THE FEW. THE BRAVE. THE CAPITALISTS.
As the sun sets on the gilded age of hot-air adventuring, a few fat cats look for ways—any which way—to keep pushing the envelope
Richard Branson has just 40 minutes if he’s going to make his 10:30 pickup. And he has to make the 10:30 if he wants to keep this Tunis-to-Tehran leg of his around-the-world journey on schedule. His spirits seem high as he busily performs deep knee-bends (“The kinks in my limbs are really the only problem—they can be fairly crushing,” he says) while an intern on his ground crew fills in an airbill. She pauses briefly, having forgotten one of the many details of the triplicate form, until a colleague gently reminds her, “Priority. Mr. Branson is always Priority.”
It was only this March that Branson attended, with what must have been mixed emotions, the victory celebration in Geneva honoring Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones, the Swiss and British adventurers who had just become the first men to successfully circumnavigate the globe by balloon—a voyage that Branson himself tried on two occasions, in each case with a lavish public-relations send-off and eventual ignominious failure. But the manic and megalomaniacal founder of the Virgin record- and airline-empire has neither the patience nor the constitution for wallowing. With the opportunity to be the first to circle Earth dirigibly now denied him, Branson has set his sights on another, and certainly unique, means by which to test his mettle. It seems the man who defined “thinking outside the box” for an entire generation of entrepreneurs is now thinking very much inside the box: He’s in the midst of his latest attempt to become the first man to FedEx himself around the world.
Armed with little more than an enviable supply of Xanax (“It helps me get to sleep while curled into a little ball”), some sandwiches, a tiny reading lamp, and three books (The Art of War; his own memoir, Losing My Virginity; and a dog-eared copy of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth), Branson has previously attempted this expedition twice. On his maiden voyage he narrowly escaped attack by a trio of very hungry drug-sniffing dogs at customs in Greenland. On his second try, Branson languished for two weeks inside his box in Vanuatu when his local contact was unexpectedly called away and unable to sign for the package. “I lost quite a bit of weight on that leg of the trip,” he laughs. “Which actually made things a lot roomier.”
Whether or not he makes it this time, Branson’s true legacy may well be something far more lasting: He has spawned an entire generation of like-minded CEOs, men—and sometimes women—who merely laugh at the sobriquets “madman,” “genius,” “seriously dangerous asshole,” and “stupid fucked-up motherfucker.” They are our new gladiators, recklessly brave in their efforts to keep up with the (Indiana) Joneses. Branson may have been the first. He may even be the best. But now he is just one of many.
There are those in Hollywood who will admit, after the requisite snickering has subsided, that Michael Eisner has never looked better. Undeniably, with his filthy face—patined with the rich soil of an exclusive Beverly Hills neighborhood—his mud-caked work boots, and the grimy i brake for jayne mansfield’s headT-shirt, he looks quite peaceful. Gone is the permanently furrowed brow of the beleaguered executive as he stands at the bottom of the 60-foot crater that once was his estate, one foot propped up against the tricked-out leaf blower he rebuilt to do his dirty work, surveying his new domain. “I’m the king of the underworld!” he cries exuberantly.
“The idea for all of this”—he spreads his arms out, indicating his excavation—”came at a party we were having for Hank Kissinger and Jiang Zemin. It was right when we were starting the Kundun negotiations. I got to thinking that what would really bring us together wasn’t just some feel-good movie about China’s human-rights record or its occupation of Tibet—both of which are vastly misunderstood, by the way—but the actual physical connection of our two great nations. I remembered the old saw about digging a hole to China. And then I thought, Why not?”
Why not, indeed? At the bottom of Eisner’s project lies the wreckage of the manse in which he used to live; it loosed itself from its foundations after he got below 40 feet. Thankfully, it was unoccupied at the time, the mogul’s wife having taken the kids to Judy Ovitz’s house—reportedly muttering, “Half those Shakespeare in Love receipts are mine, you freaking nut-job,” on her way to the car—shortly after the tunnel reached two fathoms. Eisner now makes his home in a pup tent perched precariously on the ledge, his abrupt change of life having been met with both concern and grudging admiration from friends and colleagues. “I never knew he was so handy,” Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein offers diplomatically. Enthuses Kevin Costner, director of such films as Waterworld and The Postman, “It’s a great idea. I wish I’d thought of it.” Aside from the occasional visit from Margot Kidder, Eisner spends his days largely alone, moving pound after pound of soil. His former life as chairman and CEO of Disney seems as far removed as China itself. “You mean the Wonderfully Rigid World of Disney? The Linear Kingdom?” He takes a pull off his longneck, eyes glittering with the fire of a zealot. “I stopped talking to that bunch of magma alarmists weeks ago. Hey, I’ll worry about the alleged ‘molten core’ when I get to it, you know what I’m saying?”
Ted Turner is viewing the brief but lethal thermal extrusion of volcanic steam that roasted alive one of his crew in the shallows off Oahu with the positive attitude so characteristic of the successful entrepreneur. “On the one hand, it was a terrible loss of life,” says the Croesus-wealthy Turner. “But because he was cooked so rapidly, and with steam as opposed to conventional heat, it really locked in all those flavorful juices.”
At the time of the accident, the unfortunate mate was doing repair work on the hull of Turner’s boat, the Hanoi Jane—a perfect replica of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki that was constructed out of tightly rolled bundles of Indonesian bhat, that country’s now-useless currency (an ingenious ploy to extol the virtues of recycling). Until Hawaii, Turner’s re-creation of Heyerdahl’s storied Peru-to-Polynesia voyage had been without incident, and despite the tragedy, the man who coined the term superstation is undeterred. “I think this voyage could really bring the world’s nations together,” he explains. “I’m white; my crew isn’t.”
Turner’s famously blue eyes are distant now, the captain scanning the horizon. “You really don’t have to be a billionaire to do this, you know,” he drawls. “We were able to construct this vessel, parts and labor, for about 30 bucks. I can’t tell you how beautiful a sight it is to watch 50 or 60 children climbing around, rolling those bank notes so tightly. You see, their fingers are much smaller than ours.” He laughs as he recalls, “Occasionally, I’d throw in a greenback and yell out, ‘Dollar in the bhat!’ Man, you should have seen those little tykes wrestle each other!”
All is not sentimentality and reminiscence on the Hanoi Jane, however. There must also be leadership, sometimes stern, often unpopular, and never more so than when dealing with the hard choices that must be made on an expedition whose official motto is “waste not, want not.” Indeed, some of the crew are noticeably upset by the unfortunate provenance of their surprise lunch. “What? You think not eating him is going to bring him back?” Turner asks the row of glum faces. He takes a bite of forearm, the skin crisp, the flesh succulent, and for a mouthwatering moment, it’s hard to fault his logic.
Clearly, the human imagination is boundless.Too bad the same can’t be said for the supply of undiscovered territory and unconquered obstacles on this planet. Thus it’s hardly surprising to hear that the newest and most unorthodox of the world’s übertycoons—a man who is turning the whole notion of derring-do on its head—should come from the paradigm-shifting realm of the Internet.
“I was trying to come up with a way to show Branson and Turner and the rest of those guys that I’m a player,” says Jeff Bezos, the unconscionably youthful and callow founder of Amazon.com. “And all of a sudden I realized that there’s really nothing left out there to do. So I figured, if nothing’s all that’s left to do, I’m damn well gonna do it better than anyone else.”
And with that, Bezos set off on his demanding extrafinancial quest. To look at him, you’d never know the strain he’s under as he sits in his chair, motionless, his life inexorably tied to the same two media that have made him a wealthy man: computers and books. But Bezos is indeed in the midst of an effort far more daunting, far more exhausting, far more life-affirming than any put forth to date: He is strapped in, eyelids held firmly open (“An homage to Kubrick, may he rest in peace”), attempting to read on a 20-inch monitor one of the most challenging literary works of the century 1,000 times consecutively.
“There was this bell that rang in my head somewhere around read number 472,” says Bezos, “when I realized that I wasn’t just reading a book, I was seeing the truth. I was sitting in this chair and I looked up to the higher power—God, Allah, Mars, Venus, whoever—and I found myself asking the central question posed by the title, spontaneously, yearningly: Can I really get what I want and want what I have?”
He sighs beatifically, and then cocks his head toward Amazon’s sports-and-outdoors editor, who’s been entrusted with the task of applying drops to his eyes. “Keep your Annapurnas, your spelunking, your hematomas,” Bezos says, his face shining, pearled not just with saline but with the sweat of a man newly emerged into light from the dark fastness of a cramped overnight pack. “For a true journey, my friend, I offer but two words: John Gray.”