The Last Tycoon

Walter Shorenstein's skyscrapers shaped San Francisco. His cash configured City Hall. Publicly, he's pristine. But there's more than meets the eye to the man behind the megaliths.

The Medicis, like other ruling families in other cities, had their code of honor. Indeed, the idea of linking power and ethics is an old one. In The Care of the Self, volume three of his The History of Sexuality, Michael Foucault writes:

It was one of the most constant themes of Greek political thought that a city could be happy and well-governed only if its leaders were virtuous, and inversely, that a good constitution and wise laws were decisive factors for the right conduct of magistrates and citizens...

We are aware of the importance assumed by the problem of the emperors' virtue, of their private life, and of their ability to control their passions, which is seen as the guarantee that they will themselves be able to set a limit on the exercise of their political power. But this principle applies to anyone who governs: he must attent to himself, guide his own soul, establish his own ethos.

Pharse it another way, and it's a familiar idea: Pretty is as pretty does. Think of the way a skyscraper is built. The glass curtain wall can be seen from the street, but it's literally window dressing. The steel interior, hidden from view, holds the building together. Prominent people know the value of a clean facade. It's why they have always tried to control the flow of information about themselves. They have to care what the masses think.

Walter Shorenstein, the person, is 80 years old. When he's in the city, he lives in Sea Cliff. The house is modest, as millionaires' mansions go. It is tan, stuccoed and shuttered on the street side. Of course, Walter Shorenstein doesn't need a fancy home. He can point out all the tall buildings he owns - even better, he can ride the elevators up into them and literally look down on everyone else in the city.

At his house, he's at the ground level. The entrance is protected: an iron gate, greenery, the warning sign posted by an alarm company. Turn your head as you pass his residence, however, and you can see from the street through the gate through the front door through the house out the window to the sea, where bare glass gives out onto the waves of the Pacific, smashing to shore. Well-protected, in other words, but somehow exposed.

When I called Walter Shorenstein's office, in the Bank of America building, his assistant Tess Martin said she would pass along my request for an interview. "He makes all his own appointments," she told me.

The next day, she called back. "He said he will not be giving out interviews anymore," she said.

"Period?" I said.
"Period," she said.
"Why is that?" I said.

"I don't ask for explanations," she said. "I just pass along what he tells me to."

His son, Douglas, and his daughter, Carole, don't return our phone calls. His friends and business colleagues, for the most part, decline comment, as well, or talk only in the most general and generous terms. There are things that people will say about Walter Shorenstein: that he's very smart. That he is secure, ego-wise. That he drives his own car. That he's been seen about town in a sporty Mercedes. That he has a sense of humor that could remind you of Mel Brooks. That he isn't always honey and cream. One of his employees does confide that in almost four decades, he hasn't stayed home for two weeks in a row. That he possesses drive, that he strives, and if he sees you on the street, he'll stop to talk. That if you didn't already know that he had $300 million to call his own, you probably wouldn't guess it just by looking at him.

Oh, and that the Nancy Novack lawsuit was very surprising.
From 1981 to 1991, Nancy Novack was Walter Shorenstein's executive assistant. In 1992, she filed suit against the Shorenstein Company, charging the organization as a whole and Walter Shorenstein individually with, among other things, sexual discrimination and sexual harassment. Eventually, Novack and Shorenstein settled the case out of court with the stipualtion that there will be penalities involved if Novack or her attorneys talk about it, even if all they talk about is nor bein gable to talk about it. These penalties seem to be taken quite seriously by the former plaintiff and her lawyers; they're altogether mum. Novack's psychiatrist, Felix Polk, also slammed the door on an interview request, leaving this voice-mail message: "We talked earlier about your request for me to comment on Nancy Novack's suit against Shorenstein. She would like me not to do that and I also am reluctant to do that so let's not do that." It was Bob Lieber, Shorenstein's attorney in the case, in fact, who openly mentioned the penalties: "If you have gotten talk from Nancy Novack about this, if we found out that such talk tok place,: he said instantaneously as I introduced myself, then Walter Shorenstein would be entitled to invoke the fines.

But although no one is talking, and most of the record is sealed, the 700-odd pages of the Novack v. Shorenstein court filed shed some light on Novack's allegations.

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