The casino millionaire, the unwritten novel, and the big fat cheques - Sunday 12th of June 2005

The country's biggest literary philanthropist, American millionaire Glenn Schaeffer, has plans to give more. Anthony Hubbard reports. Glenn Schaeffer is the sugar daddy of New Zealand literature. He makes millions in Las Vegas and sends chunks of money south. He has left his heart - and a burst appendix - in Nelson. Schaeffer recently pocketed $19 million when another Vegas behemoth took over his company. He hopes his new firm, Fontainebleau Resorts, will enable him to give more money to culture. "I haven't lost my zeal for the literary enterprise," he says, neatly conflating his two passions, the business of business and the business of fine writing. What is good for Fontainebleau Resorts, you might say, will be good for New Zealand. Schaeffer is aware of the paradoxes of his position. The gamblers of The Strip are subsidising high art in America and Down Under.

He even helped turn Vegas into a City of Asylum, a refuge for writers fleeing persecution in their own country - "casting against type," as he puts it. Can filthy lucre mix so easily with belles lettres? Doesn't Las Vegas have wealthy friends in, er, the Mob? Isn't Sin City the home of heartbreak and bankruptcy? Should New Zealand art be fertilised with broken dreams and Babylonian dough? Oh, says Schaeffer on the phone from Las Vegas, that's an old-fashioned view of the city. "That's the way it's sometimes portrayed in movies, television or bad novels." In reality, building a casino there costs literally billions of dollars, and the only way to raise the funds is through Wall St.

"That's what my career has been - in some respects I matched Wall St with the gaming business." Once an aspiring writer, and then a stockbroker, Schaeffer made a spectacular success of his match-making. When he quit last month as president and chief financial officer of Mandalay Resort Group, he had over 20 years built the company into one of the three giants of the city, with about 15,000 hotel rooms on the Strip and 35,000 employees. MGM Mirage, another of the Big Three, took over the company in an $11 billion merger - and Schaeffer left with $19m from his stock options. As for problem gambling and ruined lives, Schaeffer dons his hat as a founding director of the Centre for Responsible Gambling and its research institute at Harvard Medical School. The research showed that compulsive gamblers are only a tiny percentage of the population and that the vast bulk of the industry's revenue "comes from people who gamble responsibly". Unfortunately, he says, problem gamblers "don't come in waving their hands in the air. Our objective is to help people get help, seek counsel and guidance - if we become aware. And that's an imperfect science as well. You have the same thing in New Zealand." Gaming has become a "wholly legitimised form of recreation" in the United States, he says. "The cost is no different from going to a movie, no different from reading a book. (It's) the number of hours of enjoyment or pleasure for a price.

" Those "hours of pleasure" in Las Vegas are building future pleasures for readers of New Zealand literature. Schaeffer funds Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters, a factory for prize-winning writers run by poet-scholar Bill Manhire. Schaeffer pays the $65,000 Prize in Modern Letters, the biggest literary prize in New Zealand. And he plans to make Wellington another City of Asylum for persecuted writers. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Schaeffer was inspired to become a writer when he saw in a library the hand-corrected galleys of F Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby - a novel he read every year as a teenager. "You could see the cross-outs and the misspellings - he was an atrocious speller. And I said, 'Well, this was written by a human being, it wasn't like he walked down from the mountain with it.' . . . And that was inspiring to me." Schaeffer majored in English at the University of California at Irvine. "It had a bonus in that it annoyed my father (an industrial research chemist). A scientist doesn't want to hear that his oldest son's notion of a career path might involve writing or acting." He graduated summa cum laude, took a master's degree and then won a place in the select Iowa Writers' Workshop.

About 800 people apply every year for a couple of dozen positions - and each must supply three stories. "I'd only written one story . . . I took a week and wrote the other two. So I tried and, 'you know, this isn't that hard!' Fitzgerald had done it, now I've done it - a wide world awaits me!" he says, laughing. "It got tougher from there," he adds drily. "Beware of early success." His mid-1970s class at the writers' workshop proved to be one of the most outstanding in modern American literature. It included novelists Jane Smiley, TC Boyle, Bill Kinsella, and future American poet laureate and Pulitzer prize-winner Rita Dove. "I had to sit at the back of the class because the bright students were hogging the front," he said. "I held the average down." But "I am nothing if not calculating". The 22-year-old figured that it would take him 10 years to get anywhere in the writing game. That was half his lifetime. "The opportunity cost, to use the economic term, was too great." Besides, he had decided writing was too hard, too risky and too lonely. "Having to sit at a desk and stare at a wall for three or four hours a day - I have a problem with that. It doesn't suit my character." So he became a stockbroker. He didn't know at first what a stockbroker was, "other than it sounded like a profession. And I remember thinking, 'Isn't that what Great Gatsby narrator) Nick Carraway did?"' He missed the dramatic irony of the novel, its lessons about the corruptions of wealth. "Nick Carraway gives up the Wall St life and returns to the Midwest at the end of the novel. I left the Midwest to go to Wall St." But it was a fruitful misreading - Schaeffer thrived in business.

He had done a minor in economics at university, had a good head for numbers, and was eager to learn. "Finance is a language," he explains, "like literature." Besides, he says, business is a form of creativity - especially on The Strip. The casinos there - the kitsch fabulousness of an Egyptian pyramid with 16km strobe lights into space, the fantasy of a Californian beach built in the Nevada desert - "are a form of theatre for people and we do it on a scale no one's ever done before . . . it's kind of like a fictional enterprise. These places are only about themselves. They have their own sort of language and there ain't anything much like it anywhere else." The buildings, like art, can "surprise and enchant". And now, with Fontainebleau, Schaeffer plans to create casinos of genuine architectural merit. Is he kidding? He wants to put cathedrals in Gomorrah? Yep, more or less. "In America you have an intersect between high culture and pop culture - and the best laboratory for that is the Las Vegas strip." Schaeffer clearly relishes these types of provocation.

The second writer to find a home at his expense in the Las Vegas City of Asylum was a refugee from the Chinese gulag, poet Er Tai Gao. The amazing thing was that after his term as writer ended, the exiled poet decided to make Las Vegas his home. "Well, what was less predictable than that?" laughs Schaeffer, marvelling at the surreality of the thing. The millionaire founded the Inter-national Institute of Modern Letters at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, whose board of advisers includes literary stars Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco and Gore Vidal. The Nigerian Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka, a friend of Schaeffer's, is director of literary arts. Schaeffer also set up a co-institute in Wellington. Why? Friends who had visited New Zealand raved about it. So, now, does he. "The landscape and the culture has a kind of California feel," he says. Nelson in particular reminds him of the Californian seaside he knew as a boy. Schaeffer has a house in the middle of his Nelson vineyard and spent Christmas there. His wife Renee and three children love it, he says - and it's even a great place to fall ill. After Thanksgiving in 2003, "my appendix burst right before I was due to go to the airport. I had to do a detour, and spend four days in Nelson Hospital.

I couldn't have been in better hands." When he started reading New Zealand literature "I noticed there were a number of exciting young voices, and when you read the dustjackets it seemed like there was a workshop at Victoria. So I called Bill Manhire to see if there was something I could do with them." Manhire, director of the university's creative writing course, thought the letter from Las Vegas was a hoax. But it was an offer of cold cash. One of Schaeffer's gifts is the promise of US$1m if the New Zealand institute can raise NZ$1m. It is about half-way there. The offer "seemed so generous at the point when you had a US40 cent dollar against ours," says Schaeffer. "Now it's US70 cents and it'll be about parity when I pay it, which won't seem so good." He is astonished at the number and quality of the writers who come from Manhire's course. "New Zealand has a vibrant cultural life. If you look at the output of fiction, film or visual art per head relative to the population I don't know another place like it." Manhire says Schaeffer is an ideal literary patron.

He provides the money for promising writers to find their own voices - and never interferes. Schaeffer says one reason he donates to writers is that "literature can be a tipping point for social change". America would not be the same, he says, if Thomas Paine had not written the great independence tract Common Sense and Harriet Beecher Stowe had not campaigned against slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin. His faith is that in the battle of ideas, good ideas will drive out bad ones. Hence the City of Asylum project, and the money he has given towards the translation into English of Er Tai Gao's memoirs of the Chinese gulag. The book is a pebble, he says, thrown into the ocean of Chinese authoritarianism, and who knows what ripples it will cause? Writers such as Gao "are very brave, they persist in speaking truth to power. The audience is small and the stakes are dangerous and they can't help themselves. They're my kind of people."

www.stuff.co.nz

Other news from around the same time

Casino bosses attempt to jump the gun - Sunday 12th of June 2005

UK casino firms are rolling out plans to build up to 100 new casinos. Gambling bosses are trying to ....


Gaming helps shape Las Vegas into total resort destination - Wednesday 12th of October 2005

Tourist numbers have been going nowhere but up in Las Vegas with casino resorts springing up over th....


Poker's tipping point - Thursday 12th of May 2005

In his thought-provoking book The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell writes that "the best way t....


Slot-machine invasion - Thursday 12th of May 2005

Casinos are bringing in thousands of slot machines to Macau to boost earnings from an army of punter....


MGM Donates Meals to Poor - Thursday 12th of May 2005

The MGM Grand Detroit Casino gave away more than 83,000 meals last year. But that has nothing to do ....


Tourist Wins Record Pokie Jackpot - Thursday 12th of May 2005

"A German tourist has more than paid for his Australian holiday after winning a record $900,000 (US$....


Company Purchases 50 Acres near Reno - Thursday 12th of May 2005

Station Casinos Inc. said Tuesday that it is buying 50 acres of property south of Reno. The company ....


Harrah’s-Caesars merger gets OK from casino board - Thursday 12th of May 2005

Dismissing antitrust warnings, New Jersey casino regulators Tuesday approved a $9.4 billion merger t....


Dermot Desmond to open casino in capital - Thursday 12th of May 2005

The move marks a growing interest in the betting and gaming business by the financier, who is a majo....


Glazer 'must explain casino link' - Thursday 12th of May 2005

The US National Football League (NFL) has asked Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer to explain....