Calling All Czars: Ersatz Romanov Paul Allen Summons Subjects to Throwback Party

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

do.

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.