There Will Be Flamboyance

The other day i was having lunch with Former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev—he was in London to talk about the work done by the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation—and, among other things, it was interesting to hear him liken American attempts to export democracy to exporting instant coffee: a reasonable concept but not easily accepted. The use of a breakfast beverage as a metaphor for American foreign policy was especially enlightening given the alternative proposed by the woman sitting next to me: I absolutely had to visit the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow to sample the Tsar's Breakfast, which at $800 sounded more like a full-on banquet with mountains of caviar, and one that I doubt includes instant coffee.

Of course, no one needs anything like the Tsar's Breakfast. Still, at the cost of about eight barrels of oil, it is a commodity that adds greatly to the gaiety of nations. It put me in mind of the Klondike gold rush, when prospectors roared into town to blow their nuggets and gold dust in bars and brothels. They didn't need that, either. But when it comes to the manner in which fortunes are dissipated, those derived from mineral sources seem to encourage much more flamboyance than those built up in other ways. Perhaps this is to do with the somewhat messy nature in which resources are extracted from the earth; whether it is gold or oil or gas, getting hold of these things is a harsh business that usually takes place in less-than-hospitable surroundings. Unlike with law or banking, there is very little opportunity to dress up mining or drilling with even a vestige of urbanity. Oil barons tend to be larger than life: think James Dean in "Giant," Larry Hagman in the TV series "Dallas" or, most recently, Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood"—in short, the sort of people who might well roll into town in a Rolls, book the Imperial, Royal and Presidential suites and order up a few Tsar's Breakfasts.

If anything, the achievements and the travel arrangements of the real oil czars have historically eclipsed those of their fictional counterparts. My personal favorite of the oil-boom boys is Henry Morrison Flagler. John D. Rockefeller may have been the world's richest man, but he liked to say that he was not clever enough to have invented Standard Oil, and credited Flagler with its success. In the latter half of the 19th century, Standard Oil was the prototypical synonym for corporate greed. But while Rockefeller husbanded his wealth, Flagler blew his on travel, effectively inventing the state of Florida.

He fancied heading south for the winter, and during the second half of his life, pushed his railway down the east coast of Florida, building such resort communities as Palm Beach—where his Breakers Hotel still stands—and Miami (which before Flagler was a settlement called Ft. Dade), then on to Key West, where his last, posthumously built hotel, the charming Casa Marina, has recently been refurbished. The great thing about Flagler was that he did not let a little thing like the Atlantic Ocean get in his way; he just built his railway across it—or as the Key West Florida Sun put it in 1912, the "railroad magnate has extended his rod, the sea has been divided." It stood for a generation before the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 washed it away.

All that remains now of Flagler's dream are the lonely concrete railroad bridges that parallel the Overseas Highway and his private railway car, described as a "palace on wheels," with a copper-lined shower and wood-paneled drawing room, on show in Whitehall, his house in Florida. That was the last word in late 19th- and early 20th-century luxury, and seems to have set a precedent that later oil moguls felt obliged to live up to.

By the mid-20th century, the mantle of world's richest man had passed from Rockefeller to the shoulders of Calouste Gulbenkian, who found his fortune in Iraqi oil. On his death in 1955, his son, Nubar, set about spending the money on living well. Nubar lived at the Ritz in London, favored such outré accessories as a silk-lined hat of Canadian otter skin and a purple orchid worn in his buttonhole, and liked to travel by bespoke Rolls-Royce; his fleet included a wickerwork-bedecked model that was the talk of London high society in the late 1950s. On one of his jaunts, Gulbenkian, wearing a purple overcoat, chartered a 40-seat aircraft to take him and his valet from London to Lisbon.

But by the 1970s, such actions seemed positively restrained compared with the behavior of the elite families of the Arabian Peninsula. In 1976, while America was reeling from Watergate and Vietnam and double-digit inflation and punk rock assailed Britain, King Khalid of Saudi Arabia was speccing a new aircraft: a 747, with tapestries and tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl. (He was clearly just laying the groundwork for Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who last November purchased an Airbus A380 to customize for his own personal use.) It is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of our age that those designing King Khalid's 747 were unable to realize plans for that sine qua non of petrodollar chic: a microwave oven capable of cooking an entire sheep.

However, there was the compensation of an airborne operating theater. In fact, I advise all of today's self-respecting oil billionaires to insist that this vital safety feature be included on all their planes, boats and larger motor vehicles. After all, a mobile operating theater might be just the thing you need after one too many Tsar's Breakfasts.

There Will Be Flamboyance | Culture