“I’ve never been so sick in my life, and I wasn’t even partying last night,” said Peter Tunney, 43, at Cipriani Downtown one recent afternoon. He didn’t look sick. With his ruddy complexion, full head of blond hair, and honking style of speech, he seemed like someone who’d spent the day sailing on the North Shore of Long Island. His clothes were preppy (white tennis shirt, khakis) but splattered with red paint.
“That just goes to show you,” he barked. “I cleaned up my act and I start getting sick.”
I first started bumping into Mr. Tunney in 1996, at a fund-raiser for Al Gore, then at Bridgehampton Polo, Elaine’s, at some jewelry event on Fifth Avenue. Then I didn’t see him for five years, until last March at about 5 a.m. Mr. Tunney, who had recently found himself broke and homeless, was living inside the West Chelsea nightclub Crobar, in a V.I.P. room with a jukebox, a bunk bed and his pop art. That night, two dozen people, including singer Grace Jones, drank Jack Daniels, chain-smoked, babbled and watched Mr. Tunney paint.
At 9:30 a.m., everyone was still partying away, but the curtains were drawn around the bottom bunk, where Mr. Tunney was enjoying the company of a lovely young girl half his age. Mr. Tunney lived in Crobar for 300 days and estimates that he met 100,000 people, the majority of them pretty girls half his age, which is unsurprising: In 1994, he appeared on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in an episode about “the world’s most eligible bachelors.” He beat out both Prince Albert of Monaco and John Kennedy Jr.
By the time he was 30, Mr. Tunney had made millions in biotechnology investments. These days, he’s a full-time artist and lives in an enormous former firehouse in Soho. There’s a spiral staircase going up three floors, 18-foot ceilings, a bathtub for three, a six-by-nine-foot projection TV and, everywhere, paintings and photographs.
Mr. Tunney gets up at noonish, walks his pit bull Britney Spears, then has a long, leisurely lunch at Cipriani on West Broadway, where pretty girls flock to his table.
“I’m a hundred percent an artist now. That’s it,” he told me. “I’ve got my heart and soul in it: every molecule, every second, every minute-all the time!”
He said he thought he could be the best living artist soon.
“Throughout the history of art, there was always someone who was the Man,” he said. “Picasso was the Man. It wasn’t Matisse, it was Picasso! When it was Velásquez, it was Velásquez! When it was Rembrandt, it was Rembrandt! So who is the greatest living artist right now? I’ve been asking everyone for 10 years, and no one can even answer.”
Mr. Tunney said Damien Hirst was an artist he respected, then challenged him to an “art-off.”
“Get a gallery, put a big red stripe right down the middle and put the exact same stuff on both sides,” he said. “Two basketballs, 10 canvases, a gallon of paint, some forks, some salad. You make your shit, I’ll make my shit. Let’s see what you got, big boy! I want to tell you something: I think I’m going to blow him out of the water.”
I offered to pay the bill.
“It’s impossible-not here,” he said. “No one’s ever paid for a check when they’re with me.”
Mr. Tunney, who has no cash, no credit card, no bank account, trades art for food and rent. He doesn’t have to pay for drinks at his various downtown haunts like the Pink Elephant, One, Capitale, because his art is on the walls. In a jam, he’ll find a piece of paper, doodle something, sign it “Peter Tunney” and give it to the maître d’, the cab driver, the doctor, the deli owner. He calls it “Tunney Money.”
“I could just sign this plate and maybe that would pay for my lunch,” he said. “I sell everything I make, amazingly, or I give it away to girls. I’m basically off American currency right now. I usually walk around with no money. I’ve been broke for the past year. I’m on a different paradigm, in a different life structure. My money’s no good in this city any more.”
By Cipriani’s outdoor tables, he pointed to a work of his, a surfboard with a sign on it that read “Problems Perceived Are Problems Achieved.” He chatted with model-agency owner Paulo Zampolli, then headed across the street to what was once his gallery, The Time Is Always Now.
There, from the mid-90’s up until 2002, he managed the career of the free-spirited, gleefully irresponsible photographer, adventurer and ladies’ man Peter Beard. Before that period, Mr. Tunney said he never did drugs, never went to a nightclub. Mr. Beard’s influence changed all that. The two playboys took Mr. Beard’s retrospective on the road to London, Paris, Miami, Berlin, Madrid and Tokyo. And when Mr. Tunney received word in September 1996 that Mr. Beard had been trampled on by an elephant in Nairobi, he organized a rescue mission, extracted him from the hospital in Nairobi and saved his life. Then, in 2001, Mr. Beard suddenly ended the partnership. Mr. Tunney lost the nasty court battle that followed.
“It just broke my heart,” he said. “I didn’t have any money left. The Beards took everything-that was my whole nest egg. I gave him everything! Put his whole world together! So I went outside, found a piece of wood and wrote, ‘No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.’ Hung it up in my window. Someone came in and bought it.”
Mr. Beard’s lawyer, Michael Stout, denied that Mr. Beard introduced Mr. Tunney to drugs and nightlife or that there had ever been a partnership. “Many art dealers believe that they are responsible for the success of the artist, and it’s simply not true,” he said. “Peter Beard’s career was successful way before Peter Tunney, [and it’s] very successful now.”
“We were two giant forces-it had to fall apart,” Mr. Tunney said. “It pulled apart at a perfect time: Now I’m him!”
“It’s not that I’m so great; it’s that guys are so appalling these days,” he said, after I mentioned his success with women on the way back to the firehouse. “I know guys that just literally want to stick it in. If they feel they can’t stick it in that night, they are rude and blow the girl off. I hear everyday from girls what assholes these guys are and why I’m such a nice guy. They trust me. I look out for my girls. Anybody does anything to a girl, I’m the first one to stand up: ‘You can’t do that shit. You can’t be slapping a girl-it’s nonsense.'”
We arrived at his firehouse. The door was unlocked. Britney Spears jumped up to greet us. The place was a mess, boxes of art everywhere.
In his bedroom, Mr. Tunney popped in the Lifestyles video from a decade ago. Robin Leach described Mr. Tunney as “America’s hottest catch,” “America’s pride,” a “boy-next-door type,” a “Wall Street wiz” and a “dedicated ladies’ man” who is “relentlessly flanked by femme fatales.”
“I have a little bit of a problem, because I really love women-all of them, all different sizes and shapes,” said the Peter Tunney of 1994. “They’re incredibly interesting to me and very truthful, it seems.”
Mr. Tunney of 2004 snorted. “Now I say they’re all a lot of bitches, but I’m older and wiser,” he said.
Above him on the wall was a blown-up photograph in plexiglass at the bottom of which he’d scrawled, “Childhood was huge for me.” Next to that, some pink underwear was stuck on a canvas and signed. “That’s my first pair of boxer shorts,” he said. “I have a big skid mark in it. I’d sell that for $2,500. I haven’t worn underwear since 1994.”
We flipped through his collage-style diaries. Mr. Tunney with the ex-wife of Baby Doc Duvalier. Drinks with Tom Jones at the Hotel du Cap. Playing a coroner in a TV movie directed by Renny Harlin. With Iman, with actress Robin Tunney (no relation), Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter and the late actor James Coburn.
He fired up some weed, then passed the pipe to me. He took Britney Spears for a walk, then we headed over to the restaurant Capitale a few blocks away.
“Are you Peter Tunney?” asked Joanne, the director of catering. “I love your work. I’ve been here since Valentine’s Day, and every day I find something new about it.” She said she’d come join us in a sec.
“I’m gonna fuck her in the bathroom just for you,” Mr. Tunney said, climbing the stairs to the Peter Tunney Room, filled with $200,000 of his art. On the walls, a photograph of him playing golf in Bhutan. Going down a water slide in Kenya. A painting he made with actress Tara Reid.
His cell phone rang. A publicist. Mr. Tunney talked to her about a performance he was doing at M lounge in the meatpacking district, to promote Moët and Chandon champagne. He told her he’d be painting two naked girls and needed $1,000 for supplies.
“I have 150 hot girls coming,” he said, before adding that he was sick. “That and a couple grams of coke and I usually feel better. The thing is, I haven’t been partying-that’s probably why I’m sick. Smoke some crack and you don’t feel this shit …. I could paint a Moët bottle on her back or something, like Basquiat …. How’s my RSVP list? O.K.
“I’d rather stay home and work,” he told me when he got off. “And I don’t even drink. I never drink. I don’t like alcohol-I just don’t like it. I like grass. Alcohol to me is like diarrhea: You crash the car, you don’t get laid. I just never saw it as a good thing.”
He said maybe he’d watch some TV that night.
“You know, every time I say that I end up looking like a fool, because then I end up staying out until 4 a.m. at Bungalow,” he said. “I may need some stimulants. That might be the problem. I might order some grass-and some blow, maybe,” he said, yawning.
Michael Corleone, David Copperfield, Jonas Salk
Peter Tunney grew up in Stony Brook, Long Island. His father made $400 a week selling cemetery plots for the Diocese of Rockville Center; his mother was a housewife who now works at the local paper.
“The most beautiful, wonderful childhood,” Mr. Tunney said. “Swinging on a rope, landing in a little pond. Digging up Indian artifacts. Going on hikes. Camping out in the woods.”
When he was 13, he was coming down a hill on his bike and got broadsided by a car going 60 miles an hour in the opposite direction. He slipped into a coma for 23 days, didn’t defecate for 60 days, and spent the next five years in and out of hospitals, always heavily medicated, learning a lot about medicine and magic.
“I became the person who entertained everybody in the hospital,” he said. “I still perform today the very, very same tricks for rich and famous people around the world. David Copperfield has filmed me on the roof of his place. There’s certain things I’ve done for 25 years in my own style that are so fluent that he’s learning from me.”
(“We’re still trying to figure him out-me and the rest of the world,” said Mr. Copperfield. “Peter is just a wonderful guy with a wonderful heart. A little crazy. He’s got amazing talent and he thinks he can do magic, so he’s caused me some big competition. He’s the master of the temple screen.”)
Mr. Tunney was the “Michael Corleone” of his high school who “ran things” from his wheelchair, making $300 a week “selling gum, loose joints, having parties, magic shows.” He was expelled from Oswego State University for pranks; at 20, he dropped out of Albany State after collecting $50,000 from the car accident and blowing it all partying in the Presidential suite of the local Hilton hotel. His first job was as manager of the Playboy Club in New York City. In 1982, he sold Pontiacs in Long Island for $1,000 a week.
One day, Mr. Tunney sold a car to a Wall Street big shot who said he was the greatest salesman he’d ever seen and introduced the 23-year-old to the chairman of Paine Webber. By 1984, Mr. Tunney was a registered stockbroker, and after the stock market crashed in 1987, he created a secondary market in securities that were traditionally considered illiquid. He started his own firm that bought into needy or distressed biotechnology companies, making millions for his clients and for himself.
He rented a 10,000-square-foot townhouse on East 92nd Street for $20,000 a month. Built by the Rockefellers, it had 10 bathrooms, 10 fireplaces and a butler.
But in 1990, he lost $32 million in one trade. He started an art gallery in the townhouse with the rest of his money. Every Sunday for a year, he’d visit artist Hunt Slonem’s studio. He ended up with over 100 of his paintings.
“I have thousands of paintings,” Mr. Tunney said. “They’re in storage all over the place. Millions of dollars of paintings.”
The first four years, he spent $8 million and did $11,000 in sales. Mr. Tunney opened up another gallery in Hong Kong and began making art himself. For one show, he took 1,000 copies of old Life magazine ads for Coca-Cola, doodled on them, laminated them and then, using Velcro, fastened them onto his shower wall. He did the same with pictures of Jackie Kennedy and John-John and victims of serial killer Richard Speck. Individual panels of his “shower art” sold for $50 to $100. Critics said his aesthetic merit was limited and called him an Andy Warhol copycat.
In 1992, he was introduced to polio- and flu-vaccine discoverer Jonas Salk. They set out to make vaccines and focused on HIV.
“It was a radioactive subject and a highly politicized disease,” Mr. Tunney said. “They called him a charlatan and me a con man.”
But Joan Kroc came through, donating $10 million of her McDonald’s fortune for a nonprofit foundation “for the immunization and humanization of mankind.”
“Jonas Salk, light of my life, taught me how to think,” Mr. Tunney said, adding that he was with Dr. Salk three days before he died and had him sign some of his books. In one, Dr. Salk wrote that his protégé was “the one who can seek out our new future.” And: “I’m passing the torch.”
In the fall of 2003, a couple years after Mr. Tunney’s fall-out with Peter Beard, the owners of the nightclub Crobar approached Mr. Tunney about doing an exhibit. He said he needed $25,000 for a show called Signs of the Times, which included, among other things, a room for him to live in. But they didn’t bite. So Mr. Tunney moved all his stuff into a vacant room on the sly. When the owners discovered him, he was sitting in his bunk bed watching TV.
“What are you doing here?” they asked.
Magician David Blaine had recently spent 44 days in a glass cube in London, and Mr. Tunney said he was going to break that record and not leave for 45 days. Mr. Tunney turned his space into the ultimate V.I.P. room. He made five paintings a day, one by using Tara Reid’s hands and feet. Val Kilmer hung out for hours. He was there the night John Kerry had a fund-raiser. He smoked Cuban cigars with Kid Rock. Kid bought a sign reading “Life Is Good” for $1,000 in cash. Someone else bought a five-foot stop sign with the words “Don’t Stop Ever” for $7,500. “Fuck Yoga” went for $1,500.
Women threw themselves at him. “You’d be sitting there and girls would just unzip your pants,” he said. “They didn’t even want to talk to Kid Rock. In that room I was the fucking stud, that’s for sure. I walked around that club in my bathrobe like the king of the world. But I wasn’t there trying to pick up girls; I was there defending myself from girls.”
He added that a girl once punched him in the stomach when he refused to have sex with her. He also built a tent around the lower bunk for protection. Late on New Year’s Eve, Mr. Tunney was behind it making out with two gorgeous girls; actress Neve Campbell shook his little toe goodbye.
One night, while a hundred people were in his room, four girls were on his bed. “They were making out and doing everything they could think of with me and to me,” he said. “I’ve done that 500 times.”
Another night, he was in bed with “a 20-year-old Brazilian girl” who was so “drop-dead you’d cut off your left arm just to kiss her.
“She was just going down on me, and I was just laying back with my cigar, just relaxing,” he said. “Suddenly she jumped up so hard she hit her head on the wood and it kind of knocked her out. You know why? Britney Spears came around on her on the other edge of the bed and Britney started licking her ass.”
But that was nothing compared to one Sunday morning at 7 a.m. He was making out with a beautiful Hispanic girl with olive lips, beautiful teeth and light green eyes. Then two other girls he’d been making out with earlier came over and he had a threesome in the bathroom-four times.
“They were really hot,” he explained. “It could have been Viagra. I started using Viagra in the Crobar.”
After Mr. Tunney had a nice, long nap, I returned to the firehouse. He got a call from a pretty Asian girl. “Hello, baby,” he said. “Do you know how empty my life is without you? What are you doing tonight? You wanna come out with us tonight? We’re gonna do the Gotham magazine and the Ashanti party tonight.”
He said good-bye, then turned to me. “I’m not a whore, but I’m a little bit of a slut, I guess, these days,” he said.
Soon four pretty girls half his age showed up. As they mounted the stairs, Mr. Tunney needed to clear something up real fast. “Here’s the key with me,” he said. “I’ve never gone with hookers. Never. With me, what I like to do is turn girls out. You know what I mean? To show her some new things and get them to open up. I’ve had so many-I don’t want to say one-night stands, but we’ll say 24-hour experiences that they will never forget. Like my guess is, you will never forget today. But I do this every day with someone. It’s not cheap at all. It’s guts, baby! That’s life blood. To get off this couch and do these two girls while you’re down here, that’s gonna take some energy. I’m hoping for the best. Let’s say I’d be willing to.”
Mr. Tunney got up and embraced them one by one and said, “No kisses on the mouth tonight.”
That night, he took the girls to three nightclubs. He didn’t drink, or take drugs, and at 3 a.m. he went home alone.