Ragged Dick

Only one thing prevents George Argyros life from reading like a Horatio Alger morality tale. That would be, you know, morality

Illustration by Bob AulRagged Dick sounds like the perfect name for a book about the life story of Orange County's high-stakes property developer, below-the-belt landlord and non-Spanish-speaking U.S. ambassador to Spain, George Argyros. Either that or Colin Farrell's social calendar. It's reached the point where somebody mentions George Argyros, and we automatically think: Ragged Dick. Anymore, we're apt to come right out and say it: Ragged Dick. Try it: Ragged Dick. It's sassy fun!

Only problem is connecting Argyros with Ragged Dick isn't really fair to author Horatio Alger, who came up with that title 137 years ago. Calling a book Ragged Dick was as good for sales in 1867 as it would be now. It launched Alger's career as a teller of all-American parables about poor boys who made good. In other words, Ragged Dick actually is a very inappropriate way to respond when somebody mentions George Argyros—a poor boy who only made money.

Argyros is worth between $1.2 billion and $1.8 billion, according to forms he filled out in 2001 when President George W. Bush nominated him to that ambassadorship. Argyros built this fortune from some pretty humble beginnings, too, which is a really nice way of saying he's from Detroit. Only one thing prevents the arc of Argyros' life from reading like the rough draft for all of Alger's approximately 130 morality tales. That would be, you know, morality.

If you don't know George Argyros, you don't know Orange County; if he doesn't perfectly reflect Algerian values, he is the very mirror of go-go Orange County businessmen. Rising to prominence in the 1980s through successful real-estate ventures, he has given much to others; as chairman of the board of trustees of Chapman University, he oversaw the expansion of the school, graciously allowing others to name various rooms, alcoves and buildings after himself (e.g., the George Argyros Forum) or his wife. He also backed the wildly unpopular El Toro Airport in an effort to reduce the irksome noise that comes with having a Newport Beach mansion directly beneath the John Wayne Airport flight path. When the public resisted Argyros' imperial instincts to build an international airport in the middle of Orange County, Argyros opened his wallet and ponied up—some $2 million by the end—to persuade us we were stupid. We weren't.

Argyros controversies aren't limited to Orange County. Back in the 1980s, he was reviled as the owner of baseball's Seattle Mariners, raising ticket prices while the team was mired in mediocrity because Argyros refused to spend money on players.

In Orange County in the 1990s, when Argyros served as chairman of Apria Healthcare Group, the company allegedly shorted Medicare at least $103 million. Ten years later, the Orange County district attorney charged Argyros' real-estate investment firm, Arnel Management Co., with illegally withholding renters' deposits and overcharging for repairs.

Alger would have been appalled. But none of that poses an obstacle for the group that bears his name, the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, based in Alexandria, Virginia. The organization inducted Argyros as a member in 1993; he sits on the group's board. On April 15 in Washington, D.C., during ceremonies to be taped for a PBS special, Argyros will be handed the society's highest honor, the . . . Norman Vincent Peale Award?

That's right, and if you're wondering how a group identified with a simple idealist like Horatio Alger came to name its highest honor after a spiritual blowhard like Norman Vincent Peale, then you might be ready to wade through the arrogant, opportunistic and all-around fucked-up logic that could give this prize to a "ragged dick" like George Argyros.

Then again, maybe you'd prefer to read a little bit from Ragged Dick. Here's a quick sample, slightly edited for brevity as well as to emphasize the "Dick" parts:

"What is your name?" asked Ida, pleasantly. Our hero was about to answer "Ragged Dick," when it occurred to him that in the present company he had better forget his old nickname. . . . "Everybody calls me Dick." "I like the name of Dick," said the young lady, with charming frankness. Without being able to tell why, Dick felt rather glad she did. . . . "You're a big boy of your age," said Ida. "My cousin Dick is a year older than you, but he isn't as large." Dick looked pleased. Boys generally like to be told that they are large of their age. "How old be you?" asked Dick, beginning to feel more at his ease. "I'm nine years old," said Ida. . . . "Do you go to school?" "I'm studying with a private tutor," said Dick. "So is my cousin Dick. He's going to college this year. Are you going to college?" "Not this year." "Because if you did, you know, you'd be in the same class with my cousin. It would be funny to have two Dicks in one class."

With all that Viagratic repartee, you get the sense that Ragged Dick is the cultural antecedent of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. He's not. His is the story of a poor street kid who applies his core values to an endearing ambition and thereby pulls himself up by his bootstraps, and, okay, so maybe Ragged Dick is a little like Dirk Diggler—you know, if you substitute for those bootstraps an immense schlong.

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