Nathan Duc Köstlin – Vietnamese war orphan adopted by US billionaires, turned wealthy “Hausfrau”, art patron and prolific social entertainer – tells us about the luxury of living below one’s means.
When we put out a Facebook call for stories about wealthy Berliners, we didn’t expect an instantaneous response from an actual one-percenter. “Uh, more like the upper one-tenth of the one percent.” That’s the way 41-year-old Nathan Köstlin introduced himself, before inviting us over.
The three-floor apartment he shares with his husband, 62-year-old former Bayer Schering manager Ulrich Köstlin, on Kronenstraße near Checkpoint Charlie, is a mélange of Ulrich’s heirlooms and Nathan’s modern art: a chest that belonged to the Italian Casanova family next to a mirror sculpture by Olafur Eliasson. On the walls are paintings by Nathan’s artist friends – all recipients of his generous patronage.
It’s 10pm, and the last of their 100 guests has left. They’ve just finished one of the classical music events they frequently hold in their dining room. After handing us a leftover of Ulrich’s homemade Lebkuchenmousse, Nathan launches into his life story.
“I’m not a possessor, like, things aren’t really mine. I was found by a river in Saigon, just before the end of the civil war, 1975. I have no birth date, no birth records. I was put in an orphanage, and was lucky to be adopted by a great American family from Minneapolis, Minnesota. We were five kids, two biological and three adopted, me and my African American sisters. My parents were the original Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie story. They sheltered us very well.
My mother’s father co-founded the Greyhound bus company, and my parents said we belonged to the upper one percent of the one percent of the nation, but that all that money didn’t belong to us. They were giving it away to charities. They said, “You guys will always have to work for your own money.” I moved to Hawaii because I wanted to see what it’s like if you’re not rich. I literally bankrupted myself. I was sleeping under a picnic table on the beach; I found my food in a restaurant dumpster. I could very well do that again – money doesn’t mean so much to me.
I met Ulrich at the Natural History Museum in Manhattan. He was in town for a business trip; I was back from Hawaii and working at a photo gallery in New York.
We were attracted to each other immediately, so we kept in touch. In 2003, I decided to move to Berlin to be with him. At that time he was still married to Princess Diemut of Liechtenstein, still in the closet. He decided to separate, and to come out. It was a very difficult transition for him. He’s a gay man and that’s like a thorn, and I was the little mouse on the ground pulling that thorn out, saying “Hey, you don’t have to be in pain anymore…”
We wanted to start all over, so we decided to buy this old six-floor building, gut it and rebuild it from scratch. For example, our dining room ceiling was designed by the company responsible for the acoustics at the Berlin Philarmonic – so we have musicians practicing here sometimes. I’ve always been the creative type myself. I was painting a lot in our parents’ backyard and although I studied law at first because I wanted to be like my dad, I was always into art and did a lot of design work myself. So when we moved here, I opened up an art gallery on the ground floor, then an art bar. It was a great time, but I was down there constantly while my Ulrich was just about to go into retirement, so I had to make the choice: do I want to keep working when he’s travelling and seeing the world, or would I rather join him and give up my business? I chose the latter.
People seem to have a certain kind of respect for us housewives, Ehefrauen or whatever, the ones behind the scenes making sure everything runs smoothly. Ulrich gives me a monthly allowance and I take care of bill-paying, help plan our events. Through Ulrich, I know all the rich people in Berlin. But I also have my own scene – the Berlin underground scene. I’m involved with all these artists who are living in squats, in Kreuzkölln, going to Berghain and raves. I help pay their rents. I stay at my friends’ places, I sleep on their floor or wherever. Then I invite them here, and they say: “I’m so embarrassed I even brought you to my house!”
Look at our dinner table – it was beautiful when we first had it made, from one solid piece of mahogany, but now it’s totally destroyed. These friends of mine – they’re acrobats in the Friedrichstadt-Palast – came here and just climbed on top with their boots, shirtless, and started doing handstands. And I sat back and watched and took pictures. Because that’s more important than to be able to say, “Look at my perfectly clean shiny mahogany.”
I came to Berlin with one dollar in my pocket, and I haven’t earned anything since. Ulrich has enough for both of us. Times… a thousand. But we also live way below our means. I mean, we don’t have a private helicopter on top of our building, or a private yacht, or a private island. We’re not doing any completely frivolous spending. Well, once I rented this space for Ulrich’s 60th birthday, on top of a tower on Potsdamer Platz. Just the space alone cost €15,000, not including the dinner or drinks, or that huge portrait I had painted of him… We were also flying in people from all over the world. Did I feel guilty about that? No. We still give tuition money and scholarships and things. Like my parents, I do a lot of charity work. I help orphanages and support all kinds of artists. I’d rather do that and be poor myself, and often I am, at the end of each month… after I’ve given out thousands to an artist so that they have a studio for a year, and thousands for somebody to publish a book, I might have zero. I only spend maybe €500 on myself. I did buy a pair of €800 sunglasses once – I didn’t want H&M ones that were gonna fall apart after a week. But then I ate at McDonald’s for the rest of the month.
I try to live simply, modestly… I do have all kinds of handmade tailored suits, but I only wear them for invitations to certain people’s houses. This whole outfit I’m wearing now, I just found yesterday. It all belongs to a friend of mine who is a supermodel in New York, she left it here last week. We’re the same size actually. And then tonight I was sitting next to this lady, a very great benefactor here in Berlin, and she was wearing exactly the same pattern but in blue and grey, and it was a Chanel. People probably thought we must shop at the same store, but I got mine for nothing. It was hilarious, she had a brooch and so did I… We’re just those two old grey ladies with poodles, watching the concert!
I drive an older car. It’s probably over 10 years old by now, a Mercedes G-class SUV. I’ve had people jump on my car, throw coffee and cans at me. But that’s life in Berlin! It’s keyed on the side, but why fix it when it’s gonna happen again anyway? People stare at me for other reasons when I drive it – they obviously don’t think I deserve it, that I’m some Thai boy that Ulrich brought back from vacation. Or they think I’m some Vietnamese immigrant from Lichtenberg, selling black market cigarettes. But I can handle it.
I wasn’t born to end up in Germany anyway – that was just a random fluke. My final destination is Vietnam. I’m gonna be cremated and buried on the spot where I was found, by that river. I was found with nothing, and I’m not going to take anything with me when I die.”
Originally published in issue #134, January 2015.