The Enigmatic Paul Allen -- Everyone Knows What He Does, But Few Really Know Who He Is

To get an idea of Paul Allen's vast wealth, consider the following scene at his sister's house two winters ago.

He came over, as he often does, to roughhouse with his two nephews, have dinner, watch TV and chat.

"He said: `What do you think about football?' " recalls his sister, Jody Allen Patton.

"Well, OK," she replied, thinking he was inquiring about buying season tickets. "I like football. What about it?"

"Well," he said, "what do you think about buying the football team?"

She paused, but only briefly. In Paul Allen's world, buying whole teams rather than season tickets isn't a novel idea. America's third-richest person already owns the Portland Trail Blazers professional basketball team.

Jody Patton thought buying the Seahawks was a great idea; thus was born Allen's efforts to acquire the team and build a new football stadium.

Money is hardly a concern for the Microsoft co-founder, whose worth is estimated at $13 billion.

How he spends it, though, is of huge concern for the region.

Above and beyond football, Allen is leaving his civic footprint on almost every aspect of Northwest life - the arts, environment, recreation, medical research, education and the economy as he invests in a host of companies.

He has bought chunks of land in Seattle, Renton, Mercer Island and the San Juan Islands, and has funneled millions into local libraries and theaters. Boeing likes to see him coming - Allen bought his own 757 jet - and the Space Needle may finally meet its match with Allen's Experience Music Project, a museum he's building to resemble a smashed-up guitar.

It would appear that money is no object to the 44-year-old technology tycoon, but that doesn't mean he opens his wallet easily. On business projects, Allen spends money to make money. Although he's willing to pay $200 million for the Seahawks, for example, he's also insisting voters approve a new, publicly financed football stadium before he buys the team.

A new facility would make more money for him than continuing to play in the Kingdome.

On Tuesday, Washington voters will decide Referendum 48, a $425 million financing package to replace the Kingdome with an outdoor stadium and exhibition center. Allen is paying $4.2 million to stage the election - a first in state history.

Despite his growing civic role, he remains an enigma. Allen rarely makes public appearances or conducts media interviews - and he is dodging the campaign limelight like an all-pro running back. Allen has addressed the public just once - to a camera for a stadium commercial.

Allen knows how to party

But don't take that for shyness. Last month, Allen hosted a lavish bash in Venice, Italy, for 200 friends, family and Hollywood stars, including Robin Williams, Geena Davis and Sting. He flew them in from California, then shuttled them by gondola to a medieval masquerade ball where they were entertained by jazz saxophonist Tom Scott, guitarist Carlos Santana and Allen himself, who also played the guitar.

Back home, his business digs are less glamorous. Allen conducts his affairs from a building in Bellevue that is much like himself - big and bland. That's not a slam against the guy, but associates don't tell very exciting stories about the tall, large man, and most anecdotes have a technological twist.

He makes house calls

Fred Rosen, the wise-cracking head of Ticketmaster who's known for his storytelling, could only muster this of Allen: "He's a very smart and very decent man. When we first started to be involved in business (Allen bought 47.5 percent of Ticketmaster in 1993 and recently sold it to Home Shopping Network), I told him I'm not computer-literate. He said, `I'll come over to your house and teach you how to run a PC!' "

Locally, after Allen's one in-person appeal to state legislators for the stadium, their strongest reaction was over his new eyeglasses.

Allen's reserve, coupled with bursts of conspicuous consumption (yacht, replaced with bigger yacht; plane, replaced with jet), has made him a mysterious figure. Allen is often characterized as a reclusive wundernerd, but his sister disagrees: "I don't perceive of Paul as being shy. I think he's private."

That may be true in person, but in cyberspace he's a celebrity bounty hunter. His popular Starwave site now includes a feature called CelebSite, where users can type in a celebrity's name and get the latest dirt.

His fascination with Hollywood and entertainment probably goes back to his childhood. When he visits Patton's Mercer Island home, for example, he brings along old Jonny Quest tapes for her two kids to watch.

"They like to jump on him, tickle him, pull his beard and take his glasses off," said Patton, who paints an affectionate picture of her older brother. "He doesn't have any children himself - right now - so he loves to play with them."

Children? Girlfriends?

The "right now" prompts the inevitable question about whether Allen has a girlfriend. Patton said only, "You'll have to ask him."

As if!

In contrast to his billions and all the fancy things they've bought him, Allen has retained at least one simple tradition: eating at Dick's Drive In. Patton said the family frequently stops for a deluxe hamburger, fries and chocolate shake, often before seeing a film. ("We're both filmish buffs," she said of herself and Allen.)

Allen and his family also have "a longstanding tradition that we all go to Powell's Bookstore in Portland to celebrate (after a Trail Blazer game)," Patton said. Her brother hits the science-fiction section, while she heads for nature stories. Their mother, Faye Allen, often joins them on the book-buying rampage.

Always close, the family became even tighter after the 1983 death of Kenneth Allen, who was an associate director of libraries at the University of Washington. The pain of his father's death was compounded for Allen, who had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease the year before.

Mortality was staring him in the face, and he stared right back, unblinking.

Allen quit Microsoft, abandoning its 80-hour workweeks and the intensely competitive environment fostered by Bill Gates, his friend from Lakeside School and co-founder of the company. Cured by chemotherapy, Allen traveled, played music and read enough science fiction to satisfy his futuristic mind. Two years later, he re-emerged and founded his own software company, Asymetrix.

While Gates continued to scorch earth on the software front, Allen found other ways to explore high technology. Considered the more visionary of the two, he coined the term "wired world" and launched some bold and bizarre projects. He has bankrolled Interval Research, a California think tank that created the Electric Carnival, a circus tent with multimedia toys used on a recent Lollapalooza tour.

He has also funded the center for the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, a California group looking for life on other planets.

Music an experience for him

But Allen's most creative project is Experience Music. Initially envisioned as a shrine to Jimi Hendrix, the project has grown to become an interactive music museum focusing on good old, raunchy rock 'n' roll. An original design featured wires splayed overhead like broken guitar strings, but permit problems forced Allen to tone it down.

Hendrix will still be a key focus at the museum, but a bitter legal battle led to a falling out with the Hendrix family and raises questions about how cutthroat Allen can be as a businessman.

It started in 1993, when Al Hendrix sued to regain control of the rights to his son's music. The Hendrix legacy was worth millions, but members of the Hendrix family felt they were being bamboozled by an attorney friend entrusted to control the musical estate. The case was very complicated, generating 400,000 pages of documents. Allen got involved to keep the suit afloat.

Allen spent $5 million, but was it the act of a charitable fan or a man trying to gain access to the music rights for his Hendrix museum?

Allen's motives questioned

Janie Hendrix-Wright, Al Hendrix's adoptive daughter, says Allen threatened to withdraw his financial support if the family did not grant him the rights.

"He insisted on that shortly before going to trial," she said, suggesting Allen's timing was used as a pressure tactic. The family balked, though, and wound up getting second mortgages on their homes to continue financing the suit. They eventually won back all the rights - and withheld them from Allen.

Patton, who runs the Experience Music Project, emphatically denies Allen tried to strong-arm the Hendrixes before going to trial: "Absolutely not true," she said. "We funded them up to the point we agreed to with attorneys, which was a very significant number."

The Hendrix family is still smarting over the dispute, though members won't discuss it at length. "Our grandma says, `If you don't have anything nice to say, you shouldn't say anything,' " according to Hendrix-Wright.

And besides, the Experience Project is going forward anyway, sans Hendrix, with a groundbreaking scheduled for Friday.

Allen has a way of seeing things through. About 10 years ago, he told friends someone should rebuild the Phi Kappa Theta fraternity house at Washington State University, where he was a member until he dropped out to work for a computer company.

Last year, doors opened to a new, futuristic fraternity bankrolled by the billionaire. In true Allen style, he wired the building with four jacks in every room, a computer lab and sensor controls to prevent the parking lot from freezing over.

Also in Allen style, he hired trusted, longtime associates for the $3.1 million project. It was overseen by his sister and by Bert Kolde, a close adviser and roommate of Allen's at WSU. It was managed by Mike Flood, who was president of the fraternity when Allen lived there. And the architect was Dan Clancy, who attended Lakeside with Allen.

"There's a high level of trust" with people he knows, said Clancy. "He has zillions of people at him every day. But I've known him since I was 12. We learned to conjugate the verb `avoir' together."

Clancy said Allen delegated work on the project but checked in at key points and personally attended the dedication. "He drove over with Bert to Pullman, through Othello, the way they used to in college," he said. (But, unlike those days, Allen had his 757 jet sent ahead to the small Pullman airport, which had never accommodated such a large plane.)

Don't mess with him

Clancy said his dealings with Allen and his associates were "very fair, but if they feel they're getting screwed, look out. It's the principle. They don't feel people should take advantage of them. They're not going to roll over and say, `Here, have a million.' They worked very hard for what they have. There were a lot of affluent people at Lakeside, but his parents really had to work."

Others cast Allen as a civic pixie, freely sprinkling money on causes.

"He's giving back at an early stage in life that is staggering," said Sam Stroum, a Seattle philanthropist. "I wish we could clone him."

Given the millions Allen has contributed to medical research, someone is probably working on that very possibility. In the meantime, there's only one Paul Allen, and that's plenty to go around.

He has given $1 million to Children's Hospital and Medical Center, $15 million to the University of Washington, $10 million to environmental groups.

He loaned $21 million to the Seattle Commons effort in 1995, and recently announced a $10 million gift to his high-school alma mater, Lakeside.

Can sainthood be far behind? Not in Seattle.

"When a community begins to feel that all its resources are in the hands of one guy, that's not very healthy," said Charles Royer, former mayor of Seattle. "Civic growth requires that all people be involved, not just the rich guys."

He'd rather see people contribute their time instead of their money.

"Look at Mary Gates," he said, referring to Bill Gates' late mother. "What a tremendous person in what she gave. It wasn't money, it was smarts. God, she was terrific. She worked tirelessly for what she cared about - she didn't single-handedly pay for any building."

Consultant Tom Byers raises a different concern about Allen's wealth - that petty Seattleites might scare it away.

"Paul Allen built the Rose Garden (an arena for the Trail Blazers) in Portland and didn't have the trouble and frustration he's had with the Commons and stadium here," said Byers, who works on public-interest projects.

"There are people who may feel alienated from the political process because they think Paul Allen's taken over. But at the same time, I wouldn't blame him for feeling like he's being kicked in the teeth every time he gets involved in a civic project."

Byers also cited the distrust that greeted Stuart Sloan, owner of QFC groceries, when he announced a $2 million contribution to T.T. Minor Elementary School in South Seattle.

"He does something rather remarkable - takes a school in an inner-city neighborhood and says he wants to make it the best in America, and people start calling him names," said Byers. "He'll decide it isn't worth it. . . . I think the same could be true for Paul Allen.

"There is an active hostility here - suspicion and skepticism to this kind of civic involvement by these folks that is unhealthy," Byers added. "But wealth could demonstrate solutions to so many of our problems. Let's wrap our arms around that opportunity."

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