Let Kogan Have 26 Toilets
- By Michael Lewis
- May. 30 2008 00:00
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For some months now, I've made a point of popping into Bloomberg's offices every now and again to share with readers the secret thoughts of a successful hedge-fund manager.
People like me -- that is, people with more than $1 billion under management and in excess of $100 million in net worth -- seldom tell ordinary people what we actually think, for the obvious reason that it doesn't pay.
As a result, ordinary people -- defined as anyone with a net worth of less than $10 million -- know very little about the inner lives of the seriously rich, even in places where there are lots of seriously rich people. The uproar in Greenwich, Connecticut, about the rich Russian and his toilets strikes me as an excellent case in point.
In 2005, Valery Kogan, a Russian whom few had ever heard of, turns up in Greenwich and buys a 1.6-hectare lot with a 1,858-square-meter house on it.
Naturally (Kogan being Russian and this being Greenwich), he expects to tear down this old house and erect his own new 5,016-square-meter place. Like me, Kogan overcame great odds to become a capitalist success. (I went to Penn, for example; Valery was born in a police state and given a girl's name to boot.)
Having made it this far, the chairman of East Line Group, which operates Domodedovo Airport, never imagined that anyone might try to stop him. And before he knew it, he was all over the U.S. newspapers as the Slavic lout who wanted to build a palace with a 12-car garage, a dog-grooming salon and 26 toilets in the suburban idyll of Greenwich.
It is these toilets that have proven his public-relations nightmare. His desire for a 26-holer is the thing no ordinary person, even in Greenwich, seems capable of understanding.
"Who needs that many toilets?" asked one of the protesting nimrods of Greenwich, speaking for the whole miserable rabble. Well, for a start, Kogan needs 26 toilets. He also needs someone to explain the need. Allow me.
To begin with -- and it depresses me that I find myself instructing citizens of Greenwich on the special needs of the very rich -- the seriously wealthy don't use their houses as ordinary people do.
When a rich Russian says he is going for a hike, for instance, he doesn't mean outside. Out of doors he will encounter ordinary people who not only don't understand his need for 26 toilets, but also pester him for money. He can always tell them to go away, of course, but in the process he's wasted his valuable time. This is one of many reasons a rich Russian requires a 5,016-square-meter mansion -- so he might hike, indoors.
But there is, of course, one thing that every man knows before he sets off on a long hike -- he's going to need to pee. Ordinary hikers pee in the woods, but Russian multimillionaires aren't ordinary hikers. No one wants to find himself half an hour into a long rappel down a spiral staircase or in a hand-over-hand climb along a wall, only to have to retrace his steps to some remote restroom.
Better to have one wherever in your indoor wilderness you happen to be.
This brings us to a second practical consideration ignored by the ordinary people of Greenwich -- the delicate waste-disposal needs of the rich.
Here's a question you probably have never asked yourself: What, at bottom, is a toilet? To an ordinary person, it's a device for transferring ordinary human waste from the body to the sewer, as discreetly and sanitarily as possible. But all human waste isn't ordinary, and the waste of Russians is no exception.
The richer the Russian, the more likely he is to have failed to fully digest something or someone of serious value. To simply elbow the silver knob and flush it all down without further thought would be wasteful and self-destructive, like tossing out a savings bond before the final coupon has been clipped.
The toilets of the rich aren't just toilets, in other words. They're bank vaults. And you can't have too many of those.
But these are just the most obvious, pragmatic reasons for owning a house with 26 toilets. Pressing as they are, they are dwarfed by the need of every truly successful person to have things that ordinary people can't imagine the need for.
Put this way, you can see Kogan's true genius. Virtually every form of conspicuous American consumption has been bought and paid for. In the brain space that ordinary people reserve for the obsessive contemplation of the rich, there was hardly any real estate left.
Cars, houses, animals, furs, jewels, islands -- from the point of view of the ordinary person looking for something to envy, all are "been there, done that."
"Toilets!" I can imagine Kogan saying to himself on one cold Russian night. "I will buy more toilets than any man on Earth, and the American people will speak of me with wonder." And they do.
Michael Lewis is a columnist for Bloomberg News.