Arpad Busson: A rich man but a 'pretty poor playboy'

It is a curious combination of portrayals that he can't, quite, seem to shake off. Turn to one page of the glossy magazines that chart the life and times of the wildly wealthy and well-known, and you will see millionaire hedge fund financier Arpad Busson win plaudits for his charity work and philanthropy.
Turn to the next, and you will find him denounced as a brash, perma-tanned playboy whose leonine locks, brooding, dark Gallic looks and luxurious lifestyle keep him a permanent fixture in the gossip columns.
The former, understandably, he is fine about. He has earned that reputation. The latter, well, that's another matter.
"A playboy," he sighs, with faint exasperation and a rueful half-smile. "Look. In the past 15 years I have had serious relationships with two women. To turn that into a playboy? Well," he adds with a what-can-I say expression. "I'm a pretty poor playboy if that's the case." It is a deft response.
He is right, of course. But when the women in question are model Elle "The Body" Macpherson, the mother of his two sons, and actress Uma Thurman (not to mention the fact that as a young man he dated Farrah Fawcett, 16 years his senior), it is hardly surprising that the paparazzi tend to take a great deal of interest in his life.
"True," he concedes with a courteous nod. "But they are both well known in their own right. They are extraordinary women, with extraordinary characters, who have done extraordinary things with their lives. Both of them. And those are very attractive features." They are, of course, not their only attractive features. But he won't be drawn on that. Thurman was once engaged to Busson, 48, but their relationship seems more off than on of late, and Busson isn't saying one way or the other. Today, he has more pressing matters on his mind. In the past week Busson - "Arki" to his friends - came in for a sustained drubbing in some sections of the media, which accused him of presiding over an evening of "ostentatious vulgarity" that is considered ill-timed in this era of economic austerity.
The event? The 10th ARK (Absolute Return for Kids) charity gala auction, held last Thursday, during which the fabulously rich bid thousands for a range of luxury lots. And managed to raise eye-watering millions (£17.2 million) for an array of children's health and education projects in Britain and abroad. This year's guests of honour just happened to be the newly married Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who announced a £5 million partnership between the prince's foundation and ARK, which will fund Outward Bound trips for British youngsters living in inner cities, as well as supporting projects in Africa.
It was a stunning coup to have William and Kate rubbing shoulders with Jamie Cullum and his wife, Sophie Dahl; model Laura Bailey; Anish and Susanne Kapoor; Colin Firth and wife, Livia; American art dealer Larry Gagosian; Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter; fashion designer Tom Ford and Jemima Khan - and one which Busson hopes will attract a new, younger generation to ARK and its work.
"What better ambassadors for a younger generation could we have than the Duke and Duchess? The royal family have always been great philanthropists. When we heard that William and Harry were becoming active in the arena, we got in touch and they were immediately receptive. They saw the work we were doing and felt we could both transfer our knowledge."
But, of course, it has been the luxury lots that attracted attention. And they were certainly lavish. Amid a backdrop of scantily clad acrobats diving from high wires into a shallow pool, the 900 guests who had paid £10,000 a ticket were entertained by DJ Mark Ronson and the Kings of Leon while they dined on tuna from the Maldives, black cod and Australian kobe beef, and blackcurrant souffle along with a 2002 Chateau Duhart-Milon and a 2008 Puligny-Montrachet.
And they weren't shy about producing their wallets. A week-long trip from Monte Carlo to Italy in the Maltese Falcon, the world's largest yacht, and three days of racing went initially for £48,000. And when Busson asked for a second week, bidding reached £450,000. A weekend at Blenheim castle, donated by the Duke of Marlborough, fetched £250,000. Tracy Emin's neon sign artwork More Passion raised a similar amount; a weekend of hunting, shooting and fishing on the remote Scottish isle of Jura fetched £220,000; lunch and a day at a fashion show with Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, went for £180,000; dinner and an outfit with Tom Ford raised £100,000; and a weekend at the Oscars, along with an invitation to Vanity Fair's party after the awards, brought in £250,000.
Heady figures indeed. But wasn't it all about the wealthy vying to compete with each other's wallets, in a slightly tasteless display of largesse?
"Does it matter?" Busson asks candidly. "I really don't think people should care. There will always be criticism. I can't fight that. But ultimately, not including Thursday's total, ARK has already raised £150 million in a decade. So what if some want to be seen giving. Or if it is guilt-giving. For me that doesn't matter. If that's the way to unlock money, if they see it as a competition, why not? We always keep the names of the donors and bidders a secret and, frankly, I think it is time to stand up and show that there is nothing dirty about giving to others. Personally, I will take the anonymous cheque and the public cheque. We have both in the room. What is wrong with the concept of standing up and giving? And it encourages others."
For Busson, the ends justify the means. ARK, he rightly points out, has changed the lives of 200,000 children from Eastern Europe to southern Africa, India and Britain. It has turned eight failing inner-city schools in Britain into academies, two of which have been rated outstanding by Ofsted.
In Eastern Europe it has released thousands of children from inhumane treatment in orphanages - and is aiming to have all of them closed by 2020 - and established its own smaller institutions, where the children receive individual care. This week it announced a major diarrhoea vaccination treatment programme in Zambia, where the illness is the second-biggest killer of under-fives. For Busson, whose personal wealth is around £200 million, his Damascene moment came a decade ago, when he was setting up ARK. That first visit to a Romanian orphanage remains a vivid and deeply disturbing memory.
"The most heart-wrenching thing is the smell. The awful gagging," he recalls. "The institution was in a remote, poor region. But nothing prepares you for the moment you open the doors. That first woosh of fetid air. It is a mixture of excrement and infected wounds. Because they couldn't afford heating, the windows were never opened. The children were emaciated because they were never given solids, only soup. They were strapped in cots. In one room there must have been 40, all banging their heads on the walls. They were naked and filthy. My son, Arpad Flynn, was just three then [he's 13 now, while Aurelius Cy, Busson's second son with Macpherson, is eight] and the sight of those tiny children in such filth ... with no hope. Like zombies. It made me utterly furious.
"Poverty is one thing. This was abuse. Throwing money at this wouldn't have helped. It was the mentality of the care that had to change. We began getting them closed down and built smaller homes that take just eight or 10 children. The transformation when I returned nine months later was unbelievable. They were running around playing. And they were touchy, feeling. They loved getting attention."
The experience has, he says, affected how he brings up his own sons. "It is important to me that the boys are aware of these things. Both Elle and I have taught them that it is not where you come from that is important. That it is who you are. That they must respect others. As parents we agree on those sort of values. I see my boys about 10 days every month. And, yes, they are the most important people in my life."
Busson's own upbringing was somewhat unconventional. Swiss by birth, his father, Pascal Busson, was a French war hero who at one time ran Lehman Brothers bank in Paris. He was educated at Le Rosey school in Switzerland and completed national service in France, before moving to America, where he met mentor and former employer, the hedge funder and billionaire Paul Tudor Jones. In 1986 he set up his own company, EIM. His mother, who died three weeks ago, was Florence "Flockie" Harcourt-Smith, an English debutante.
The loss has affected him deeply. "That phone call [to tell you of her death] hits you hard," he admits. "To lose your last, remaining parent is the toughest thing. It is a very lonely thing. And there are always regrets. You think not of what you have done but the things you could have. It has affected me deeply and, to be honest, I found it hard to get into the spirit of organising the dinner. But my mother had always so admired ARK's work that I knew she would have wanted it to go ahead."
What drives him in his charity work is a social responsibility. "With wealth, one is in a position of responsibility," he insists. "You must try to help others. It is as simple as that. I am constantly amazed by the dedication of our health workers abroad. But they can't do it without money."
Neither does he buy into the "charity begins at home" argument. "Children, worldwide, are the one thing very dear to our hearts. As a rich nation, we have a responsibility to help them. That is our core philosophy. I have been revolted by the abuse I have seen. And ARK's one-off event each year is a way to change that."
Nor has he any guilt or embarrassment about his own wealth. "It is the means I have to help," he says simply.
Busson cites the American investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett as the person he most admires in business. But will he, like Buffett, give everything away in the end? “That will be a component of it — absolutely,” said Busson. “I have two sons and let’s see what they are capable of doing. Maybe they will go into business or art or maybe they will decide to become missionaries and help other people.”
There is little doubt which their father would prefer they chose.
The Sunday Telegraph, London and The Times