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Lady Gatsby

Denise Rich is known for great parties, hit songs, a whiff of scandal-and her yacht.

October 4, 2007
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Carlos Lippai

Jay Gatsby gave great parties, they say. Which isn’t the only thing being said about Denise Rich, but the resemblance to the F. Scott Fitzgerald character is strong in more ways than one. To some, Mrs. Rich is a creative and loving force, a singer and devoted mother who maintains a global salon where the threads of politics, glamour, the arts, beauty and, of course, money weave a tapestry that could hang on a castle wall one day-or in the saloon of her superyacht, Lady Joy.

To others, she is the instrument of the second-most infamous moment in Bill Clinton’s presidency, the eleventh-hour pardon of her tax-fugitive ex-husband, Marc Rich, who had been on the run for 17 years. Buying a $1 million “get out of jail free” card isn’t quite the same as throwing a World Series, which is what Gatsby’s shadowy mentor was accused of, but Denise does get major chutzpah points. If published accounts are true, she was staying at the White House on Clinton’s last night in office when her ex-husband’s pardon was presented and signed. A successful singer and songwriter in her own right, Denise then declined to sing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pleading the Fifth Amendment.

Rich has moved on since that January night in 2001. Right now she’s talking to me while the stylists are hovering, dabbing and spritzing, for her appearance on the Montel Williams Show. There she’ll promote her G&P Foundation for Cancer Research as well as Project Come Together Now, the title of the song she co-wrote with Sharon Stone to aid the 2004 tsunami victims. Tonight there’s a party at her New York apartment to celebrate John Legend’s Grammy nominations. Among the boldface names present will be Wafah Dufour, a singer who recently changed her last name from Bin Laden.

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“I think it’s important to be able to bring people together from different walks of life,” Rich says. “People often don’t get a chance to know each other, so I put together social people and music people and artists.”

The party will swing, but Rich wishes it could float. “Boats make people relax better. You don’t need to do anything, you chill out and relax. The past summer on Lady Joy was really fun: Mike Tyson came aboard with TV explorer Geoffrey Green, who had his boat, Summer Wind, anchored nearby. That was really fun, because Diddy was there, Sean Paul, then Paul Allen came on with a group, and Donna de Cruz was deejaying…”

Tomorrow, Denise Rich flies down to St. Bart’s to rejoin her 145-foot Diaship-Heesen. “My family loves it. It’s a chance for them to unwind, it’s great bonding time. Nobody’s in a rush, you just sit around, enjoy the sea. I love being at the mercy of the weather, so that’s why I’ll go on longer crossings sometimes. On Lady Joy we make a commitment to be together. And the unpredictability of the ocean means you can’t plan everything. Sometimes it’s fun when things change. It gives you a chance to bond.”

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Bonding is key to a mother whose G&P Foundation honors the memory of a daughter, Gabrielle, who died from leukemia at age 27. To entertain her surviving two daughters and their families, and all her many friends, Rich sees that Lady Joy lives up to her name. “We love to decorate, love to do balloons, colored lights-I plan all kinds of things with the different people who work with me on my charities. We know the caterers and shops we can work with who are really special. It’s a floating feast.”

Rich gives a great deal of credit for the Lady Joy’s positive buoyancy to her captain, Carol Bembrook. “I have a wonderful captain and admire her a lot. I think it’s great that she’s done so much with her life.”

Buying a yacht, and hiring a captain, was an easy transition for Rich. “I had chartered so many boats for over 50 years, so when I finally bought my own I knew what I wanted: open space. Space for everyone. We have four decks, so everyone has a chance to be outside.” When it came to the interiors, Rich stayed in the casual groove. “I wanted indoor areas that were cozy, fun, not too over-decorated. I didn’t want people to feel intimidated.”

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In truth, Rich had given a lot of thought to intimidation, and not just from facing down a table full of red-faced U.S. Senators. “At sea, it’s sort of like a man’s world,” she says. And with some male charter captains over the years, she had felt a certain attitude. “You could sense the withholding of control and power. Not with all of them, just some. Sometimes they limited you.” Her voice deepens into a masculine cariacature: “‘No, you can’t go to Greece, you can’t do that crossing. No, you can’t go from Cannes to Monte Carlo tonight.’ You never knew whether it wasn’t safe or whether they just didn’t want to.”

A captain of a boat she chartered in Italy was the final straw. “I had gone to the Aeolian Islands near Stromboli and the captain was being so difficult. I won’t mention any names, but he wouldn’t move the yacht around. He had parked us on the wrong side of the volcano, which was erupting, and he wouldn’t move it 200 meters to see the volcano. I was furious. I thought, That’s it-I’m getting my own boat!”

Now, with Bembrook as captain, and Bembrook’s husband as engineer, Rich knows that any decisions at sea are being made without hidden agendas.

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In a way, buying a yacht is a continuation of what she’s learned about two other machines of complexity and power-music and politics. Those machines have also been kind to Denise Rich, probably because she knows the ropes-as Joni Mitchell put it-“of the star-making machinery behind the popular songs.” As she knew the ropes of the pardon-making machinery behind the Clinton White House. And, before that, the fortune-making machinery that took Denise Rich from Worcester, Mass., and made her mistress of Lady Joy-not by marrying a billionaire, which would be the shortest route, but through her own ambition, talent and, yes, marriage to an equally driven Marc Rich when he was just another kid like her.

Born Denise Eisenberg, the young fan of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan had married the young securities whiz and had a trio of daughters. Though it is said Denise’s family helped Marc get his start, he soon was flying high-too high for the Internal Revenue Service. In 1983, Marc was indicted in federal court for evading more than $48 million in taxes and charged with 51 counts of tax fraud, including illegal oil deals with Iran during the hostage crisis. Although represented by future Vice Presidential Chief of Staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Marc fled to Switzerland-and turned Denise Rich into a woman of art and mystery on the high seas.

With her marriage on the rocks, Denise turned to music for solace. “I first started writing songs while living in Europe. I wanted to communicate through music, it was easier than speaking to people.” She entered a songwriting contest she had read about in a magazine and the young mother won a prize. Already a cosmopolitan from years of living in Spain and England, she quickly became a chart-topper as a performer and writer. She wrote songs crafted to be sung by lovelorn vixens (Jessica Simpson, Celine Dion), Latin crooners (Marc Anthony, aka Mr. J-Lo), soul divas in the seventh-inning stretch of their careers (Patti LaBelle, Chaka Kahn, Diana Ross, Aretha).

Which provokes the haters, as 50 Cent might say. They hate her proximity to power and her apparent willingness and skill in using it. Of course, people with the ability to conjure money and political leverage are always magnets of envy. They also tend to love yachts. Taken in sum, her career more resembles that of a Kay Graham or Pamela Harrington, women who were famous for their ability to time the tides of both marriage and politics to their advantage, creating careers that spanned epochs and navigating successfully the shoals of celebrity and scandal.

But even this is not a good analogy, not quite deep enough, because of that whiff of scandal, blended with an air of mystery-a persona that is both public and private and always, it seems, in control. No, the person she most resembles is a fictional creation, a self-made myth, which is about as American as you can get.

Jay Gatsby-that’s who. Gatsby, who swam ashore from a yacht in Chicago and reinvented himself. Gatsby the party-giver, the lover. Gatsby, who famously never figured out how boats beat back the current of time, and ended up losing both his love and his life. Not so Denise Rich. The lady not only left the shady financier, she got him his pardon while making good her escape. Which might lead to this Fitzgeraldian bon mot: Never underestimate a woman who owns a superyacht.

Rich Party Tips

Lady Joy can be chartered for $150,000 a week in the Mediterranean during summer season. She can be booked by any charter broker. As for entertaining, here are a few of Denise Rich’s tips.

A GOOD MIXTURE OF PEOPLE IS IMPORTANT: I try to have 80 percent who know each other, and 20 percent who don’t. People feel comfortable at that ratio. I like mixing up people from all walks of life. Then, there must be music. Great music. Last year Donna de Cruz deejayed, and it was just great.

FOOD IS VERY IMPORTANT: You don’t want people drinking on empty stomachs, then you get problems. Great food. Tropical drinks. Margaritas. Champagne. Yachts and champagne.

DO BALLOONS, colored lights, all kinds of things.

ANCHOR OUT: When at Cannes, I personally like docking out around Cap Ferrat, then you can waterski, swim, Jet Ski, whatever. Then go in by tender. And you miss all that craziness. You’re going to be seen anyway.

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