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The happiest billionaire

More power to Paul Allen, for his memoir and for living a life of the mind through his incredible fortune. 

Paul Allen

Paul Allen None

Paul Allen has written a memoir that is already violating the rules of "Seattle Nice." He has dared say some angry things about his former business partner Bill Gates, a man never shy about exhibiting his own contempt for the weak in the Darwinian world of business.

Some commentators have tut-tutted about the tone of Allen's work, Idea Man, excerpted in the latest Vanity Fair. Brier Dudley, the respected Seattle Times tech columnist, calls Allen's dishing "catty," saying "Allen risks going down in history as the world's richest disgruntled employee — the guy who stomped out of the building with $20 billion, thinking he deserved $25 billion." He describes the Allen excerpt as reading like a "vendetta."

But what right-thinking journalist would want anything different? Allen has been notoriously reclusive and hostile to reporting on his private life. I spent the better part of the 1990s directing coverage of Microsoft and the local tech world at Eastsideweek and Seattle Weekly, and incurred the wrath of Allen's people on several occasions, such as when one of our reporters visited the address of his foundation and it proved to be his sister's home, or when one of his aides shrieked at me on the phone for having sent Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jerry Gay to get a picture of the Allen compound on Mercer Island from a public right-of-way. This is a man who has been compared to Howard Hughes as a protector of his privacy, and I was scolded more than once for violating it.

Microsoft and Bill Gates have often been just as bad, threatening local reporters with cutting off access for coverage that made them unhappy, making it almost impossible for local media to break through the gates around Gates to get something meaty, spontaneous, unscripted. Calls to Microsoft have routinely been routed through PR people in Portland who would not connect you with anyone but other spokesdrones who would respond to pre-determined topics or questions.

And then there's the Microsoft wall of silence when it comes to dishing on the guy who made you rich. There has been an unspoken rule among former Microsoft big-shots not to bite the hand that gave you options. If Microsoft or Bill Gates put you on easy street, then you'd better keep your mouth shut. Microsoft has been famous for its ubiquitous non-disclosure agreements ("If I told you what I'm working on, I'd have to kill you"), but the best silencer has come in the form of wealth, a kind of hush-money for former senior executives. Ex-Microsoft execs have sometimes been chastened by their peers for even minor violations of the code. Smile, stay quiet, spend your money.

So, why would we encourage Paul Allen to be moderate in his honesty? Or his feelings? He has things to tell us about himself, and his role in business and tech history. He was the partner of a younger man who became the richest man in the world, a world he helped to revolutionize with the simple notion of getting a computer on everyone's desk. Allen tells us of the role he, Allen, played with a kind of intimacy that no one else could duplicate. His version of his life and its ups and downs, the extraordinary ride he took as son of a librarian to billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist, collector, developer, rock-enthusiast, etc., can only have an upside for inquiring minds.

Allen's memories and observations about the early years with Gates ring true. The teletype computer printer that clacked away in a closet-sized room at Lakeside is now on display at the school. I think it should be on display at the new Museum of History and Industry as an icon for what that now-antique piece of technology spawned. Allen's description of Gates' prickly and competitive personality, his brilliance, his ruthlessness, are not a surprise, being well-documented in other books and court records. But they mean more coming from someone who worked with Gates so long, who, like all your high-school and college buddies, has seen the best and worst of you while you were still in the making.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 4, 7:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Paul Allen was the (at first) anonymous donor of the $20,000,000 that funded the devious and ill-founded Seattle Commons toothache of an over-reaching, eminent domain, condemnation scheme in the early-mid 1990's. It was pure joy participating in the double defeat of that monster in 2 divisive, separate elections. It was hilarious to expose the Commons as an astroturf fraud of gargantuan self-interest and a delinquent of its own taxes on property holdings aquired by the Allen 'gift' to Seattle. At least he had to pay fair market value and/or above for what is now taking shape in South Lake Union. Property owners fended off an entire land grab by modern day robber barons fueled by Microsoft spilled gravy. Someone should write a book about those glorious days!

animalal

Posted Mon, Apr 4, 7:53 a.m. Inappropriate

That Bill Gates is a jerk, the David Sarnoff of his generation, is no revelation. That the press would treat it as one is itself a revelation. Everyone in Seattle culture loves to hate the evil businessman, even if he's not evil. But if he's paying their bills, they'll overlook just about anything.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Apr 4, 8:07 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't disagree with most of this column, but the headline isn't right. This memoir is not written by someone who is happy - it's by someone who is bitter and frustrated and thinks he needs to change the public record. But does he really enhance his legacy in doing so in this manner?

Carl

Posted Mon, Apr 4, 8:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Paul Allen's memoir will be a nice balance to the other autobiography on my spring reading list, "Life", by Keith Richards. Apparently the Stones' guitarist has a few choice words about his sidekick Mick. Oh, you boys.

Posted Mon, Apr 4, 9:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Let's kiss the asses of the rich and the super-rich some more, because heaven knows we don't do enough of that around here.

ivan

Posted Mon, Apr 4, 9:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Over many years I had the experience of working with and knowing a number of household-name figures in public life, journalism, the arts, education, business, and other fields. Some were wonderful human beings, some near sociopaths, and others just ambitious people given notoriety and, sometimes, wealth because of being in the right place at the right time.
It is important that we not treat them as gods or untouchables. The vast majority, outside their professional fields, have the same life problems and complications as the rest of us---sometimes far more.

Down the road, my guess would be that Allen will be most remembered for his brain research, Gates for his philanthropy in several fields. One thing to note: We associate today the names Rockefeller, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Duke, and Ford, among others, with philanthropy or institutions of higher learning. Yet, when fortunes were made which
enabled the good works, the names sometimes were associated with greed or ruthless practices. Gates and Allen, as many others, are living still uncompleted lives. The Allen book reflects a snapshot of those lives
at one period of time. To be continued.

Posted Mon, Apr 4, 11:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Dear Media

Has it ever crossed your mind that
people do not want you in their lives?
the public does NOT need to know
the public does NOT trust you

leitmotif

Posted Mon, Apr 4, 4:13 p.m. Inappropriate

@animalal: Whether or not the Commons was an exercise in astroturfing, I do wish — if we were going to have Allen-led development in South Lake Union anyway — that we also had a large city park to show for it.

Thanks for the piece, Skip.

Posted Mon, Apr 4, 4:57 p.m. Inappropriate

@animalal:
How exactly is Seattle better off for having returned the land Allen donated for the Commons so that he could build condos and office parks instead? You realize that we're paying far more to fix Mercer now than we would have with the Commons plan, right?

What a bunch of ignorant, populist nonsense. Indeed, it must have been quite a joy to cut off your nose to spite your face.

Sean

Posted Mon, Apr 4, 6:35 p.m. Inappropriate

The value of the land Allen offered to "donate" for the proposed Seattle Commons represented less than 10% of the cost of the project. The Mercer Street project now under construction (which, by the way, was done pretty much entirely to appease Allen's demands after he had purchased the old City-owned Bay Freeway properties with the express intent that the Mercer Corridor was going to remain essentially as it is/was, and without satisfying any of the other conditions he agreed to in order to be allowed to purchase them en bloc) extends for many blocks beyond what was proposed as part of the Commons proposal.

South Lake Union Park has been expanded to 12 acres, which most Commons opponents supported and which represents a significant expansion of park space in the area and is in fact a "large city park".

Animalal had it exactly right - and notwithstanding some of the good works he has done Mr. Allen is a master of civic blackmail and of getting the general public to subsidize his private economic development projects.

I'd vote no again on the Commons in a heartbeat (as would most Seattle residents, which is precisely why the City Council has ensured that none of the infrastructure projects Mr. Allen has demanded have had to fact public votes).

Nice to hear the inside scoop about Mr. Gates, though....

Posted Mon, Apr 4, 10:18 p.m. Inappropriate

TVD, do you really think we don't know that Rockefeller, Ford, et al. were not greedy? Do you really think we don't know that over many years you worked with many figures etc. etc.? Ye gods.

sarah90

Posted Tue, Apr 5, 10:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Selfish motives are only part of the reason for the grief imposed on the less fortunate by the wealthy. It’s human nature to try and get what we want, and in our society force is applied to the object with money. The worrisome part of this equation is the sycophantic allegiance of weak elected officials who choose to ignore their duty to serve all of their constituents for the sake of a few. That's what magnifies and increases the iniquity. The list of administrative favors, tax breaks, ceded or discounted public property and capital improvements lavished on some of the wealthiest people in the world by the last and current mayor and councils are costing tax payers billions of dollars. And when most of it is spent in only a few influential neighborhoods little is left for the rest of the city.

Just more entries for that growing list of things in America that, "may be legal, but they’re not right."

jmrolls

Posted Thu, Apr 7, 11 a.m. Inappropriate

It was all great and fantastic, but really, isn't it time to move on.

Check out the new analog processors.

The 21st century is here, but Seattle is still listening to grunge.

jabailo

Posted Thu, Apr 7, 1:10 p.m. Inappropriate

...said the frog in the kettle.

jmrolls

Posted Sat, Apr 9, 1:47 p.m. Inappropriate

I too was one of the anti-commons folks, but hold no animosity towards Allen - it was a good idea, but didn't pan out. He picked up the pieces and did something good with them - and, FWIW, he has done his share to help build the future of Seattle's Downtown park, Seattle Center.

As Mr. Van Dyk notes many of our most notable philanthropists founded private universities - something the Gates have chosen not to do - starting their philanthropic career bullying influence on that campus - a particular area of expertise of Bill, Sr - who, if he is lucky, will have his 'inheritance' tax take away all liability for his corruption upon the son.

Posted Mon, Apr 11, 11:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Ted Van Dyk - Paul Allen was busy giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars long before Bill Gates, and he is still busy at it. People have already forgot how he doubled the size of the UW Graduate School Library around 25 years ago - his father was a librarian for the UW.

There are countless other projects the Paul Allen Foundation has quietly funded over the past 20 years as well.

whatever

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