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Giving Till It Hurts

Despite health and business troubles, arts donor Alberto Vilar insists he's made good on his philanthropic pledges

July 09, 2002|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Over English breakfast tea at the Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey, billionaire arts philanthropist Alberto Vilar announces his engagement to be married--sort of.

"There she is, Karen Painter," the 61-year-old divorce says proudly, his eyes lighting up as Painter, a Harvard musicology professor who recently conducted a music symposium at the 2002 Ojai Music Festival, approaches the table near the end of a Saturday morning meeting with Vilar. "She's my fiancee."

Congratulations are offered, followed by the question: Is this news?

There is a long pause--then Vilar modifies his statement just a little. He and Painter aren't quite engaged yet. "In fact, we've discussed engagement," he says. "The official date is coming very soon."

"We're secretly engaged," offers Painter helpfully.

"We're secretly engaged, but everybody knows," Vilar adds. "The official date is later in July."

The date for what--the wedding, the engagement, or the announcement of the engagement?

"The ring thing," Painter says, laughing.

For anyone else, the fine points of an engagement announcement might not seem so important. But it is just such is-it-on-or-not ambiguity that has led to trouble for Vilar, president and co-founder of New York's Amerindo Investment Advisors Inc., in another area of his life: his philanthropy. Vilar is believed to give more money to opera than any other donor in the world, and he is one of the top givers to the arts in general, as well. His gifts include a total of $33 million to New York's Metropolitan Opera, $10 million to Los Angeles Opera, and $50 million to Washington, D.C.'s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 11, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 21 inches; 763 words Type of Material: Correction
Zarzuela concert--A story in Tuesday's Calendar on arts philanthropist Alberto Vilar mistakenly reported the month when a zarzuela concert led by Placido Domingo took place. It was in January of this year.
*

But since late last year--when Vilar was laid up with medical problems and his company was laid low by the downturn in the stock market--rumors and press reports that he is not honoring his pledges to the arts have surfaced in the United States and Europe.

Such speculation has infuriated Vilar. Both he and his creditors say he has honored all of his formal agreements--but the lingering cloud of doubt leads this soft-spoken, self-described "stiff-upper-lip" executive to call journalism a "blood sport," and to politely suggest that his media critics "burn in hell by the gods who love the arts."

Vilar visited Los Angeles over the July 4 weekend to meet his fiancee's family and friends, but he also took the opportunity to lash out about the speculation.

As Vilar describes it, in the final months of 2002, reporters were not just looking a gift horse in the mouth; they were kicking said horse when he was in a hospital bed, recovering from a series of back surgeries and an emergency operation in late November for a perforated gall bladder.

"This is the first encounter in two years where I've left either my crutches or my cane," says Vilar, looking thin but healthy, sitting with elegantly erect posture in an overstuffed chair in the hotel lounge. "I am very lucky to be alive."

Vilar says that his health problems caused him to "miss a few payments" to five or six of the 25 or so organizations to which he donates funds, and added that financial troubles for Amerindo led him in some cases to exercise "skip-year" options written into his various multiyear arrangements. "My contracts have all sorts of provisions in them," he says.

Indeed, 2001 was not a good year for Vilar. Amerindo Investments Inc., a $5.5-billion company at the beginning of 2000, saw its assets fall to $1.6 billion by the end of last year.

His health also took a dramatic turn for the worse: Vilar, an avid skier, developed disc problems requiring four surgeries over the course of 16 months.

One of those operations took place Sept. 10, at New York's Columbia University Hospital. Vilar awoke the next morning just in time to watch the second plane hit the World Trade Center on the TV screen in his hospital room.

Vilar says that, due to the surgeries, he "could not travel for two years"--an observation that, like the announcement of his engagement, is relative. Reliant on cane and crutches, he managed to come to Los Angeles last December for "A Night of Zarzuela and Operetta With Placido Domingo and Friends," an event that Vilar underwrote. He also made it to Berlin last October and took a trip to Vienna on Nov. 27, to support an international medical program.

Vilar says he "started to feel funny" on the plane to Vienna but attributed his discomfort to indigestion from the previous day's Thanksgiving dinner. When symptoms persisted after the flight, Vilar contacted physicians in Vienna, and went in for surgery to remove his gall bladder the following day. Because the gall bladder had ruptured prior to surgery, Vilar suffered serious postoperative infections.

"For five days, they didn't know whether I would live or die," he says.

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