I'm enough of a workaholic to recognize another one, even if I have to do it from a long way off and by the back of his head. That's Eli Broad up ahead. The man who hates the b-word -- "billionaire" -- prefers the p-word, "philanthropist." With his wife, Edythe, he plays on a bigger board than a hundred average workaholics: in education, science, the arts and L.A.'s civic life. His foundation writes checks to charter schools, Teach for America, a zealous arts program that lends the Broads' collections to museums around the world. The lifted-eyebrow crowd finds fault with his unapologetic big-checkbook activism, but nobody can doubt that the Broads help circle L.A. on the cultural map. Around town, he's Eli, maybe because, like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, some people aren't sure how to pronounce his surname (it rhymes with "road"), and maybe because he's joined that exalted one-name pantheon. And, for a guy with so much on his plate, he's a pretty fair dancer. I know: I won a bet asking him to dance at the City Hall rededication seven years ago. (And hey, you guys still haven't paid up; you know who you are.)
Do you sometimes suspect that all L.A. nonprofits have a glass case on the wall and a sign that reads, "In case of financial emergency, break glass and call Eli Broad"?
I hope there are other phone numbers in addition to mine!
Do you get begging letters from ordinary peopleasking, "Please help me out"?
We get a lot of letters. ... They say, "Gee, I'm out of work, I can't make my mortgage payments, if you'll only lend me this much money." ... Some of these frankly are very sincere and honest letters, and others -- I think they've sent out 2,000 of them and just hope someone will send them something.
What was the first piece of art that really made an impression on you?
Our first important work was this little Van Gogh drawing -- thatched huts in Arles 1889; I forget the month. We didn't have the money to buy a great painting. Then we quickly moved into more modern and contemporary art, because we're interested in art of our time, which gave us a chance to meet the artist, find out what they thought about society. I didn't want to spend all my time just being with other businesspeople and bankers.
Do you still have the Van Gogh?
No. For conservation reasons, you had to put it in a drawer half the time, so after living with it for about 15 years, we were able to exchange it for a great Rauschenberg Red Painting of 1954.
Why is philanthropy so unforthcoming in L.A.? In New York, $1 million won't get your name on a toilet stall -- here it can practically get a building named after you.
People have not really learned to be philanthropic to the extent they have in other cities. It's the question of civic leadership -- and you've got another situation. The communities here are so diverse geographically and industry-wise. You don't have the cohesion that you've got in a place like New York.
Could you be the "Buffy" Chandler to make things happen?
I may be the example, but frankly, I don't think I've got the personality and/or the personal skills to get a huge number of people involved. I did a fair amount of that with Dick Riordan [for] the Disney Concert Hall by making the calls, saying it's not about a symphony but about the city. You need someone who's very social, who's loved by everyone and/or who has more power. Dorothy Chandler wasn't loved, but she had the L.A. Times, and people didn't want her to be angry. It was tougher to turn her down.
Why are you devoted to Los Angeles? Why are you spending your life and your fortune in this place?
Remember where I come from: a lower-middle-class family, born New York City, raised in Michigan. I came here 46 years ago. It's a meritocracy. I've done well here business-wise. I've been accepted at doing things with the civic world and the art world. I love the city. It suits me. I could live anywhere in the world I want. But Los Angeles is the place to live.
Your friend, Riordan, told the LA Weekly that whether you're hiking or in a museum, you only spend about 10 seconds looking at a great view or a great painting.
That's an exaggeration. I've seen enough art, and I've studied enough, I know the other work -- I don't have to spend 10, 15 minutes looking at a painting. But it's not 10 seconds. I can go through a museum in an hour, an hour and a half, depending on the size, and feel that I've got it.
What will our new economic realities mean?
It's not any longer simply about how much money you have, what your assets are worth. The happiest people I've found are in science. These people have three times the IQ -- maybe I'm exaggerating. They have a higher IQ than I do. They love what they're doing, they have a good family life, they're satisfied. People are going to take a look at how we define wealth, and not just in financial terms. They'll ask, what am I accomplishing? What am I going to leave behind? What am I doing with my kids? How am I going to help my community? I've not led a balanced life. If I had it to do over again, maybe I might lead a more balanced life. But then, I probably wouldn't have accomplished the things I have.
So this Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans -- do the guys on it jockey for a better spot?
I think people compete to be where they are on the list. Sometimes they exaggerate the wealth in an attempt to be higher up. In America, what you've accomplished financially is a measurement, whether you like it or not.
Will that change?
I think it should change. If you're up there, you become a guru, everyone wants advice. People find [that] ego-satisfying.
I've got a big ego, I admit it, I'm ego-driven. I want people to think well of what I'm doing; I want to feel good that I've accomplished something.
So what do you do to relax? I don't see you as the kind of guy who collects stamps.
I've got drawers full of 'em -- that goes back like 60 years.
Why not take it up again?
It's a question of priorities. [He opens his calendar to a week of board meetings, speaking engagements and travel.] If you looked at my calendar, you'd think I was insane at age 75. Frankly, I'm trying to get out of stuff.
Do you work harder than the president?
[Laughs.] No, the president works pretty hard. But he also does a pretty good job, I think, with his family.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of the conversations is online at latimes.com/pattasks.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times