THE SUNDAY PROFILE : The 'Model Millionaires' : The Nortons rode the computer revolution to a state of financial bliss. Then they decided it was time to play--with their kids, art and charities.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is a rare quiet day at the Santa Monica villa of computer software king Peter Norton and his wife, Eileen.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has recently come and gone, as have William Gray, head of the United Negro College Fund, a group of 800 looky-loos on a garden tour and the guests at a preschool fund raiser.

The Nortons are hanging out at the kitchen table. Their butler, who used to work for Malcolm Forbes, hovers discreetly.

"We're ordinary. We'd be living in Torrance with crabgrass if it weren't for a bit of luck," Peter offers, sipping a Snapple.

"We're average. He's a programmer. I'm an elementary school teacher. It's what happened to us that's unusual," chimes Eileen.

What happened is that Peter Norton became a living legend in the software world, turning a $30,000 investment into multiple millions through great timing and technological savvy. First he created Unerase, which allowed personal computer users to retrieve lost data. Then he invented the Norton Utilities program now employed by virtually all of mankind to solve a wide range of PC problems.

What happened next is perhaps even more amazing. In 1990, after seven years in business--and before his company had reached its growth potential--the couple called off "the money acquisition phase" of their lives.

He had not hit 50, she was not yet 40. Their two children weren't in kindergarten yet. Their wealth, estimated at between $200 million and $400 million, was not immense by computer-biz standards. (Microsoft's Bill Gates, for example, is a multibillionaire.) Still, the pair decided to stop working and start playing. And to find ways to repay society for their good fortune.

Nowadays, they share a passion for art (their private collection numbers 1,000 pieces), for philanthropy (they will donate $2 million this year) and--"this may sound sappy," Eileen warns--for each other.

"The Nortons are America's model millionaires," says David Ross, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. "If this country had even a few more like them, we'd be a better place."

Could his enthusiasm be colored by a Norton Family Foundation gift of $134,000--in 1993 alone--to the museum?

"Irrelevant," he says. "I've known them for years. They're warm, unpredictable, fearless. There's something wonderful and unusual about the fact that they act as a couple, that they do their philanthropy together. I get the feeling that as their children grow, they'll be engaged in it as well."

The foundation, set up in 1989 to benefit cultural and humanitarian causes, is "small potatoes" compared to those of America's wealthiest families, Peter says. On the other hand, it's more flexible than the big "belt and suspenders boards," helping the young, the new and the needy within hours or days. All either Norton has to say is "yes."

Curator Simon Watson sent out 50 applications last fall for funds to bring an exhibition on cross-dressing from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston to his alternative-space museum in New York. Only the Nortons answered in the affirmative.

"They have a world view," Watson says. "They like the new, the talented, the offbeat and the untried."

Joshua Decter, who asked the Nortons for $7,500 to continue publishing his New York-based alternative art journal, Acme, received the same response. "They came through, turning on a dime."

The couple also gives to larger art institutions and humanitarian causes. They sponsor admission-free Thursday nights at the Museum of Contemporary Art and last year gave to such groups as Big Sisters of Los Angeles, Coalition for Clean Air, Children of the Night, Dance Theater of Harlem, the Fund for a Free Africa and the Democratic Party, which received $100,000.

*

No one could have predicted that Eileen Harris and Peter Norton would ever meet.

"We tell people the story and they don't believe us," she says.

Peter and his two brothers grew up in Seattle in what he calls "a real white-bread, white-picket fence, Ozzie-and-Harriet type of family." His father was an insurance sales executive, his mother a homemaker. "There was no great art on the walls," Peter quips.

During summer vacations from Reed College in Portland, Ore., he worked for an actuarial firm, where he learned programming. "They showed me a new IBM 1620, threw the manual at me, and I took to it like a duck to water."

After college, he spent five years in a Zen monastery in Northern California ("Yes, I was a monk," he says, declining to elaborate) and took a series of conventional programming jobs. None lasted more than two years. "I get bored too easily," he says.

At 39, he was living in a small Venice apartment, working in Van Nuys and wondering how to meet Ms. Right. "I was seeking a black spouse," Norton says, "because I have always been attracted to black women. I find them gorgeous."

He decided to place a personal ad in the singles magazine Intro.

*

Eileen grew up in Watts, in a household with her divorced mother, two uncles and a grandfather. The men worked for the postal service, her mother was a retail salesclerk.

After Hamilton High School, she commuted from home to UCLA, where she earned her bachelor's degree. And to USC, where she earned her master's in bilingual education. And after that, to a series of teaching jobs in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"Most parents push their kids out of the house at one point or another. But not my family," Eileen says with a smile.

She dated--always African Americans--but had yet to meet anyone exciting.

"I was 29 years old, working at an elementary school where there was nobody to meet, and all my friends were having the same problem. I was beginning to wonder exactly what my options were."

Her mother urged her to listen to Dr. Toni Grant on the radio. The talk-show therapist mentioned the personal ads in Intro magazine.

"I bought a copy, said 'no way' and chucked it," Eileen says.

Six months later, she changed her mind.

*

Their ads ran in the same issue.

She noticed his, but didn't respond, preferring to see who would answer hers.

Three men responded. She met two, but nothing clicked. "And then there was Peter. . . ."

Their first date at a falafel place, now closed, in Westwood Village went so well that they crossed Westwood Boulevard to the Chatham restaurant, also now defunct, where they continued to eat and talk.

They dated again. And again.

In January, 1983, Peter purchased an IBM personal computer. He told Eileen that he wanted to quit his "nowhere job" and live off his modest savings while playing with the computer to see if he could "become independently employed."

He began by writing books and programs for the first PC owners. As mail orders started trickling in, he offered Eileen a job as his gofer. Bored with teaching, she agreed. Working in his Venice apartment, he wrote while she packed, labeled and mailed packages. "He was a terrible boss," she recalls. "You had to do things his way."

But they were in love, and the little business was growing.

They married on a Sunday morning, Nov. 27, 1983, at the Albertson Wedding Chapel on Wilshire at La Brea. Their families never mentioned the racial difference, Eileen says: "They were very happy for us."

*

Within five years, they had hit the financial big-time. And Peter was bored: "I had done programming for so long, I'd had my fill of it."

Entrepreneurship no longer titillated him. But what else does one do with wealth? Peter studied the matter.

"American wealth normally has three phases, which are usually lived out in three successive generations: making a fortune, using it, dissipating it," he says. "We wanted our life to encompass the first two phases."

The couple decided to spend the rest of their lives "indulging in the recreation of philanthropy."'

Norton merged his namesake firm with Symantec Corp. of Cupertino, receiving one-third of Symantec's stock, some of which he sold in the early '90s for prices varying between $20 and $47 per share. He still owns 1 million Symantec shares, and earns royalties for the use of his name and face on Norton products.

Long before they had any "real money," Eileen and Peter visited art galleries. ("What else does a couple do on a date?" she asks.)

Later, they focused their philanthropy on art because it was a shared interest and because they wanted to help local talents. "L.A. has some of the world's best young artists just starting careers. If no one buys . . . they have to stop making art and get another kind of day job," Peter says.

The Nortons, listed by Art News magazine among the world's top 200 collectors, still gallery-surf on Saturdays. "We have a one-vote policy," he explains. "If either one of us votes for (a piece), we buy it."

As a result, their high-ceilinged, 15,000-square-foot house (36 phones, 10 bedrooms, 13 baths, three playrooms, a kids' computer room . . . ) has scarcely a wall, table, mantel, niche or crevice unadorned by eye-popping, socially conscious art.

"I wouldn't necessarily call (the art) cutting edge . . . sometimes it's just out on the edge . . . period," says Robert Storr, curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Storr means that as a compliment, but some in the art world question the erratic quality of the Nortons' acquisitions--and suggest that their money has won them undue influence. "They're sincere and adventurous, but they have no defined taste," says one critic who requested anonymity. Another suggested that the couple has tried too hard and too fast to advance the careers of perhaps undeserving artists.

"That's ridiculous," counters Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. "Taste is for fashion designers and decorators, not art collectors. The Nortons are specialists in the area of emerging artists with strong political and social content."

The Nortons respond sensibly to criticism. For heaven's sake, the curmudgeonly Peter scoffs, he and Eileen are relative novices at all this. Isn't that the fun of it?

"I spent my life doing what I'm good at--computer science. It's more interesting to do what I'm not particularly good at, what I must struggle with and may even be incompetent at."

*

Although the Nortons own works by household-name artists (Chagall, Goya, Hockney), most of those pieces are in storage or on loan. Their penchant for the new and unusual is evident in the art they choose to live with. A quick reading of the computer printout itemizing their home collection reveals works fabricated with marijuana leaves, brown paper shopping bags, grease, hair, wire hangers, smoked cigarette butts, a bedpan filled with straw and eggs.

Alongside the spiral staircase, naked light bulbs dangle from a rope attached to a skylight 50 feet above. The piece, by artist and AIDS activist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is a family favorite, Peter says. "It looks whimsical, but it has to do with memory and loss, with having the bulbs burn out at different times. It's very much a metaphor for life."

Niches in a hallway contain colorful little sculptures of the Seven Dwarfs, prison bars in front of a painted blue sky and other visually entertaining pieces. Life-size deer peer out the library's French windows, their antlers wired to light up at night. A rug reads, "There are two things I need to watch for the rest of my life: My weight and my racism." And the dining room table is perpetually set with Lenox plates commemorating such people as Harriet Tubman, "for being willing to take even her husband's woman to freedom."

In the sun room, among objets d'art on the coffee table, a $5-million dollar check to the Internal Revenue Service is encased in a Lucite brick. "It was the largest check I ever wrote; whenever I write one for more than $1 million, I keep it around," Peter says.

"Do the kids ever mess with all this art?" a visitor asks the butler. "Never," he replies loftily.

As if on cue, little Michael, 5, enters, twirling dervishly. He promptly loses control of his toy baton, scoring a direct hit on a fragile sculpture.

"It's inevitable when there are kids around," Eileen says later with a shrug.

Fortunately, a staff member maintains the art. The Nortons have no idea how much of it is in the house on any given day. "It changes all the time," Eileen says. "When we're tired of looking at one thing, we replace it with something else."

And sometimes, one of their two full-time curators removes a work for repair or for an exhibition.

*

Unexpected art is one thing. Unexpected intruders, another. As she shows a guest around upstairs, Eileen opens a door and literally stumbles onto a crouching man who, it turns out, is fixing the elaborate phone system, which has gone kaflooey. (The system includes a home-to-office hot line used only by Eileen and Peter. "It's the boss," he says when it rings.)

"You scared the hell out of me," Eileen tells the phone man, hand on heart. Then, turning to her guest, says, "You see why this house is too big for us? I never know who's in it."

Both Nortons believe the house, bought in 1992, was a mistake. "It's great for displaying the art, and it sings when there are hundreds of people around. But there are only four of us--two adults and two kids. Who needs all this?" Eileen asks.

At her old house, she says, "I used to answer my own phone like a normal person. I can't do that here." Nor can she oversee the two maids, nanny and other occasional help to her satisfaction. "There are just too many."

In a later conversation, Eileen does confess it was she who wanted the big house. And it's not the only residence she has persuaded Peter to buy.

"We were walking on the beach at Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, and I saw this white Victorian that looked like a wedding cake. 'Oh, let's get it,' I said."

Peter reminded her that they had just bid on a much larger house in the same community. "Well, we got them both," Eileen says. "And it's a good thing. Because while the big one was being renovated, we had a place to stay." The truth, she confides, is that the little house, now designated for summer guests, is much more fun to live in than the big one.

Oak Bluffs is a summer community populated by some of East Coast's most successful and influential African American families.

"Let's face it," Eileen says. "Our children look more like me than they look like him. They are black. But here in Santa Monica, they're in a white environment.

"On the Vineyard, there are lots of black upper-middle-class families. The children get to see successful black people doing all the same things that successful white people do here. They see doctors, lawyers, bankers, artists. We want them to grow up knowing that black people are just as successful as whites, something they don't see around here. I mean, there is one other black child in Diana's class and none in Michael's."

The Nortons have chosen to live in such communities, they say, partly to protect Diana and Michael from the pain of racial intolerance.

The children's horse will be shipped to the Vineyard for the summer.

*

The business of maintaining and managing all this stuff is complex.

At first, the Nortons took care of it from their bedroom. When that became inadequate, Peter "studied up on the history of American wealth." He was drawn to the concept of the family office, which flourished in the 19th Century.

The Norton Family Office opened in the 1991, on the second floor of an elegant Santa Monica building. With a staff of 13 (including an executive director, the two curators, a bookkeeper who is also mayor of Santa Monica and various support personnel), it consolidates management of all the personal, philanthropic and professional activities.

On a typical day, Peter arrives there at about 8:30, after dropping his daughter off at a private school. Dressed for comfort in blue oxford-cloth shirt and chinos, he settles into a small office that offers a long view of the perpetual circus on the Third Street Promenade.

"I thought when I sold my business my time would be rather idle," he says. "That's why our offices are strategically placed across the street from not one, but two multiplex theaters, where I thought I would spend a substantial portion of my weekday afternoons.

"But the reality is that I work a solid day, and then half of the evening after my wife goes to sleep, dealing with what the French like to call affaires (business)."

A "demon correspondent," he sends out 10,000 pieces of mail annually to friends and associates, he says. Most are postcards featuring his "goofy pictures of the family." One shows the foursome in front of Air Force One, which they toured the day of the infamous presidential haircut.

In recent months, he has been traveling often as his ties on the East Coast grow stronger.

He is on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the California Institute of the Arts, both in Los Angeles. In New York, he serves on committees at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum, and is on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

*

Eileen drives their son to school each morning. Although she has "a huge closet and no budget constraints," she zips around town in white cotton T-shirts, pants, simple vests. "The kids wear Gap," she says.

She gardens, plays tennis, does yoga or works on her philanthropic projects until the children, 5 and 6, come home. Then she chauffeurs them to their activities--listed daily, along with hers, on a computer printout.

Her charitable work has become increasingly non-art-related. She is on the board of the Children's Defense Fund, in Washington, D.C, and masterminds a kind of think tank in Los Angeles called the Forum on Children's Issues.

It brings together experts from various disciplines to network on issues critical to children. In April, for example, a health-care forum at the Century Plaza hotel included Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund, L.A. Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, and a host of medical experts and other advocates. Eileen's staff of two Forum consultants also work out of the family office.

Ironically, Eileen and Peter see each other less now that he's not "working." And she admits she doesn't like it: "I tell him he's away too much, and the children notice the difference."

He says he understands. "For a surprisingly long time we were inseparable," he says. "We spent 22 hours a day, day after day, week after week, together."

*

What could go wrong with their grand life plan?

Nothing so far, Eileen says. They have wonderful friends--mostly the parents of their children's schoolmates--good health and more than enough things. Yet no life is ever totally placid, she adds. Aside from struggling to find the right spot, physically, in which to comfortably settle, there are niggling problems relating to social comfort.

"We open our house to so many fund-raisers, because we want to share it. That's what it's here for. We have also thrown many private parties. Hundreds of people have been invited to our homes over the years. I'm not taking notes or anything, but I can count on the fingers of my hands the number of people who have reciprocated.

"When you've invited so many people, and you never get an invitation for a drink or a cup of coffee, you realize something is amiss. I think it's because of me. I think if Peter had a blond, blue-eyed wife, he'd be inundated with invitations."

Peter says he's totally untroubled about the lack of invitations. In fact, he barely perceives a problem. "But then again, I'm white," he says with a grin, "which makes me less sensitive to these things."

"We are different from other people and we know it," Eileen says. "Not just different in our marriage, but in the whole way we approach the world. I guess it's difficult for us to find out exactly who our peers are."

That's understandable.

"They have few equals," says the Whitney's Ross. "Not because of their money, but because they live their lives in active gratitude."

Peter and Eileen Norton

First date: Chow at a falafel place, now defunct, in Westwood Village.

Married: Nov. 27, 1983, at the Albertson Wedding Chapel in Los Angeles.

Children: Two; Diana, 6, and Michael, 5.

Interests: Aiding young, new and/or needy artists, as well as myriad humanitarian causes.

Passions: Collecting art with an edge.

Peter Quoted:

* On being average: "I am not a genius. I'm not even gifted. I'm just your garden-variety smart person."

* On being a non-player: " Player is one of those pretentious terms that is used to invoke the idea of people who have power and can influence or manipulate things. It is not a word . . . I would aspire to have applied to me."

* On being restless: "If this were a cowboy movie, I'd be the drifter."

Eileen Quoted:

* On having a good deal of money: "It does not buy you happiness or health or inner peace. But it buys you the freedom to have things, like a wonderful garden."

* On opening their home for fund-raisers: "People say, 'Oh, you're so kind.' They say they could never have all those hundreds of people in their yard. . . . It just amazes Peter and me that people are so possessive of their . . . grass."

* On the meaning of life: "What it all comes down to is family. That's really the only thing of value anyone has."

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