North Shore Sunday
July 23, 2000
Author: Elizabeth Dinan
Page 1 (cover)
Eastern Point's new kid brings Champagne wishes and caviar dreams to a harbor known more for blood sweat and tears.
Reminiscent of South Beach's nouveau glitz, or the traditionally tony harbor of Monaco, guests aboard the Gitana sip Veuve Clicquot Champagne, while nibbling finger foods crafted from the most sumptuous of ingredients, including chilled lobster, caviar, grilled duck breast and warmed bay scallops. Fresh floral arrangements gild the Gitana lily. The vessel is a breathtaking 118-foot super yacht, built 11 years ago for the Baron Rothschild and thought to be the only one of its kind currently berthed in any Massachusetts harbor.
Rigged with the most advanced technology, the Gitana has a retractable keel and joysticks that allow owner Ken Weiss to sail the yacht by himself if he desires, virtually eliminating any frigging of rigging. On this evening, however, Weiss is entertaining on Gitana's rehabbed teak deck while introducing his new Italian-crafted acquisition to a small gathering of lucky invitees decked out in navy blazers and breezy cocktail dresses.
The scene isn't played out in South Beach, or Monaco, but rather here on the North Shore. And in the least likely of North Shore ports.
In the middle of working-class Gloucester harbor, where fishermen have eked out a living hauling nets and lobster pots for as long as history will tell, Weiss has dropped Gitana's anchor, replete with 24-karat gold-plate fixtures and portholes, marble sinks, granite floors, a home theater and five spacious staterooms, each with private bath and the ultimate plumbing luxury: bidets. A permanent crew of five has its own separate living quarters; crewmembers call the Gitana home while in Weiss' employ.
She's a surreal but beautiful sight in a harbor filled with rusted working ships and pack 'em-in whale-watch boats, all of which have not likely been sailed by such a luxurious dock mate. For the natives on shore, the Gitana is an enigma, but for Weiss, she's the answer to a promise made to himself as a Marblehead launch boy in the '60s that someday he "would have a wonderful sailboat."
Today is that someday, and Weiss introduces Gitana to Gloucester as a parent might announce the birth of a child; amid quiet fanfare, handshakes and in this case, the presentation of a formal, on-deck mayoral proclamation.
And it's no wonder. Her pedigree is pristine, her silhouette breathtaking and the story of how she came to our shore filled with adventure and glamour.
It's also the story of Weiss the man, one of Massachusetts' wealthiest entrepreneurs and Gloucester's affluent new son. A man who seems part shy, part party-giver. Who has hosted George Clooney and local philanthropists, as well as penciling more pedestrian locals, like a newspaper reporter, onto his A-list.
Uttering antiquated words like whereby and henceforth, Gloucester Revenue Manager Dan Smith, representing an out-of-town Mayor Bruce Toby, proclaims July 14, 2000 "Gitana Day." Under a nearly full moon and in front of a Champagne-flushed group of well-wishers, he formally acknowledges the role Weiss has come to play in Gloucester, despite his having just purchased his Eastern Point cottage a scant three years ago. A cottage which, according to Essex Registry of Deeds, sold for $1.6 million and features 345 feet of Atlantic frontage. And which, insiders say, is worth much more since he's made improvements.
As for Weiss' yacht, out-sizing many of the massive Tall Ships that attract sweaty masses to line up along Boston's waterfront over the past couple of weeks, she's quite a gal. Built by Parini Navi, long considered the "Rolls-Royce of super yacht" builders, Gitana is not the sailing vessel Gloucester natives have come to know, but is well known among the likes of publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch who when shopping for a yacht also purchased a Parini Navi.
"This is an anomaly," says Smith, who was born and raised in Gloucester. "I would say this is very new for Gloucester.
And new for Weiss, who splits his time between Newton and now Gloucester where his boyhood dream is coming true from the Yankee Marina. This summer he'll take Gitana and her five-man crew to Cape Cod and Maine ports and islands and onto Halifax. In late autumn he'll sail to Bermuda, Florida and the Caribbean, while next year the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas are on her nautical agenda.
"I always has a great respect for the boats in Marblehead Harbor," says Weiss of his launch boy days. "Even when I started my company, all of the venture capitalists thought that was my life. I threw myself into my work. But I've learned I'd like to retire with a big smile. And to enjoy life."
Weiss' mid-life joie de vivre, backed by millions of self-made dollars, launched a world-wide search for that wonderful sailboat he promised himself 30 years ago.
"I literally bought an around-the-world air ticket and traveled to eight countries to look at yachts I had studied on paper for a year," he says. "First I went to New Zealand, then to Australia, to the Far East and back through Europe. I had a long list of requirements, and when I arrived in France, I was bowled over by Gitana."
Was it love at first sight?
"It really was," he says, adding he flew in a "world-class surveyor," who gave the yacht a fine-tooth comb inspection, resulting in an 80-page book about the vessel and a $30,000 tab for the job. The result? The only thing wrong with her, according to the new owner, is that "she was used very little."
Sailed from Cannes to Gloucester, the Gitana underwent a $1.3 million refit and is now staffed by a full-time captain, first mate, engineer, stewardess and chef who don nautical uniforms and are paid to spoil all aboard. Weiss says, and we'll have to take his word for it, that finding a yacht crew is far easier than trying to find domestic help.
On Gloucester's official Gitana day, the crew was very successful in fulfilling Weiss' commission to spoil. As evidence, consider the menu for his cocktail party: full bar and endless Champagne, Sevruga caviar on rosti potato cakes, grilled duck breast canapés with mango chutney, shrimp with three sauces, smoked trout mousse canapés with avocado and radish garnish, lobster and mushroom quesadillas, lemon poppy seed crepes with Boursin, asparagus and red pepper, croustades with scallop and dill filling, savory herb cheesecake, herb and spiced chevre and mozzarella with focacia and mushroom caps with leek, fennel and chevre filling.
Mix in plush seating, fragrant floral arrangements, charming company. Gitana's debut party was unprecedented for the likes of the industrial Gloucester harbor. The only thing missing was Robin Leach.
A techie himself, Weiss offers his guests a tour of the bridge area, which to those not accustomed to navigating boats, looks like the command center for the space shuttle, but with comfortable seating and thick carpeting.
"I designed the bridge," he says. It probably has more high-tech equipment than most ocean liners and maybe Navy ships."
So it's little wonder Gitana's replacement cost is $22 million, about a third of Gloucester's $67 million budget to operate the entire city for a year.
But Weiss is sharing his wealth. In addition to the hefty tax checks he's obliged to write to the city, he was a major fundraiser, supporter and benefactor of an impressive sculptural exhibit in City Hall last year, as well as host of a Great Gatsby theme lawn party and fundraiser for the Cape Ann Symphony.
When Hollywood's "Perfect Storm" cast and crew blew into town for filming, it was Weiss who hosted the cast party to benefit the Perfect Storm Foundation, which aids the families of Gloucester fishermen. And when George Clooney needed some private digs during filming, he stayed in Weiss' pool house, complete with private apartment.
"He was a very quiet guest," is about all Weiss will disclose about his well-known house visitor. "He would go downtown at night to the bars to see how the fishermen live. And we had to twist his arm to allow someone to do his laundry.
Like Clooney, Weiss has come to love the working port. Apart from his home, which Weiss describes as an ocean-front compound and "better than the boat," he calls the gritty reality of the city his favorite reason for moving to Gloucester.
"I love Gloucester. I'm embarrassed to say that as a youngster, my knowledge of Gloucester was limited to Rocky Neck," he says. "But now I've found it to be warm and wonderful. There's a blue-collar work ethic and solid, down-to-earth people that care. And probably some of the most beautiful properties on the eastern seaboard."
While Weiss views the Eastern Point residents who live charmed, gated lives as having mutual respect for their neighbors who fish for a living, the city's revenue manager hints at panic that could set in if the natives thought for a moment people like Weiss would take over their city and gentrify it into some version of Marblehead, God forbid.
"I want to make sure it doesn't look like we're going to be invaded by trophy yachts," says Smith. "In an industrial harbor, they think that's a bad thing. People are wondering what the harbor will look like in 10 or 20 years and that will add paranoia. People are already wondering if this is going to turn into a Newport with all of the condos."
Man with many plans
You know you've made it when one of your attorneys extends party invitations on your behalf and, at a moment's notice, can produce a printed version of your "executive profile." Such is the case with Kenneth Weiss, whose attorney, Ira Grolman, not only handles the legal matters, but unusual peripheral matters like yacht hunting details and party plans.
From Grolman's Boston office, the streamlined version of Weiss' enviable professional life rolls through a fax machine, transmitting a success story few ever come close to achieving. Currently CEO and president of Strategic Diversity, Inc., a Newton-based investment firm, Weiss is best known for his role as founder of Security Dynamics, a company that turned his techno brainstorms for computer security into a $4 billion business.
Fortune magazine profiled Weiss' "securID," a battery powered credit card of sorts, allowing users to combine ever-changing passwords with securID pass codes. that combination has protected users from hackers, with odds of breaking in calculated at one in a trillion. The inventor's executive profile describes the technology as "the industry standard in computer security."
At the age of 53, Weiss now considers himself semi-retired since walking away from his Security Dynamics in '96 amidst what the Boston Globe characterized as "a nasty and personal dispute" and ultimately leading to a Weiss suit for Security Dynamics patents he claims should revert to him. Despite the split, Weiss' company went public on the NASDAQ, returning over 1,000 percent on investments in 16 months.
Weiss underplays the professional split from the company he founded and the CEO he hired, preferring instead to focus on the 15 patents he's successfully filed. Told he could be the next John Hammond, the Gloucester native who built a castle as a prolific patent inventor, Weiss says he's "just doing what makes sense," like the patent he'll apply for based on improvements he's made to Gitana.
"It's a power management system," he says. "You need very large generators to power a yacht, but I've found a way to do it with much smaller generators and with less pollution."
We believe him because Weiss' résumé also includes working as a professor of psychology, human factors engineer, computer system designer, inventor and "internationally recognized authority, spokesman and author on the subject of computer security." His profile includes pages of lists citing his broadcast interviews, speaking engagements, published papers from presentations and a laundry list of publications that have cited him as an expert source, including The New York Times, The Wall Street journal, Business Week, Christian Science Monitor, Computer World, Network World, Information Week, PC Week, The Boston Globe, and of course, North Shore Sunday.
The Boston Glove cited him as one of the state's "richest entrepreneurs," Fortune called his future bright, and he's noted for having conceived the system for computer abuse known as the seven E's, as in error, embezzlement, ego, eavesdropping, enmity, extortion and espionage. It's safe to say he's got the Midas touch.
That is unless you ask his former Marblehead neighbor, Betty Hall, whom Weiss credits, or blames, for his move to Gloucester in the first place. A legal battle between Hall and Weiss dates back to 1995 when he purchased a waterfront home on Front Street, only to have the new neighbor call the police on him the very day he closed. Her beef? His realtor was parked on a right of way.
The trouble escalated from there, as Hall sued to prevent Weiss from building a dock, even though she had one of her own. He's said she spied on him, trespassed onto his property and harassed contractors hired to work on his Marblehead property and in the years that have followed, they've been in and out of courtrooms and boardrooms with at least a half-dozen lawyers between them (Come Hell or High Water, Sunday, June 12, 1996).
Even Judge Nancy Merrick characterized Hall as a busybody, March of '99, and ruled that Hall had violated Weiss' privacy and that he may not be able to sell the Marblehead property because of her reputation as a paranoid recluse. Bolstering his view across the yard, the former owners of Weiss' Marblehead property also describe similar court battles and other unneighborly disputes with her over just about anything and everything.
Weiss has since sold, forcing the move to Gloucester which he describes as a blessing.
"I wanted to stay in Marblehead," he says. "But now I see that I owe my life to the insanity of Betty hall."
And what a life.
At Gitana's on-board, proclamation cocktail party last week, new neighbors from Eastern Point share in Weiss' good fortune and seem to form privileged bonds, unlikely to erupt into the likes of the Marblehead rift.
All signs point to smooth sailing.