Toasting Robert Wilson, my grouchy friend

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

" 'The Illusionist.' First good movie I've seen in quite a while," Bob e-mailed me on Dec. 22.

A few hours after this unusually upbeat review, Robert Wilson, the financier and philanthropist, jumped from his apartment in the San Remo on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He was 87.

I called him Grouchbear during our long friendship that started some 30 years ago when Richard Gilder, a fellow conservative with the Midas touch, arranged for lunch at a French restaurant on 57th street because Bob had snorted over an ill-tempered review I'd written in the Wall Street Journal about "Salome" at the Metropolitan Opera.

"The platter bearing the head of John the Baptist should have come with a tuning fork, hahaha." He'd memorized his favorite line and delivered it in his monotonous, slightly quavering voice.

Dick probably picked up the check since Bob didn't like that part of eating out.

Back then, Bob was still hoping to reach billionaire status, a goal he gave up after amassing $800 million and having bet the wrong way on a stock that refused to wither and die. Generally speaking, however, short selling worked out pretty well for sunny Grouchbear.

At some point, I invited him to a party given by Marilyn Perry, the charming president of the Kress Foundation and chair of the World Monuments Fund, and he immediately ingratiated himself by saying, "God, this is a really small apartment."

Soon Bob was traveling around the world with her, rescuing historic buildings and ancient sites. I have a vivid memory of him fuming in a bus outside some Mexican ruin he didn't think worth saving.

Ultimately, he gave a $100 million challenge grant to WMF and proved similarly generous to other institutions that sought to ameliorate the destructive effects of humans on this planet, including the Environmental Defense Fund.

Catholic schools also received large checks because Bob, an atheist, hated teacher unions more than he hated religion. Yet he never actually raised his voice above that strange monotone, and besides, his millions isolated him from convention, politesse and reproachful liberals.

Bob failed to remove words like "faggot" from his vocabulary and was not, I believe, a devoted reader of the collected works of James Baldwin or Chaim Potok.

But then he wasn't much of a reader as he aged. When I gave him my favorite novel, Gunther Grass's "The Tin Drum," as a birthday present a few years ago, he said: "Thank you. My doorman will enjoy this."

His apartment with a long balcony overlooking Central Park was worth about $20 million, he reckoned, and filled with expensive contemporary art that was chosen for him. The only piece he ever talked about was a photo of Herb, a cat who lived with him and his ex-wife in Brooklyn. He was married for 30 plus years, though I never met anyone who knew his wife, of whom he always spoke with the greatest respect.

After an amicable divorce, Bob decided he was "queer" — his word — and acquired a boyfriend whose eventual disappearance had something to do with Bob feeling used for his money. Really! So what? I remember asking.

He ultimately preferred solitude. A theme he often sounded was that life today was too easy in all its variety. He said if he hadn't worked so hard to sublimate his homosexuality, he would never have made so much money.

I lost track of him for a while — he didn't think much of my opera-director partner and of course was very public about it. But then that impediment disappeared and we would booze on his balcony — he liked an ice cold Martini and let me rummage through a wine cellar that could park a pickled whale.

Mostly we talked about the productions he'd seen all over the world, and his years at the New York City Opera when he was chairman and his friend, the great soprano Beverly Sills, was general manager. He thought the art form was doomed because of union costs and the boring junk written by living composers.

"Between us girls, I find no merit in it whatsoever. No tunes anywhere that I can detect. I am going to turn it off. In fact, it's sort of unbearable," he wrote to me on Oct. 20 about "Moby-Dick," a newish opera by Jake Heggie.

We e-mailed about 100 times this last year, our messages traveling up and down Central Park West from my rented apartment at 94th Street to the San Remo condo a mile south — where he lived above the tree line, as he liked to snark. I did not.

After a stroke, a frailer Bob found walking difficult and I suspect he decided to control his departure while he still could.

Our last dinner was on Nov. 26 at Lincoln, a quietly elegant restaurant right by the Met, with my young colleague James.

Bob got us off to a great start by ordering a Martini with "the cheapest gin possible." He thought good gin interfered with the taste of vermouth. Then he tucked into steak and talked about how life has improved in the city and how he hoped that the campaign for finance reform would fail.

"Shall we split it?" Bob asked when I didn't reach fast enough for the check. The next day, he sent me a thank you note, adding that James, who favored jeans and little blazers, should buy himself some adult clothes. (He has).

Bob was opinionated to the end. On Dec. 21, I e-mailed him saying my friend Carri and I were about to watch Kurosawa's "Ran" and Steve McQueen in "The Thomas Crown Affair." I asked him how he was.

"I am well," he answered at 11 a.m. on Dec. 22. "Didn't much like Thomas Crown or Ran. Normally loved McQueen and dislike Japanese movies."

The next day Grouchbear opened a window and disappeared from my life.

_ Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News.