A Tale of Two Billionaires: Contrasting Warren Hellman and Larry Ellison

With the notable exception of the movie Deliverance, the banjo has a benevolent place in American society. It's a happy instrument that makes a happy sound and, it would seem, is plucked by happy people. You don't hear so much about tormented banjo players.

So, the notion of a banjo-playing billionaire was an incongruous one. But it's one that suited San Francisco — and its banjo-playing billionaire. They really did make beautiful music together.

In a way, they still do.

Whether or not you love bluegrass — or waiting hours to catch a bus free of inebriated bluegrass aficionados and their effluvia — it's easy to love the concept of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which drew damn near 1 million people to Golden Gate Park this month.

World-class musicians take center stage in a world-class event drawing fans from — you guessed it — all over the world. Tourist dollars seep into San Francisco's coffers. Banjos are played. It's all family-friendly and free in a city that is increasingly neither. And the whole thing is underwritten by Warren Hellman, the late banjo-playing billionaire.

Hardly Strictly was hardly the only world-class event drawing a million devotees — and, ostensibly, their spending-money — to San Francisco this year. There was also the local iteration of the America's Cup, that brainchild of yachting billionaire Larry Ellison.

That one wasn't as happy for San Francisco. There were, after all, fewer banjos involved.

Like New Zealand's yacht, drawing parallels between the two events starts out strikingly well — then flags. You've got a pair of billionaires, each sporting a healthy ego, each molding the city into the epicenter of his respective pet obsession, and each drawing throngs of fans in an ostensible boon.

And then it all diverges.

Far from lavishly picking up the tab for his party, Team Ellison sold San Francisco on funding the America's Cup with magical economic forecasts now denounced by even the economists employed to create them. He attempted to extract huge swaths of the waterfront from an alarmingly pliant city, jerked around San Francisco politicos by threatening to take the Cup to Rhode Island, and, finally, likely left the city millions in the hole following absurd fundraising efforts by hapless officials passing the hat to offset the costs of a billionaire's yacht regatta. Had Team Ellison not unilaterally pulled out of a $136 million waterfront development deal, the city would now be in hock to his heirs for up to 101 years.

You didn't have to worry about paltry fundraising or 22nd-century debt with Hardly Strictly. Hellman simply paid for it all — and continues to do so, even from beyond the grave.

San Francisco's current crop of oligarchs have a more transactional way of doing philanthropy. A number of them, admirably, bestow millions upon the city, its playgrounds, and other things we care about. But this is hardly strictly altruism. These are the undertakings of “good corporate citizens” with their own business agendas — who are seasoning the deals emanating from this city's bubbling political cauldron.

Hellman, who died in 2011, was transactional, too. But that transaction was keyed by his deep and intrinsic joy in doing good for this city as an end in and of itself. This is something power-brokers hoping to anoint themselves “the next Warren Hellman” just don't seem to understand.

Hellman — a son of the city, a Lowell High graduate, a banjo-playing billionaire — was perhaps the last of a dying breed.

Warren Hellman was not a saint. A politically involved billionaire — and registered Republican — will butt heads with his share of San Franciscans. There are still those upset about his shoe-horning of a parking garage into Golden Gate Park. Or his funding of the Committee on Jobs. Or his bizarrely inconsistent position on city pensions. But even those who regularly lined up against Hellman politically didn't question his motives. He wanted what he felt was best for San Francisco — and not necessarily for himself. Politicos who crossed swords with Hellman recall that, if he pushed for something like business tax breaks, it was because he thought that San Francisco businesses would thrive if taxed less — not because he wanted a tax holiday. If he was doling money out to worthwhile causes, it's because he felt they were worthwhile — not because he desired increased access to City Hall Room 200.

And if he was commandeering the city and rendering it the public backdrop for his expensive hobby — he wasn't going to stick San Francisco with the bill.

A city long benefiting from sentimental, homegrown business titans finds itself in a strange place when those people cease to exist. Ellison made a mockery of the concept when he said he'd like to have the America's Cup in San Francisco again, as “I have a house here.”

With fundraising efforts to offset the costs of hosting Ellison's boat race falling woefully short, Mayor Ed Lee stepped in and began asking for personal and political favors. Millions in “behested payments” were amassed this way — with much of the money hailing from entities that had pending business before the city. As we noted in a recent cover story, some $500,000 was donated to the America's Cup Organizing Committee in June by a company called Kilroy Realty. In August, the Planning Commission granted Kilroy's wish to add six stories to a skyscraper's approved plan at 350 Mission. This request — and the expediency with which it was allowed — was described to your humble narrator as “unprecedented” by Planning Department personnel and other development-watchers.

In related news, Salesforce.com chairman Marc Benioff has been feted — and quite rightly — for the massive donations he bestowed upon the UCSF Children's Hospital and city schools. Benioff is, undoubtedly, a mensch. But not a disinterested mensch: The flagship tenant in the lucrative new skyscraper Kilroy has been permitted to build is none other than Salesforce.com.

While the ascendent CEOs peered down at the city they're remaking to better serve their needs, hundreds of thousands of people shimmied on the ground — together. The parkland where they enjoyed a transcendent San Francisco afternoon is now named for Hellman; he has become, literally, a part of this city.

The notion of altruistically providing San Francisco with an annual holiday — allowing it to cling to its fleeting air of magic and whimsy — would be anathema to those now shaping San Francisco. But Hellman didn't want anything in return for giving San Franciscans a reason to be happy.

After all, he was one, too.

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