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How the ​​‘Homeless Billionaire’ Became a Philosopher King

The Berggruen family lived in an apartment on the Left Bank, near the Luxembourg Gardens. Berggruen’s brother Olivier, an art historian in New York, says their parents were somewhat distant and formal; he and Nicolas, who were raised in their mother’s Catholic faith, spent a lot of time with their governess. Still, the household was immersed in art and literature, and the brothers had what Olivier says was an “interesting childhood.” (They have two siblings from Heinz Berggruen’s first marriage.) Art was their father’s passion but also his vocation, and Olivier says that Nicolas inherited his father’s business acumen. He recalls playing bartering games when they were kids: “I always wondered a few hours later, ‘How did my brother end up with all these possessions?’”

As an adolescent, Nicolas Berggruen was drawn to politics and philosophy and was “very left-wing,” he says. He was also, by his own account, a “terrible teenager.” He claims that his rebelliousness got him expelled from Institut Le Rosey, the venerable a Swiss boarding school. When he was in his early teens, he visited the United States for the first time, and he later decided to return for college. “I couldn’t wait to get out of France, to get out of Europe,” he says. He graduated from New York University in 1981, and a few years later used a $250,000 trust fund to start his investing career. Berggruen made most of his money in private equity. According to Forbes, he has a current net worth of $2.9 billion.

We live in a ‘super result-oriented society,’ Berggruen says, but ‘the one area you cannot measure’ is that of fundamental ideas.

Bill Ackman, the well-known hedge-fund manager, met Berggruen in the early 1990s. At the time, Ackman says, Berggruen seemed “mature beyond his years.” The two of them have been partners in a number of deals. He describes Berggruen as “extremely smart and sophisticated” and an excellent investor — patient, in for the long haul, “good in up-and-down situations.”

But when I met with Berggruen one afternoon at Sierra Towers, he told me that he had found little fulfillment in his career in finance. He said he was “never that excited about it or proud about it” and that he had greater respect for people “who build something.” We sat in an alcove set back from the floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a commanding view of Los Angeles. It was an unseasonably chilly day, but the sun still cast a warm glow over the city. “Even today, a winter day, you have this light — it’s very energizing,” Berggruen said. As we talked, he nibbled on Swiss chocolate. He said he wished that he’d had the talent to start a business or to be a creator of some kind. Instead, he had just been “skilled at a game.”

Berggruen allows that his decision in the mid-2000s to sell his properties in New York and Miami and to become the so-called “homeless billionaire” was perhaps rooted in the discontent he felt professionally. As he hopscotched around the world on his Gulfstream IV — he got rid of his homes but kept his private plane — he found himself spending more and more time in Los Angeles, and he also rediscovered his interest in politics and philosophy. On one of his visits to Los Angeles, he was introduced to Brian Copenhaver, who taught philosophy at U.C.L.A. Berggruen was looking for someone to mentor him in philosophy, and Copenhaver became his teacher and interlocutor. Copenhaver says he wasn’t paid but did ask Berggruen to donate to U.C.L.A.

The two would meet on Friday afternoons, in Berggruen’s suite at the Peninsula Hotel, and they focused on three works: Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals” and Sartre’s “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” Copenhaver says that the discussions typically lasted three or four hours and that it was “philosophical conversation as it is meant to be.” He told me that Berggruen was eager to engage with the texts but also wanted to understand why some ideas gained traction and others did not. “It’s one thing to have a theory,” Copenhaver says. “It’s another thing to have a theory that might make its way in the world.”

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