1964 — A Pivotal Year
It is not the critic who counts; who points out how the strong stumble. The credit belongs to the one in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who at best knows the triumph of high achievement, and at worst fails while daring greatly. Their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
— Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910, Sorbonne University
In 1964, brave people were practically jumping into the arena, and as Teddy Roosevelt foresaw, critics counted and the strong stumbled. Cassius Clay reinvented himself, “Fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” as Muhammad Ali, won the heavyweight championship, and was sentenced to prison for refusing to serve in Vietnam. A Georgia preacher named Mike King transformed into Martin Luther King, Jr., accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, “sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace,” before being arrested 29 times and then assassinated. Robert Zimmerman took on a new identity, “You’re born, you know, the wrong name, wrong parents. You call yourself what you want,” as Bob Dylan, and sang The Times Were a-Changin’. The audience at the Newport Folk Festival booed him off stage.
The ‘best of times, worst for times’ funk that settled over 1964 is a classic case of what Hegel referred to as “the cunning of reason.” It simply means that we cannot judge events in their infancy. If we do, we miss the best part of the story.
In 1964, for example, the early warning signs showed somnolent cities turning into race-torn battle zones literally in the heat of the night. Lyndon Johnson remade the Vietnam war into a branch of politics, “Boys, it is just like the Alamo,” and provoked America into right and left polarities. Before being murdered, Dr. Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, “I am an adventurer who risks his skin to prove his platitudes,” became Cuba’s delegate to the United Nations under a nom de guerre that made the Marxist physician famous, “Che.”
There was yet another revolution that took the world by surprise. When Bob Dylan was singing in a Greenwich Village speakeasy, an owlish intellectual ignited a war a few blocks over on 5th avenue and 12th Street. As evident from the battle dress, Saville Row English cut shirts rather than camo-clad fatigues, he was no latter-day Trotskyite. The terrain was traversed in one of 60 Harvey Davidsons when he wasn’t caroming at 110 mph behind the wheel of a Maserati or piloting a hot air balloon at 1000 feet in Normandy.
His weapon was a formidable pen, and a deadly aim was trained on anti-capitalist poseurs holding forth at the Ivy-covered walls of academia. He would become the most passionate enemy of the new ruling class, the one that sat at the bottom of a well and thought they saw the world and knew as much about the economy as a rabbit. He attacked them with enthusiasm ordinarily reserved exclusively for restaurants that didn’t allow the Cuban cigars that he adored. In many ways, Che Guevara and Malcolm Forbes were simpatico spirits.
A Perfect Revolution
Revolutions are hard when you are third in line for succession to the throne, perhaps delusional. Any meaningful assault on the enemy is dubious. The glitterati went to great pains to remind him those who have everything should do nothing. But he knew better. Those who have everything should be willing to risk it for the cause. If they managed to bid on a few art pieces along the way, more power to them.
“Victory is sweetest when you’ve known defeat.”
Malcolm (I will use his first name to avoid confusion with the magazine) knew all about defeat. His face was marred by dust, and nothing in his short life was associated with victory. That much was true. But it wouldn’t be for long. To say the world underestimated him, to put it mildly, was a dangerous understatement, especially for the enemy.
The first question is, why bother? He had everything that counted, as in ‘count your stocks and bonds.’ His father was an ebullient Scotsman, a brash and charming raconteur who wrote so prolifically the excess was transformed into Forbes Magazine. His eldest son Bruce was first in line to take the company reins. In contrast, his third son, born in Brooklyn (they were visiting relatives), a bookish Princeton graduate unaccustomed to the spotlight, was an envoy to the bleacher section of journalism — the fact-checking desk.
To say the two brothers were opposites is to point out the Antarctic is unlike the Equator. In legal terms, Bruce preferred a simple corporate structure, the kind that had his name at the top of the masthead. What came below hardly mattered. He was the prince of bonhomie with a glad-handing savoir-faire and, more importantly, complete control unless all four siblings voted nay. He thought they didn’t have the courage. He was a better golfer than a fortune teller.
As the years passed, Malcolm withered, albeit on a delicious vine. He knew the day would come but just not when. He waited, dreamed, wondered. What neither Bruce nor the world at large considered was that Malcolm was a contrarian who loved the Sisyphean struggle, that twist of fate that sends the boulder back down the mountain every time until it doesn’t. That time you break it into pieces and clean up with a dustpan. The broken bits would form stepping stones that became visible only in hindsight. Malcolm thrived on adversity, and he had a plan to win.
In World War II, he enlisted as a buck private instead of taking a cushy officer’s billet, which his pedigree assured him. He took a bullet in the hip, returning with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Then the future revolutionary leaped into the arena as a New Jersey governor candidate, running as a Republican in a state that sent Woodrow Wilson to the White House. Malcolm would quip afterward, “I was nosed out by a landslide.” If German bullets and a brutal political campaign couldn’t stop him, a family succession problem wasn’t going to either.
The time came for brother Bruce to depart. The hard way, six feet in the ground. Malcolm wasted nary a second in grabbing his dead brother’s widow’s shares, and with 60% of the voting stock, he gently persuaded the other siblings to sell the remaining equity. It was a defining moment when Malcolm placed his iron-fisted but velvety grip on 100% of the mantle of power. He never looked back. The view he enjoyed most was straight ahead.
Paunch-bellied editors were invited to depart the premises like errant schoolboys. A new sheriff was in town at 60 Fifth Avenue, the posh address of a new headquarters, a marble columned Gothic beauty that created the illusion of a street near Whitehall. It was appropriate as it happened to be the former headquarters of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. He commissioned two renowned architectural firms, Carrere & Hastings and Shreve Lamb & Harmon, to match the neighborhood’s leafy splendor. They previously completed the New York Public Library and the Empire State Building and their latest collaboration, as Cole Porter sang, “it was the top.” A Manhattan real estate broker said it best: “aristocratic.”
The Egg Man
In 1936, Macmillan had taken a risk on a newcomer by the name of Margaret Mitchell. Her book was “Gone With The Wind.” It made him the most successful publisher in America. Nearly thirty years later, the new occupant had grander ambitions and would take even more significant risks not just with his magazine but his life and his money. Within a year, according to Forbes Magazine, he bid on a priceless jewel, one of the Fabergé eggs called “Duchess of Marlborough.” It sold for “three and a half times the estimated ceiling. The CFO later told me that he asked Malcolm how we pay for it?
Malcolm wasn’t concerned with minor details. He was winning a revolution.
The House of Fabergé was renowned for artistry and craftsmanship, a distinction that won the admiration of the Imperial Court of Russia. As we know now, and the Czars would find out, the world changed in 1917.
After the outbreak of World War I, Fabergé’s studio turned into a war factory, and it spelled the end of an era in more ways than jeweled eggs. The Czar abdicated. The Imperial family was murdered. Peter Carl Fabergé went into exile before dying in Switzerland at age 74, brokenhearted. The Russian revolution was a small step backward for a man and a giant step down for the world.
So it was that in 1964 the boss of Forbes Magazine chose to reunite the Faberge Eggs with the spirit of capitalism. It was a pivotal moment. Forbes Magazine began publishing in 1917, the same year as the Bolshevik takeover, and he would end up owning more Fabergé Eggs than the Kremlin. His magazine would have its best year when Soviet Russia disappeared. There was no contest. This was the kind of game he knew how to play. Malcolm Forbes was a gamechanger.
“Only a handful of companies understand that without TOP people, you cannot succeed.”
In the 80s and 90s, Forbes Magazine was the Vatican, making Malcolm Forbes the Pope. It was a perfect time to be an entrepreneur. Capitalism was on the rise. The rich and famous were finally getting some unwanted attention. Suppose you were fortunate enough to get an invitation to one of Malcolm’s soirees at the Forbes Mansion? It was to business tycoons what the Playboy Mansion was for Hollywood. Only the attendees came to make money, not that other thing.
You would be seated between a Fortune 500 CEO like Jack Welch and Liberty Media’s John Malone telling you what he thought of Ted Turner (“the guy’s a nut”). Bill Gates would be across the table complaining about taxes ($30 million). Secretary of State Colin Powell and President George H.W. Bush. at the head of the table, Lady Thatcher would scold Bush, “George, this is no time to go wobbly on us.”
In the space of 20 years, with an eye towards people over profits, Forbes Magazine under Malcolm’s spell turned into the liveliest and most successful magazine in America and, according to Advertising Age, the best-read business publication. There was a reason. Forbes liberated its journalists from covering the meme of the day to discovering the stories no one else had thought of and to spew out the kind “that CEOs awaited with trepidation.”
The revolution had begun.
There was always a dazzling array of celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Robert de Niro, Harrison Ford, Paul McCartney, and Mick Jagger to keep everyone enthralled. Barbara Walters, Walter Cronkite, and a smattering of network anchors added glitter. It was a ringside seat to greatness.
“To measure a man measure his heart.”
Malcolm modeled the magazine’s ethos on Thomas Carlyle’s statement that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” also called “the great man theory.” Only he expanded it. Great men became all of us potentially, and history was the story of a new breed of heroes that included executives, athletic coaches, and civil rights and women’s activists. Birth meant nothing, and DNA was a blip. Superior courage and extraordinary leadership provided the best chance to make a dent in the universe, as Steve Jobs called it.