How the “homeless billionaire” became a philosopher king
The Berggruen family lived in an apartment on the Left Bank, near the Luxembourg Gardens. Berggruen’s brother Olivier, a New York art historian, says their parents were somewhat aloof and formal; he and Nicolas, who were brought up in their mother’s Catholic faith, spent a lot of time with their governess. Still, the house was immersed in art and literature, and the brothers had what Olivier says was an “interesting childhood.” (They have two siblings from Heinz Berggruen’s first marriage.) Art was their father’s passion but also his calling, and Olivier says Nicolas inherited his father’s business acumen. He remembers playing barter games when they were children: “I always wondered a few hours later: ‘How did my brother end up with all these goods?'”
As a teenager, Nicolas Berggruen was drawn to politics and philosophy and was “very left-wing,” he says. He was also, by his own admission, a “terrible teenager”. He claims that his rebellion got him expelled from the Institut Le Rosey, the venerable Swiss boarding school. In his early teens he visited the United States for the first time, and then decided to go back to college. “I couldn’t wait to leave France, to leave Europe,” he says. He graduated from New York University in 1981 and a few years later used a $250,000 trust fund to start his investing career. Berggruen made most of his money in private equity. According to Forbes, he has a current net worth of $2.9 billion.
We live in a “super results-oriented society,” Berggruen says, but “the one area you can’t measure” is fundamental ideas.
Bill Ackman, the famed hedge fund manager, met Berggruen in the early 1990s. At the time, Ackman says, Berggruen seemed “mature beyond his years.” The two have been partners in a number of deals. He describes Berggruen as “extremely smart and sophisticated” and an excellent investor – patient, long-term, “good in up-and-down situations”.
But when I met Berggruen one afternoon at Sierra Towers, he told me he had found little fulfillment in his career in finance. He said he was “never more excited or proud of this” and had greater respect for people “who are building something.” We sat in an alcove set back from the floor-to-ceiling windows that offered stunning views of Los Angeles. It was an unusually cool day, but the sun still cast a warm glow over the city. “Even today, on a winter’s day, you have this light – it’s very energizing,” Berggruen said. As we talked, he munched on Swiss chocolate. He said he wished he had the talent to start a business or be some kind of creator. Instead, he had just been “skilled at a game.”
Berggruen admits that his decision in the mid-2000s to sell his properties in New York and Miami and become the so-called “homeless billionaire” may have been rooted in the dissatisfaction he felt professionally. As he hopscotched the world on his Gulfstream IV — he got rid of his homes but kept his private plane — he found himself spending more and more time in Los Angeles, and he also rediscovered his interest in politics and philosophy. During one of his visits to Los Angeles, he was introduced to Brian Copenhaver, who taught philosophy at UCLA. Berggruen was looking for someone to guide him in philosophy, and Copenhaver became his teacher and interlocutor. Copenhagen says he wasn’t paid but asked Berggruen to donate to UCLA
The two met on Friday afternoons, in Berggruen’s suite at the Peninsula Hotel, and they focused on three works: Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics”, Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morality” and Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism”. Copenhaver says the talks typically lasted three or four hours and were “philosophical conversation the way it’s meant to be.” He told me that Berggruen was eager to engage with the lyrics but also wanted to understand why some ideas gained traction and others didn’t. “It’s one thing to have a theory,” says Copenhaver. “It’s another thing to have a theory that could catch on in the world.”