Alan Kay's phone consoles are what Mission Control would look like if NASA hired an expensive interior decorator: gleaming metal, flashing lights, buttons and knobs, all perched atop a sort of altar to power communication. The consoles next to his desk and conference table connect the real estate magnate with the outside world, where buildings are built, art is bought and charitable checkbooks are opened.
Alan Kay is -- according to the people who get the calls and find themselves agreeing that yes, of course they want to buy $4,000, $8,000, $15,000 worth of tickets to the American Cancer Society Ball -- a phone master. Persuasive, determined, courteous and impossible to refuse. Except for a hiatus of one year, he and his wife Dianne have served as chairmen of the Cancer Ball for six years. Their first ball raised a little more than $200,000. Saturday night's event netted about $1.3 million, making it once again the nation's largest fundraiser for cancer research.
Now, having split amicably with Allen Rozansky, his business partner of 27 years who was getting tired of the breathless Kay pace, Alan Kay is expanding his current $500 million worth of projects, completing his largest project, Bethesda Metro Center, and taking on construction jobs around the country. And after two years of renovation and decoration that included gutting the second floor, constructing an underground tunnel from the servants' quarters to the main house and beginning work on an indoor gym large enough to accommodate a small elementary school, he and Dianne have just moved into Merrywood, the Virginia estate where Jacqueline Kennedy grew up.
"I'm going to be honest," said Dianne Kay, smiling at her 51-year-old husband, who sits tapping first his perfectly polished black shoe, then his fingers, then that shoe again, with the impatience of a man who feels a little edgy without a phone close at hand. "I always knew Alan had big plans. He liked the good things in life. We both come from modest backgrounds. Sometimes I just can't believe it."
Alan Kay, solid in his immaculate dark suit, his gold and diamond watch glistening, looks as if he never had any doubts.
Alan Kay's father died when his son was 12. "I went to work when I was 13," Kay said, sitting in the Merrywood library. "I worked about 50 different jobs. I worked my way through college at the University of Maryland."
High school friends, Rozansky and Kay went into the real estate business in 1959. Several years later they started their first development project, a high-rise apartment house. "That is not the typical thing you start a business with," said Rozansky. "It's a sizable job. We did have chutzpah, but we didn't have anything else, so we didn't have anything to lose."
Meanwhile, Kay had married Dianne, a tiny blond 18-year-old from Norfolk who was in Washington attending what she calls a junior college and he laughingly insists was a finishing school. Asked anything remotely personal, he draws back and answers in the terse style of a man not given to wasting words or the time it takes to form them. She leans forward and smiles warmly. But their words echo as if the years together have given them a shared vocabulary. "Truly," they say again and again -- "We are a truly close family"; "Truly, I want to thank you" -- punctuating sentence after sentence with the protestation of sincerity.
Over the years, Rozansky and Kay built more than 13,000 apartments and endless square feet of office space. Alan and Dianne had three children and kept adding to their Bethesda home. Ten years ago, Alan began to collect art, mainly French and American impressionists and postimpressionists. Renoir sculptures, Bonnard oils, Prendergast watercolors, with a smattering of Le'gers, Picassos and Matisses thrown in. "I was able to afford my taste," he says.
But in 1981, his younger brother Stanley died of colon cancer.
* "Ever since my uncle died, I think he's put his gears in forward motion," said Kay's 23-year-old daughter Donna, who like her two brothers works in the family business. "You never saw him cry, but you could see it inside him." The House
Six weeks after moving into her new home, Dianne Kay was still victim of her light switches.
"Victor," she pleaded with her interior decorator Victor Shargai. "How do I get the lights on in here? I can't figure this out."
Shargai's fingers flew across the panel with the eight buttons controlling five lighting "scenes" and two "special settings," and lo! a pale dawn slowly filled the second-floor hall. "It takes time," Shargai said of the lighting-education process. "Her problem is she doesn't have time to learn."
For the last two years Dianne Kay, along with her decorator and architect, has been shaping Merrywood into her dream house, making several trips to Europe with Shargai because, as he said, "you have to with this kind of thing."
The Kays bought Merrywood two years ago from Nancy and C. Wyatt Dickerson for about $4.25 million, having decided it would cost less than the 30,000-square-foot house they planned to build on Foxhall Road. But that was before they decided to renovate, before the two new wings and the cascade of terraces running down to the Potomac and the marble-floored loggia along the back of the house and the exercise room and the suite for their oldest married son and his wife and child and the faux marble and faux wood and the master bathroom with a sauna and the electronic curtains that slowly rise when a button is pressed and the elevator and a few other extras. The cost of the house was more than doubled with the renovation.
"We started doing some of it and then it was, 'Might as well do everything,' " said Alan Kay.
Friday night, the Kays opened Merrywood for 300 big-time Cancer Ball supporters, the $4,000-and-over people. Guests toured the house under the gaze of security men with radio wires in their ears and the blandly watchful expression of former Secret Service staff.
Stop No. 1. Bedroom for youngest son, Tulane University senior Bryan, who wanted what his mother called "a library look." Dark plaids, dark wood and shelves of fake leather books that open up to reveal the real shelves behind them, now filled with sports trophies and stereo equipment. "We thought Bryan might not keep neat shelves, so we had these made in England," said Shargai of the faux books.
Stop No. 2. Alan Kay's dressing room. Red leather. Two kinds of mahogany. Mirrors. And shelves upon shelves of perfect black shoes, each pair differing from the next only in the width and finish of the decorative gold bar.
Stop No. 3. The master bedroom. Flowers. Chinoiserie. A Chinese cabinet with a story: "Alan called me from a yacht in the Adriatic and said, 'Do you have this month's Connoisseur yet?' " Shargai said. "There was a piece in Chicago pictured, one of the first pieces the Communist Chinese had exported, so I went out and looked at it."
"How can anyone have sex in a room like this?" asked one of the Kays' friends. "You'd stay up all night looking at it." The Ball
The Cancer Ball began as a wine-and-cheese party in 1972, the creation of Kay's friend Sylvan Gershowitz, founder of Monument Parking. The Kays became cochairmen in 1981.
"All of us are besieged with requests from different causes," said Kay. "All the causes are good but people drop most of them in the trash can. With someone you know calling -- it is far more difficult to say no. I do lots of business with these people -- not that I would stop doing business with them, but I'm sure they do it because they want to accommodate me."
The ball has been criticized by some for sticking too closely to the Jewish business community. Tickets to the event cost $350, but few are sold at that minimum price; $1.2 million was raised in the higher range before the general tickets even went on sale. Peoples Drug Stores President Sheldon Fantle, who served as cochairman during the Kays' vacation, said, "I would like a little broader base of community support. We seem to be getting the same groups of people every year."
Kay says that while the ball started as an event that appealed to a relatively small group of Jewish friends, it has grown beyond that.
There are also dangers in relying too heavily on one man. Kay says he would like to pass on the Cancer Ball someday, but "I can't find anyone to replace me." Cancer Society spokesmen insist they are developing a wider circle of fundraisers, but the line "We hope the Kays never stop!" is heard frequently and the couple is the envy of fund-raising professionals throughout the city. cochairman of the Wolf Trap Gala later this month, but he continues to focus the fund-raising tornado on the Cancer Ball.
Getting the millions is not the Kays' only concern. "If it's a lousy affair -- we've all been to lots of those -- no one wants to give money," said Kay. "I've had people call me and I say, 'I'll contribute if I don't have to go.' "
So from the start, the Kays decided the Cancer Ball should be something different. They worry about everything from the value of the door prizes ("I don't want anything under $1,500," he said at one preball meeting) to the seating arrangements, which both Alan and Dianne spent several nights working on -- all for the sake of making the donors feel their Kay-inspired gift has been well appreciated.
"From the time you walk in at 8, it is truly a fun affair," he says. "No long speeches. It's not your chicken dinner -- it is a very lavish party. Constant activity, constant food, constant music."
Lavish hardly captures the spirit of the Cancer Ball. Here is where Dianne's influence enters. For five hours every year, the ballroom at the Washington Hilton is transformed into what one guest Saturday night called "a food orgy." This year's theme was "Out of This World" and 1,300 people wandered below silver star-shaped balloons, sat at tables bedecked with four-foot-high centerpieces of shooting stars, and piled plates at eight buffet stations. At the "New England Clam Bake," waiters in yellow slickers cracked lobsters in the shadow of a two-story lighthouse. Just beyond were freshly made pizzas, blintzes, hot dogs, ice cream sodas, a bakery case full of cakes and ever more food.
For a while, Alan Kay said each year was his last. He no longer even tries to make anyone believe that. Already he's talking about next year.
The Cancer Ball is known for its "celebrity guests" and Saturday night saw Kelly LeBrock, Howie Mandel, William Daniels, Lynda Carter, Arthur Hill, Anita Gillette and others. When Olympic gold medal wrestler Jeff Blatnick, who had Hodgkin's disease, came to the stage, he looked out past the lasers and the shooting stars and the sea of edibles and said, "I have never, ever, ever been to an event like this."
Which was just what Alan Kay hoped to hear.