The paradox of Seattle billionaires: The bigger they are, the less we know about them

Paul Allen's recent interview with The Seattle Times provides a rare glimpse into the mind of a billionaire who's known more for his toys than for his intentions to develop Seattle.
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Paul Allen

Paul Allen's recent interview with The Seattle Times provides a rare glimpse into the mind of a billionaire who's known more for his toys than for his intentions to develop Seattle.

A generation ago, when a family in Seattle hosted visitors from out of town, the choices were predictable: the Space Needle, the Pike Place Market, Frederick & Nelson, Nordstrom, and maybe the Acres of Clams. Nowadays, it's almost a given that you also take a waterfront tour of the homes of our billionaires. On Lake Washington, it's always Bill Gates' house. And Paul Allen's. And that odd shape of assembled cubes built by Charles Simonyi, an unknown till he spent some of his billions to hitch a ride to the International Space Station. Would you like Tang with your caviar? Billionaires wouldn't become billionaires without some sense of competitiveness, and doubtless at some level they might be jealous of how Gates so dominates their world and its subset, philanthropy. It's inconceivable to write an essay about Seattle culture without some mention of Bill Gates, who dominated our new economy, minted a few thousand millionaires, and now, through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is aggressively – underline that last word – pushing health care and education on a designated path. I have no reason to question Gates' policy goals, except to call attention to the fact that across the globe there are thousands of schools, education groups, and health care organizations lighting candles and praying for dollars from his most purpose-driven organization. Bill, thy will be done. The Gates Foundation in some ways is like Microsoft – driven to dominate, to be right, to capture mind share, and to win. Just because it's a charity doesn't mean it's fuzzy or soft. It wants results. In the old days at Microsoft, it was all about beating IBM or Borland. Now it's about beating malaria, AIDS, and lousy math scores. So in the panoply of billionaires, it's Bill, Bill, and Bill, and everyone else is a distant ran. Paul Allen? Merely the fifth-richest man in America. In contrast to Gates, who seems everywhere, hob-knobbing with Bono, pushing Zune on the streets of downtown Seattle, or hosting the head of China, and clearly using media attention to serve his goals, Allen won't play that game. So we see little of him, which is too bad. In some ways, Allen is more interesting than Gates because he came to wealth from a place we would recognize. Gates came from affluence, banking, the law, the Laurelhurst Beach Club, and summers on Hood Canal. The son of a University of Washington librarian, Allen came from middle-class Wedgwood and, according to what his sister once told me, loves a shake, fries, and a Deluxe at Dick's Drive-In. Both kids wound up at Lakeside School. And it's a safe bet that Gates, too, has had his share at Dick's. But there's a scruffy quality about Paul Allen that just can't be polished by the money or the handlers. Gates doesn't have that Everyman quality. Allen does, even in Prada loafers. Gates is all about philanthropy as your mom would have wanted: United Way, save-the-world stuff. Sober, respectable, important. Allen does too, but there's a wild hair – the Washington State University frat guy showing his fun side by buying a couple of sports teams (Trail Blazers, Seahawks), Jimi Hendrix's guitar (Experience Music Project), a yellow submarine, a 757 (nifty for giving rides to Seattle City Council members), not one but two of the world's biggest yachts, and even James T. Kirk's chair from the starship Enterprise (the Science Fiction Museum collection). I'm personally grateful for Allen's restoration of Cinerama, home to red mohair seats and the best screen in town. For all we know, Gates might have his own collection of spectacular toys, but we don't, and that's the point. Just as Gates has been superb at marketing himself as the face of Microsoft and the foundation, he's also been skillful at keeping a lid on his private life. With Allen, it's almost the reverse. We know about his toys and parties, thanks to the celebrity rags. (How long till Paris meets Paul?) But little in detail about the business side because he does so little to provide, personally or through his organization, Vulcan, a coherent sense of his goals. Gates puts out specific plans of attack. Allen's Web site gives us this: "In my own work, I've tried to anticipate what's coming over the horizon, to hasten its arrival, and to apply it to people's lives in a meaningful way." And yet for all his vagueness, Allen is putting a stamp on our city, not just in sports and entertainment, but by physical development, stick by stick. He owns much of both ends of downtown, at South Lake Union and south of Pioneer Square. Someday, I'm certain, he'll get the OK for high rise condos near Mercer Street. Maybe he'll buy the Clise property, but already he's the biggest player in downtown development since C.D. Stimson. So what's he want? Does he control City Hall, as alleged by critics of city policies in South Lake Union? Is he the greatest string puller in Seattle? Or does he spend more time thinking about his submarine than the dazzling changes at South Lake Union? There were no answers to this, only new glimpses into his personality in an interview with Kristi Heim of The Seattle Times. Most of the quotes were typically bland, and they reminded me of my own one-time interview with Allen. In contrast to Gates, who is articulate and on point, and occasionally impatient, Allen also can be thoughtful but so unpracticed in the art of the interview you want to relieve him of his discomfort. The nominal news was Allen's support for documentaries by the PBS Nova series. But perhaps the impulse was revealed from this line in Heim's story: "These days Allen's public-relations team is working to remind people about his charitable side, what with all the attention given to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently." The Times gently explored whether Allen's giving, big as it is, is sufficiently generous, compared to many of his peers. (A writer for The Wall Street Journal raised a similar point last February.) Allen didn't give any hint that he felt competitive with his old business partner. Instead, he said, "Bill's efforts are amazing." In any case, it's not much of a contest. Gates last year gave $212 million alone to organizations in the Pacific Northwest, compared to Allen's total giving of about $30 million a year, largely within the region. If it's a competition for fun, though, I'll take Allen and one afternoon on either of his yachts in Antibes. Maybe we can cruise the shore and look at rich peoples' homes. Paul, they run my e-mail right below.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.