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A Hobby That’s Part Party, Part Debate, All Intellect

A Hobby That’s Part Party, Part Debate, All Intellect
June 2, 2007

by Eric Konigsberg


When it comes to worthy recipients of noblesse largesse, a well-meaning multimillionaire in New York has no shortage of gratifying options: the sick and the poor; cultural institutions; universities; the public sector.

But Robert Rosenkranz, an investor and philanthropist who runs Delphi Financial Group, a $5 billion insurance concern, has instead been leveraging his standing — and a small percentage of his wealth — in the name of a somewhat less tangible cause: the ultimate dinner party conversation.

Along with his wife, Alexandra Munroe, a curator at the Guggenheim Museum, Mr. Rosenkranz has begun to establish himself on New York’s arts-and-letters circuits as a host of high-powered salons. Since last fall he has been holding a series of “Oxford-style” public policy debates at the Asia Society and Museum on Park Avenue and 70th Street.

The public debates are followed by dinners at neighborhood restaurants, where the debaters — including such authors as Michael Crichton and Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, all of whom receive honorariums — mingle with a carefully selected group of 40 or so “movers and shakers” from the worlds of finance, philanthropy and the press, to quote from a letter Mr. Rosenkranz sent to benefactors.

“I wanted there to be a social dimension in addition to having an intellectual dimension — that was very important,” Mr. Rosenkranz said. “People keep talking and arguing long into the night.”

Unlike the art collector who might see an advantage in befriending an artist whose rare work he covets, Mr. Rosenkranz’s goal is entirely experiential: he stands to gain nothing besides a good time. For him that means upgrading the caliber of what those around him at any given moment have to say. And it comes at a time when market forces have made it ever more difficult for genuine bohemians in New York City to even inhabit the same borough as the rich.

In addition to the debates, his efforts include informal dinners and parties for influence-makers at his apartment in River House, near Sutton Place, and his oceanfront estate in East Hampton. Some of his guests are writers and thinkers with whom he struck up friendships after extending cold-call invitations. (Guests at his various functions have run the gamut from the charity-circuit regulars Georgette Mosbacher and Shelby White to the writer Andrew Solomon and Thomas Struth, the German photographer.)

“I’d never heard of the guy, but he wanted me to come to his apartment and talk to a few friends about my book ‘Terror and Liberalism,’ ” recalled Paul Berman, who received such a call a couple of years back. “I was skeptical, but the person who called persuaded me that this was something not to miss. Eventually, the anthropologist in me was stirred.”

The two of them quickly became friends, despite Mr. Berman’s liberal politics and Mr. Rosenkranz’s decades-long support of conservative organizations like the Manhattan Institute.

“At dinner, it was a lot of conservatives, people in finance, and Bob put a wrenchingly difficult question to me,” Mr. Berman said. “Basically, he said my ideological analyses of terrorism were all very fine and good, but couldn’t Al Qaeda be explained as a rational power move in Saudi Arabia? We ended up having the sort of frank but open-minded discussion that is amazingly difficult to have nowadays.”

Many who have been on the receiving end of Mr. Rosenkranz’s invitations consider it refreshing that he is willing to embrace people from across both an ideological aisle and perhaps a socioeconomic — or at least occupational — divide.

“He’s a very engaging and interesting man who obviously derives real pleasure in being able to put people together to talk about really interesting things,” said Philip Gourevitch, an author and the editor of The Paris Review, who, in addition to participating in one of Mr. Rosenkranz’s debates, went to his holiday party at River House last year and has stayed in touch with him.

On a weekend visit to Mr. Rosenkranz’s house on Long Island, Mr. Berman said, he initiated a philosophical conversation about his car — a 1981 Toyota — and how, despite the financial impracticality of owning it in the city, he was reluctant to give up the convenience it represented psychologically.

“Bob said he had exactly the same feelings in regard to his private jet share,” Mr. Berman said.

From his offices high above Madison Avenue, Mr. Rosenkranz oversees Delphi, two investment funds and the Rosenkranz Foundation. Lunch is prepared by his private chef, whom he summons from the office kitchen with a silent, cordless plastic button that resembles a garage door opener. He is 64 and has a reticent, self-effacing manner that recalls professional beginnings in the think-tank world.

He grew up middle class on the Upper West Side and graduated from Yale and Harvard Law, then worked for the right-leaning RAND Corporation during its cold war heyday. In 1969 he embarked on what he called his “real career” pioneering leveraged buyouts for the Oppenheimer Group.

“I felt the level of civility in public life had just gotten dreadful,” Mr. Rosenkranz said of his decision to start the debate series. “And when I suggested some kind of oppositional debates to people at the Manhattan Institute and at the American Enterprise Institute, the response was always, ‘It’s not our mission in life to give them a forum, and there’s nobody smart on the other side.’ ”

As a birthday present to him two years ago, his wife hired a consultant to put together a detailed report on debate programs in the United States and in Europe and recommend a course of action.

This led to a couple of trips to London to witness a popular debate series, Intelligence Squared (often called IQ2), which Mr. Rosenkranz liked so much he decided to simply start an American version of it, IQ2 U.S. Though it is very much a hobby for Mr. Rosenkranz, and is a nonprofit initiative of his foundation, he approached it as a professional venture and left little to chance.

“We’ve just done everything first class,” Mr. Rosenkranz said. “I mean, the dinners are nice, the brochures are beautiful, the production values on the radio” — podcasts are available on NPR’s Web site — “are first class, the crowd brings the kind of buzz we intended.”

Subject matters have included free speech, global warming and whether America is too religious. It costs $40 to attend, and all but one of the eight debates so far were sold out.

“It’s struck me ever since I’ve been here that this is exactly what our own system is lacking,” said Mr. Hitchens, an Oxford alumnus. “Congress says they have debates, but they’re really speeches seriatim. Discourse on TV is boring; it’s either vulgar or too polite. The presidential debate here is more like a joint press conference.”

Mr. Crichton said that he, too, had long hungered for a forum like IQ2 U.S., “and I hope it has some sort of viral effect.”

April’s debate, which focused on domestic surveillance, was vigorous and sporting. Mr. Rosenkranz said a few words at the outset, then, for the rest of the evening, vanished from the view of everybody in the audience of about 300 who was not making a point of looking for him. Such, perhaps, is the role of the perfect host: to get the party started, then watch from the wings as everybody else has a good time.

In preparation, however, he is said to obsess over his own contributions to the program — from deciding on the language that frames the one-line debate question, to having a salaried researcher pull articles from the Internet so that he can brush up on the appropriate topics before the dinners, to meticulously arranging the seating charts for those dinners.

IQ2 U.S. brochures classify donors, depending on their level of generosity, as “bright,” “brilliant” or “genius.” Mr. Hitchens surmised that the preoccupation with intellect had something to do with the notion that people who have made a lot of money by working with money have a need for the world to understand the candlepower required.

“I think there’s a big incentive among people in finance to prove to themselves that they aren’t just bean counters or whatever,” he said, adding that he had recently been paid to attend a small dinner party with a group of strangers from the hedge fund industry. “They don’t want to just be the fat guy with a cigar in the New Yorker cartoon.”