Tap Dancing to Work

How to live with a billion

November 21, 2012: 11:38 AM ET

It isn't as easy as you might think. The yacht just broke, the cook just quit, and those pesky reporters won't leave you alone. Here are some ways the super-rich cope.

This story is from the September 11, 1989 issue of Fortune. It is the full text of an article excerpted in Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2012, a Fortune Magazine book, collected and expanded by Carol Loomis.

Master builder Sam and wife Ethel LeFrak beneath their Andy Warhol portrait

Master builder Sam and wife Ethel LeFrak beneath their Andy Warhol portrait

FORTUNE -- Are you sure you want a billion? Before you answer, consider H. Ross Perot. He has nearly three of them. He also has an original of the Magna Carta, some Remington and Charlie Russell bronzes, and Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington. But what he needs is a good pump repairman.

When Perot spoke recently to students at the Harvard business school, he warned them: ''Guys, just remember, if you get real lucky, if you make a lot of money, if you go out and buy a lot of stuff -- it's gonna break. You got your biggest, fanciest mansion in the world. It has air conditioning. It's got a pool. Just think of all the pumps that are going to go out. Or go to a yacht basin any place in the world. Nobody is smiling, and I'll tell you why: Something broke that morning. The generator's out; the microwave oven doesn't work; the captain's gay; the cook's quit. Things just don't mean happiness.''

What does? For many self-made billionaires happiness means work. Perot, with son Ross Jr., is bringing free enterprise to the airport business by helping to build one outside Fort Worth. Most billionaires still ply the trades that made them rich, and most discover that making all that money is a more durable source of happiness than spending it. Says Warren Buffett, who still puts in ten-hour days despite his $3.6 billion: ''I'm doing what I would most like to be doing in the world, and I have been since I was 20.'' What keeps him going, he says, is the admiration he holds for his business colleagues. ''I choose to work with every single person I work with. That ends up being the most important factor. I don't interact with people I don't like or admire. That's the key. It's like marrying.''

Buffett calls Berkshire Hathaway his canvas.

Buffett calls Berkshire Hathaway his canvas.

William Gates III could have retired before he turned 30. When the first PC was just a gleam in IBM's (IBM) blue eye, Bill Gates, at age 13, had taught himself computer programming. By 19, he had founded Microsoft (MSFT), the company that turned ''software'' into a household word. Money didn't drive Gates then and it doesn't now. ''Bill's original vision,'' says Microsoft senior vice president Steve Ballmer, ''was that you should be able to put a personal computer on every desk and in every home. If somebody back then had bothered to run the numbers on that proposition, it obviously would have looked like a very big business. But we never ran the numbers.'' For 1988 the numbers showed Microsoft's net revenues at close to $600 million. Gates still stays at the office some days until midnight.

High tech and investing have an aura of excitement and sex appeal. But billionaires hoeing far less glamorous rows keep right on hoeing: Rudolf Oetker makes baking powder. Max Schachenmann originally got rich by producing the ''finest putty available.'' Samuel LeFrak, building a city on New Jersey's shore, has specialized in middle-class housing described as solid -- "with kitchens and plumbing you could take to the bank.''

Grete Schickedanz, owner of Europe's largest mail-order catalogue business, still occasionally picks the fashions hausfraus will be wearing next season. Ronald Perelman has had to digest a Whitman's sampler of commonplace businesses to get his billion: perfumes, razor blades, licorice, and cigars. And Korean-born Kenkichi Nakajima, after coming to Japan as a student and being put to work in a defense factory during World War II, decided in 1949 that he wanted to manufacture a product completely unrelated to war. He chose pachinko machines, Japan's version of pinball, naming his company Heiwa, or ''peace.'' By beating words into pinball he has become the world's biggest manufacturer of such machines, scoring $360 million in sales last year. Heiwa stock began trading publicly in Japan a year ago; it rose nearly 70% in value the first day it was offered and is now up another 30%.

David Packard

David Packard

The problem with working, however, is that it leads, inevitably, to the accumulation of more things -- more leaky yachts, more busted pumps. But there is a way out, elegant in its simplicity: Give money away. If fortune becomes oppressive, show it the door.

Ross Perot, in philanthropy as in his business ventures, insists on strict accountability: ''I am dead interested in seeing that they deliver the goods. That is one of the reasons we give a great deal of money to the Salvation Army, because they feed the poor, they don't write books about it.'' Waldemar Nielsen, an expert on foundations and author of The Golden Donors, expects big things from Perot's foundation: ''He seems to have strong impulses and a lot of daring. Of the present crop of billionaires, he's one of the few with the potential to become a Carnegie.'' The beneficiaries of Perot's largess have been the Dallas Symphony, the Texas public schools, and a major Dallas medical center.

Giving one's entire fortune away -- without wincing -- is the ultimate way of saying, ''I didn't do it for the money.'' Earlier this year David Packard announced that he would be giving nearly all his Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) stock, worth more than $2 billion, to his foundation, which champions causes he and his late wife believed in, such as reducing infant mortality.

The size of his gift seems all the more extraordinary when one considers that the very rich, as a group, are not especially generous: Total giving seldom rises above a few percent of their net worth, at least before their death. Though the number of foundations has grown 20% since 1981, the number created by persons of great wealth has been in decline since 1969, when legal changes reduced the tax benefits.

Philanthropist H. Ross Perot, flanked by pictures of wife Margot and son Ross Jr., holds his charities strictly accountable.

Philanthropist H. Ross Perot, flanked by pictures of wife Margot and son Ross Jr., holds his charities strictly accountable.

Packard will help select the organizations that will benefit from his money. But other donors choose to leave that to hired hands. Says Nielsen: ''A lot of them don't know what the hell they want to do with their money. If a man has any real charitable or intellectual causes, of course, he would give to those specific things. But a high proportion of people who succeed financially have no interest in charity, no causes, no clear-cut interests. There are wonderful exceptions, but on the whole their lives are their businesses.''

When philanthropy marries eccentricity, whimsical gifts result. Robert Lacey, a biographer of the Ford family, believes Henry I created historic Greenfield Village so he could have a place to square-dance. In old age, the carmaker became preternaturally fond of Turkey in the Straw, and retained a staff of fiddlers so he could hear it on demand. He began collecting things from his childhood -- steam irons, plows, threshers, and stoves. He captured his friend Thomas Edison's dying breath in a bottle. Though collecting industrial artifacts is accepted practice today, in the 1930s it seemed kind of loopy. Ford's hoard of keepsakes became the Henry Ford Museum. (Josephine Ford today upholds her family's reputation for whimsy by occasionally hiding live lobsters in her children's beds.)

While no current billionaire rivals Ford for eccentricity, some have definite notions about giving. Master builder LeFrak has given to so many educational institutions that he has trouble remembering them all: the gymnasium at Amherst, a library at Oxford, and an endowed chair at the University of Maryland.

Newcomer Ronald Perelman has been attending board meetings since he was 11. He now owns Revlon, jewel of an eclectic empire.

Newcomer Ronald Perelman has been attending board meetings since he was 11. He now owns Revlon, jewel of an eclectic empire.

''But actually,'' says LeFrak, warming to his subject, ''what I am is an explorer.'' His money is helping finance a search in Tanzania for the missing link. If LeFrak has his way, it won't be missing much longer. A few years ago LeFrak helped Robert Ballard locate the Titanic. The challenge of finding an older vessel now confronts him -- Noah's ark: ''I just received from Texas, from Jim Irwin you know, the astronaut -- a letter saying that he got permission from the Turkish government, and they want to go up in a helicopter to find Noah's ark. They feel it's sitting on top of a mountain.''

Ed Bass, the environmentalist among the Texas Bass brothers, is building an ark right now on the edge of Arizona's Sonora Desert. Called Biosphere II, it's a 2 1/2-acre microcosm of the earth under glass that includes a downsize ocean, rain forest, desert, and savanna. After the necessary flora and fauna have been installed (including mosquitoes and eight people), the ecosystem will be sealed shut for two years, starting in 1990, to see whether it can sustain itself. By then Bass will have sunk some $30 million into the project. What does he hope to gain? Knowledge and profit. No one before has engineered so large an ecosystem, and if this one works, Bass's group thinks future biospheres could be sold as habitats for Mars or stressed-out Manhattanites. Maybe Noah should have charged admission.

For $30 million, Ed Bass is building Biosphere II, a miniature earth under glass.

For $30 million, Ed Bass is building Biosphere II, a miniature earth under glass.

No eccentric, Warren Buffett has limited his innovations to finance. At Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA), he has pioneered a novel approach to corporate giving. Every shareholder gets to direct a sum (last year it was $5 per share owned) to any charity.

When it comes to personal giving, Buffett feels that picking causes is harder than picking stocks. ''In stocks, you're looking for things that are obvious and easy to do. You try to identify the one-foot bars you can step over. But when you get into the charitable arena, you are attacking problems that have been the most intractable and resistant to solution throughout history. The most important ones are all seven-foot bars.'' Population control and diffusing the nuclear threat, the two causes Buffett's foundation supports, are ''bars so high up that I can't even see 'em. Real lulus.''

Though Buffett has spent only $10 million to $15 million on these causes so far, he intends to give much more. Waldemar Nielsen thinks Buffett hasn't even warmed up yet: ''He's one of those very rare guys who is not only one hell of an entrepreneur in business, but one hell of an entrepreneur in the philanthropic field. We haven't had one in a long time.''

The Buffett Foundation will get almost all Buffett's stock when he dies. And he doesn't think giving its trustees a narrow charter would be wise: ''That's like telling them what to invest in ten years after I die. I would rather have a smart, well-intentioned, high-grade person looking at the problems of the day through eyes that are open, not through my eyes that are in a coffin. I found in running businesses that the best results come from letting high-grade people work unencumbered. Stick around. If you're young enough, you'll see how it all works out.''
--By Alan Farnham

In the public eye

"We are of the same breed. One of her ancestors was Attila the Hun and one of mine was Genghis Khan. We have found each other. We are on the same wavelength." So says Prince Johannes von Thurn und Taxis of West Germany about motorcycle-riding, electric-guitar­playing 29-year-old Princess Gloria, his wife. He's rich -- an inherited fortune of $2.5 billion, mostly in banking and landholdings -- and the flamboyant "Johnny TNT," 63, doesn't hide it. For what good is a billion dollars stashed in a Swiss bank account if nobody knows it's there? It won't get much attention, and neither will its owner.

Microsoft mogul William Gates Ill is $300 million poorer this year but retains his zest for hard work.

Microsoft mogul William Gates Ill is $300 million poorer this year but retains his zest for hard work.

The TNTs are stars among a subset of billionaires who think flaunting it is half the fun. Bejeweled Gloria, in her ever-changing hairdos and feathered, often grotesque hats, is a favorite of the paparazzi. This year she appeared on a TV game show, and in March the couple sailed to the Galapagos Islands on their 120-foot yacht. Later it was on to Havana to meet Johannes's friend and former university classmate Fidel Castro. Gloria's costume ball for 200 at a Paris nightclub last February was attended by the likes of Boy George and Jack Nicholson.

All that attention, however, has its pitfalls, and the prince and princess of kitsch had their share this year. Unflattering tales appeared in The Andy Warhol Diaries, published in May. In July an elderly woman demanded a payment of three million German marks; in return she promised the name of a person she said was slowly poisoning the prince. She was nabbed by police when she showed up to collect. And the TNTs do have their differences. Says Johannes: "We are fighting all the time. But we have the children, and that is all that matters." The children are daughters Maria Theresia and Elisabeth, and, to the prince's relief, five­year-old son Albert, the heir to his fortune.

Hungarian Baron Hans Henrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, who lives in Switzerland, attracts attention mostly for his extraordinary art collection, which rivals the Queen of England's, but his five wives have been noticed too. No. 2 was an English model. Life and art meet in his current marriage, to Carmen "Tita" Cervera, in her late 40s, a former Miss Barcelona and Miss Spain who undressed several years ago in the German Penthouse. Tita persuaded Heini, as he's known to friends, to loan 787 of his 1,400 paintings to her native country.

Baron Thyssen-­Bornemisza with his fifth wife, the former Miss Spain. She landed part of his art collection for her country.

Baron Thyssen-­Bornemisza with his fifth wife, the former Miss Spain. She landed part of his art collection for her country.

When the 68-year-old Heini announced plans to ensure the safe­keeping of his collection beyond his own lifetime, he was courted by emissaries from Great Britain, West Germany, Japan, and France. The Prince of Wales made a personal visit. But the word is that Tita is hoping to be named a duchess.

For the moment the collection is still housed in the baron's main residence, Villa Favorita, on Lake Lugano in southern Switzerland. His white Rolls-Royce, equipped with three telephones, can be found parked at the end of a cypress-lined drive. Most of the villa is open to the public, a policy Heini adopted in 1947 after the death of his father, who preferred a little more privacy. Considered a prime target for an abduction, Thyssen is constantly surrounded by a rotating crew of bodyguards -- rotation makes them less recognizable. Still, he consults a fortuneteller every morning.

One way to make sure the world knows you're around is to put your name on everything. That's what Donald Trump did with the 21 planes of the Eastern Shuttle, which flies the Boston-New York-Washington trade and which he bought for $365 million. He claims it's good business: "My name creates big play. Let's take the Trump Shuttle. When I bought that thing, it had only 7% of the market share. The week after it had 50%" -- a number Fortune has been unable to verify.

Trump says he's troubled by the public perception that he has a big ego. "Sure, some of the things I do are for ego. But that has lessened so much since I first started. Now I enjoy the creative end of it and get a big kick from giving my money away. I give to AIDS research and our Vietnam vets." Trump says the earnings from his second book, which he's still in the process of writing, a sequel to The Art of the Deal, will also be donated to charity.

TV tycoon Berlusconi with a portrait of himself in his days as a youthful crooner.

TV tycoon Berlusconi with a portrait of himself in his days as a youthful crooner.

Most billionaires don't announce what they're worth. Trump does. He insists it's at least $5 billion, several billion more than Fortune is willing to credit him with after adjusting for his debt.

European television tycoon Silvio Berlusconi is another who doesn't play down his net worth. Fortune estimates that Berlusconi's is about $2.8 billion; his own estimates run as high as twice that figure. He's rich in terms of power as well, he points out. He has no shareholders to answer to and no other family members with large holdings in his company, Fininvest. He says he is "much richer" than Giovanni Agnelli, chairman of Fiat, Italy's largest private industrial group who has $1.7 billion. Still, Berlusconi treats his fellow Italian with considerable deference: "I never forget that he's the emperor and I am only a fellow who made a lot of money. I almost think he likes me."

Berlusconi, of course, made his money in the show-and-tell world of TV. In high school he performed in a band with friends and played the big summer dance spots. When friends come to his home, he often plays the piano and croons from his 1,000-song repertoire. But Berlusconi is also a workaholic. He's not sure whether he has nine or ten homes, since he has precious little time to enjoy them.

New York University's medical center was renamed Tisch Hospital after Larry (above) and brother Bob gave $30 mlillon.

New York University's medical center was renamed Tisch Hospital after Larry (above) and brother Bob gave $30 mlillon.

Some get attention simply because of the power they wield. Agnelli has been chairman of Fiat for 22 years. In Italy alone, the company accounts for 12% of exports. Agnelli's sister Susanna sits in Parliament and is under secretary at the Foreign Ministry. Brother Umberto, vice chairman of Fiat, has been in Parliament.

While Agnelli is establishment, Sir James Goldsmith gains his notoriety by attacking it. Among his other corporate takeover efforts, Goldsmith recently made a bid for BAT Industries.

Not all public attention is sought out, or even welcome. Take billionaire Tsai Wan-lin, 65% owner of Cathay Life Insurance in Taipei, a newcomer and No. 6 on our list. He hates publicity, but with a net worth of $9 billion, he's in the newspapers often. Money has been flowing into Taiwan for the past few years because of export earnings, but investment vehicles are few. So the stock market has become a national craze. Meanwhile, in an increasing acceptance of Western ways, large numbers of Taiwanese are buying life insurance for the first time. The industry is growing at an annual rate of 25%. Cathay's dominant position in its market makes it one of the most popular issues on the inflated Taipei Stock Exchange. Its stock has more than doubled in price in the past 18 months.

Murdoch's secret: He's jogging now.

Murdoch's secret: He's jogging now.

Despite the value of his holdings, Tsai still lives in a modest apartment building a block from company headquarters, refuses interview requests, and, according to Cathay managing director Liu Chia-lin, rejected the suggestion that he trade in his 1987 Mercedes for a Rolls-Royce because "he doesn't want to show off." Tsai's idea of high living is escaping to a suburban hillside villa on weekends and playing an occasional round of golf. He usually tees off alone, though, since he walks the course too fast for most partners.

The Benetton family, though they keep their private lives fairly private, also can't help being visible. And as with Trump, name recognition means business. Luciano, Giuliana, Gilberto, and Carlo aim to make the Benetton label a household word from Indiana to Indonesia. Says the company president, Luciano, whose granny glasses and frizz of gray hair recall the Sixties: "The European Community is for us a domestic market. We're paying ever closer attention to the international market that already accounts for 37% of our billings."

Benetton's brightly colored clothing and accessories are sold in franchise stores in 79 countries. The company is negotiating a joint venture with the Soviet Union for production and distribution. With a 1989 advertising budget of $70 million, four times the 1984 figure, the Benettons have begun spending to get their message out.

Secretive banker Edmond Safra

Secretive banker Edmond Safra

If you are rich and get in trouble with the law, watch out. You could turn into the "Great White Defendant," to use novelist Tom Wolfe's phrase. It happened to Michael Milken, charged with racketeering, and to Harry Helmsley and his oft-pictured wife. Leona is on trial for tax fraud and extortion (Harry was excused from the proceedings because of illness), accused of charging to their business $4 million in purchases for their Connecticut mansion, including Louis XVI marble-topped dressers, a $57,000 stereo system, and a swimming enclosure. Former employees have taken the stand against the Helmsleys, portraying Leona as a penny-pinching, manipulative, unpopular boss. A former housekeeper testified that Leona once told her, "We don't pay taxes; the little people pay taxes." New York City Mayor Ed Koch called Leona "the wicked witch of the West."

One way to avoid all the hassle is to take it on the lam. Commodity trader Marc Rich did, and has avoided trial on charges that he defrauded the U.S. of $48 million in taxes on oil trades. He's now a citizen of Spain and a resident of protective Switzerland. He has hired a staff of public relations strategists to promote a public image of Rich the philanthropist. Recipients of his generosity: the Art Museum of Zurich, the local Zug hockey team, mountain farmers, and a school for clowns. Rich himself is never far from the social whirl. "It's open house all winter long," says a frequent guest at his Swiss chalet. He's also spending more and more time at his lavish estate in Marbella, Spain, hobnobbing with pals Enrique Muijca, Spain's Minister of Justice, and Manuel Chaves, Minister of Labor.

The best way to stay out of the papers is to stay out of trouble. The Marriott name is everywhere -- on some 500 hotels and 1,100 restaurants -- but as devout Mormons, family members lead lives of such boring rectitude that they are almost never mentioned except in financial journals like Fortune, which put J. Willard on its cover this year for his outstanding performance as a business leader. --By Julianne Slovak

Behind the moat

In sharp contrast to Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi are billionaires you probably have never heard of, men who work hard -- and successfully -- at being invisible.

Morocco's King Hassan II -- with son Prince Sidi -- has been lucky as well as rich. He has survived three assassination attempts.

Morocco's King Hassan II -- with son Prince Sidi -- has been lucky as well as rich. He has survived three assassination attempts.

Take Donald W. Reynolds, who started almost three-quarters of a century ago selling newspapers on the streets of Oklahoma City. Today his Donrey Media Group in Fort Smith, Arkansas, owns 57 dailies in 20 states. Yet he is virtually unknown outside his company, and even within Donrey only a few key employees see much of him. He lives in a fortress-like home near Las Vegas, jetting into Fort Smith in his private Boeing 727.

Why do some billionaires try to hide? Shyness is one reason. Class is another. "It's more tasteful," says one. A third motive is to avoid hassles. As Michael Phillips wrote in his book, The Seven Laws of Money, wealth can bring lots of headaches. Envy. Endless pleas for donations. Kidnapping. Terrorism. Finally, a few just might have something to hide.

Secrecy does not come cheap. For those willing to pay, a coterie of professional minions-cum-martial-arts­experts stand ready to scramble phones (at least $600), debug offices ($1,500 and up), and scope out restaurants ahead of time as well as thwart the advance of fans by stepping on their feet ($55 an hour).

The ultimate, of course, is a private island. The Bahamas, with 700 shards of palm-treed sand, offers a wide selection, from $300,000 (ten acres) to $4 million (500 acres). But the solitude isn't complete. Says Rodney Dillard of Sotheby's International Realty: "A lot of people think if they buy an island, they will get sovereignty. But it can't be done."

Sullen in Brunei

Sullen in Brunei

Sovereignty doesn't buy much in the way of safety anyway. With the aid of a battalion of Gurkhas, the Sultan of Brunei, the richest man in the world, has managed to keep his tiny, oil-rich country quiet since a brief rebellion in 1962. King Hassan II of Morocco, who is said to have baraka, or soldier's luck, has survived three assassination attempts. In an abortive coup in 1972, Moroccan Royal Air Force fighters riddled his 727 as he returned from France. The quick-witted Hassan grabbed the plane's microphone and, pretending to be a crew member, radioed that the king had been "mortally wounded." The attackers thoughtfully stopped firing to avoid harming other passengers. The plane landed on one engine, and Hassan escaped into the nearby woods.

Islands and kingdoms aside, Switzerland is the haven of choice. It has more known billionaires per capita than any major country -- approximately one in 360,000 -- and about half were born elsewhere. Though the country no longer holds a monopoly on secrecy -- Austrian and Hungarian banks, for instance, offer greater confidentiality -- it still boasts the best overall package.

Residents of Switzerland are not allowed to disclose ownership in companies, and for the very rich income taxes are negotiable. If that's not enough, the Swiss Bankers' Association publishes a 100-page guide to "asset management" that includes a list of 22 tax havens around the world, including little-known Nauru in the South Pacific. The pamphlet describes intricate maneuvers that in many countries would look a lot like tax evasion.

As untouchable as cactus: Few of the editors who work for Donald Reynolds's chain of 57 newspapers ever lay eyes on him.

As untouchable as cactus: Few of the editors who work for Donald Reynolds's chain of 57 newspapers ever lay eyes on him.

One industrialist who takes advantage of all Switzerland has to offer is Otto Beisheim, owner of Metro International, a retail and wholesale giant with $25 billion in annual sales. This West German entrepreneur, who introduced the concept of "cash and carry" to Europe -- a process in which a retailer pays cash to the wholesaler and takes the merchandise with him -- is not known by sight or by name in the Swiss town of Baar, where he lives.

His unpretentiousness is nothing new. Old-timers at Metro recall that the day before Beisheim opened his first cash-and-carry market in 1967, he was painting lines in the parking lot. His wife was inside erecting a jewelry booth.

For a native Swiss, circumspection comes as naturally as yodeling. The Andre family, owners of Andre & Cie, a $6.8-billion-a-year international trading company in Prilly, live so quietly and conduct their affairs so discreetly that even their closest advisers don't know how much they are worth. Their holdings include Garnac Grain, a Kansas-based company that controls nearly 10% of the world's grain market, plus shipping companies, cattle ranches, and coffee-processing plants.

For generations, the Andres have been part of the Plymouth Brethren, a religious group that seeks to restore the simple, austere life of the early Christians. Not for them lavish chalets, priceless art collections, or soirees with the Bianca Jagger crowd. The Andre clan -- Henri, Eric, and Pierre -- leadmodest, middle-class lives near Lausanne.

Equally inconspicuous is their countryman Mark Diethelm, a quiet, serious fellow resembling an overweight bank clerk, who owns Diethelm & Co., a $1.5-billion-a-year diversified trading company. With the exception of an interview last year in the Swiss financial magazine Bilanz, Diethelm has steered clear of the press. Don't look for his picture: a worldwide photo search came up empty.

Playing confidential banker to this club is an equally secretive Lebanese­born financier who glides quietly about in a limousine bearing the license plate EJS 555. EJS stands for Edmond J. Safra: The number five, many Middle Easterners believe, brings good luck.

It seems to have worked for Safra. Since his early days in Lebanon, where he helped his father finance camel caravans, Safra has built a worldwide network of banks from Tokyo to Buenos Aires to New York, where he controls Republic National Bank. Along the way he acquired a celebrated clientele of wealthy Latin Americans and Arabs by providing personal investment advice through the private banking arm of his empire, the Trade Development Bank.

Safra sold his bank to American Express (AXP) in 1983 for $550 million, and went along as chairman. He departed 18 months later for reasons that were never fully explained. In 1988, on the expiration day of his agreement not to compete with American Express for five years, he opened a new private bank in Geneva. Safra Republic Holdings is on the same street as American Express.

Perhaps afraid that Safra would take back some of his old customers, a few American Express representatives earlier this year apparently did some whispering that tied Safra to drug­money laundering. Safra threatened to sue. In August, American Express revealed that as a settlement it had paid $4 million to some of Safra's favorite charities. A few days later the company said that it had actually settled for $8 million. Why the discrepancy? As with so many matters involving Safra and his money, questions remain.

Until recently one country appeared even more secretive than Switzerland: the Soviet Union. In the absence of a Russian billionaire, we offer an American who operates like one -- Whitney MacMillan, powerful chairman of Minnesota-based Cargill, the largest private corporation in the country. If his name doesn't ring any bells, don't feel dull. Despite running a company that handles about 25% of world grain trade and employs more than 50,000 people, MacMillan remains eerily anonymous -- even in agriculture and commodity-trading circles.

Cargill's worldwide intelligence network controls the flow of information in and out of the company with the sophistication of the KGB. Marvels Ralph Nader, who conducted countless interviews with friends and relatives of MacMillan for his book The Big Boys: "There were businessmen in Minneapolis who had never heard of him."

The private persona of Whitney MacMillan -- a tall, handsome man with a full head of silver hair -- comes as hermetically sealed as the business one. Conversations with some of his closest pals, including George Pillsbury, who is married to MacMillan's cousin, and Yale classmate G. Richard Slade, president of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, present a picture of a quiet, competitive man who is as formidable on the tennis court as he is in business, but who remains aloof from his own community

Besides his family -- pals say wife Elizabeth is his best friend -- his one outside passion seems to be international politics, particularly issues involving the Soviet Union, which he visits often. MacMillan has been criticized privately by his fellow CEOs for not giving more time and money to cultural and charitable organizations -- Cargill reportedly donates less than 1% of pretax income. He did, however, take the time to travel to Moscow last June with the Minneapolis Children's Theatre.

His older brother, Cargill MacMillan Jr., is just as private. Last year Cargill divorced his wife of 30 years and married an executive secretary named Donna who worked at the company. As is the way along the shores of Lake Minnetonka, where the clan lives, the incident was kept so quiet that a year later a local gossip columnist had still not heard of it. Friends are not forthcoming. "That's a whole other story," says Pillsbury cryptically. "The blind is going down."

And so ends our peek into the lives of the world's unseen billionaires. The MacMillan brothers remain an enigma, as do all the others. And that is for the best. Because, maddening as mystery is, reality might be worse. Do you want to know what dashing, dealing media mogul Rupert Murdoch really talks about at lunch? Taking up jogging, and the new diet book he just read. Sound familiar? Like maybe too familiar? Fantasy is a lot more fun. --By Nancy J. Perry

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