Seeing my hairbrush down the hall from my hotel room after a long day of not-so-helpful interviews should have been my first clue that this was not going to be the reporting trip of my dreams.
In 1996, I took my first international reporting trip to Switzerland, researching the wealth of Swiss billionaires for my magazine’s annual billionaires list. My portfolio of targets included a family with vast grain holdings, a private bank, oil interests, the family behind Swatch, a cement baron, and the scion of a pharmaceuticals company that made good use of nuns’ urine. I was also asked to report on and write a lifestyle piece on the state of the Swiss watch industry, which was then rebounding from a Timex and Japanese-based assault.
Getting to go on an international reporting trip was a coveted boondoggle, not that rare though in the flush 1990s when magazines sold so much advertising that editors begged reporters for more copy to fill the pages. Two fellow reporters famously went to the Far East every year for months; others went to Mexico or South America or pretty much any place densely populated with rich people. Everyone else wisely avoided boring and privacy-obsessed Switzerland, but I was a clueless newbie and Euro(trash)-phile only too happy to grab it.
Apparently, in 1996, the idea of an American woman traveling alone as a reporter, asking all sorts of questions about the current wealth and whereabouts of the elite of Switzerland and staying in an arguably shady hotel near the train station labeled me as available.
Researching a billionaire’s wealth can come down to a lot of educated guesswork. Publicly traded companies are required to disclose their large shareholders, and stock prices are public, so we could get very accurate information on a lot of people from sleuthing through the public records. There are many ways to obscure ownership, of course, but you can get a rough idea. Throwing in such things as bank accounts, real estate, art, and horses, however, and things start to get trickier, particularly if the billionaire has private investments. Unlike one local billionaire who would call the magazine to try to get his net worth not only published, but arguably inflated, these were not people who were eager for reporters to be able to print their exact net worth.
I arrived in Geneva to see the hotel was right next to the train station. (I clearly should have put commensurate effort into selecting hotels as I did tracking billionaires.) The hotel felt very Howard Johnson but with fewer hipsters and more potential pick pockets. It was the kind of place that, when I told some of the sources I was meeting where I was staying, added to my (unbeknownst to me) projected aura of promiscuity.
Apparently, in 1996, the idea of a woman, and on top of that an American woman, traveling alone as a reporter, asking all sorts of questions about the current wealth and whereabouts of the elite of Switzerland and staying in an arguably shady hotel near the train station labeled me as available. One source took me to an out-of-the-way tourist boat restaurant, in case anyone were to see us and get the wrong idea, he told me. I have a wife. Another source, an important executive at a boutique Swiss bank, put his hand on my knee (so cliché) and told me that he would be happy to give me even more information on certain people if I wanted. Thanks, but no.
As if that weren’t unsettling enough, I returned home that night to find my hairbrush (that had been in my room) sitting on the floor of the hotel hallway.
Then there was a lot of stonewalling. People would take meetings with me and then tell me nothing. Some sources agreed to meet, then backed out. One billionaire pressured me not to publish anything about his wealth as a Swiss magazine had done a similar list, resulting in the kidnapping of his sibling.
When I wasn’t trying to back into the annual revenues of a private bank established in the 1700s, I was trying to report my watch story. Much of it consisted of going on various tours of watch companies and getting to try on gaudy multi-million dollar diamond-encrusted watches that were being made for wealthy Middle Easterners (the only things more hideous were the lady versions practically smothered in heart-shapes and pink gemstones). I spent weeks talking to everyone I could, including the founder of Swatch; trekking to a watch museum and going to a fair that introduced me to the concept of a display booth costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. I even got to show off my high-school French, trotted out when I had to interview watchmaker Franck Muller, who apparently doesn’t speak English so well. (I think in that sophisticated conversation we uncovered such facts as that he works in Switzerland.)
By the time I made it home, I had enough information to augment the research we had on the Swiss billionaires we knew about and to add a few more names. The watch article, however, was not so lucky.
Our editor-in-chief at the time was a brilliant man whose preferred staff emotion was terror. He loved to kill stories and to publicly let the staff know on the company intranet what he thought of everyone’s ideas and copy. (Not much.) My watch story got the typical all-caps salute and, although I’ve blocked out what he wrote exactly, I believe it was along the lines of one of his usual comments: WHO ASSIGNED THIS STUPID STORY?
The watch reporting never saw the light of day, but I gained a newfound appreciation for the craftsmanship of the Swiss watch industry (pink hearts aside), the country’s drive with privacy, and never taking the availability of my hairbrush for granted.
(Photo credit: Gideon/Flickr.com)