21c co-founder Steve Wilson has a ‘death clock,’ a private jet, and other things we learned from that amazing Louisville Magazine profile

Associate Editor Arielle Christian wrote the 14-pager in the July issue, and it’s still brilliant.

Louisville magazine
Ali tribute cover.

He has a “death clock.” It’s Austrian artist Werner Reiterer‘s “My Predicted Timeline. “The piece looks like a large alarm clock — a black bulky box with LED-red digital numbers — but instead of time to wake up, it’s time never to wake up again.” Reiterer based Wilson’s predicted time of death on an actuary test. (Wilson’s 68.) If the clock is right, on May 27, Wilson had 11 years, eight months, 18 days, zero hours, 52 minutes and 34 seconds left.

He has a tattoo on the middle of his forearm. It’s a green four-leaf clover outlined in black.

Steve Wilson Laura Lee Brown
Wilson and Lee

The 21c Museum Hotel chain he founded with his wife Laura Lee Brown, the Brown-Forman heiress, has 1,000 employees, and more than 60,000 square feet of exhibition space. “I never expected it to be such a big enterprise, to have people identify with it so strongly,” he says. The first week the giant “David” statue was installed outside the flagship hotel on West Main Street, “an incensed woman wrote a letter saying she’d never be able to bring her 12-year-old daughter downtown again.” There are three more 21cs in the works, in Kansas City, Nashville, and Indianapolis. Other possible locations include New York City, New Orleans and Cuba.

At the 2014 Art Basel fair in Miami, Wilson bought $117,000 worth of art in less than 40 minutes.

Growing up on his father’s Wickliffe farm, he was allergic to everything: hay, corn dust, animal dandruff. He would not be a farmer, disappointing his father, a man who came from a family of them. “Even though he’s dead now,” Wilson says, “I’m still trying to prove to him that I’m good enough. I don’t think that will ever change.”

Wilson's red framesHe bought his famous red eyeglass frames on a whim in Paris. But he doesn’t see well enough to read much because he has Fuchs’ dystrophy, which is partly why he has a driver to get around, and needs someone to read restaurant menus to him.

21c has its own jet, a Cessna Citation II, and it’s “fancy” — comfortable seats, with an assortment of fruit and Babybel cheese onboard.

The Talking Heads‘ 1981 “Once in a Lifetime” describes his life in the late 1970s, when he was working for Gov. Julian Carroll. (The band members met as students at the Rhode Island School of Design art school.) The lyrics include: “And you may tell yourself / This is not my beautiful house! / And you may tell yourself / This  is not my beautiful wife!”

He and Laura Lee met in 1990 at a dinner at the Old Louisville restaurant 610 Magnolia, and they married in October 1993. “Wilson was aware when he married her that some people would question their relationship and his motives. He’d married the heiress [her Brown-Forman stock is worth about $230 million]. He didn’t want to be thought of as Brown’s ‘boy toy.'”

Related: When not on their farm, Wilson and Brown occupy a 2,000-square-foot, $1.35 million pied-à-terre atop 21c downtown, according to The Wall Street Journal.

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