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The Last Tycoon 

Walter Shorenstein's skyscrapers shaped San Francisco. His cash configured City Hall. Publicly, he's pristine. But there's more than meets the eye to the man behind the megaliths.

Wednesday, May 10 1995
The grass had to go. If two former presidents, a mayor, a speaker of the state assembly and Walter Shorenstein, whose idea thi sehole thing was - if they were going to be rolling up in their cars, big carnauba-waxed antique convertibles, the kind that are high enough off the ground to allow someone to peruse the pavement in passing and note, with an eye practiced from many hours on the greens, the presence of bermuda between the sun-bright squares of sidewalk concret, then the grass had to fgo. It didn't matter that there was going to be a carpet on top of it, or that there would be standing along the edge of the carpet, or that in fact the greenery in question was scarcely a quarter-inch tall, roots included - this was a 50-year celebration of the founding of the United Nations, a party Walter Shorenstein proposed and gave $1 million to stage, a party that Walter Shorenstein thought the city should have in the way, perhaps, that other people want to take strangers aside and tell them how to raise their children, and the grass, at the moment, was not appropriate. And so there were city workers in front of the building on Van Ness where the big cars would be arriving, needling the offending chlorophyll up and out into neat piles, sweeping it into bins, carrying it off.

Perhaps it seems like a lonely job, flossing sidewalks on the city's dime. In other circumstances, it might well be. But outside the Herbst Theatre on the last Tuesday in April, the public works people had plenty of other city employees around to keep them company. After all, there were a lot of other things to be done. There was the bus stop, for one, which was to be wrapped like a police exhibit with yellow caution tape. There was the Van Ness traffic - diverted for blocks in both directions by a phalanx of police. There were the parking meters: patrolled, with tickets and low trucks in equal measure. Gutters: swept. Rooftops: secured, sharpshooters above and across the street, rifles bristling like polished proboscises in the late-morning sun.

In fact, so complete were the city's preparations for Walter Shorenstein's United Nations anniversary party that by the time the first of the vintage cars plump with politicians touched the tongue of red Astroturf running atop the dental-fresh sidewalk from curb to door, only one thing was missing: the public.

Now, it' s not that the public wasn't invited. The public was invited. It was perfectly welcome to make its way to curbside, to stand there and to cheer as the ex-presidents popped from car to carpet. But the public declined the invitation. It party pooped. Outside the Herbst, at Walter Shorenstein's UN50 kickoff celebration, there were more participants, city employees and news people than actial, authentic celebrants. Apparently, the pull of a politician-packed Packard isn't over-powering, no matter how expensive the festivities are. Which brings us to our question: Who is this Walter Shorenstein, anyway? Why do ex-presidents sing his praises? Why do progressives hate his guts? Why doesn't the public appear at his parties? And how much, exactly, does his money buy?

It could be that the best place to start this story is inside the theater, where Walter Shorenstein is at the podium. For a man worth an estimated $300 million, a man who earned all that money himself, Walter Shorenstein is not standing tall. He's pretty much keeping his eyes pasted on the paper in front of him, peeking only periodically up over the rims of his glasses at the people, the ex-presidents, the press and the empty red seats in front of him. As he introduces Jimmy Carter, Shorenstein seems unaware that he's smacking his lips, a popcorn sound into the microphone, a counterpoint of sorts to the slow roll of his speaking voice, which contains inflections of a borough just east of Manhattan. Geralf Fowd, he says, introducing the man who pardoned Richard Nixon. I'm awhnuhued, Walter Shorenstein says, introducing Carter. On this particular day, Walter Shorenstein is wearing a blue suit, a white shirt, a yellow-and-blue tie with a lacy stained-glass pattern on it, and his skin, as it rises into view out of his shirt collar up and across the top of his head, is the warm blush color of rossa Verona marble. Those things are not what he's known for, however. It might be better to start with the things that Walter Shorenstein is known for. The San Francisco Giants, for one. Two years ago, Walter Shorenstein saved the Giants. Without Walter Shorenstein, the Giants would probably be in St. Petersburg as we speak, playing in a warm indoor stadium bursting with beery retirees. There's his charity work, too: Walter Shorenstein is the single largest donor in the U.S. to the United Way. He gave money for the Vietnam Orhpans Airlift at the end of the war; these days he forks it out for art museums, for earthquake relief, for conferences that he's entused over. He has had a center at Harvard University named after a daughter who died of cancer. He is a major fundraiser - and donator of his own money - to the Democratic Party. So much so that three Democratic presidential candidates have called him "Mr. Democrat." And he has his famous friends: Teddy Kennedy, for example, and Diane Sawyer, who have been knownn to peer moist-eyed into video cameras on his behalf. But actually, that's not it either. The best - the only- place to start is where Walter Shorenstein himself started: San Francisco real estate. Walter Shorenstein owns one-quarter of downtown San Francisco. Chances are, if you're standing on a street corner in the Financial District, you are literally in his shadow.

Think, for a minute, of the places in and outside the city where you can see what Walter Shorenstein built or owns. Twin Peaks, for one. From there, the spires of downtown look palm-size, as if you could pick them up, shake them upside down and watch the snow fall. From the two bridges, as well - east and north, the buildings greet you as you come into town. There's the flatlands, down south by the railroad tracks, where in the late afternoon the skyscrapers look like they're on TV, almost, shining with reflected light. From right underneath, the buidlings blot out the sky, seeming to spin and fall as the clouds move overhead. It wasn't always this way. Not, at least, in 1945, the year the United Nations was formed here, the year before Walter Shorenstein got discharged from the Air Force and came to the city to sell real estate.

About The Author

Ellen McGarrahan


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