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Culture

Millionaire mansions and not-so-real estate

Like most San Franciscans--and New Yorkers, for that matter--I live just a few martinis away from bouncing next month's rent check. From this position of penury, I find myself in gurgly awe whenever I hear tales of the splendidly wealthy spending the gross national products of third-world nations on a place to live.

    Like most San Franciscans--and New Yorkers, for that matter--I live just a few martinis away from bouncing next month's rent check. From this position of penury, I find myself in gurgly awe whenever I hear tales of the splendidly wealthy spending the gross national products of third-world nations on a place to live.

    So my ears pricked up when, in the media feeding frenzy that routinely follows dinner at the DuBaud household, my son Vermel's precocious gay classmate, Jai Pegue, read this item aloud from the "Let's Dish" column in the Nob Hill Gazette, which bills itself "the Bay Area's leading social and philanthropic newspaper":

    "In sunny Woodside, Jim Clark, who co-founded Netscape, bought Claire Giannini Hoffman's 12-acre estate for a mere $52 million," Jai Pegue read.

    "Holy Mac cubes!" Vermel exclaimed. "That's more than $4 million per acre. And for what? You can hardly fit one of Jim Clark's yachts on a 12-acre plot."

    "Well he didn't buy it undeveloped," Jai Pegue pointed out sensibly. "I'm sure Mrs. Hoffman had a historic residence with artfully manicured gardens. She wasn't a Bank of America heiress for nothing. And besides, $4 million an acre in Woodside is value investing compared to those orphan Net start-ups he's so fond of, such as Kibu.com."

    Here Vermel's paramour Ammonia Blossom broke in with a blistering screed against the material excesses of the New Economy, and our colloquy on Jim Clark's housing situation came to its natural conclusion.

    My curiosity was piqued, however, so the next day I made some calls. Sure enough, the rumor was out there: Jim Clark had blown $52 million of his hard-earned billions on a house.

    But though I continued dialing until my fingertips were raw, none of my Skinformants had what more exacting journalists call first-hand knowledge of the transaction. My Skinskeptimeter, already on alert, started clanging away when one woman who sells real estate in Woodside referred me back to where I'd started: "Let's Dish."

    I'd sooner debug Windows 2000 than call a fellow rumormonger for help, so I forged a trio of doctor's notes for the children, hopped into the Rumormobile and headed for the San Mateo County Recorder's Office in lovely downtown Redwood City, where all the county's real estate transactions are, by law, recorded.

    "I'm coming up with nothing for Jim Clark or James Clark," said Vermel, sneezing as he set down a dusty box of records.

    "Nothing for Claire Giannini, Claire Hoffman or Claire Giannini Hoffman," Jai Pegue reported, slightly muffled through his chartreuse dust mask.

    "Nothing for Healtheon/WebMD, either," said Ammonia. "This is pointless. Yes, there does have to be a record of the transaction, but he could have set up a trust under any name to keep the info from the likes of us. The same goes for the seller."

    Discouraged and congested from poring over the dusty parchments, we returned home empty-handed. Then, just as we trudged through Silicon Valley traffic under the accusing stone finger of Father Serra, the cell rang--it was a source close to Clark. Somewhat cranky after being paged on her day off, she told us she couldn't reach Clark because he was traveling ("Too important to carry a cell phone?" Ammonia sniped). But she let on that when another reporter had asked him about the $52 million estate in her presence, he had flat out denied that he owned it. She said the same went for his companies--Healtheon/WebMD, MyCFO, Shutterfly, the works.

    "A legalistic denial if I ever heard one!" Ammonia protested as I hung up the phone. "One of those trusts could own it. And that conversation was months old--the sale could have been in the process of closing."

    With Clark unreachable, and the rumor swirling so thick around the valley you could hardly see the I-280 traffic backed up in front of you, we were stymied. After tossing and turning all night, I finally picked up the phone and called Winifred Winchell, local lady of letters and scribe of "Let's Dish."

    "Winifred Winchell? Skinny DuBaud here...er..." Suddenly I was at a loss for words. How could I do it? Groveling at the feet of another rumormonger--she was sure to laugh in my face, slam down the phone, and expose me to the plastic surgery set as the fraud that I am!

    But Winifred took mercy on me and was forthcoming about the item.

    "I heard that from someone who lives in the area, very close by," she said coolly. "I didn't check it. Maybe he was wrong."

    Then she had a second thought.

    "As a matter of fact, we did try to check on that," she said. "But there was no way we could."

    Newfangled demonstrations, old-fashioned registrations
    Turns out Winnie and Skinny aren't the only ones having trouble delivering the goods. Sun Microsystems tried a bold new approach to unveiling products when it announced its UltraSparc III chip Wednesday: Instead of beginning the show in New York with the usual grand oratory, Sun chief marketing officer John Loiacono tried to cut to the chase and demonstrate the blazing superiority of the new Sun Blade 1000 workstation over Hewlett-Packard's J6000.

    Perhaps the computers were miffed they didn't get a rousing intro--whatever the reason, the demo seized up. About all Loiacono managed to show was that it's a better idea to have demo duds nested comfortably in the middle of a product launch when everyone's eyes are glazing over.

    Speaking of computer glitches, could it be that Comdex, the largest computer convention in the known universe, offers no electronic media registration? Instructions say to print and send, which means that part of your registration fee will pay for good old-fashioned data entry. For an unlimited time only, the Rumor Mill is accepting electronic submissions of your rumors.