By Ray Lesser
Sometimes being rich can be a real bummer. Just ask Sandy Lerner, who made her fortune as co-founder of Internet pioneer Cisco Systems, which she and her former husband sold in 1990 for $170 million. Although they immediately gave away three quarters of their bonanza to create a foundation supporting such causes as animal welfare, and a museum for 18th century English women writers, there was still quite an untidy sum leftover to deal with. “My money is in California somewhere in a big pile and I pay someone to keep sweeping it up and doing things to it,” Sandy says.
She decided to move to the exclusive enclave of Upperville, Virginia, in 1997 “because I could.” Among other things, Sandy thought it would be the perfect place to practice her hobby of jousting in period costume, which gives her “a chance to spear cabbages.” But she has had a bit of trouble with the neighbors. Before Sandy arrived, the biggest excitement of the year came from the Upperville Horse Show, featuring the $100,000 Jumper Classic, along with vendors selling merchandise ranging from antiques to zebra rugs. Sandy, who loves horses, immediately created a stir when she posed for Forbes Magazine on her horse like Lady Godiva, naked.
Then she decided to open an English-style pub because the only nearby place to get lunch was “the country store that makes terrible ham sandwiches.” But for quite a while, her neighbors successfully blocked her. She received hate mail and “Don’t Middleburg Upperville” bumper stickers began to appear on local SUVs and BMWs. Sandy had apparently invoked the wrath of area blue bloods by refusing to allow their hunt club access to run fox hunts across her 800-acre estate. “The most vocal people have very little going on in their lives,” she says. “The danger of the small town is that the mind sort of takes on the size of the town.”
Sandy Lerner is not your typical upper crust Upperville matron. After she made millions from Cisco, her aunt, who raised her, suggested that perhaps it was time to start dressing like a well-to-do lady and wearing makeup. But Sandy hated the stereotypes cosmetic companies were trying to sell their customers at that time: 500 different shades of pink or red lipstick and nail polish. So she founded her own cosmetic company, Urban Decay, which sells “lip gunk” and “heavy metal glitter liners” with gritty city shades like Acid Rain, Polyester Bride, Mildew, Smog, Gash, Storm Drain, Oilslick, Roach, Big Bang, and Gangrene. “Fundamentally, I was just pissed off that cosmetic companies were telling women they had to look like Barbie,” says Sandy. Urban Decay’s first ad campaign featured the headline, “Does Pink Make You Puke?” Their second ad, “Burn, Barbie, Burn,” had to be dropped when Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturer, threatened a lawsuit.
Sandy Lerner’s personal appearance, with streaks of purple dye in her long black hair, Purple Haze nail polish, and Asphyxia shadow above and below her eyes, reminds some of Morticia Addams, the exotic and creepy mother in The Addams Family. She smiles at the comparison, noting that growing up she loved the mysterious and kooky TV Addamses because “they taught us to be tolerant and were totally in love with one another.”
Her lifestyle is certainly as kooky as that of any Addams family member. For her 50th birthday, Sandy plans to have the 14 miles of private lanes that meander through her Ayrshire estate properly steamrolled, so that she can ride comfortably, whether on one of her Harley-Davidson motorcycles or her refurbished 19th-century stagecoach, which has seating for 12, a built-in picnic food locker, and an icebox that holds a dozen bottles of champagne. Although she regularly entertains in the manor house of Ayrshire, her 42-room, 17,000 square foot Edwardian-style mansion, she spends nights, along with her nine cats, in a two-bedroom cabin near a corner of the farm. When the heating system of the cabin broke down one winter she decided not to have it fixed, choosing instead to go through winters in her long woolen underwear. She reads Jane Austen’s novels compulsively; her favorite, Persuasion, more than seventy times. She has studied the history of costume, made period ball gowns, and perfected Regency danci ng “I can dance in five centuries and two sexes,” she says.
Having grown up on a farm in Northern California, Sandy is intensely interested in traditional farming, and has turned her estate into an organic farm, raising pesticide free vegetables and rare, endangered breeds of cattle, which she sells at her Home Farm grocery in nearby Middleburg. Home Farm also sells organic produce grown on local estates owned by margarine heiress Dielle Fleischmann and Mars candy billionaire Jacqueline Mars, whom Sandy has nicknamed “the lettuce queen.”
But, back to the fight she had with her Upperville neighbors in 2001, when she was trying to open an English-style pub. “I like the custom in England of going into a tavern by yourself, sitting down, having dinner, and meeting people,” says Sandy. “As opposed to eating at home by yourself in front of the TV and turning into Jeffrey Dahmer.” The old money neighbors, however, did everything in their power to stop Sandy from bringing this unwanted commercial enterprise to their tidy little hunt country fiefdom, until she finally threatened to tear down the circa-1750 Carr House, that she had bought as the pub’s home, and replace it with low-income housing. Almost immediately she received permission to open a sixty-seat restaurant.
Today, one almost expects to see Sandy’s former adversaries’ heads mounted on the walls of her Hunter’s Head Tavern. Instead, many regularly pop in along with the many other visitors who flock to the pub to enjoy shepherd’s pie, seven different kinds of organic homemade sausage, finger sandwiches and savory scones. Sandy, meanwhile, is locked away in her beyond state-of-the-art recording studio, working on a new project, mixing an 18- member choir singing antiphonal music, while developing advanced digital sound technology that she hopes will allow us all to get past the limitations of compact discs. Why does she keep starting up new, seemingly unrelated enterprises, when she’s already got so much going on? “The hardest thing to do is explain something you don’t really understand to someone else,” she says. I’m sure her Upperville neighbors would agree.