Falcon quest

Reading about Tom Perkins's mega-yacht is a joy - just be happy you're not onboard.

By Daniel Okrent

(Fortune Magazine) -- If it's your idea of fun to admire the fabulously wealthy, brilliant, and charismatic person you will never be, you'll want to read "Mine's Bigger: Tom Perkins and the Making of the Greatest Sailing Machine Ever Built," by Newsweek senior editor David A. Kaplan. But if holding up the ludicrously self-involved for public examination makes you whimper with delight, you'll like it just as much.

The human supernova at the center of the book - Tom Perkins of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital pioneer who most recently hit the headlines as the whistleblower in the Hewlett-Packard surveillance scandal - is a Hall of Fame Genius with a World Champion Ego that can make him seem like an Immortal Lout. I'm sure his friends can cite many reasons that they love him, but if he invites you to spend a weekend aboard The Maltese Falcon, tell him you're busy. (You might consider chartering it instead: $440,000 for the week, not including fuel, food, dockage fees, and tips for the crew.)

Ah, but to read about Perkins - that's a different story. Billed as the tale of his quest to build a mega-yacht to outdo all other mega-yachts, "Mine's Bigger" is really a biography of this fascinating, important, and frequently repellent man, brought so vividly to life by the adept Kaplan that you almost feel you're in the room with him. Just be grateful you're not: Perkins's taste for the cruel practical joke might prove wearing.

But definitely be grateful that Kaplan was there when the boat set out on its maiden voyage with this purely Perkinsian message spelled out in maritime signal flags on its rigging: "Rarely does one have the privilege to witness vulgar ostentation displayed on such a scale." And be grateful that Kaplan saw the sniggering blog message from Perkins in which he said that if he ever wrote another book (he'd published the deathless "Sex and the Single Zillionaire" in 2005), "the plot will be about the struggles of the poor."

Equal gratitude is also due Kaplan for his intimate narrative of the five-year process to build something so extraordinary as The Maltese Falcon. It may be shockingly large (the length of a football field, with 11,000 square feet of usable interior space), obscenely expensive ($130 million), and ridiculously grandiose (36 kinds of leather, including the goatskin wall tiles). But the Falcon is also a technological wonder. While you might get a little cross-eyed reading about the intricacies of sail design, the chronicle of Perkins's intense involvement with every aspect of the process reveals that even though his nearly onanistic self-regard can make him seem like a real jerk, he's a fascinating jerk - clearly convinced of his own brilliance but clearly brilliant too.

And with The Maltese Falcon, Perkins is several steps ahead of the other heavy-hitters who indulge their hedonism and express their greatness while floating. (Asks Kaplan: "For how shall it profit a man to have a big yacht if somebody else has a bigger one?") For instance, Larry Ellison and his 82-room motor cruiser (not to mention his losing tub of an America's Cup boat); Jim Clark and his 262-foot schooner, Athena (in Kaplan's amusing telling, Clark's Everest of an ego and his numb feel for sailing make Perkins seem like a cross between Mother Teresa and a nautical Tiger Woods); and Bernie Ebbers and Aquasition, which Bernie doesn't get to use very often these days.

But I don't begrudge those guys their toys for a moment. (Disclosure: I've got my own mega-yacht, a 14-foot catboat made of rare, virgin fiberglass, with a genuine polyvinyl bailing bucket.) For without them, we wouldn't have books as engaging and as revealing as "Mine's Bigger."

THE HOUSE THAT GEORGE BUILT

BY WILFRID SHEED

Random House, $29.95

To anyone who loves the classic gems of the great American songbook but has never had the privilege of sharing a cabaret table with Wilfrid Sheed: Grab a copy of "The House That George Built." I'm lucky enough to have heard a songbird or two in Sheed's presence; this book could be the souvenir program for some wonderful evenings blessed by his incomparable erudition and wit. Many writers have done musical analyses of the cultural treasures produced by Gershwin, Arlen, Berlin, et al., but none has connected the personalities to their work the way Sheed has. His Cole Porter chapter alone is the top, the Colosseum, the Louvre Museum. Top of page