Over the years, we've knocked the stuffing out of Newport Beach developer George Argyros, but he's still a stuffed shirt. In the 1990s, when Argyros was almost individually funding the county effort to build an international airport at El Toro, Weekly contributor Nathan Callahan and I hit on the brilliant idea of bringing the airport to his backyard. The problem: his backyard is Newport Harbor. So, early one morning, the sun rising over the majestic Santa Anas, Nathan and I rented a boat at Davey's Locker ($35 for the half day), putt-putted over to Argyros' Harbor Island home, set our boom box on 11, and let him have it with pre-recorded airport noise. We floated out there for 20 minutes or so, the Dopplering roar of 707s and 757s drifting out over the glassy harbor. Finally, on the second floor of the Argyros Francophonic manse, someone closed a curtain; we declared victory and went to Diedrich Coffee. When the district attorney's office sued Argyros' apartment company for systematically ripping off its tenants, we were there to broadcast the news. When we discovered that Argyros was involved in the construction of a Wal-Mart in the middle of a tranquil Huntington Beach neighborhood that didn't want the store, we thanked him—for leading us into a sordid tale of corruption in the city mayor's office. And in March 2004, while he served as George W. Bush's ambassador to Spain (that's what raising $30 million for the president's election campaign will buy you), we pointed out that, in a small way, his effort to push Spain into Bush's Iraq war coalition had led to the March 11 Madrid bombings, the defeat of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar a few days later, and a rise in anti-Americanism across the Iberian peninsula. That's what putting a real estate developer with no Spanish and limited social skills into the ambassador's office will buy you.
He is, we've pointed out, still hated in Seattle, where he ran Major League Baseball's Mariners aground.
But if Argyros is a punching bag, he's got sand in his bottom: he always pops back up for more. And there's no denying the good he's done. He contributes generously to Chapman University, his alma mater. He financed the New Majority, a group of moderate Republicans who tried to make fiscal conservatism rather than sodomy their party's central obsession. He helped South Coast Repertory build a jewel of a theater, the Julianne Argyros Stage.
That's where I ran into George Argyros in October. The Weekly was media partner for the U.S. premiere of English playwright Joe Penhall's play Dumb Show. As media partner, we offer steep discounts on advertising in exchange for the opportunity to have our name linked forever with those of South Coast Rep and Penhall's Dumb Show. You've heard of the MPC Computers Bowl in Boise, this year featuring Boise State and Boston College? It's like that: Before the play begins, a theater board member walks onto the Julianne Argyros Stage stage and thanks the Weekly for its contributions to local theater. As publisher, I stand and wave to polite applause. And then I sit.
When I sat this time, the woman sitting in front of me turned to introduce herself.
"I like your newspaper very much," she said. "My name is Julianne Argyros."
My shit detectors detected . . . nothing. She seemed completely in earnest. And so I shook her proffered hand.
Did she see me looking at the man next to her? The guy clutching at his theater program as if to the control yoke of an airplane going down in flames? The guy whose shirt cuff was monogrammed "GLA"?
"And this," she said, "is my husband, George Argyros."
Ever notice how Tom Cruise has this one practiced look in which he somehow manages to flex a muscle on his jaw, a look that conveys at once a kind of taut, animal electricity as well as thoughtfulness? Argyros did that, but it seemed completely unpracticed.
And then he turned just a bit—maybe he had a pain in his neck—and held up a hand. I shook it.
"Hi. Pleasure," he said.
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"Pleasure's mine," I said.
The play was about two journalists who entrap a celebrity in order to destroy him. Argyros laughed heartily.
A few days later, Weekly theater critic Cornel Bonca would call Dumb Show "a well-engineered little piffle of a play." Weekly staff writer Steve Lowery says Dumb Show persuaded him that he could write an award-winning script; he's working on it now.
But here's what I'll remember. Walking into the lobby after the play, Mrs. Argyros hooked her arm in mine and asked how I liked Dumb Show. She's a beautiful, athletic woman, but what's remarkable isn't her fitness—something about her hand on my arm gave me the sense that she's accustomed to throwing people like me on rubber mats in her home gym—but what people in the 19th century called quality. She must know we've punched her husband a few times, but here she was talking to me as if I were her guest. However impolitic her husband, he had the smarts to marry a very diplomatic woman.