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December 11, 2008

The Billionaire's Black Sheep

What's it like when your grandpa is the richest man in the world? For Nicole Buffett, it means forgoing cable TV and health insurance and making do on $40,000 a year. Here, she dishes on her upbringing and why her grandfather Warren Buffett disowned her.

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nicole buffet in her art studio

Photo Credit: Brigitte Sire

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Nicole Buffett is at home among the neo-hippies who shuffle along the laid-back, tree-lined streets of Berkeley, CA. At an elfin 5 feet tall, clad in a flowing peasant dress and sandals adorned with peace signs, her long hair cascading in ropy dreadlocks to her waist, the 32-year-old abstract painter is just another of the city's free-thinking, granola-crunching denizens. And yet, she's a walking oddity. "The first thing most people think of when they hear my last name is money," she laughs.

Not just money — gobs of it. Nicole Buffett's grandfather is the legendary investor Warren Buffett, whose $58 billion fortune made him the richest man on the planet, a mantle he seized from Bill Gates last fall. So deep are Buffett's pockets that when the financial markets cratered in September, the so-called Oracle of Omaha single-handedly buoyed Wall Street (at least for a day) by plunking down $5 billion on troubled investment bank Goldman Sachs. ("Canonize Warren Buffett," cried one headline on CNBC's Website.) But there's a bitter irony to Buffett's beneficence. Wall Street's white knight is also an unforgiving hardhead when it comes to his own granddaughter, whom he cut off two years ago after a falling-out. "For him to discard me like that was devastating," Nicole says matter-of-factly. "It permanently divided our family."

When Nicole was 4, her singer-songwriter mother married Warren Buffett's youngest child, Peter, a composer for commercials and films. He later adopted Nicole and her identical twin sister, who were embraced as kin by the larger Buffett family — especially Susan, Warren's first wife, an avid music lover and cabaret performer. "A lot of people don't realize that my family is full of artists," says Nicole. (Susan Buffett, who died in 2004, was an early buyer of Nicole's art and named Nicole one of "my adored grandchildren" in her will.)

As a child, Nicole made regular visits to "Grandpa's" modest home in Omaha, where he still lives, purchased in 1958 for $31,500. Despite the humble digs, Nicole remembers the occasional spoils of Buffett's wealth. At Christmas, when she was 5, he gave her a crisp $100 bill from his wallet. Once, she was invited on a private tour of the See's Candies factory he owned. And twice yearly, Peter Buffett packed up his brood for a vacation at his father's compound in Laguna Beach. Nicole also remembers once tiptoeing into her grandfather's study to fetch something, careful not to disturb him while he read the Wall Street Journal. Just as she turned to slip out, Buffett cleared his throat and said, "Nicole, I just want you to know that your grandmother and I are very proud of all that you've accomplished as an artist." "It's a really big deal for him to communicate on such an emotional level," says Nicole, her eyes welling. "So it was a big deal for me."

Nicole was clueless about the scope of the Buffett fortune until she was 17, when her grandfather appeared on the cover of Forbes for having topped the magazine's annual list of the richest Americans. Her classmates nearly stampeded her at school with the news. "I called my dad, and he said, 'Yeah, Grandpa is going to be getting a lot more press, and we're going to have to get used to that. But we'll be living our lives the same way and doing what we always do,'" Nicole says.

In fact, the national media debut only intensified Buffett's efforts to preserve his unaffected lifestyle. Aware of the unfairness of what he calls "the ovarian lottery," Buffett made clear to the family that there'd be no handouts. "For most people, your life is largely determined by the wealth you were — or weren't — born into," Nicole explains. "But our family was supposed to be a meritocracy." That philosophy translated into a near-fanatical devotion to living like regular Joes. Buffett's kids went to public schools and, when they were old enough to drive, shared the family car. "You wouldn't guess it, but I grew up in a household with my parents saying, 'If you're fortunate enough to find something you love, then do it,'" says Peter Buffett.

Committed to instilling those homespun values in his grandkids, Buffett agreed to pay for their college educations — and nothing more. He picked up the six-figure tab for Nicole's art school tuition. Once, Nicole called her grandfather's office to ask if he'd help her buy a futon when she moved to an off-campus apartment. "You know what the rules are: school expenses only," his secretary told her.

Four years ago, following Susan's death, Buffett showed up for his family's annual Christmas gathering clad in a garishly over-the-top red tracksuit and Santa hat, a gift from "Arnie" (California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger). Everyone laughed at the absurdity of it all. When the holiday ended, Nicole raced into Buffett's arms. "We're not a touchy-feely family, so when I did it, the rest of the family seemed a little surprised," Nicole says, beaming. "But he gave me this great big hug back."

It was the last time the pair would share an embrace. Two years later, Nicole agreed to appear in The One Percent, a documentary by Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson about the gap between rich and poor in America. "I've been very blessed to have my education taken care of, and I have had my living expenses taken care of while I'm in school," she states on camera. None of the Buffetts, a famously press-averse bunch, had ever before appeared in so public a forum to dish about their upbringing. Though Nicole informed her father of her role in the film and he had no objections, she failed to give her grandfather a heads-up. Asked in the film how he'd react to her interview, Nicole responds, "I definitely fear judgment. Money is the spoke in my grandfather's wheel of life."

Nicole concedes that the remarks may have sounded brusque. "I meant that my grandfather is like a Formula One driver who only wants to race — he just loves the game and wants to be the best," she says. But Buffett was galled. He had for some time felt ambivalent about Nicole and her sister's claim to his fortune — though Peter had legally adopted them, he divorced their mother in 1993 and remarried three years later. To make matters worse, while plugging the film on Oprah, Nicole confessed, "It would be nice to be involved with creating things for others with that money and to be involved in it. I feel completely excluded from it."

The perceived sense of entitlement and Nicole's self-appointed role as family spokesperson prompted Buffett to tell Peter that he'd renounce her. A month later, the mega-billionaire mailed Nicole a letter in which he cautioned her about the pitfalls of the Buffett name: "People will react to you based on that 'fact' rather than who you are or what you have accomplished." He punctuated the letter by declaring, "I have not emotionally or legally adopted you as a grandchild, nor have the rest of my family adopted you as a niece or a cousin." Nicole was devastated. "He signed the letter 'Warren,'" she says. "I have a card from him just a year earlier that's signed 'Grandpa.'"

But Buffett's decision was irrevocable. "I don't have an easy answer for where my father is coming from," says Peter Buffett, who speaks to Nicole regularly. "But I know I can't change the spots on a leopard." Jamie Johnson convinced Nicole to tape a follow-up interview, which he added as an emotional postscript to his film. "To pretend like we don't have a familial relationship is not based in reality. I've spent years of my life at his home in Omaha. I'm shocked and hurt," Nicole says.

Now, despite her sterling surname, Buffett is getting by on $40,000 or so a year, largely on the sale of her paintings (collectors include Shirley Temple's daughter Lori Black and Hollywood special-effects guru Scott Ross). There's no denying that the Buffett name piques interest in the art world, where Nicole's pieces have fetched as much as $8000. One of her techniques is to leave unfinished works outside, exposed to the elements. "I like to see what happens," she says, hovering over canvases mottled with sunbursts of color.

Nicole supplements her income by working at a San Francisco boutique, but still can't afford cable or health insurance. Since their falling-out, Buffett has begun mailing sizable Christmas checks to his grandchildren, despite his no-freebies rule. Even so, Nicole vigorously insists that she has no regrets. "I think it shows he's trying to reach out to his grandkids in a more personal way," she says, before pausing. "And probably he's rewarding them for behaving."

In the two years since they last spoke, Nicole has been besieged by her grandfather's image. "I can't turn on the TV or read the paper without seeing him," she says, referring to his role in the Wall Street bailout and as Barack Obama's adviser during his presidential bid. She dreams about a reconciliation, however unlikely. Still, she says she'll never stop being a Buffett. "I will always be self-reliant," she says, curled up on her couch, her dreadlocks draping her body like a quilt. "Grandpa taught me that, and it has set the tone for my life."

Leah McGrath Goodman is editor-at-large for Trader Monthly and is working on a book about the traders who built the global oil market, due out in 2010.


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