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At 14 he was sent by his Jewish father to spend a summer in Catalonia with a Jesuit priest, one Father Gofard, who attempted to teach him "the value of accepting that you are affected by others." "I understood it, but I couldn't live it," says Nicolas, who calls himself "rebellious," "disruptive," and "very opinionated" as a child.He distracted himself with girls and afternoon visits to Salvador Dalí, who was living nearby and served him pink champagne."To understand Nicolas you have to understand that he is driven by competition with our father," Olivier tells me.(He kept his Gulfstream IV.) He lived, he would say, out of a paper bag.
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"See over there," he says in accented yet precise English, gesturing toward the Santa Monica hills, where the starship-like Getty Center peeks out.
Adjacent to the museum property, at one of the highest points in the city, is the place where, it has just been announced, Nicolas will embark on one of the more ambitious projects in the philanthropy world: the construction of a secluded mountaintop campus devoted to sheltering the world's elite thinkers in a peaceful yet intellectually fervid sanctuary for reflection and dialogue, the so-called Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center.
Until recently he was conspicuously circumspect about the details of his success, which only fueled speculation, thanks to his eccentric personal life.
Fifteen years ago Nicolas sold his homes, cars, and other possessions, claiming they weighed him down aesthetically.
You feel as if you're floating, and suddenly I understand what lured the enigmatic 54-year-old, once known as "the homeless billionaire," to settle here after a decade of hotel hopping. I have space to think," he tells me, adding that he has bought several apartments in the building (he prefers not to disclose the number).
Maddeningly, this means that despite his nod to conventional homeownership, he remains a mystery. Over the years, whether in Los Angeles, New York, or Paris, I've heard any number of frustrated media moguls, politicians, economists, philanthropists, architects, artists, and journalists try to engage him, and it always boils down to: Who is he?
He always seemed to be looking around, searching—but for what? don't judge."Disappointingly, I'm not allowed to see the babies, since their pediatrician has banned visitors and they're on another floor.
I do remember his excitement when he decided to shift from investing to philanthropy and activism. Last year, when he told me he was thinking of having children, he seemed calm. I do get to see photos; both infants, wearing T-shirts for the Berggruen Institute, the California think tank Nicolas founded in 2009, already look like their father."I feel so much younger," he says over lunch at his regular table at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Although Heinz preferred to think of himself as European rather than German, Nicolas and Olivier grew up in a formal Prussian household, speaking German and eating meals with their nannies.