Scene Last Night: Icahn Buys In at Met Opera for Howard Solomon

Apr 28, 2014 10:54 am ET

April 28 (Bloomberg) -- Carl Icahn and Howard Solomon, who fought over the leadership and direction of Forest Laboratories Inc. are now “good friends,” said Solomon, who retired eight months ago as the drug company’s chief executive officer.

They’re so close that Icahn, 78, and his wife, Gail, were “Principal Benefactors” of the Metropolitan Opera gala last night honoring longtime Met board member Solomon, 86, and his wife, Sarah Billinghurst Solomon.

“He gets a little rough sometimes, but he’s basically a civilized, decent man,” Solomon said of Icahn from his seat at the gala, on the stage of the Met, under a large dome made of gold lame leaves from the set of Die Fledermaus. “We’ve gotten quite friendly.”

The support was good sportsmanship for Icahn, after essentially getting what he wanted at Forest: its $25 billion sale to Actavis Plc. It was also, as so many galas are driven by, good business.

Actavis, Forest and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. all had tables at the gala. (Forest announced its own deal today, the purchase of Furiex Pharmaceuticals Inc. for $1.1 billion in cash.) JPMorgan Chase & Co., an adviser to Forest, had a table out of “friendship” with Solomon, said Alden Warner, a managing director at the bank.

The gala raised $2.4 million, with principal benefactors donating $55,000 a table; “Underwriter” tables went for $125,000.

Flu Bug

Saudi Petroleum International Inc. has been buying a table at the “On Stage at the Met” gala for more than 20 years. The company was first introduced to the annual event by James Kinnear when he was CEO of Texaco, said Cory Toevs, the Met’s assistant manager for development. Kinnear is an honorary chairman of the Met’s board.

Also attending: Bruce Kovner of Caxton Associates, Frederick Iseman of CI Capital Partners and Willem Kooyker of Blenheim Capital Management.

Solomon was the one who reached out to Icahn. “Then he told me to collect the check,” Toevs said.

Unfortunately, Icahn and Solomon weren’t able to celebrate together.

“He’s got terrible flu, he’s really quite sick, kept coughing and coughing when he talked to me on the phone,” Solomon said of Icahn.

Brent Saunders, Icahn’s pick to replace Solomon as CEO of Forest and a principal benefactor of the evening, said Icahn told him he was “under the weather, and to give his best to Howard.”

So Carl, here’s a recap:

Solomon is starting a new business -- a family office.

Actavis Deal

“Now that I’ve retired from a public company, I’m going to handle my own private affairs,” Solomon said. “I didn’t have time to do that in any sensible way when I was still running the company. I used to say to people, ‘I’m losing money working here, I should manage my money.”

He’s bullish on Forest’s future post-Actavis, a deal struck after he retired.

“It was getting more difficult, more regulation,” Solomon said. “It was wise of us to merge with another company and it was the right company to merge with. They needed Forest and Forest needed them.”

Saunders said the deal would be complete by the middle of the year, and that Icahn played a “constructive” role.

One of the chairmen of the evening was Roy Vagelos, the former CEO of Merck & Co. He said he first met Solomon through their service on the board of the Met Opera more than 20 years ago. “We really don’t talk business much,” said Vagelos, who now chairs Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

Vineyard Visit

“The arts have brought us together,” his wife Diana said. “And good ocean swimming.”

“They’ve visited us at Martha’s Vineyard,” Vagelos said during cocktail hour on the Grand Tier. “Sarah loves to swim, and so do we.”

Of the upswing in pharma M&A, he said that it’s something companies “have to do because of their circumstances. I’m glad we’re not in that position. We may be buying a bigger company,” he said of Regeneron.

Icahn, a regular at the restaurant Il Tinello, would have liked the Italian menu served by Glorious Food, though there was none of the eatery’s pasta alla Icahn in honor of his donation. First came wild mushroom ravioli, followed by veal Milanese with arugula, asparagus, and a big dollop of carrot and potato puree. Dessert was chocolate mousse with poached pears, raspberries and a florentine cookie.

Bronx Boy

Recitals of arias from a mini-stage-on-the-stage were interspersed between courses. Had Icahn been present, he might have recalled his own father’s ambition to be a singer at the Metropolitan Opera (he became a cantor instead.)

Solomon arrived on the stage of the Met when he was 14 years old. A classmate at Bronx High School of Science had recruited him to sell librettos for 50 cents an hour.

“I told him, ‘what are librettos?’” Solomon recalled. He ended up making his way to the office via the stage door.

“Every time, I’d come on the stage and look out at this vast theater right in front of me. It was really quite startling. I came from the southeast Bronx, so this kind of glamour -- even now I get a kick out of it.”

Solomon said on Monday “society nights” he sold librettos in the 39th Street lobby of the Met’s old opera house. “It was the first time I’d ever seen real rich people, hundreds of them. I’ve become accustomed to it since then.”

Parting Gift

Opera also introduced Solomon to his second wife. Sarah Billinghurst Solomon arrived from the San Francisco Opera in 1994 to serve as the Met’s assistant general manager for artistic administration, overseeing casting, tours, galas, and programs that develop young singers.

Among the feathers in the New Zealander’s cap: bringing Valery Gergiev to the U.S. after the Cold War.

When Howard announced his retirement, Sarah planned hers too (not knowing his would last three minutes, she said). She will leave the Met on July 31.

Her token of appreciation: a silver rose designed by Tiffany, used in Der Rosenkavalier. Mezzo soprano Susan Graham brought it to her seat after singing as Octavian wooing Lisette Oropesa’s Sophie.

Though Icahn wasn’t there to send her off in person, he wished the Solomons a “Bravissimo!” in his ad in the gala program.