The celebrity car boot sale was an unqualified success. Among the many beautiful gifts donated were Richard Dawkins’s complete works signed, an illustrated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, also signed, and a varicoloured Senegalese vest that Youssou N’Dour had given to Peter Gabriel when they toured together. But the item that fetched the highest price was an artwork painted by Sir Paul McCartney called ‘Lucy In The Sky with Puppies’, which sold for $7,500.
Sir Paul was so delighted by this that he told his assistant Shelagh Jones to write to me asking how he could further help the cause. I suggested he host a benefit lunch for the gorillas at his office in Soho Square, invite the titans of the tech industry. Sir Paul agreed. The event was scheduled for June 16th 1999. We were back in business.
Shelagh Jones gave me a tour of the venue, a stately wood-paneled dining room on the second floor of MPL Communications, where Sir Paul kept his psychedelically painted piano from Sgt. Pepper’s. “He’s suggested doing a sing-song after lunch,” said Jones.
|MPL Communications, Soho Square|
I sent invitations out to every one of the 800lb gorillas from the tech industry that I’d come into contact with while setting up the endowment appeal, asking them to attend an exclusive lunch with Sir Paul to talk about saving a species. While Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison were both keen, Paul Allen was prevaricating.
Then Shelagh called to say Ringo Starr had also agreed to join the luncheon. I sent Douglas the news, he immediately replied:
That’s very good news indeed. Two Beatles together make it a hugely unique special occasion, and I’m sure you could then broaden your range of targets. My guess is that if you invite SJ and LE and whoever else, you will probably call PA’s bluff. How could he not want to be there? But now what about Ted Turner and Jane Fonda? What about Steven Spielberg? What about Michael Eisner?
- Email from Douglas Adams to Greg Cummings
Over the next two months, Jobs and Ellison would drop out of the event due to conflicting schedules, but Paul Allen confirmed he was coming. Reportedly worth $30 billion at the time, we felt confident our singular guest would make a handsome donation.
But we hadn’t banked on Ringo. With just six days to got before the event, Shelagh Jones called again. “Before he agrees to participate, Ringo wants to know how much Paul Allen’s going to give.”
My heart raced. Alarm bells began to peal. In desperation, I sent off a cluster of emails to the highest levels. “What, the Beatles are the door prize?” asked Mike Backes. Nathan Myhrvold sent a more considered response:
I am not sure what to say, One fairly obvious point is to double and triple check that Paul McCartney isn’t going to flake on you at the last minute for the same reason. That would be a disaster.
I have no idea what Paul [Allen]’s expectations are. My belief, based on what you have told me so far is that the lunch is about making the ask, and that this was not a done deal. If I think that, my guess is that Paul Allen thinks that too, unless you have described things very differently to him.
You can’t very well demand the donation up front if that isn’t what Paul is expecting. Even broaching the topic could be very off-putting. Note that I am not speaking for Paul, maybe he would not feel that way, but I sure would, and I think most people would.
Paul knowing that Larry won’t be there may be a good sign, but don’t be presumptive. What if Paul is thinking of donating say $5 million? This would be a very generous gift by any absolute standard, even if it is less than you want. But maybe he is thinking about doing the whole thing. At this stage you pretty much have to go through with it.
The mix up with Ringo is very awkward, and very odd. If lunch with the Beatles was a $100,000 a plate fund raising luncheon, then it is proper to make it prepaid. But this isn’t that sort of thing - you don’t typically have a $30 million a plate fundraising luncheons. At this level of philanthropy it would be odd to ‘and, if you make the donation you get lunch with the Beatles.’
The main saving grace is that Ringo is the least important of the Beatles - McCartney is still a good draw!
If McCartney does not have to personally make the ask, but at the very least I would hope that he says how important it is that the gorillas be saved etc, and then you make the ask.
If you show your film, and make a presentation on the overall programe, you might not need to literally ask. But, then again, you may well have to.
One minor point is that it would be awkward if McCartney congratulates him on the donation before it is clear that he has made it.
I am not sure what else to say other than good luck!
- Email from Nathan Myhrvold to Greg Cummings
In the end McCartney did flake, got behind Starr’s malapropos demand. My hand was forced; I wrote to Paul Allen explaining that an eleventh-hour hiccup had occurred. “Sir Paul and Ringo are keen to meet you but have asked that there be a confirmation of a donation first. I know this is very unconventional and certainly not what you were led to believe would transpire at this luncheon. My only hope is that you understand our predicament and agree to proffer an idea of what you would like to donate. Subsequently, the lunch will go ahead as planned and we can launch our $35 million endowment for the endangered mountain gorillas. Generations will thank you for it.”
Allen replied simply, “What?”, which then dealt the coup de gras to our endowment appeal.
I sat on a park bench at the summit of Primrose Hill between a trio of Rowan-whitebeam cross trees. The air bristled with the freshness of Spring. A strong wind blew, rustling through the newborn leaves. Still, Mother Nature’s soothing hush tones weren’t enough to keep me from sobbing. The bottom of my world had just dropped out.
Looking down at the mock-up animal habitats in Regent’s Park Zoo, I wondered, “Is this what the future holds for the gorillas?” I reached over the top of my head with my right arm and stroked the left side of my face, like a gorilla might do, wiped the tears away. It was comforting. No question, I’d let the big fellas down. Handing in my resignation would have been the honourable thing to do but I stayed on.
It was the turn of the millennium, a new century. The Dot Com bubble burst. PlayStation 2 and GameBox were released. The first resident crew entered the International Space Station. A new generation of spaceborne imaging radar was launched on Endeavour, creating the elevation models that are today used in geographic information systems.
Much good came from of our quest for a $35 million endowment. We had a bunch of great new patrons, including Douglas Adams, Mike Backes, Richard Dawkins, Nathan Myhrvold, and Michael Crichton. And we had Apple sponsorship. In May 2000, I was interviewed by Apple Hot News about how we were using the donated equipment:
This is where Apple technology can really help,” Cummings says. “A few weeks ago, I sent an email through my wireless modem on the PowerBook while I was sitting at the foot of the volcanoes in Uganda. I spoke to my communications consultant in London from within the park, not 20 minutes after sitting with the gorillas. We can do miracles with our Apple technology. Can you imagine? We can post digital images through the GSM connection after witnessing a gorilla birth. The possibilities are endless.
- Apple Hot News, May 2000
Imagine where the gorillas would be today if our endowment appeal had been successful, the standard of innovation in conservation we would be enjoying by now. We’d have real time gorilla trekking in their habitats using VR, GorillaCams in the forest monitoring their conservation, thermal cameras to trigger automated alerts for rangers when suspected poachers cross into parks, haptic devices leading gorillas down the path of least resistance, and a high-tech gorilla conservation centre featuring an exhibit of silverback holograms. Most importantly, we’d have peace of mind.