. Forbes is dead. Luckily, though, there
remain some upward striving, impossibly rich magnates still willing to pay
millions for an opportunity to rub up close to folks more glittery than they.
The Nasdaq’s giddy ascent is but a memory, the word “tech”
has become a pejorative, and once-cushy jobs with corner offices at glossy
magazines and investment banks are disappearing every week. But there are still
some people who want to party-like Mr. Allen, the Microsoft co-founder.
So what if his portfolio of Internet and wireless stocks has
suffered its blows and Microsoft is 42
percent off its high? Mr. Allen, retired from Microsoft and 47 years old, is
still worth $30 billion, according to the most recent Forbes 500. He’s No. 3 on Forbes ‘
list of wealthiest people in the world. He owns the Portland Trailblazers and
the Seattle Seahawks. With Microsoft now facing more favorable rulings from
George W. Bush–era courts, his Microsoft positions seem safe.
What to do with all the money? He could build a high-tech
manor the size of several castles or donate scads to charity or buy a few
sports franchises. And he could throw an all-expenses-paid bash for his friends
and those he wants to be able to call his friends.
The Russian junket is Mr. Allen’s fourth such debauch. The
first was at his Cap Ferrat villa on the French Riviera in 1996, the second a
mind-bender of a blowout in Venice in 1997 and the most recent in 1998: a
week-long luxury cruise along the Inside Passage from Juneau, Alaska, to
Seattle (at a reported cost of $9 million).
Like the Russian trip, all have been free to his guests.
Just show up at the prescribed time at J.F.K., LAX, Heathrow or Seattle-Tacoma
airport and a chartered jet will fly you away (you are responsible, though, for
getting yourself to the airport). If you are really lucky, Mr. Allen might just
invite you to ride along with him in his customized Boeing 757 (it seats 228).
Many forms of celebrity, from A-list on down, have supped
from Mr. Allen’s overflowing trough over the years: Carrie Fischer, Debbie
Reynolds, Francis Ford Coppola, Candice Bergen, Michael Jordan, Quincy Jones,
George Lucas, Geena Davis and Deepak Chopra, to name a few. And what times have
been had: Carlos Santana jamming in a Venetian palace; Lou Reed crooning “Walk
on the Wild Side” over dinner on an Alaskan cruise liner, according to one
account in Rolling Stone .
“No one entertains like that anymore,” said Howard Rosenman,
a Hollywood producer who has been to the three previous parties. “He is like a
Medici, a grand seignior , someone who
entertains in the old style.”
This month’s trip to St. Petersburg seems to be more
intimate and exclusive-with the focus being on movie stars and other Hollywood
and music moguls. The guest list is a spare 200 (400 were on the Alaskan
cruise) but, as on the previous fêtes, the living will be high.
A spokesman at Vulcan Ventures, Mr. Allen’s investment
vehicle, declined to comment on any aspect of the trip. But the faux Fabergé
egg (inscribed with the jaunt’s August dates) and the enclosed invitation
provide some details.
Guests are to arrive in Helsinki, Finland, on Aug. 17, where
“you will be escorted through Customs, then whisked away via motor coach to
your floating palace for the weekend,” the invitation reads. The floating
palace is to be the Radisson Seven Seas Navigator, and it will take its guests
from Helsinki to St. Petersburg via the Neva River. Every guest gets a deluxe suite (which normally goes for about
$1,400 a head per night) and full access to all the amenities one would
expect-spas, casinos, movies and the like.
Each day there are a number of day trips guests may avail
themselves of. On Friday, excursions include an 18-minute helicopter ride to
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia; a tall-ship cruise to a neighboring island; or
a day-long sauna retreat on another nearby island. (“Men and women will each
have their own sauna with a view of the lake.”)
On Saturday in St. Petersburg, the excursions include
organized museum visits and walking and shopping tours. On Sunday, there will
be a private tour of the Hermitage Museum, a helicopter tour of the city and,
oddly enough, a trip to a military shooting club. “This is a rare opportunity
to visit a shooting range in Russia,” the invitation reads. “Once your
instructor has given you an overview of the guns, you will have the opportunity
to fire some of these rare weapons [such as] the AK-47 assault rifle … and a
variety of other handguns formerly used by the KGB. After all guns are returned
safely, your instructor will retrieve the target practice papers and used
shells for each participant to keep as souvenirs.”
As with all Paul Allen parties, there is a gala evening
blowout. In Venice, there was a costume ball; in Alaska, Little Feat and Lou
Reed performed. This year, the weekend’s party is to be held on Sunday. “Save
your energy for tonight,” the itinerary
confides, “the evening’s festivities will be unforgettable.”
So who gets invited to a Paul Allen party anyway? David
Geffen is a regular (Mr. Allen is the largest shareholder in Dreamworks, and
Mr. Geffen has always been his primary entree into Hollywood). Director Penny
Marshall gets invited; Bill Gates to be sure, as well as core rock ‘n’ roll
buddies like Mr. Santana and the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart.
But the shy and retiring Mr. Allen-he has never been
married, and he seems to spend more time with his mother and sister than he
does with girlfriends-apparently just invites people he’d like to hang out
with, whether he knows them or not. That’s what ridiculous wealth allows you to
You like Robin Williams’ movies, why not send for the man? Mr.
Williams had never met Mr. Allen before making the junket to Venice. Neither
had Mr. Wolfe before receiving his invitation to Russia. But if you are one of
those people with whom Mr. Allen would like to mingle, you’ll have a tough time
figuring out in advance who might be sitting across the baccarat table from
you. The guest list is so tightly guarded, organizers do not divulge names,
even to those who have been invited.
Past parties have been organized by Mr. Allen’s sister, Jody
Allen Patton. But now it has become very much the professional undertaking.
Transporting 200-plus media-business-Hollywood types halfway across the world
is no simple task, and this year’s event is being organized by RealTime
Productions, a Seattle-based party- and event-planner. Every last detail, from
visas to menu choice, is taken care of by Guest Services. All you have to do is
check yes, “I/We have an adventurous spirit and are ready to begin our Russian
voyage,” or no.
So who checked the yes box? Reportedly, Mr. Wenner, Mr. Aykroyd and Mr. McCartney; Herb Allen
reportedly did not. Others are still deciding.
But apparently, the invitations have all gone out. If you
haven’t gotten your box and egg yet-there’s always next year.