By Albert Eisele - 08/26/09 04:54 PM EDT
The story begins in Hong Kong in 1978, when I was press secretary to Vice President Walter Mondale, who had just completed an official visit to mainland China. The late Patrick O’Connor, a Minneapolis lawyer/lobbyist and Democratic fundraiser who accompanied Mondale on the trip, introduced me to Eric Hotung, a Hong Kong billionaire businessman and philanthropist.
The very next day, Jan. 28, 1997, I read in The Washington Post that Kennedy had decided to sell his 11,000-square foot home, complete with tennis court and swimming pool, which he had built in 1968 on a six-acre site on Chain Bridge Road overlooking the Potomac River. The asking price was $4.95 million, and when I called Hotung to tell him, he asked me to find out who the broker was.
I called Kennedy’s office and was told that Bill Moody, then with Sotheby’s International Realty, was handling the sale. Hotung said he wanted to see the property, so I called Moody and arranged for us to see the house the next afternoon. When we arrived, a fur-coated woman whom Moody later described as a wealthy Russian came out of the house and climbed into a chauffeur-driven limousine. Moody said that then-Saudi Arabian Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who lived next door, was also interested in buying it.
We toured the house and Hotung quickly decided he wanted to buy it. He asked what I thought he should offer, and I said that since it was obvious that both Prince Bandar and the Russian woman were interested in it, he’d better offer well over the $4.95 million asking price. He submitted a bid of $5,888,888.88, which I later learned beat Prince Bandar’s $5.5 million offer.
The unusual number stems from the fact that eight is considered an auspicious number because it sounds the same as “prosperous” or “fa” in Cantonese. Three-digit numbers like 888 are popular with the Chinese because they sound the same as “business will easily prosper” and “thrice prosperous.”
The deal was quickly consummated and a short time later, Hotung invited me to dinner with Sen. Kennedy and his wife Vicki to celebrate the sale. We met at Bice, a fancy Italian restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. Both Kennedy and Hotung were in an ebullient mood, no doubt helped by several bottles of expensive Italian wine that Hotung, a wine connoisseur, ordered, and we enjoyed, to put it mildly, a convivial evening.
From then on, whenever I would see Kennedy on Capitol Hill or elsewhere, he would ask, with a hearty laugh, “How’s our friend Hotung doing?”
At first, I invariably told him Hotung enjoyed living in his new house and was doing well, although he spent little time there while pursuing business and philanthropic interests around the world, one of which involved buying a ship and outfitting it with food and medical supplies for the relief of people in East Timor.
But several years later, Hotung told me he was unhappy with the house and related a strange tale. He complained that the house had bad “feng shui,” a Chinese term for a practice that seeks to harmonize a structure or site with the spiritual forces that inhabit it.
Incredibly, he said he was even considering tearing it down after a Chinese caretaker reported that he had been pinned to the wall by an unseen force, as first reported in The Hill in September 1999.
In 2006, Moody, now with Washington Fine Properties, told me Hotung wanted to sell his house, and was asking for a cool $16.5 million, a price not unreasonable in the booming national economy and robust real estate market.
Among the prospective buyers, one of whom paid five visits to the house, was then-freshman Sen. Peter Fitzpatrick (R-Ill.), heir to a wealthy banking family. However, Fitzgerald lost the support of Illinois Republicans and retired in 2006, paving the way for Barack Obama to succeed him.
But as the housing market, and the national economy, turned south with the sub-prime mortgage crisis in 2008, there were few potential buyers of multimillion-dollar properties like Hotung’s, and Moody persuaded him to lower his price to $10 million. (The price may be even lower today, but both Moody and Hotung failed to return my calls on Wednesday.) Still, it was far less of a price drop than that of the famed “Hickory Hill” estate of Kennedy’s late brother Robert, also in McLean. That property was put on the market by his widow, Ethel Kennedy, for $25 million in 2003, but was recently reduced to $15.5 million.
The last time I spoke with Kennedy, which was in early 2008, shortly before he was diagnosed with the brain cancer that killed him, he said, “How’s Hotung doing?” I said, “Fine, Senator, but he wants to sell your house back to you.” Kennedy laughed uproariously, which is how I will always remember him.