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The Operatic Fall of Multimillionaire Alberto Vilar

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 4, 2005

NEW YORK -- When Alberto Vilar attended the opera at the Met -- which he did a few dozen times a year -- he nearly always sat by himself. But the man never seemed quite as alone as he did yesterday, seated by his lawyer in a Manhattan courtroom and fighting to get out of jail.

Vilar, once a stock-market superstar and a spectacularly generous donor to the Kennedy Center and the Washington Opera, among many arts organizations around the world, could have used some wealthy friends. But none were around yesterday as his lawyer tried to free him from his cell in the Metropolitan Correction Center, where he's bunked since his arrest last week for allegedly bilking an investment client out of $5 million.

Vilar's lawyer had come to present an alternative to the $10 million bail set by a judge soon after the 64-year-old was handcuffed by authorities at Newark Liberty International Airport. Attorney Susan Necheles said yesterday that Vilar could put up art worth as much as $2 million that hangs in his Manhattan apartment and a South Hampton home worth about $1.8 million.

The rest? Well, that's where it all got kind of poignant. To assure the judge that Vilar is no flight risk, Necheles cited four pals who, she said, were willing to bet their life savings that he wouldn't flee the country. But these people, it turned out, aren't exactly swimming in cash. Among them: a man who met Vilar years ago in Puerto Rico, who is now a public school teacher, as well as his wife, who works part time taking reservations for an airline.

"They are people of limited means," Necheles said during the hearing. "They are willing to lose everything they have, to risk financial ruin, because they so believe in Mr. Vilar."

"Well, they have very few assets, though," Judge Harold Baer said a little skeptically.

That was exactly the point, it turned out. "For him to leave, and to flee," Necheles said later on, "and to leave these people destitute is something that he would have to live with for the rest of his life."

Baer seemed unmoved by that logic and seemed to discount Necheles's four-friends argument. He said Vilar could leave jail when he posted $4 million in cash or assets. Because Vilar doesn't appear to have either handy at the moment, he was led by marshals back to his cell. He left looking numb, exceedingly thin and limping a little, the aftereffects of back surgery that fused four of his vertebrae. He was dressed in a lavender button-down shirt and black slacks, and he might have appeared ready to head back to his Park Avenue office, except for one detail: As a standard suicide precaution, jailkeepers had taken away his belt.

'Visions of Grandeur'

Strange but true, you have to go to Vilar's enemies these days to find someone who'll say he's getting the shaft.

"He's a miserable human being and a basic scumbag," said Donald Trump yesterday. "He spent $2 million trying to fight me when I wanted to build the Trump World Towers" because it obstructed the view from Vilar's apartment at United Nations Plaza. "He was intractable and foolish and he ended up getting his [butt] kicked by me." Trump means that the towers were built.

"But he gave millions to charities and they've treated him like garbage," he adds. "I think that's terrible. The least they could say is thank you."

You don't hear a lot of thank-yous when you mention Vilar's name these days. Maybe he will ultimately be cleared of all charges, but for now Vilar appears to be perp-walking straight into that grand and storied American pantheon of Alleged Super Rich Frauds. The back story is always the same -- the start-with-nothing origins, the struggle to conspicuous wealth, the strenuous social-climbing and then the spectacular run of damning headlines as creditors and feds close in.

Vilar's unique twist on this stock character is a love for classical music and opera that veered toward the obsessive, and a thirst for public recognition that only opera houses around the world could slake. Some people want their name in lights; Vilar wanted his on plaques, and he wanted those plaques displayed prominently, where the upper-crustiest of society could see them. He earned millions through fees courtesy of his investment company, Amerindo, which at its peak held $8 billion in assets. Then he pledged millions of his personal income to operas all over the world.

If prosecutors are correct, he was Robin Hood for the "La Boheme" set, stealing from the rich to give to the Met.

"He had visions of grandeur, no doubt about it," said a former Amerindo employee who asked not to be identified because he doesn't want to appear to be turning against his former boss. "Even as the stock market was going down, he continued to make pledges. He promised $50 million to the Kennedy Center right as the market was in a tailspin. When you asked him why, he'd just say the market would come back."

Conspicuous Largesse

A decade ago, hardly anyone in the classical music world had heard the name Alberto Vilar. But that changed when he started promising huge checks to symphonies and opera companies -- it's unclear how much he actually handed over. That spree made him a kind of international celebrity benefactor. There he was, offering $24 million to the Los Angeles opera, $6 million to the music festival in Salzburg, $17 million to refurbish the Royal Opera House in London. A couple of million was supposed to go to his alma mater, Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, for a music program allowing students to attend classical concerts gratis. And on it went.

All this largesse came thanks to Vilar's work as a stock picker, honed during the tech boom, when shares of companies like Cisco would effortlessly double, split and then double again. But the end of that boom didn't diminish Vilar's urge to give, and give as noisily and publicly as possible -- at news conferences and in ways that assured his name would be inscribed in the freshly renovated wings of gilded buildings. If he just wanted great seats to the show, there were cheaper ways to do it.

"I think the single most important reason for recognition is to set an example to other potential donors," he told the New York Times in an interview. "When you have your name on a building, it says, 'Here's a world-class person who is giving money, and he chose us.' Isn't that a message?"

The armchair psychology of Vilar's apparently headless generosity is more complicated. He was a quiet choirboy who dreamed of being a conductor. His mother abandoned him and his family when he was a child growing up in Cuba, he has explained in interviews, leaving Vilar to be raised primarily by a grandmother and a father who he frequently complained didn't understand or love him.

Others who knew him, and followed his giving, found him a bit of a cipher.

"There is no easy way to describe Alberto Vilar because whatever he has by way of personality is shrouded behind an occupational neutrality that yields not a glimpse of colour, whether in his tie, his eyes or his voice," wrote British critic Norman Lebrechtin in an online column called Lebrechtin Weekly. "He is studiously bland about everything -- except the performance he saw last night which he will discuss in animated detail."

Among the known personal details about Vilar are he was married once, later divorced and in 2002, he proposed to a musicologist named Karen Painter, who is 24 years his junior, but the wedding was delayed and the engagement later called off.

Then there was his relationship with one Lisa Mayer, a former girlfriend who in November sued Vilar for allegedly stealing $11.2 million from her and her sister. They say Vilar refused to return the money, which they'd given him to invest. When they demanded the money back and hired a former FBI agent to investigate Vilar's past, he threatened to tangle them up in litigation forever. "The family's patrimony will become hostage to these proceedings," Vilar told his former girlfriend, according to the Mayers' complaint.

He was conspicuous about more than just giving. His United Nations apartment is, by all accounts, a spectacle. One visitor says it contains a life-size statue of Mozart as a child, playing a violin, plus plenty of mirrors and ostentatious biblical-themed art, including a mural on the ceiling. That was the top floor. Vilar gutted the floor below and told everyone that he planned to build a concert hall there large enough to seat 70 people.

This 11,000-square-foot apartment might have come in handy at yesterday's bail hearing, but there is a tax lien against it, Vilar's lawyer said. Last week, she claimed that he had less than $10,000 in the bank though what happened to all his money is a mystery. Vilar, whose net worth was pegged last year at $950 million, once owned nine homes. Yet an attorney for two documentary makers who sued Vilar -- they accused him of failing to pay them for months of filming -- said yesterday that he'd sifted through Vilar's records and could find barely enough to cover the cost of a ticket to the opera.

"I found two bank accounts," said Justin Brasch. "There was $100 in one and nothing in the other. He's either broke or hiding it well."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company