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Monday, 9 April 2012

Living Like a Billionaire, if Only for a Day

By KEVIN ROOSE

I HAVE a major problem: I just glanced at my $45,000 Chopard watch, and it's telling me that my Rolls-Royce may not make it to the airport in time for my private jet flight.

Yes, I know my predicament doesn't register high on the urgency scale. It's not exactly up there with malaria outbreaks in the Congo or street riots in Athens. But it's a serious issue, because my assignment today revolves around that plane ride.

"Step on it, Mike," I instruct my chauffeur, who nods and guides the $350,000 car into the left lane of the West Side Highway.

Let me back up a bit. As a reporter who writes about Wall Street, I spend a fair amount of time around extreme wealth. But my face is often pressed up against the gilded window. I've never eaten at Per Se, or gone boating on the French Riviera. I live in a pint-size Brooklyn apartment, rarely take cabs and feel like sending Time Warner to The Hague every time my cable bill arrives.

But for the next 24 hours, my goal is to live like a billionaire. I want to experience a brief taste of luxury - the chauffeured cars, the private planes, the V.I.P. access and endless privilege - and then go back to my normal life.


The experiment illuminates a paradox. In the era of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when the global financial elite has been accused of immoral and injurious conduct, we are still obsessed with the lives of the ultrarich. We watch them on television shows, follow their exploits in magazines and parse their books and public addresses for advice. In addition to the long-running list by Forbes, Bloomberg now maintains a list of billionaires with rankings that update every day.

Really, I wondered, what's so great about billionaires? What privileges and perks do a billion dollars confer? And could I tap into the psyches of the ultrawealthy by walking a mile in their Ferragamo loafers?

At 6 a.m., Mike, a chauffeur with Flyte Tyme Worldwide, picked me up at my apartment. He opened the Rolls-Royce's doors to reveal a spotless white interior, with lamb's wool floor mats, seatback TVs and a football field's worth of legroom. The car, like the watch, was lent to me by the manufacturer for the day while The New York Times made payments toward the other services.

Mike took me to my first appointment, a power breakfast at the Core club in Midtown. "Core," as the cognoscenti call it, is a members-only enclave with hefty dues - $15,000 annually, plus a $50,000 initiation fee - and a membership roll that includes brand-name financiers like Stephen A. Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group and Daniel S. Loeb of Third Point.

Over a spinach omelet, Jennie Enterprise, the club's founder, told me about the virtues of having a cloistered place for "ultrahigh net worth individuals" to congregate away from the bustle of the boardroom.

"They want someplace that respects their privacy," she said. "They want a place that they can seamlessly transition from work to play, that optimizes their time."

After breakfast, I rush back to the car for a high-speed trip to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, where I'm meeting a real-life billionaire for a trip on his private jet. The billionaire, a hedge fund manager, was scheduled to go down to Georgia and offered to let me interview him during the two-hour jaunt on the condition that I not reveal his identity.

I arrive several minutes after the billionaire, breaking the cardinal rule of private aviation: never be later than the owner of the plane.

Still, he lets me board. I walk to the tarmac and straight onto the Gulfstream IV, before settling into a supple leather armchair that swivels 360 degrees and reclines to flat at the push of a button. A flight attendant greets me by offering me coffee and a yogurt parfait.

I'm outfitted for the day in a navy pinstripe suit, picked out by Clifton C. Berry, who outfits Wall Street workers with his own line of bespoke menswear. It's probably the best I've looked all year. But I'm way overdressed for a meeting with the billionaire, who is wearing a sweater, jeans and sockless loafers.

During the trip, I ask the billionaire what it's like to be among the richest people in the world.

"Look," he says. "I think all it does is make things easier."

Like most of the wealthy people I've met while covering Wall Street, he plays down the effects of money. "I don't think it changes you that much," he said. "The happy guy who makes tons of money is still happy. If somebody's a jerk before, he's a jerk when he's got a billion dollars."

A raft of studies, including one in 2010 by Princeton researchers Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, has underscored the fact that the rich are no happier than the merely comfortable, and are often burdened by the same problems: health and work issues, family concerns and worries about making ends meet.

I reached out to Dr. Jim Grubman, a clinical psychologist who specializes in wealth, to help me understand this idea that billionaires are, in essence, just like us.

"It goes against what we've been told our whole lives," he tells me. "But it's true."

Still, two hours later, when the billionaire and I touch down in Sea Island, Ga., it's hard to see the similarities. As we deplane, a classic Mercedes convertible is waiting. We jump in, and he ferries me around the resort, with its multimillion-dollar villas and perfectly manicured golf courses.

Everywhere he goes, he gets four-star service. Doors are opened, luggage is carried away wordlessly, and at one point, warm chocolate chip cookies magically appear. When his brakes sputter and his convertible starts spewing smoke, he picks up another Mercedes.

"Somebody's got to live this life," he says, gesturing to the pristine view from his penthouse villa. "God decided it should be me."

Three hours later, after my flight back to New York, I'm greeted by Steve Rubino, a former police detective from Florida who has been hired to be my "personal protection professional" (read: bodyguard). Mr. Rubino's company, Risk Control Strategies, is a major player in the world of high-end security, outfitting tycoons with fancy home security systems and protecting them while traveling.

"We have to train our clients sometimes," said Mr. Rubino, who charges $250 an hour for his services. "It can be uncomfortable if you're not used to having security. But people get used to it."

Mr. Rubino, tailing me through Times Square, accompanies me to my next appointment: a personal training session at Sitaras Fitness.

Waiting for me when I arrive is John Sitaras, a former bodybuilder who has trained the former General Electric chief John F. Welch Jr., the hedge fund macher George Soros and Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman. The 140-odd members of his gym pay upward of $13,000 a year to train among fellow moguls in a sparse, spotless 12th-floor facility.

"Let's go, champ," Mr. Sitaras said, after I suit up leisurely in the locker room. "No wasted time in here."

One personal trainer might be good enough for a mere mortal, but Sitaris Fitness clients work with two-trainer teams. While Mr. Sitaris leads me in a set of upright rows, a second note-taker records my progress and fetches weights and artesian Voss water.

One thing I've noticed so far is that when you're a billionaire, you're never alone. All day, your life is supervised by a coterie of handlers and attendants catering to your whims. In the locker room alone after my workout, I feel unsettled. Where's my bodyguard? Where's my chauffeur? Why is nobody offering me an amuse-bouche while I shampoo my hair?

I asked Dr. Grubman, the psychologist to the wealthy, if a billionaire's lack of privacy eventually becomes second nature. "For these people, being able to be alone and relaxed with those people who are around you is rare," he said.

I feel bad admitting it, but my billionaire day has been stressful. Without an assistant, just keeping up with the hundreds of moving parts - the driver, the security detail, the minute-by-minute scheduling - has been a full-time job and then some.

When my night ends well after midnight, after a performance of Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera and a raucous trip to a burlesque-themed nightclub called the Box, something funny happens. I realize that I'm experiencing the sensation that psychologists call "sudden wealth syndrome."

The feeling is one of cognitive dissonance, a quick oscillation between repulsion and attraction. I'm drawn on one level to the billionaire lifestyle and the privilege that comes with it. But the lifestyle is so cartoonish, so over-the-top flamboyant, that I'm not sure I could ever get used to it.

Dr. Grubman assured me that if I were an actual billionaire, I would resolve the dissonance in time. Luckily, I don't have to. When I wake up the next morning, my Timex watch, bought on sale a couple of years ago, goes back on my wrist. I put on my unshined shoes and slip on my blue jacket, the one with a hole in the pocket.

On my way to the subway, I stop in at my local coffee shop and order a cappuccino. It's slightly burnt, like always. But this morning, in the haze of my hangover, it tastes rich. Really, sublimely rich.

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