André Balazs: The king of America

From his New York estate, André Balazs controls one of the world's swankiest hotel empires. He's rich, he's handsome - and his girlfriend is Uma Thurman. Is this really the man who has everything?
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André Balazs is up on the roof when I arrive at the country pile he recently bought with his girlfriend, the actress Uma Thurman, on the Hudson River about two hours north of New York City. He yells down a greeting and a few moments later he is at the front door. I glimpse a luminous hallway and beyond it, through French windows, a swimming pool and wide lawns. But first we have the grounds to inspect.

This is a slightly different Balazs to the one I met a couple of weeks ago over Camparis in the lobby of his flagship hotel, The Mercer, in the SoHo district of Manhattan. His hair is mildly dishevelled - he was on the roof with his resident handyman to discuss repairs - and a section of frayed lining is peeking from the back of his country squire jacket. Somewhere in the course of exploring the estate, The Locusts, we even manage to mislay his pet Chihuahua, Gilles. (The handyman retrieves the lost pooch a little later.)

He and Uma bought this sprawling place on a whim. They were at a weekend auction of its contents 18 months ago, when someone whispered that the whole estate, previously owned by the Astor family and most recently by Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse, might be for sale. Balazs called his banker on Sunday and by Monday he had an offer on the table. Within weeks, The Locusts, including the house, scores of farm buildings, cottages, ruined greenhouses and 55 acres of land, was his.

Impulse plays some role in the trajectory of every successful tycoon. Meet Balazs, 49, in any other setting, however - our third encounter will be in his book-lined office in the Puck Building in SoHo - and you will see something very different. The owner not just of the Mercer but of a string of some of the most aesthetically thrilling hotels in America, including three Standard hotels in Los Angeles and Miami as well as the venerable Raleigh on South Beach and the Chateau Marmont, the favourite of generations of misbehaving celebrities, on Sunset Boulevard, he is a man whose every business move - whether choosing a new site to develop or a towel-rail design - comes only after exhaustive calculation and calibration.

"You can't just knock these things off," he says flatly, at last settled into an armchair in the main house at The Locusts after our hour-long walk exploring the abandoned barns, walled gardens and milking parlours of what was once a huge working farm. "You have to settle on the right product." The right products have so far included not just the hotels, all of which have become must-stays for America's most discerning scenesters and sophisticates, but also two residential buildings in New York, the second of which, by the French architect Jean Nouvel, will be ready for residents in a couple of months. He has just broken ground on a third apartment building in the Wall Street neighbourhood and meanwhile has put in a bid for a building on Savile Row in London that he hopes will be his first hotel outside the States.

Inside The Locusts house, a more familiar Balazs reemerges - the impeccable man-about-town with Prada fashion taste, disarming good looks and, of course, a public image boosted by his association with a film actress whose beauty in person surpasses even what you see on the screen. Even though his own improvements to the place - such as the dazzling kitchen floor in tiny trapezoid, white and caramel ceramic tiles are only half done - it is already the sexiest private home you are ever likely to visit, with languorous curved walls and views to the Hudson, which here turns a wide bend and resembles a lake more than a river. Before we talk, he suggests a drink. I have done my research and agree to a glass of rosé. I know in advance he will bring out a bottle of spectacular Domaine Ott from Provence, famously his favourite label.

In spite of his French-sounding name, Balazs is the son of Hungarian immigrants who fled first to Sweden during the Second World War before eventually settling in Cambridge, Massachussetts, where his father taught at Harvard Medical School. After reading humanities at Cornell University, he went on to take a joint business and journalism post-graduate course at Columbia University in New York. Instead of pursuing journalism, however, the young Balazs joined his father in founding a successful biotech company called Biomatrix, based in New Jersey. Drawn to the faster pace of Manhattan, he moved to SoHo in 1984, at that time still a mostly raw neighbourhood of cast-iron manufacturing buildings that had nothing to do with the frenzied hub of fashion outlets and high-end restaurants that it has become today.

Balazs, who was previously married to Katie Ford, founder of the Ford Modeling Agency, with whom he has two daughters, stumbled into his hospitality-impresario life when a friend invited him to become an investor in a now defunct Manhattan nightclub named MK. From there he progressed to restaurants and eventually discovered the greater challenge of hotels with his acquisition in 1990 of the Chateau Marmont. While the guardian of rich Hollywood lore - Jean Harlow slept with Clark Gable in one of its suites and Greta Garbo was once a long-term resident as was John Belushi before he killed himself in one of its private bungalows - the massive faux-European castle had fallen into sad disrepair.

People go to clubs and restaurants for a couple of hours or so, but the experiences of guests in a hotel can last 24 hours or more and, Balazs explains, can range "from the deeply personal moments, to the public moments, the business moments and the friendship moments. It means trying to provide every kind of nuanced space and thinking about how to provide the best environments for each of those activities to unfold. That's what fascinates me. It is not just allowing them to unfold but stimulating their unfolding."

The Marmont has been overhauled from top to bottom and new improvements are made every year. But Balazs believes that the soul of what it once was is intact. "Now people go in and say, 'Oh, isn't this amazing, isn't it a genius thing that they've kept it all?' But frankly there isn't a surface there that is original. A lot of it is creating a fantasy that everything feels just authentic and just right."

But it was arguably the 75-room Mercer, purchased as a vacant warehouse, which established Balazs' reputation as one of the industry's most admired taste-makers. Rupert Murdoch and Calvin Klein both lived in the hotel for extended periods. Settle in its lobby still today, with its understated living room-library atmosphere, and you will surely spy if not film stars (this is where Russell Crowe recently got into trouble hurling a telephone at a front-desk employee) then at least leaders of the fashion and entertainment worlds. Like Ian Schrager, who we can blame for spawning the awful "Boutique Hotel" moniker after his serial collaborations with the minimalist-chic French designer Philippe Starck, Balazs creates hotels that are everything the chain hotels - the Hyatts and Marriotts - are not.

What is common to every Balazs property, at least, is a sense of whimsy and overt sexiness. In one hotel you will find showers with glass on all sides visible to the bedroom. Another has bathrooms complete with a large sculpture of a foot in black foam rubber. Yet Balazs rarely repeats himself. He strives, he says, to imbue each project with something that speaks either to the locale or to the history of the building itself, if it isn't new. What seems like a gimmick in the Standard Hotel on Sunset in West Hollywood - a scantily clad model prone in a vitrine behind the front desk - is actually meant to pay homage to a time when the neighbourhood was the territory of street-walkers and voyeurs. Construction is under way today on a New York Standard in the Meatpacking District, a neighbourhood distinguished in part by an abandoned and elevated freight railway called the Hi-Line that the city has promised to grass over and turn into a kind of park in the sky. The Hi-Line will run directly through the hotel lobby.

"One of the few luxuries left is travel," he explains. "And the aspect of travel that is luxurious is not the movement, but the being there. So I think that one of the things that most matters and will matter increasingly is that when you are in some place you actually feel like you are there, that the 'there' is very different from whence you came. When you're in London, you should feel like you're in London. That unleashes a whole creative process. There should be no confusion whatever between London and New York or even between SoHo and Wall Street. What has been fun for me about this is that we have always looked at this as not just what city or what neighbourhood you're in, but even what building."

It is not unimpressive that when the apartments were put on sale for 40 Mercer, the Jean Nouvel building, almost every one sold within days (two remain available) without Balazs spending a dollar on advertising. Some of the units ran to $15m. He has never pretended to have mass-market appeal, but apparently there is a large enough following out there that trusts him to deliver products of quality and superior design. They like the fact, in other words, that his name is attached to them. "I don't think it ever does any harm in any business to feel that there is someone there who cares about it. If you look at any business, fashion being the most obvious, the aura, or the reality of the designer, is part of what creates it. It's true in luxury goods stores and in good food stores. It leaves a palpable sense that someone cares."

He says he achieves that sense of care in a number of ways. First, Balazs has control of each project from inception all the way to completion - and beyond in the case of hotels which must then be managed. Much more usually, a developer will erect a hotel structure and then deliver it to a different firm to manage it. There is no continuity in the creative process. In a way, he says, he is like an old-time Hollywood boss looking for the next big hit. "The dream emanates from me but how to articulate the dream is big collaboration. I liken the production of a great residence or a great hotel to how a film used to be made. In the old days the studio head would think up a story, hire a writer to write it up, hire a director to direct the thing, hire the lighting and set designers and then the actors. The look and feel depends on how you assemble the team." And he is obsessive about every detail. A bathroom wall must be the right size to take the tiles he has chosen, so none of them has to be cut. That would spoil everything.

Both the Nouvel building and another recently completed residential building in SoHo, One Kenmare Square, were originally conceived as hotels but Balazs reconfigured them into apartments after banks suddenly went cold on tourism after the 9/11 terror attacks. The third will be William Beaver House, the first new from-the-ground-up luxury residential tower in the financial district near Wall Street. At a third meeting, this time in his Puck Building office, Balazs does his pitch about the project, which will offer more than 300 apartments to buyers with $2m or so to spare. Partly, he says, it has to with the neighbourhood, which, he says, reminds him of SoHo 20 years ago. "It looks like a film set down there. But it's real and it has a grit. For those of us who like urbanness there is nothing like it."

Balazs is also hoping to make a virtue out of the slightly abandoned feel that falls over Lower Manhattan at nights and at weekends when the financial workers have all gone. He has built into William Beaver an array of public spaces, from a 24-hour restaurant, to be overseen by Giorgio Deluca of Dean & Deluca fame, to a screening room and night club, spa areas, squash court, small dog park and even a Jacuzzi with a glass bottom directly above the main entrance. He agrees that once the place is ready in 2008 it will offer almost as many leisure opportunities as a cruise ship. When I suggest that all that is missing is an ice rink, he cries, "Damn it. You don't mind if I take that idea do you?" (I don't actually flatter myself that he hadn't thought of this before. But if he thus wants to flatter me, I won't object.)

Spas are another theme of nearly every Balazs property. He admits to having formed a fascination for public bathing spaces ever since he spent two years as an adolescent in Sweden. In New York, he has regularly patronised the rather gnarly Russian Baths on East 10th Street, a throwback to the times when there were public bathhouses all over Lower Manhattan. The newest of his Standard hotels located in South Beach, not far from the Raleigh, is as much a spa as it is a hotel. Even the other recent addition to his hotel collection, the budget QT hotel just off Times Square, which offers anyone under 25 a 25 per cent discount, boasts a window behind the front desk that spies directly into the sleek swimming pool inside. Meanwhile, he confesses to a slightly more long-term ambition of opening a hotel in Budapest, the capital city of his parental land, which will incorporate spa and massage facilities to compete with the city's fabled Hotel Gellert with its sprawling, if sadly decrepit, complex of subterranean baths.

Much more on his mind this afternoon, however, are his hopes for London. It has been just three weeks since Balazs and the property developer Anton Bilton submitted a bid worth £100m for Fortress House, one of the first landmark buildings of postwar London on Savile Row in Mayfair. Recently vacated by its long-time tenant English Heritage, it is owned by the insurance giant Legal & General. At the time of our meeting, Balazs has yet to hear back from L&G, however, and he is worried that their real intention may be to demolish the 1950 building and redevelop the site. But if their bid is accepted, Balazs plans to turn Fortress House into one of London's most luxurious hotels, with 80 rooms. "I deeply hope this comes through," he says. "But if not we are in full hunt to do something in London."

Britain has had its own boom in high-designed, high-end hotels over recent years. But if Balazs wants to join the fun with his own brand of lux-cool, why would anyone complain? And that way, if she can tear herself away from her new idyll at The Locusts, we would see more of Uma too.