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'Saint Peter' : Gentle Software Genius Is Also a Benevolent Presence on the L.A. Art Scene

January 08, 1988|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

It's a personal computer user's worst nightmare: You accidentally delete an entire file containing your life's work and you're certain it has disappeared forever.

Then someone whips out the Norton Utilities, a software package whose centerpiece is UnErase, a program that brings zapped masterpieces back from the dead.

In a matter of minutes, you and the epic are saved.

That's why, when some people meet Peter Norton, they almost want to genuflect. Like the San Francisco journalist who gushed when they were introduced, "Last night, I met Rod Stewart at Morton's. But that was nothing compared to meeting you."

In all probability, Peter Norton blushed. The 43-year-old computing genius has amassed a multimillion-dollar personal fortune almost overnight through the sales of his software packages and books. He is perhaps the best-selling author in the field of personal computers. Everyone from the White House to the CIA to Fortune 500 companies are devoted users of his products.

Small wonder, then, that Norton has become known as the "Software Saint."

Now, he's well on his way to becoming a patron saint of the Los Angeles art community as well.

Last year, Norton and his wife, Eileen, pledged a third of a million dollars over three years to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art--enough to have a gallery named after them. Their donations to the little-known downtown Museum of Neon Art have put them on the board of directors and put Norton's name in neon on the museum's ceiling.

Non-Mainstream Groups

The Nortons' support of such non-mainstream arts organizations as the Mural Conservancy, the planned Santa Monica Art Museum and the Santa Monica Arts Commission have been crucial, by all accounts, to the groups' financial health.

And they donated two paintings to the traveling show "Hispanic Art in the United States" organized by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington.

"We try to find neglected causes. After all, we're not the Ford Foundation, which can give away millions," Norton explains. "Instead, we think, 'Where would $10,000 make a difference?' "

He pauses a moment, realizing that he's getting something in return. "If you're cynical about this stuff, you can say I'm buying my way into glory," he says. "And, to a certain extent, we do that. We are a little bit social-climbing. But it's a lot of fun."

Unlike many Southern Californians who suddenly come into money and immediately head to New York to buy internationally recognized artists, the couple have filled nearly all their 100-or-so-piece collection almost entirely with the works of homegrown painters and sculptors like Thermon Statom, Eric Orr, Robert Gil de Montes and Silvia Shap.

They invite the artists to dinner and to parties, visit their studios, commission special works, "and just generally get involved in their lives," Norton explains. "In a certain small way we're trying to husband the careers of a number of them."

"It's very commendable and very intelligent," says Santa Monica portrait artist Don Bachardy, a neighbor who is represented in the Nortons' collection.

"I hope this guy is the wave of the future," says muralist Kent Twitchell, who was commissioned by the Nortons recently to adorn the outside of their home with a 13-foot portrait of Bachardy. "He's like an up-and-coming benevolent factor within the L.A. art world."

Exactly why Norton has carved out a career of do-goodism seems to mystify him as much as it impresses others. Is Norton, a quintessential yup with his standard-issue gray BMW with the vanity license plate MRIBMPC, merely an early incarnation of what the news mags are already calling the trend towards altruism? "Obviously, I'm a little bit of a strange duck," he concedes.

More to the point, he's what you might call, well, . . .

" Oh ," he shudders. "The N-word. I fit into the classic nerd category."

With his washed-out blond looks, wimpy build and meek manner, Norton is well aware that he seems like a Central Casting version of a computer whiz, too stereotypical to be the real thing.

"I've tried to outgrow being intellectually withdrawn, something of a social misfit, the kind of kid who carries a slide rule--and I actually did. I can now talk about it with humor, but it was painful certainly then."

Pure Ozzie and Harriet

Born and raised in Seattle, Norton describes his upbringing as pure Ozzie and Harriet. His father was an insurance sales executive, his mother a housewife. "I had one brother so we were the perfect nuclear family. But in my family and in my neighborhood, I was a weird kid."

If personal computers had been around when he was a child, his best friends would have been IBM and Apple. Instead, he was a lonely kid and didn't come into contact with a computer until the early 1960s, when he was a mathematics and physics major at Reed College in Oregon. During a summer job at an insurance company, "Someone said, 'Here, boy, teach yourself how to work this machine,' " he recalls. "It was one of those love-at-first-sight things."

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