Maybe you can be too rich.
Four years ago, Alexander Soros, the son of the billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros, made an unwitting public debut when Cityfile, a digital who’s who of New York society, dredged up party photos from his Facebook page. They showed the 22-year-old heir “chilling at dad’s house in Southampton, drinking 40s while cruising on the family boat, and making out with the babes.”
It was an embarrassment within the family, but also a lesson. “My mom was like, ‘Welcome to being a Soros,’ ” he recalled.
Right now, the name Alex Soros is popping up again in gossip columns. But this time, Mr. Soros welcomes the publicity.
He made his official debut on the New York social circuit earlier this month when he was a host of his first major party, for Global Witness, the swashbuckling British organization known for exposing Africa’s “blood diamond” trade.
Mr. Soros, looking dapper, if vaguely “Fantasy Island,” in a white Yves Saint Laurent suit, presided over some 340 revelers at a masquerade gala in Bridgehampton, N.Y. The actors Jeffrey Wright and Alex Karpovsky (“Girls”) were there, along with fashion designers like Johan Lindeberg. Mr. Soros and his co-host, the film director Edward Zwick, displayed a knack for publicity by pulling MC Hammer out of mothballs to perform.
But Mr. Soros was the real star of the show. He scored the laugh line of the night when he auctioned off a membership to Sitaras Fitness, the Manhattan gym where he and his father work out. “See my dad in shorts,” he deadpanned, as his father smiled from a front table.
After wrestling with his moneyed upbringing, Mr. Soros, now 26, is taking the stage on his own terms, though in a direction his father clearly approves: philanthropy. Last fall, while pursing his Ph.D. in history at Berkeley, the younger Mr. Soros started the Alexander Soros Foundation. Its stated mission is to promote social justice and human rights.
He has inherited his father’s outspoken streak, but also the platinum contacts culled over a lifetime of privilege, not to mention his slice of his father’s estimated $22 billion fortune, to direct as he pleases.
“I have the incentive of failing my own reputation,” he said. “If I don’t succeed, then I’m just another deadbeat lazy trust-fund kid.”
Alex Soros spent his youth padding around a Charles A. Platt-designed 14-room house on a sprawling country estate in Katonah, N.Y. His mother, Susan Weber Soros, now divorced from his father, founded the Bard Graduate Center for the decorative arts and adorned the house with Sargents and Cassatts. Their place in the city was a duplex at 1060 Fifth Avenue.
While his parents worked, he spent much of his time with his younger brother, Gregory, now 23 and pursuing a career as an artist; his nanny, Ping, from China; and the staff. (He also has three older half-siblings from Mr. Soros’s first marriage, but they were college-age or older when he was a toddler. One of them, Jonathan Soros, recently made headlines when he started a super PAC, called Friends of Democracy, to challenge lawmakers who oppose campaign finance reform.)
Mr. Soros was acutely aware that he lived in a privileged bubble, and sometimes dreamed of living in a subdivision, where he could play football in the street with other boys. “As a kid, all you want to be is normal,” he said. “When all you’re being fed is vichyssoise, you want to eat Big Macs like everyone else.”
Even when his father was off in Budapest or Johannesburg, his presence loomed large. George Soros, a Hungarian Jew, survived the Holocaust in hiding and went on to become a legend as an investor. He is seventh on Forbes’s list of richest Americans.
“The war shaped who he is, it made him the businessman he is, because he is able to divorce his feelings from a lot of passion, which I think is important for business,” the younger Soros said. “But it took him awhile to come around and open up emotionally with his family.”
His father, he added, encouraged his children to forge their own lives from an early age, a message that Alex sometimes resented. “I was very angry at him, I felt unwanted,” he said. “He had a very hard time communicating love, and he was never really around.”
Prone to introspection and self-questioning, Alex dove deep within himself to come to terms with his surreal life. When times got tough, he looked to Nietzsche for life lessons. Or he took a more typical New York approach. “Growing up on the Upper East Side, going to a psychologist is like going to Hebrew school,” he said. “It’s expected.”
But he did savor some perks. His father would invite him to sit in on conversations with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bono. In sixth grade, he remembers sitting rapt as Nelson Mandela recounted his experiences in prison.
In his teens, he began to forge a bond with his father, who tutored him in Latin and debated Marx with him. “He said I was an inquiring mind,” Alex recalled with pride.
After King Low Heywood Thomas, a prep school in Stamford, Conn., he attended New York University, where he tried to come to grips with expectations that came with his last name. For a period, he brooded, and gained weight.
“Alex sought anonymity,” said Adam Braun, a former roommate. “He wanted to be known as the intellectual, not the son of the financier.” Alex hated small talk, Mr. Braun added, and he would ditch parties early to go home and curl up with his Baudrillard.
The friends he had were a diverse group, few of them plucked from the children-of-zillionaires set (although he does count Alan Tisch, a scion of the Tisch family, and Alexander Boies, son of David Boies, the power lawyer, as friends).
But after graduation, he came out of his shell and started to socialize. He made new friends, some of whom were nightclub habitués looking to trade on his name, he said.
It was around that time that the Facebook pictures popped up. He was shocked to be portrayed as another helium-weight Hamptons party boy swilling away his trust fund. “I became this caricature,” he said.
He decided to show the world he was a worthy Soros. Since there was no point in going out to make more money, he turned his attention to graduate school, and philanthropy.
As a Soros, he enters the field a known quantity. His father has donated an estimated $8 billion to various causes. The older Soros’s Open Society Foundations promote democracy, human rights and freedom of speech, with initiatives in 60 countries. In 2003, he joked that he would donate his entire fortune if it would guarantee George W. Bush’s defeat.
Last year, Alex joined the Open Society board. It has certainly brought father and son closer. “There was always affection there, it was just him not being able to show it,” Alex said.
George Soros, now 81, seems approving. “I am very pleased that Alex has taken a serious interest in philanthropy,” he said through a spokesman. “He is playing a constructive role within the Open Society Foundations, but he is also striking out on his own.” (He declined further comment about family matters.)
With Open Society, Alex Soros “sees himself in an observing and learning mode” so far, said Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, who is also on the board. “He’s careful with his interventions, and is an extremely intent listener.” But, Dr. Botstein added, “he’s not loath to contradict his father, which is very hard to do.”
Like Open Society, the Alex Soros Foundation is a single-donor enterprise financed by family money that he controls. “Money doesn’t give you happiness, it gives you freedom,” he said. Freedom in this case means championing causes he has a personal connection to, but aren’t necessarily “sexy,” like the plight of domestic workers in the United States — a nod to Ping, his former nanny, he said.
Like his father, he also spends freely on liberal causes. He is an avid supporter of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice. In April, he wrote a $200,000 check to a Jewish super PAC responsible for the Great Schlep, a campaign to draw older voters in Florida to the Obama camp.
“I detest the idea that money is speech, but if the other side is going to do it, you have to do it,” he said.
While he gives generously to a variety of causes, he rolls his eyes at the notion that charity is a way for rich people to buy a secular form of sainthood.
“I actually don’t hold philanthropy in such high esteem,” Mr. Soros said. “I think it’s easy. People get too much credit for being philanthropically involved.”
These days, he divides the bulk of his time between Berkeley and New York. Alex admits that his lifestyle is wildly at odds with that of most graduate students.
He has a house in North Berkeley, a two-bedroom apartment near Astor Place in Manhattan and a place in South Kensington, London. He collects art by Otto Dix and George Grosz, and has “a couple of Magrittes,” he said.
He has also given up on the idea that he can escape public scrutiny. His trip to Florianópolis, a Brazilian island getaway, with buddies a couple of years ago somehow landed on Page Six, which had him partying alongside the actor Stephen Dorff (“I’ve never even met Stephen Dorff,” he said).
“I live well,” he said. “I try to stay reasonable, but it’s very hard to say what is reasonable. There’s not a how-to book. In a way, if you try to live quote-unquote normal, you’re being disingenuous.”