Long Island native Betts first met George W. Bush when they were students at Yale: When Bush was president of the Yale chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon, Betts was rush chairman. Following graduation, Betts taught at a school in Harlem for several years—he wrote about his experience in 1978's Acting Out: Coping with Big City Schools—and later attended Columbia Law. After working for several years at Paul Weiss as a member of the firm's entertainment group, Betts moved into media himself, setting up a film finance company called Silver Screen Partners with Paul Weiss colleague Tom Bernstein. The future president joined the board of Silver Screen in 1983, and Betts and Bernstein teamed up with Bush to acquire the Texas Rangers in the late '80s. Betts and Bernstein wound down Silver Screen in the early 1990s to focus on Chelsea Piers. Founded in 1992, the company unveiled the redesigned entertainment/sports complex in 1994.
Chelsea Piers was once one of the city's most important gateways and was used for decades to serve disembarking ships arriving in New York's harbor. (Fun fact: the Titanic was scheduled to arrive at Chelsea Piers before it sank.) But the site fell into disrepair over the course of the 1970s and 1980s and was reduced to an eyesore until Betts and Bernstein won the bid to take over it as part of a public auction. Today, the 28-acre plot is home to ice skating, golf, bowling, a spa and a world-class gym and one of the largest sports complexes in the city.
Although he's technically a Democrat, Betts has been one of George Bush's most active supporters over the years and has helped his old college pal raise millions for his presidential bids in 2000 and 2004. His connection to Bush hasn't earned him many friends in Manhattan, of course, although Bush's association with the movie-financing Betts has generated controversy, too: When Bush painted opponent Al Gore as a Hollywood-loving liberal, his own connection to Silver Screen became fodder for pundits who pointed to his role in backing such films as Pretty Woman, Three Men and a Baby and The Hitcher, possibly one of the goriest movies ever made. Betts has thus far remained mum about who he's supporting in 2008.
Betts is a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and has been actively involved with both Yale (he's the senior fellow of the Yale Corporation) and Columbia's law school. Until 2006, he was on the board of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.
Betts met his wife, Lois Phifer Betts, while teaching public school. The could have two daughters—Jessica and Maggie, a fixture at parties and a frequent playmate of Barbara Bush. The Betts live on the Upper West Side and often spend vacations with the Bushes. They've been guests of the president at the White House, in Crawford, and at Camp David. And Bush has been seen visiting the couple at their vacation homes in Jackson Hole and Santa Fe.